Successful boxers take home lucrative advertising contracts in addition to prizes
On 15 March 2007, 23 year old super featherweight Anis Dwi Mulya was knocked out in round six of a nationally televised bout. Five days later he was dead. Anis Dwi Mulya was the twelfth Indonesian boxer this century to die of injuries sustained in the ring.
Anis’ career was unremarkable. A veteran of just six professional fights with five losses on his slate, it is his tragic death that most boxing fans will remember. His death also casts a further shadow over a profession plagued by claims of substandard refereeing, one-sided contests and poor medical treatment. And again doubts have been raised over the future of the sport in Indonesia.
Million rupiah baby
Despite its dangers, boxing has enjoyed enormous popularity since the
sport first gained a foothold in the archipelago following World War
II. In October 1973, 35,000 fight fans turned out to Senyan Stadium in
Jakarta to watch the great Muhammad Ali outpoint Rudi Lubbers of the
Netherlands over 12 rounds.
Nearly 12 years later, Indonesia produced a world champion of its own, Ellyas ‘The Exocet’ Pical, the talented junior bantamweight southpaw who fought the Japanese legend, Khaosai Galaxy. Ellyas went on to capture the International Boxing Federation (IBF) title on three occasions.
In a country where conservative official figures suggest that 37 million people live well below the poverty line, boxing provides a means to fight your way out of poverty. A successful boxer can compete for purses worth more rupiah than the average worker would see in lifetime. For many young men from disadvantaged backgrounds with little formal education, the local gym is a sanctuary where they can channel their energy and begin to turn their lives around.
State of play
However, boxing in Indonesia has a bloody modern history. In recent
years, the sport has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Between
1980 and 1995, at least nine boxers lost their lives through
ring-related injuries. Then, in a devastating run from June 2000 until
October 2001, five boxers were killed. Two of the deaths occurred
within 18 days of each other.
The World Boxing Council (WBC), the sport’s major sanctioning body, reacted slowly. Finally, in December 2002 the WBC banned Indonesian boxers from fighting in WBC sanctioned bouts outside the country. Boxers from its 161 member countries were also banned from fighting in Indonesia.
The ban was lifted in July 2003 on the condition that Indonesia improve its safety measures and form a commission to supervise bouts and investigate claims of misconduct. But despite the government’s establishment of the Indonesian Professional Sports Supervisory Body (BPPOPI) in 2002, young men in their prime continue to die, leading many to question its effectiveness.
There is little doubt that the lack of consistent safety standards has
played a major role in the recent tragedies. Mismatches are also to
blame. Two national television stations, RCTI and Indosiar, broadcast
live fight cards on a weekly basis. The pressure is on promoters to
find boxers who will capture the imagination of Indonesia’s 180 million
strong viewing audience, a staggering 80 per cent of whom have been
known to tune in to the biggest fights. Desperate fighters, without any
real chance of winning, are frequently pitted against seasoned veterans
looking to boost their records and entertain the viewers, if only for a
few brutal rounds.
That said, the culpability of promoters and matchmakers extends only so far. The sport’s custodians should undertake a thorough examination of a fighter’s credentials and physical condition before a bout is sanctioned. The trouble is no-one seems certain who the custodians are.
Too many bodies
The Indonesian Boxing Commission (KTI) was founded in 1970 and was the
sole governing body responsible for boxing in the country for over 30
years. In 2001, KTI was joined by the Indonesian Boxing Association
(ATI) and in 2005 the Indonesian Professional Boxing Commission (KTPI)
was established. These rival organisations claim dissatisfaction with
the leadership of the KTI’s general chairman, Anthon Sihombing, as the
primary reason for their establishment, arguing that Sihombing should
take responsibility for the rising death toll. While BPPOPI has
levelled sanctions against individuals it feels contributed to the
tragedies, it has kept at arm’s length from the internal operations of
the governing bodies.
Whatever the intention, the increased number of boxing organisations hampers efforts to implement cohesive national safety standards. For example, a boxer temporarily suspended from competing by one organisation can continue to fight under the jurisdiction of another peak body. This enables boxers who are injured, or who have violated codes of conduct to box on regardless. And it increases the risk for those entering the ring.
A step forward
In recent years, there have been some positive developments in the
world of Indonesian boxing. Chris John from Semarang was crowned the
undefeated World Boxing Association Featherweight Champion in 2003. In
2004, Muhammad Rachman from Probolinggo became the IBF Mini-Flyweight
Champion. They joined Ellyas Pical and mini-flyweight Nico Thomas from
Ambon as the only world boxing champions in Indonesia’s history. Chris
John retains his title to this day.
There was room for further optimism in August 2005 when the WBC organised a three day medical and refereeing seminar in Jakarta for more than 100 Indonesian boxing officials. It was a step forward. However, further fatalities followed in 2005 and 2006. And on that fateful night in March this year, Anis Dwi Mulya stepped between the ropes.
Boxing has proved itself to be even more resilient than the combatants whose livelihoods depend on it. Despite a blood-stained history, boxing continues to attract ambitious young fighters and thrill audiences. But with casualties continuing at an alarming rate, the sport in Indonesia will need much more than the successes of Chris John or Muhammad Rachman to lift itself off the canvas. ii
Karl Brandt ( email@example.com ) works in the Education and Culture Section at the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Canberra. He holds a Bachelor of Asian Studies (Indonesian) from the Australian National University.