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Boxing’s Civil War
A breakaway boxing association headed by the U.S. and its allies has emerged to rival the Russia-funded International Boxing Association. The sport’s Olympic future rests in the balance.
On Sunday, April 30, International Boxing Association (IBA) President Umar Kremlev stood before a raucous crowd at the Humo Arena in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to commence the opening ceremony for the Men’s World Boxing Championships.
“I declare the World Championships open,” Kremlev said.
The biennial tournament, which takes place between May 1-14, is expected to draw some of the world’s best amateur boxing talent. However, the event is also being boycott by nine Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, Poland, Ireland and Ukraine.
The boycott actually commenced ahead of the Women’s World Boxing Championship in India, which was also put on by the IBA in New Delhi, India in February 2023. The boycott was undertaken to protest the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the tournament as well as IBA’s perceived governance issues.
However, the ongoing tournament has also become the focus of an ongoing civil war between the Russia-funded IBA and a new breakaway boxing association headed by the U.S. and its allies over the future of Olympic boxing.
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The newly-launched governing body, known as World Boxing, is led by an interim executive board comprised of representatives from the national federations of the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
“World Boxing will seek recognition from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and plans to work constructively and collaboratively to develop a pathway that will preserve boxing’s ongoing place on the Olympic competition programme.”
The IOC has long been in conflict with IBA over a series of corruption scandals, accusations of bad governance, and concerns about Kremlev and his alleged relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the wake of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, several damning investigation uncovered widespread evidence of corruption, bribery and match-fixing in amateur boxing. IBA president Wu Ching-kuo was found to have been directly responsible for allowing corruption to flourish and was subsequently banned for life from the sport in 2018. However, the organization’s troubles did not end there.
In January 2018, IBA—then known as AIBA—named Gafur Rakhimov as its interim president, an alleged heroin trafficker who was placed under U.S. sanctions for providing “material support” to the Thieves-in-Laws, a notorious Eurasian criminal syndicate linked to illegal activity around the world.
Rakhimov, who was AIBA’s longest-serving vice-president, was also accused of being a member of the so-called ‘Brother’s Circle,’ an international criminal group involved in drug trafficking. Rakhimov has long denied any wrongdoing.
Rakhimov remained in his role until he officially tended his resignation in July 2019, one month after IOC voted to suspend its recognition of AIBA as the governing body for the sport, stripping AIBA of any involvement in the Olympic Games. Qualification for boxing events at Tokyo 2020 where overseen by a committee, while the Paris 2024 qualifications are being overseen by the IOC.
AIBA was excluded from organizing boxing at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, as well as the Paris 2024 Games. Boxing has also been left off the list of sports for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, further emphasizing the deterioration of amateur boxing at an international level.
By December 2020, the aforementioned Kremlev was elected as AIBA president with more than 57% of the vote in a five-candidate contest involving 155 national federations. The Russian businessman declared himself a “clean candidate’ in response to IOC skepticism and proceeded to enact several reforms, which included establishing new committees to oversee various aspects of the sport, increased prize money, and a series of constitutional amendments such as rechristening AIBA as IBA.
Kremlev also appointed Canadian law professor Richard McLaren—known for uncovering the state-sponsored doping scandal at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia—to conduct an independent investigation into the reports of match-fixing at Rio 2016. McLaren found that nearly a dozen bouts were fixed due to a “culture of fear, intimidation and obedience in the ranks of the referees and judges.”
Kremlev also signed a two-year sponsorship agreement with Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom that was reportedly worth $50 million. The partnership that would become a major concern for the IOC in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Gazprom has numerous ties to Putin and has been embroiled in money-laundering allegations in Europe. It also has a history of buying out media outlets and channels and converting them into propaganda mouthpieces for the Kremlin.
Following the invasion, IBA faced pressure to cancel its contract with Gazprom. In response, the boxing body claimed that “it is not currently possible to completely cancel the Gazprom contract” because of its financial significance to the organization.
“You will also be aware that, thanks to its partnership with Gazprom, IBA has been able to effectively support national federations, competitions and athletes, while also settling the debts that had threatened our future and transforming our organization,” IBA secretary general István Kovács wrote in a letter to the heads of the IBA’s national federations in March 2022.
Despite mounting pressure, the IBA renewed its partnership with Gazprom following the approval of the governing body’s National Federations.
Kremlev’s perceived ties to the Russian state following the start of the war led resulted in an attempt to oust him as IBA president. Several board members proposed a motion at the board of directors meeting in March 2022 but no vote was ultimately taken.
Kremlev was re-elected in May 2022 by acclamation two days after the only other candidate, Dutch boxing federation president Boris van der Vorst, was removed by an independent vetting panel. Van der Vorst, who was also endorsed by USA Boxing, later won an appeal against the decision but the majority of IBA members voted in favour of Kremlev and to not hold re-elections.
This led the IOC to once again express concern in a public statement, noting that the elections “merit careful analysis and are just reinforcing the questions and doubts around IBA’s governance.”
While the IBA has undergone clear reforms that include weeding out corrupt officials, improving the scoring system, and elevating their financial standing, the improvements have not. been enough to ease the IOC’s concerns and eventually paved the way for opposing national federations to form their own governing body to rival IBA.
The newfound governing body has claimed that it has no intention of rivalling IBA and that its aim is to preserve the sport’s Olympic future after it was left off the initial program for Los Angeles 2028 as a result of the feud between the IOC and IBA. However, IBA president Kremlev has since threaten to expel the countries involved in the “rouge organization.”
“There is no other reason of establishing a rogue organization, other than to attempt to destroy the integrity of the International Boxing Association,” the IBA said in a statement. “The IBA strongly condemns the efforts of individuals to damage the significant strides taken by the IBA over the last years to secure boxers the best future possible.
“Ambitions of individuals will never serve as a solid foundation for a successful organization nor the destructive motives that have led to the creation of this rogue organization.”
In response to IBA’s threat, USA Boxing announced that it had terminated its membership with IBA on April 26—the same day that IBA filed an official complaint with the Boxing Independent Integrity Unit (BIIU).
Meanwhile, Dutch Boxing Federation President Boris van der Vorst, who was Kremlev’s opponent at the most recent election, has called IBA’s a “corrupting and authoritarian regime” for warning IBA officials against participating in qualifiers for next year’s Paris Games.
There appears to be no end in sight to the ongoing schism in Olympic boxing. However, it is worth noting that World Boxing’s financial budget is nowhere near as vast as the IBA’s, which is backed by Gazprom and offers up to $200,000 in prize money for gold medalists at their amateur events. Kremlev has also vowed to increase the prize money for gold medallists of the Men's World Boxing Championships to $1 million by 2027.
"We will create the best conditions for our beautiful sport," Kremlev said. “If parents bring kids to boxing, I want to ensure they will become wealthy.”
Kremlev’s lucrative prize offerings have certainly been alluring, as 538 boxers and 107 National Federations have registered for the event—a record figure for the World Championships despite the ongoing boycott.
Unless World Boxing is able to acquire a competitive financial budget and support from national federations, the organization is unlikely to land a knockout blow to its heavyweight rival.