Duncan Mackay

I well remember sitting down to interview International Boxing Association (AIBA) President Ching-Kuo Wu in early 2009 and him sketching out on a piece of paper for me his vision for making his organisation the de facto governing body for all boxing, not just the amateur branch of the sport.

His idea included launching a new competition where professional boxers could fight and earn money while retaining their eligibility to compete in the Olympics, a major departure from the traditional model used since the sport’s debut in Games at St. Louis in 1904 when only amateurs had been allowed to take part.

Wu’s idea included a new competition called the "World Series of Boxing" (WSB) based upon city franchises around the world who would compete against each other in leagues with a grand final at the end of each season.

Running alongside it, he planned to launch AIBA Pro Boxing, which would crown individual world champions in each weight category. "Imagine," he said to me, continuing to write down his plans, "an AIBA Pro Boxing heavyweight title fight to crown the undisputed champion of the world at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 fans. AIBA would then truly be the world governing body of boxing."

The inspiration for Wu, a basketball player in his youth, was staging an Olympic boxing competition where the best of the best took part, just as the top National Basketball Association players and world’s leading tennis players took part in the Games.

Wu asked me what I thought. I replied something along the lines that it was "ambitious" and flippantly told him that I though he "should be careful, because I don’t want you to end up at the bottom of the sea."

In the end, it was not a jealous rival promoter that did for Wu but his own ambition, which according to the latest report into historical allegations of corruption at AIBA published by Canadian sports professor Richard McLaren, wildly exceeded his grasp.

C K Wu had big plans to make AIBA the de facto governing body of world boxing but his dream has nearly ruined the sport ©AIBA
C K Wu had big plans to make AIBA the de facto governing body of world boxing but his dream has nearly ruined the sport ©AIBA

McLaren plots the financial downfall of AIBA which started with, what he labelled, "The Beautiful Dream."

"This dream changed the scope of AIBA from its original objective of governing amateur boxing to growing their influence and governance over all forms of boxing at all levels worldwide," McLaren wrote in this report. "Based on this dream, and the money needed to finance it, [Wu] made the financial decisions that brought the organisation to a state of near insolvency by the time of his departure in 2017."

Promoting professional boxing requires one thing above everything else - money, and lots of it.

Wu’s desperation to raise the capital necessary to fund his dream led him to sign a series of deals with organisations of questionable background, in post-Soviet countries and China.

As the WSB failed to capture the imagination in the way Wu believed it would - leading investor IMG to pull out after only a year - and needed financially propping up, money was burnt at a dizzying rate.

As Wu hid key financial details of the contracts from the AIBA Executive Committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when they begun asking questions about rumours they had heard, it was not long before the very future of AIBA was placed in jeopardy as it was the ultimate guarantor of last resort.

"It was clear, even at that time, that those charged with running the programme were unable to efficiently undertake the required tasks and lacked the experience to do so," McLaren reported. "The best illustration of this was the booking of the 20,000 seat American Airlines Arena in Miami as the venue for the inaugural bouts of the WSB. Less than 150 tickets were sold, far below the financial plan projections."

It was a long way from Wu’s dream of selling out Madison Square Garden.

Wu cannot claim he did not know what was going on because, as McLaren reported, "From the outset of the Wu presidency he functioned as a micro-manager of all details and minutiae of the organisation and used an autocratic management style in his decision making. He in effect meddled in all matters of AIBA but took no responsibility for any actions, and in particular the administrative actions of the sport. Blame was always placed on others, never at his own doorstep."

The World Series of Boxing was supposed to allow fighters to compete professionally while retaining their Olympic eligibility, but failed to capture the public's imagination ©WSB
The World Series of Boxing was supposed to allow fighters to compete professionally while retaining their Olympic eligibility, but failed to capture the public's imagination ©WSB

Running parallel to Wu’s aspiration of helping make AIBA the governing body for boxing, was an even bigger ambition: becoming the next IOC President.

"His public image was critical to mounting a successful bid for the IOC Presidency, Wu’s ultimate goal," McLaren wrote. "Ensuring that his AIBA platform remained untarnished was necessary, as it was the launching pad for his bid for the IOC Presidency. It is against this backdrop that the decisions taken during this time at the helm of AIBA are filtered."

