Jose Sulaiman, one of the most powerful people in professional boxing -- and also one of the most reviled -- died on Thursday in Los Angeles after a lengthy illness. He was 82.
Sulaiman rose to power as the president of the World Boxing Council, one of the sport's major sanctioning organizations, whose champions are immediately recognizable by their green and gold world title belts. Sulaiman was elected president of the WBC in 1975 and ruled with an iron grip.
Most figured he would remain president until his death before the organization made it official, voting him president for life at its annual convention in November in Bangkok. But Sulaiman was unable to attend the convention because he was hospitalized with heart problems and in intensive care since October at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he died.
His death was confirmed by his son, Mauricio Sulaiman, who was his chief lieutenant with the WBC and is expected to take the reins of the organization.
"He certainly treated all fighters as his sons and daughters, he suffered from their problems and worked every single day of his life to try to make boxing better and safer," the WBC said in a statement. "Regardless if the boxer was an amateur or if he was Mike Tyson or (Julio Cesar) Chavez, he would treat them the same and would relentlessly try to help each one at all times."
Born May 30, 1931, in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, Sulaiman spent most of his life involved in boxing. He boxed as an amateur and worked as a trainer, promoter, referee and judge before being elected president of the WBC. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007.
During his tenure as WBC president, Sulaiman was one of the driving forces behind the reduction of championship fights from 15 rounds to 12 in the name of boxer safety. This came about in 1983, shortly after the death of Deuk-Koo Kim in a nationally televised WBA lightweight world title fight with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. All of the other sanctioning organizations eventually followed the WBC's lead on the issue.
In another change for safety reasons, Sulaiman also championed the switch of official weigh-ins from the morning of a fight to the day before in order to give the fighters time to rehydrate. Under Sulaiman's watch, the WBC also instituted gloves with thumbs attached, another move made for boxer safety reasons.
For all of the positives, however, there was as much negative. For decades, the WBC, under Sulaiman's direction, often ignored its own rules, put out rankings that showed overt favoritism to those Sulaiman was close to and rewarded fighters with title shots who had not earned them but were in the personal good graces of Sulaiman. He was heavily criticized for his extremely close relationship to promoter Don King, who was often the beneficiary of generous rankings for his fighters.
Sulaiman also was a driving force in the proliferation of numerous championships within the organization, including the regular use of interim titles.
He was also accused of regularly showing favoritism toward Mexican fighters and was documented to have forced fighters to give him personal memorabilia, such as fight-worn trunks, robes and gloves.
Sulaiman had grown so used to doing as he pleased with the WBC that it nearly bankrupted the organization. In 1998, then-light heavyweight champion Roy Jones vacated the WBC title and Graciano Rocchigiani outpointed Michael Nunn a few months later to win the vacant title. Rocchigiani was announced as the new champion, given a belt in the ring and listed in subsequent official rankings as the organization's world champion.
However, when Jones changed his mind and asked the WBC to reinstate him as light heavyweight champion, Sulaiman granted his request, breaking the rules. The WBC informed Rocchigiani that listing him as champion was a "typographical error." Rocchigiani sued the WBC in U.S. federal court, claiming the WBC had broken its rules and damaged his earning power by taking away the title. He won the case and a $30 million judgment. The WBC and Rocchigiani eventually reached a settlement under which the organization had to pay him regular installments of the settlement. In order to raise money to go toward the payments, Sulaiman began to create more and more titles so the WBC could collect additional sanctioning fees.
Sulaiman is survived by his wife, six children and 14 grandchildren.