Ray Beltran: Politics and the Politics of Boxing
Published: August 16, 2017
Politics and the politics of boxing seldom cross paths. However, when they do, it is often a reflection of our society at large. Think Jack Dempsey not being allowed to fight black challengers and Muhammad Ali’s anti-Vietnam stance. This is where Raymundo “Sugar” Beltran enters the public conscience as he attempts to navigate the United State’s Byzantine immigration system. Beltran is a 36-year-old lightweight, former sparring partner of Manny Pacquiao, who has compiled a 34-7-1 record over a very lengthy 19-year career.
Much has been written about Beltran’s backstory, and in many ways, he is no different from others before him. At age 16, Beltran and his family illegally entered the United States from Mexico in order to secure a better life. Along the way, Beltran started his own family and just as thousands of children dream, regardless of nationality, he became a professional athlete. The only problem was, of course, that Beltran did not have legal status to remain in the United States permanently. Through his boxing accomplishments, however, Beltran was able to secure a P-1 visa, allowing him temporary legal status in the country.
The P-1 Visa allows non-immigrant individuals to temporarily come to the United States to “perform in athletic competitions in which the individual is internationally recognized with a high level of achievement, evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered so that the achievement is renowned, leading or well known in more than one country.” A P-1 visa holder can remain in the United States for a maximum of 10 years, and in Beltran’s case, the ten years will expire at the end of 2019. At that time, Beltran will be 38 years old – ancient in the world of boxing.
So Beltran will shortly face the conundrum that thousands of visa holders face: how to stay in the United States. Beltran, however, has an advantage over many visa holders because of his success in the ring. To convert the P-1 Visa into permanent residency (“green card”), the United States immigration code has carved out an exception to employment based immigrants with an “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. The United States Immigration Code defines “extraordinary ability” as “a level of expertise indicating that the individual is one of that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.” If Beltran has risen to the very top of boxing, to convert his P-1 Visa to a green card, Beltran must meet 3 of 10 criteria:
- Evidence of receipt of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence;
- Evidence of membership in associations in a field which demands outstanding achievement of their members;
- Evidence of published material about the immigrant in professional or major trade publications or other major media;
- Evidence that the immigrant has been asked to judge the work of others, either individually or on a panel;
- Evidence of the immigrant’s original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic, or business-related contributions of major significance to the field;
- Evidence of the immigrant’s authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media;
- Evidence that the immigrant’s work has been displayed at artistic exhibitions or showcases;
- Evidence of the immigrant’s performance of a leading or critical role in distinguished organizations;
- Evidence that the immigrant commands a high salary or other significantly high remuneration in relation to others in the field;
- Evidence of the immigrant’s commercial successes in the performing arts;
Unfortunately, as politics and the politics of boxing cross paths, at the current age of 36, and soon to have an expired visa, Beltran is in a bit of a trick bag in the face of the immigration code. By all appearances, Beltran meets the criteria for converting his temporary visa to a permanent one because of his achievements. Beltran is the current holder of the NABF lightweight, WBO NABO lightweight, and WBA International lightweight titles. He is the #7 ranked lightweight by BoxRec, #6 lightweight by the WBA, and #2 lightweight by the WBC, IBF, and WBO. His last three fights have been televised because of him opposed to his opponent, and he has been an “active” fighter most of his career with two to three fights per year. Additionally, Mainstream and boxing specific press alike have been covering his story not only because of his five-fight win streak but also because of his quest to stay in the United States.