This included the now infamous incident where it was alleged in return for providing $10 million (£8 million/€9.5 million) funding for the WSB through state-controlled bank Benkons, Azerbaijan had been "promised" two Olympic boxing gold medals at London 2012.

"Wu stated to [AIBA executive director] Ho Kim that going forward ‘we need to make sure AZE boxers do not fall victim to a bad decision and protect them from misjudgement’," McLaren reported. "That communication was understood to be a request for special attention to be paid to the performance results of AZE boxers in competitions."

But when the BBC Newsnight programme reported claims in 2011 that Azerbaijan had been "guaranteed" the London 2012 medals, McLaren claimed that Wu’s focus changed. "After the BBC accused AIBA, the mindset of Wu toward Azerbaijan changed from protecting Azeri boxers from bad decisions to protecting himself from any misperceptions," he said.

"Wu reacted to the BBC story at the London 2012 Games. He made a speech during an R&J (referee & judges) meeting prior to the start of the Games. The BBC accusations were raised. The thrust of the comments was that any sponsorship and investment in AIBA should not mean Azerbaijan is guaranteed to get gold medals.

"Once again, the communication was left to be interpreted by the recipient. Some R&Js apparently thought that what the President desired was to make sure that Azeri boxers did not win any gold medals. The apparent problem from the President’s perspective was that if an Azeri won a gold medal there was risk of worldwide scandal raised by the media accusing AIBA of making a deal of medals for money. This could further reinforce the false BBC broadcast of 2011."

Nearly 10 years later, this helps me fully understand a strange breakfast I had during London 2012 with the late Azerbaijan Sports Minister Azad Rahimov. As he pushed his scrambled eggs around his plate in a five-star London hotel, he bemoaned his country’s lack of success in the boxing ring where, instead of the two gold medals they believed they were due, they had to settle for two bronze for Teymur Mammadov and Magomedrasul Majidov in the heavyweight and super heavyweight, respectively. "I don’t know how I am going to explain this to my President," Rahimov told me. When I asked what he meant, Rahimov changed the subject. 

Magomedrasul Majidov, in red, won one of Azerbaijan's two Olympic bronze medals at London 2012 - but the country thought they had done a deal for them to be gold ©Getty Images
Magomedrasul Majidov, in red, won one of Azerbaijan's two Olympic bronze medals at London 2012 - but the country thought they had done a deal for them to be gold ©Getty Images

Wu’s failure to succeed Jacques Rogge as IOC President at the election in 2013 after he was the first of the six candidates to be eliminated, and a decision he made as a result, probably helped seal his fate.

McLaren reports that Wu had a secret arrangement with Gafur Rakhimov, one of his vice-presidents at AIBA, made before he was elected for the first time at Santo Domingo in 2006, that he would step down as President after serving two terms leaving the way clear for the Uzbekistani to run. But Wu decided to stay on having not been elected to lead the IOC.

Rakhimov, who appeared on United States Treasury Department sanctions list as "one of Uzbekistan's leading criminals", was part of a cabal of disgruntled AIBA Executive Committee members and former employees, including Kim and his successor as executive director Karim Bouzidi, sacked for his alleged involvement in the judging scandal at Rio 2016, that plotted to overthrow Wu.

The group got their way in 2017 when they exposed AIBA’s financial mismanagement under Wu and Rakhimov was elected his successor in 2018. His reign proved to be a short-lived one as his alleged criminal past caught up with him and was one of the reasons that led to the IOC suspending AIBA as the organiser of the Olympic boxing tournament at Tokyo 2020.

Rakhimov’s full-time successor, Umar Kremlev, was elected in December 2020 and is praised in McLaren’s report for helping clear AIBA’s debts, including the one with Benkons. But at what cost? Kremlev has only been able to satisfy AIBA’s creditors thanks to a sponsorship deal with Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, sanctioned by both the United States and European Union following the invasion of Ukraine.

The IOC appears no closer to reinstating IBA - as it is now known following a rebrand - as the organiser for Olympic boxing, its place on the programme after Paris 2024 is in serious jeopardy and the organisation remains in turmoil following a Court of Arbitration for Sport decision that ruled favour of Boris van der Vorst, who had been banned from standing against Kremlev for President on the eve of last month’s election, meaning the process will have to be re-run.

In every sense, it seems, Wu’s "beautiful dream" has turned into boxing’s worst nightmare.