Boxing champ Tyson Fury's link to Irish crime boss Daniel Kinahan brings sport's dark past into the present

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Boxer Tyson Fury is linked to Irish crime boss Daniel Kinahan. (Getty Images - image credit)
Boxer Tyson Fury is linked to Irish crime boss Daniel Kinahan. (Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last week the U.S. Treasury Department announced a $5-million US reward for information that would lead to the "financial destruction" of the Kinahan crime gang, or to the arrest and conviction of the Irish syndicate's leaders. The dollar figure tells you how seriously U.S. authorities are taking this case, which targets the group best known among law enforcement for funneling narcotics into Ireland.

But if you follow boxing, you might just as easily recognize the name Kinahan as the family behind MGM boxing, later branded as MTK Global, the promotional outfit that guided dozens of pro fighters until it folded this week, citing an exodus of business partners after the U.S. government's announcement. MTK worked with Tyson Fury, and the unified heavyweight champion appears tight with the group's boss, Daniel Kinahan. They have posed for photos together, waterside in Dubai.

The Treasury Department's bounty on the Kinahan crew went public just 11 days before Fury is scheduled to defend his titles against Dillian Whyte at Wembley Stadium, and while it has led to headlines, it is not the seismic scandal it would be in any other pro sport. Imagine the feds targeting an investor in the defending Super Bowl champs, and announcing the sanctions on Wild Card Weekend. It's at least as big a story as all those times Tom Brady pretended to retire.

But boxing isn't any other pro sport, where the talent gets vetted and background-checked, and where money alone can't buy you a spot in a very exclusive ownership class. Boxing is big business, but also a giant hustle, without teams, leagues or a central regulating authority. Just fighters and managers and promoters angling to get the best of each other. Constantly.

So in some ways the news that a boxing benefactor with ties to the current heavyweight champion is being hunted by the U.S. government is less a scandal than a throwback.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Organized crime controlled boxing in 1950s

Boxing aficionados rival baseball fans in their worship of the past, convinced the athletes they see today can't measure up to the ones they remember from their youth. If you don't believe me, walk into a room full of sportswriters and declare that Tyson Fury would handle Muhammad Ali — then brace for blowback.

Kinahan lingering at the fringes of big fights represents a link to the sport's 1950s glory days, when title fights went 15 rounds, the best fought the best — and organized crime controlled the sport.

Some observers are even spinning the Kinahan situation as a positive, since it blew up two weeks before Fury is slated to fight Whyte, midway through a busy run of title fights.

"I actually think it's shining some attention on the fight," said Dougie Fischer, editor-in-chief of Ring Magazine, in an interview posted online. "So maybe it's not a bad thing."

If you believe all attention is good attention, then this latest Kinahan scandal benefits pro boxing like the Dubin Inquiry helped track and field. Doesn't matter why your sport's making headlines, as long as it's in the news, right? It all converts to money somehow, right? Plus, promoters already expected 94,000 paying spectators at Wembley Stadium for Saturday's fight card, so it's not clear whether this event even needed more attention.

But now it has plenty, most of it focused on whether major boxing players have knowingly done business with an accused drug trafficker. MTK maintains it cut ties with Kinahan in 2017, sometime after a mass shooting at a weigh-in for a card the company — then known as MGM — was staging in Dublin.

For his part, Bob Arum, head of Top Rank, Fury's U.S.-based promoter, says Kinahan grossed a total of $8 million from Fury's four most recent fights, and still ran MTK's boxing operation.

It's none of my business, and I don't get involved in other people's business. So it doesn't really concern me. - Tyson Fury on Daniel Kinahan

"He was becoming greedier and greedier," Arum told The Daily Mail. "And he became more of a burden than a help. For Fury versus Whyte, Frank [Warren] and I drew the line. We would not talk to him and we would not deal with him."

And then there's Fury, who has spent this week dodging Kinahan questions like they were power punches from a lumbering heavyweight.

"It's none of my business, and I don't get involved in other people's business," he told Sky Sports. "So it doesn't really concern me."

To be clear, nobody's questioning Fury's competitive integrity, or the legitimacy of his 31 career wins. If his fights were rigged, nobody told fringe contender Otto Wallin, who cut Fury for 47 stitches when they met in 2019. And the memo never reached Deontay Wilder, who floored Fury twice during their raucous rematch last October.

But in 2017, Fury, while nominally a heavyweight champion, was out of shape and inactive, binge-drinking and depressed. In the book Clash of The Clans, by investigative journalist Nicola Tallant, veteran trainer Ben Davison, a former manager of Fury's, credits Kinahan with helping the down-and-out boxer jump-start his flagging career.

"At that point, Tyson was questioning everything about himself, even his own existence," Davison told Tallant. "To have somebody come along and say, 'don't worry, I believe in you, I've got your back,' was a Godsend to him."

If you're curious about how a renowned underworld figure, whose previous boxing venture ended with mass shooting, could come so close to a reigning world champion, the answer, by now, should be familiar.

Because this is boxing, where, if you're a fighter, nobody cares about your past unless they can fashion it into a dramatic backstory that helps sell fights. Like Mike Tyson's time in reform school, or Bernard Hopkins' stint in the Pennsylvania prison where he first learned to box.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Don King guaranteed big paydays

And if you're financing fights, having money is more important than where you got it, which helps explain why so many organized crime figures held so much power. At least they did until 1962, when four mobsters, including Franky Carbo and Blinky Palermo, were convicted of extortion. Their brazen attempt to strong-arm Don Nesseth, who managed newly crowned welterweight champion Don Jordan, landed them in Alcatraz, effectively ending pro boxing's organized crime era.

But when Don King hit the scene in the early 1970s, fresh from a prison bid that followed a second-degree murder conviction, boxing folks didn't balk at how he acquired his money — running an illegal lottery in his native Cleveland. They just let him spend it, guaranteeing big paydays to Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and setting himself up for three decades as one of boxing's heaviest hitters.

None of these details mean all, or even many, of boxing's power brokers are criminals. But it does mean that in a sport with no centralized regulator and few barriers to entry, there'll always be room for a figure like Kinahan.

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