Pennsylvania Boxing Head Greg Sirb, Much Admired, Steps Aside After 33 Years


By Bernard Fernandez

When it comes to assessments of anyone’s career longevity, it helps to have a particularly persistent standard-bearer against whom an apt comparison can be made. Not that their respective involvements in boxing fit the same criteria, but consider this: Greg Sirb, the just-retired executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, stayed the course for 33½ years, during which he served in the administrations of seven governors and outlasted 14 secretaries of the Commonwealth. B-Hop swapped punches with gloved opponents in sanctioned bouts for 28 years, a span covering the time in office of “only” five occupants of the White House and six chief executives of his home state of PA.

Not that Sirb, 61, doesn’t know a thing or two about getting into scraps of a different sort and, like Hopkins, winning most of them. Just 28 when he was appointed by then-Governor Bob Casey Sr. on Jan. 29, 1990, to a post that seemingly came with scant prestige and even less sense of direction, the two-time former All-America wrestler at Edinboro (Pa.) University (that’s wrestling as it is done at the intercollegiate level, not scripted rasslin’ as performed by the pros) immediately went about the task, as Paul McCartney sang in Hey, Jude, of taking a somewhat sad song and making it better. A lot better, which is the consensus opinion of even some of those who periodically butted heads with Sirb over his intransigence when it came to the observance of rules, some of which he personally wrote when in 1992 he drafted language to amend the PSAC’s 1989 bylaws which many believed to be in need of an overhaul.

“I had a professor in grad school (Penn State, where he earned a master’s in Public Administration) who told me that when you leave a position, leave it better than when you took it over,” said Sirb, whose farewell gig was at ringside for a fight card in Philadelphia on Sept. 29. “Never leave the cupboard bare. I think I’m doing that.”

Time will tell, of course, but Sirb is confident that his hand-picked successor, Ed Kunkle, can keep a high gloss on the reputation of the PSAC which owes in large part to his predecessor’s handiwork that often lapped over the boundaries of Pennsylvania into other states. Sirb is a co-founder of the Association of Boxing Commissions, serving as its president from 1996 to 2001, and he was instrumental in the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000. That the same legislators who passed those groundbreaking initiatives into law have given the ABC inadequate authority to enforce their tenets is embarrassing, but even Sirb is only capable of carrying the ball so far toward the goal line.

Professional boxing, of course, has its share of murky areas, so much so that identifying contributors to any cleanup project can be a daunting task. That said, the Boxing Writers Association of America’s vote to present Sirb with the James A. Farley Award for Honesty and Integrity in 2019 offers further proof that even a short guy with good intentions can stand tall among his peers.

“Greg has been instrumental in shaping the landscape not just of Pennsylvania’s state athletic commission, but also of athletic commissions across the country,” current Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt said in a statement in praise of the retiring Sirb. “During his 33 years here, Greg has left an indelible mark on innumerable athletes through the sports and events he’s overseen.”

How many such events have there been during Sirb’s three-decades-plus watch? The man himself can’t give an exact number, but reasonably close estimates are than he has regulated 2,000-plus boxing events and 1,000 or so martial arts shows in Pennsylvania, in addition to supervising combat-sports cards in 21 states and tribal jurisdictions. He also oversees wrestling, nee rasslin’, events, which suits him fine given his stellar work on the mat as a college grappler at Edinboro.

So, what went into the making of Greg Sirb the ring-rattling rebel who was not content to settle for the status quo when he took on a state agency that needed just such a feisty fixer-upper? Well, his family background, and natural temperament, definitely were factors.

“When I was nine or 10 years old my father, who had boxed in the Army, would take me to the gym and that’s what we learned to do, me and my brothers,” he recalled. “It’s just something that I fell in love with. I also fell in love with wrestling. I liked the physicality of those sports, as well as MMA. It’s just a part of my DNA.”

Upon getting his master’s degree in Public Administration from Penn State, the 28-year-old Sirb, a native of Sharon, Pa., got a job in state government, with the Budget and Finance Committee. One of his duties was to audit all the state agencies, one of which was the state athletic commission. He quickly determined that the commission had “a lot of problems,” which led he and his colleagues to write a “not-so-good report about it.” It must have been a convincing document, because legislators basically decided that they were going to address the issue by coming up with a new and improved set of bylaws.

“They rewrote the law and created an executive director position,” said Sirb, noting that the commission was then headed by “executive secretary” Frank Walker, who did not have much authority to enact needed changes. Walker was eventually replaced by an older man who was with the horse racing commission, but he resigned after six weeks and then-Governor Bob Casey Sr., a Democrat, called upon Sirb to fill the vacancy on a trial basis.

“When I took the job I was young,” Sirb noted. “I had to earn my stripes. But I knew boxing – not as well as I know it now, but, boy, I got an education real quick. But I told myself (the commission) would be run a certain way. I did learn a few things, particularly from guys like (promoters) Russell Peltz, Artie Pelullo and Joe Hand Sr. and Jr. Those guys taught me there were a few things I needed to be a little more flexible on, like changing weigh-ins from the day-of to the day-before. With other things, though, I just couldn’t back down.”

Sirb’s status was hardly entrenched, and he wondered if he’d be let go when Casey left office and was replaced by Republican Tom Ridge. “I had to go for an interview and tell him what I did,” Sirb said of Ridge. “Obviously, state athletic commissions aren’t a high priority for any governor. But I was kept on, and (Ridge) was one of the best governors I’ve been with. He was very pro-boxing, came to a lot of the events. He turned out to be a huge fan of the commission.”

It didn’t hurt that Sirb made the PSAC self-sufficient financially, to the extent that the profits were funneled back into the general fund. So he kept on keeping on, making friends and also the occasional contrarian, most of whom he eventually won over. But more recent developments have made Sirb’s responsibilities even more taxing of his time and energy, which contributed to his decision to finally step away after the Sept. 29 fight card in Philly.

“I don’t think many people realize there aren’t many positions like mine,” he said. “I bet there’s less than 20 full-time executive directors of state commissions in the country. You’re working every single weekend, and since ’98 or ’99 I’ve had to deal with licensing athletic agents. With the work I was doing for the ABC, it was literally seven days a week. That phone never stopped ringing. But (Josh) Shapiro is my seventh governor. I just figured, let’s just get a new guy in here (as executive director of the PSAC) with a new governor.”

So, what’s next for the Energizer Bunny who felt he needed some much-deserved time off?

“I’m kind of mulling over some offers,” Sirb said. “I might do some consulting with (the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania). It’s going to be hard, though, just walking away from something I’ve done for 33 years. There is interesting stuff I can do, but that’s not going to be for a couple of months.”

Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the Class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Round 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, is currently out. His third boxing anthology, “Championship Rounds, Round 3,” is now out and available from Amazon and other book-selling outlets.