R.I.P. IBF founder Bob Lee who was Banished from Boxing by the FBI


By Arne K. Lang

“The image some people have of me is disappointing,” said Bob Lee in a 2006 interview, “but I also feel I had a positive impact on the sport…”

Lee, the founder of the International Boxing Federation who died yesterday (Sunday, March 24) at age 91, spoke those words to Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer Bernard Fernandez who was the first person to interview him when he emerged from a federal prison in 2006. Lee served 22 months on charges that included racketeering, money laundering, and tax evasion.

Born and raised in northern New Jersey and a lifelong resident of the Garden State, Lee, a former police detective, founded the International Boxing Federation (henceforth IBF) in 1983 after a failed bid to win the presidency of the World Boxing Association. At the time, there were only two relevant sanctioning bodies, the WBA, then headquartered in Venezuela, and the WBC, headquartered in Mexico. Both organizations were charged with favoring boxers from Spanish-speaking countries in their ratings at the expense of boxers from the United States.

Bob Lee’s brainchild, whose stated mission was to rectify that injustice, achieved instant credibility when Marvin Hagler and Larry Holmes turned their back on the established organizations. Hagler’s 1983 bout with Wilford Scypion and Holmes’ 1984 match with Bonecrusher Smith were world title fights sanctioned exclusively by the IBF, the last of the three extant organizations to do away with 15-round title fights.

Lee’s world was rocked in November of 1999 when a federal grand jury handed down an indictment that accused him and three IBF officials, including his son Robert W. “Robby” Lee Jr., of taking bribes from promoters and managers in return for higher rankings. The FBI, after a two-year investigation, concluded that $338,000 was paid over a 13-year period by individuals representing 23 boxers.

The government’s key witness was C. Douglas Beavers, the longtime chairman of the IBF ratings committee who wore a wire as a government informant in return for immunity and provided video-tape evidence of a $5000 payout in a seedy Virginia motel room. Promoters Bob Arum and Cedric Kushner both testified that they gave the IBF $100,000 to get the organization’s seal of approval for a match between heavyweight champion George Foreman and Axel Schulz (Arum asserted that he paid the money through a middleman, Stan Hoffman). In return, the IBF gave Schulz a “special exemption” to its rules, allowing the German to bypass Michael Moorer who had a rematch clause that would never be honored. (In a sworn deposition, Big George testified that he had no knowledge of any kickback).

After a long-drawn-out trial that consumed four months including 15 days of jury deliberations, Bob Lee was acquitted on all but six of 32 counts. His son, charged with nine counts, was acquitted on all nine. The jury simply did not trust the veracity of many that testified for the prosecution. (No surprise there; after all, they were boxing people.) But neither did the jury buy into the argument that whatever money Lee received was in the form of gifts and gratuities, a common business practice.

The IBF was run by a court-appointed overseer from January of 2000 until the fall of 2003. Under its current head, Daryl Peoples, who came up from the ranks, assuming the presidency in 2010, the IBF has stayed out of the crosshairs of federal prosecutors.

As part of his sentence, Bob Lee was prohibited from having any further dealings with boxing and that would have included buying a ticket to sit in the cheap seats at a boxing card. This was adding insult to injury as Lee’s passion for boxing ran deep. As a boy working as a caddy at a New Jersey golf course, he had met Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, two of the proudest moments of his life.

As for his contributions to the sport, Lee had this to say in his post-prison talk with Bernard Fernandez: “We instituted the 168-pound [super middleweight] weight class. We took measures to reduce the incidence of eye injuries in boxing. We changed the weigh-in from the day of the fight to the day before, which prevented fighters from entering the ring so dehydrated that they were putting themselves at risk. All these things, and more, were tremendously beneficial to boxing. I’m very proud of all that we accomplished.”

Bob Lee was a tough old bird. Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1986, he was insulin-dependent for much of his adult life and yet he lived into his nineties. Although his coloration as a shakedown artist is a stain that will never go away, many people will tell you that, on balance, he was a good man whose lapses ought not define him.

That’s not for us to judge. We send our condolences to his loved ones. May he rest in peace.
In my senior year of high school, Fall 1997 to Spring 1998, I had several study halls in between classes. Many students came in late or left early but I didn't have a car so managed my schedule a bit different. I used this time to almost exclusively on boxing. I either read whatever content I printed off the night before or wrote letters to various people/organizations.

One letter I sent was to the IBF sometime in the spring of 1998. This was in regards to Ekoli Zulu being highly ranked (I think #1) by the organization and garnering a title shot against Felix Trinidad. I basically detailed out why I didn't think Zulu qualified to be ranked at all and a list with short explanation of many fighters who were more deserving.

To my surprise several weeks later a letter appeard in my mailbox from the IBF. It was an angry reply to my questioning of the ranking of Zulu. Essentially the letter stated that I did not understand what goes into ranking a fighter and that my knowledge on the current state of the division was severly wrong.

Nobody signed the letter which was about one page long. But I could tell I struck a nerve with someone at the IBF who felt compelled to spend the time to respond to my questioning of their ranking system. To this day I believe that either it was Bob Lee himself or his son that decided to write a very furious (and haste) reply back to my letter.

This response did change how I approached such letters and later e-mails going forward. I focused on more positive things in boxing and less questioning (figured others could do that) of how things were done in the sport.

As for that letter I need to check and see if I still have it. If so I will upload. But I think in the course of several moves that it may have been discarded.
Thank you for sharing that.

We need writers to accentuate the positive in boxing, but also writers who have the guts to interrogate boxing even if it means getting blacklisted by those that control the press credentials.

The IBF, of course, isn't the only organization charged with manipulating the rankings in return for some consideration. During Nat Fleischer's heyday when the Top-10 rankings of The Ring carried the most sway, it was common knowledge that Fleischer was open to negotiations.