To a non-boxing fan, Beltran’s many championship belts may sound impressive. However, to the ordinary boxing fan, those belts are meaningless and usually reserved for up and coming prospects, not 42 fight veterans of the game. No one knows why they exist other than to generate sanctioning fees for the organizations themselves. The rankings by the four major sanctioning bodies are entirely subjective, and only those organizations know how their ranking systems work. A highly ranked fighter in one organization often does not have a comparable ranking by another organization, or may not even be ranked at all. No sanctioning body even ranks the champions of the other sanctioning bodies. A fighter can lose and ultimately drop out of the rankings, ruining his career, or not drop out and be given a title shot in his very next fight. While Beltran has been receiving more press and television coverage than other fighters with similar resumes, it is not clear if it because of his five fight win streak or because of his immigration story. Seven fights ago, when Beltran went the distance with pound for pound star Terrence Crawford, no one even knew of his immigration issues, and he was simply another notch in Crawford’s belt. Moreover, six fights ago, Beltran was in the news for failing to make weight for a WBO World Lightweight Title bout, (the same title was on the line when he lost to Crawford), and then subsequently having his TKO victory overturned for failing a drug test. The scope of “extraordinary” ability unfortunately narrows.
Additionally, what it means to be “employed” has one meaning in boxing, and a different meaning for other athletes, such as a baseball player, also trying to convert a P-1 visa into a green card. In boxing, there are no long seasons, there are no playoffs, there is no single championship game, and no team organizations are supporting the athlete. Once the final bell rings, a fighter is unemployed until the next phone call from a promoter. If a fighter falls out of favor with a promoter for any number of reasons and is never offered another contract, he is essentially unemployed. If no opponent cannot be found for the next bout, maybe because a purse amount cannot be agreed upon, a fighter is essentially unemployed. A fighter cannot point to spring training and say “I’ll be employed again in a few weeks.” A fighter may simply take time off to allow his body to heal. However, there is no “injured reserve” list in boxing. Thus, the fighter is unemployed. While the Immigration Code states that an athlete does not have to be actively competing in order to convert a P-1 visa to a green card, the limits to inactivity for a boxer are unknown regarding immigration policy.
In light of the above, the question becomes: how should Beltran’s career be handled in the next two years? In theory, Beltran should be in line for a shot at the WBC, WBA, and WBO titles. Do his handlers want to risk Beltran losing and not being able to stay in the United States by putting him in the ring with Jorge Linares, Mikey Garcia, or Terry Flannigan, the current lightweight belt holders? If Beltran loses to these men, his story may come to an end. He will not likely get another shot at the top prize, and he will simply become a regular fighter. Does Beltran continue to face “average at best” opposition as he has been doing in order to continue to earn victories so he can show immigration officials his record and claim “extraordinary” status? Conversely, any reasonable person would think if Beltran continues to face lower quality opponents, he should slip in rankings, equally hurting his “extraordinary” status.
Coupled with these questions is the issue of activity. Beltran fought three times in 2016 and twice already in 2017. At his age, does being such an active fighter put him at risk for a loss? Alternatively, because a boxer is essentially an independent contractor, if he does not take another fight in 2017, will immigration officials consider him unemployed and thus not eligible for a green card as an employed immigrant with an “extraordinary ability?” The total processing time for applying for permanent status to receiving a green card in the mail, based on extraordinary status is approximately 18-20 months. A lot can happen in 18-20 months inside or outside of the ring. Just as an arrest in a family based immigration proceeding may stop the process, if Beltran were to lose in the ring, or simply give his body a rest, he may also lose his chance of getting a green card. Balancing the politics of boxing and the politics of immigration policy is not an enviable position.
When politics and the politics of boxing cross paths, the boxer often loses. Dempsey lost because of whom he did not fight, and Ali lost because of forced inactivity. There are no definitive answers as to how Beltran’s achievements should be or will be viewed, or how his career should or should not be handled for the next two years – both to boxing community or immigration officials. The only known fact is that Beltran’s fate ultimately rests on the whims of a government bureaucrat and how “extraordinary ability” will be interpreted in light of the evidence. Raymundo “Sugar” Beltran may lose because of the subjective nature of the politics of boxing and the politics of United States immigration policy. However, let us hope that Beltran earns a knockout victory and is awarded permanent residency.
(Feature Photo: Chris Farina/Top Rank)