Return of Service Tennis has brought Cora Barry all the way back.

Out of the Box: After her pugilistic fiascoes, Cora Barry turned her energies to tennis.
File/Darrow Montgomery

The Washington Kastles honored the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center at a ceremony during the new team’s home opener earlier this month. Tennis types and city officials praised the center and its founder and executive director, Cora Masters Barry.

Kastles owner Mark Ein says the praise had nothing to do with any role the former first lady of D.C. or her tennis center might have had in landing Serena Williams, his team’s meal ticket. (Barry has traveled the globe with Williams, and older sister Isha Williams is on the board of the center, which is now run by the city parks-and-rec department.)

“[Barry] deserved the honor,” says Ein. “They do a really terrific job [at the center] of not only exposing kids to tennis but using tennis to teach life skills. And I think in a short amount of time they’ve had a positive impact on kids’ lives in town, and it’s now recognized as one of the leading organizations in the region that brings tennis and kids together.”

Barry describes her tennis-related programs as merely “a continuation” of the work she’s done in her decades in the District.

“I don’t need any redemption,” she says. “I’ve always worked for the young people here.”

But anybody who’s paid attention to the sports-government nexus around these parts for a while could giggle that Barry is still eligible for a tribute in either.

No amount of tennis-related do-gooding can erase the memory of her days running boxing in this town.

“Boxing still hasn’t come back here from what she did to it,” says York Van Nixon, a former boxing commissioner and well-connected veteran of the sweet science (Don King was the best man at Nixon’s wedding). “It never will.”

In 1980, Barry, then known as Cora Wilds, was appointed to the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission by mayor and future husband Marion Barry.

The appointment wasn’t a popular one: To make room for Wilds on the panel, the mayor dumped Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins legend who was seen as a huge supporter of the local amateur boxing scene. Van Nixon left the commission shortly after, which he attributes to a disagreement with the mayor about, among other things, Wilds’ appointment.

Wilds never changed detractors’ minds.

In 1984, welterweight contenders Adolfo Viruet and Bruce Finch were promoted on a boxing card scheduled for the old convention center. When the boxers didn’t show up on fight night, it was disclosed their appearance had never been confirmed.

In 1985, a guy signed by the commission to serve as official ring physician was forced to resign after disclosures that he lacked both a medical degree and a license to practice medicine in the city.

The biggest fight that was supposed to be held here during Wilds’ tenure on the commission not only never came off, it still ranks as the biggest fiasco in city boxing history.

Michael Spinks and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad had signed to fight for Spinks’ undisputed light heavyweight crown in July 1983. Spinks, the Olympic gold medalist, had taken Muhammad’s belt by decision two years earlier. HBO was going to broadcast the event live on a Friday night from the D.C. Armory, a building that could hold 10,000 fans.

But nothing went right with the promotion. Despite the high wattage of the combatants and the fact that the matchup would have been the first championship bout in D.C. in decades, Sports Illustrated reported that “the day before the fight, only 4,000 tickets had been sold.”

At the weigh-in on fight day, Muhammad came in 2½ pounds overweight. Muhammad blasted the organizers and said the scale was rigged.

Rather than try to lose the alleged overage, he went back to his hotel and slept. Then the title designation was taken off the bout, and Spinks pulled out just hours before the bell was to ring.

The cancellation ignited a large-scale brawl between the fighters’ camps and supporters at a hotel in L’Enfant Plaza—including a New York biker gang—and riot police were called in to seal off the area.

While allegedly trying to calm the outcry over what the New York Times called “the non-fight of the year,” Muhammad gave one of the great unapologetic apologies of all time: “I don’t regret what I have done because I am a man of principle,” he said, “but someone has to apologize.”

The bizarreness peaked when Bert Sugar, the celebrated editor of The Ring magazine, brought in big bags of flour to check the scale used by the Boxing and Wrestling Commission. And Sugar’s flour test backed up Muhammad’s charge: D.C.’s scales were off, and Muhammad was probably underweight. The whole circus was blamed on the city.

“Mustafa Muhammad once told me Cora was the only woman he’d ever hit,” says Van Nixon.

All the blame for the Spinks-Muhammad fiasco is on Muhammad, she says.

“Why would we rig the scales? What would be the logic?” she says. “He was overweight; he could have gotten it off by going to the bathroom, jumping rope some. He refused. He went and ate breakfast. Nobody forfeits a purse like that if they’re really ready to fight, do they? Everybody has an excuse when you don’t do the right things.”

The episode was seen as symptomatic of the disarray of the city’s boxing authorities. And with the spotlight focused on the commission, people began noticing that Wilds had been traveling the globe attending title fights on the taxpayers’ dime.

A month after the Spinks-Muhammad debacle, the Washington Post published its first story about Wilds’ travel. But she continued taking taxpayer-subsidized trips, and the paper kept writing about them.

A 1987 Post piece reported that Wilds had taken 25 trips to watch fights in locales including Venice and Aruba, often flying first-class despite city regulations requiring coach for business travel. She countered that a back injury forced her to take the pricey seats.

The paper’s investigation also uncovered that Wilds had been illegally billing both the city and boxing commission for her travel for years. Wilds couldn’t come up with a medical excuse for the double-dipping.

The Post then ran an editorial outlining how D.C. was home to several internationally renowned fighters, and saying that while the city’s top boxing official was traveling, this talented crop of athletes was fighting everywhere but in its hometown.

The publicity the Post’s stories generated forced the Department of Justice to launch a criminal probe. Some members of the city council also began demanding that Wilds be kicked out of the boxing post.

Wilds resigned in November 1987, having never brought a big fight to the city in her seven years on the commission.

The resignation didn’t save her from the law. In early July 1988, Wilds pleaded guilty to federal charges related to her double-billing. She avoided jail time but was forced to pay back the city for the travel.

“Cora Barry [she married Marion Barry in 1994] was somebody who used boxing to benefit herself,” says Gary “Digital” Williams, operator of the Boxing Along the Beltway blog and an expert on the local boxing scene. “All the overseas trips, all the trips that were supposed to be about boxing here, did nothing for boxing....That was a horrible, ridiculous period. She seems to have done well in tennis. I hope she learned from her mistakes in boxing.”

Barry says, with impressive force, that she had nothing to learn. She remembers those times differently than others. She says local boxing benefited from her travels, and she counts among her accomplishments as commissioner recruiting women as fighters, judges, and referees, and eliminating 15-round fights. (However,15-rounders were only used in championship bouts, and D.C. didn’t have any during her run.)

She attributes the public relations and legal problems to “politics” and hints that sexism played a part.

“I was the best boxing commissioner they ever had,” she says. “Anybody will tell you that. My worst enemy will tell you that. When I first got there, it was a bunch of fat old men with cigars, sitting around. It was a crazy political time. [The double-billing prosecution] was one political incident in a crazy political time. I look at the big picture. I feel good about my time, about what I did. Again, I don’t need any redemption.”

Twenty years to the week of her guilty plea, the city honored her as a bright and shining light.

To paraphrase Don King, “Only in Washington!”

Our Readers Say

I'm wistful for those high times. York Van Nixon! Cora Masters Wilds! At least we had fun!

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