By Grant Miller
There are two things Connecticut is not known for: racial diversity and combat sports. Yet one man has made history in both. He looks younger than the “fifties” age range he provided, and he speaks with a booming New England accent and bluntness mixed with the swagger of a brother from New Haven.
So far, that swagger has changed a few things around his state.
Connecticut NAACP president Scot X. Esdaile ruptured the glass ceiling to become the first African-American chairman of the Connecticut Boxing Commission and removed legal barriers for combat sports in the state, but he won’t stop until Connecticut dominates boxing in the Northeast.
“I don’t know any boxing commissioner who’s doing what I’m doing,” Esdaile said.
Esdaile grew up in New Haven during the 1960s, and he said he often snuck into New Haven Coliseum as a teenager to watch the Sugar Ray Leonard and Larry Holmes fights on the big screen. He also admired Muhammad Ali for the way he fought in and out of the ring.
“I try to use a lot of his attributes as an activist in my own life,” Esdaile said.
During the 2000s, Esdaile traveled with former light heavyweight champion, and New Haven native, Chad Dawson and made connections throughout the industry until Senator Martin Looney asked him to join the Connecticut Boxing Commission in 2011. By 2016, Esdaile became its chairman.
“I wouldn’t be in the boxing commission if it wasn’t for Chad,” Esdaile said.
On December 12, 2016, Esdaile and Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim hosted a boxing retreat at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena for lawmakers to brainstorm ways to change the state’s boxing environment. By June 2017, Connecticut’s legislature passed Public Act No.17–116, which reduced the cost of health insurance and death benefits for boxing and mixed martial arts matches and removed the five percent gross receipt tax promoters had to pay under the prior law.
Esdaile then organized another retreat at Webster Bank Arena on September 13, 2017, where lawmakers, promoters, and media executives sat down to discuss the best ways to bolster the state’s boxing industry. During this meeting, Esdaile held the microphone by a podium in front of black tables where his peers were seated and repeated that he wanted to make Connecticut the “boxing capital of the Northeast Corridor” with “up to 15 fights a year.”
Last year, Connecticut venues scheduled only six professional fights according to Boxrec.com, but Joe DeGuardia, president and CEO of Star Boxing in New York, said Connecticut is in a “great position right now” during Esdaile’s second retreat. Smaller shows are the key to building a grassroots fan base and attracting more promoters moving to Connecticut, which would only help Esdaile achieve his goals.
“Sharks smell blood,” DeGuardia said. “Once you do a show, the competition will come.”
Esdaile said he has already reached out to big promotion companies including Roc Nation, who recently signed New Haven native and undefeated junior featherweight boxer Tramaine “The Mighty Midget” Williams, in the hopes of organizing professional fights Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. He said he wants Connecticut venues to compete with the Barclays and Madison Square Garden for wealthy Fairfield County residents.
Charlie Dowd, vice president of events and operations at Webster Bank Arena, said he is optimistic about Esdaile’s economic impact in Connecticut if they attract fans to events “that make sense dollar wise.”
“At the end of the day everyone wants to make money,” Dowd said. “Boxing can happen in Connecticut because Scot has been incredibly bullish on getting it done.”
Esdaile also has amateur boxing goals, including renewing Golden Gloves in the state and organizing a Connecticut Boxing Open Pro-Am tournament in New Haven. Vega, 35, from Hartford, won the junior Olympic national championship in 1997 and was ranked first in the country by USA Boxing. He said he would have benefitted from a chairman like Esdaile.
“If I had a Scot Esdaile…I probably would’ve turned professional,” Vega said.
But Esdaile still has obstacles to overcome. Connecticut’s casinos dominate combat sports in the state (they hosted all six pro fights last year). Esdaile said Kenneth Reels, vice-chairman of the Pequot Tribal Gaming Commission that oversees combat sports events at Foxwoods Casino, has been “very supportive.” Mike Mazzulli, director of the Mohegan Tribe’s Department of Athletic Regulation and president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, has been a different story, according to Esdaile. He said he was offended that Mazzulli organized the 29th Annual Association of Boxing Commissions Conference this year and didn’t invite him.
Mazzulli held the conference in Connecticut. Esdaile said when he confronted him about this, Mazzulli referred him to the association website.
“I’m not saying that I have to be invited, but you know I’m the chairman, it’s in my state, you don’t reach out to invite me?” Esdaile asked.
Mazzulli said the conference was open to the public “anyone can attend, and it’s not by invitation only,” but according to Esdaile, this example was only a “part of the conversation.” He also took issue with an October article in the Hartford Business Journal that covered the financial woes of mixed martial arts in Connecticut. The story mentioned H.B. 6266 (which became Public Act №17–116) and interviewed promoters interested in organizing fights in Connecticut, but it made no mention of Esdaile.
“It’s just the good ol’ boy network,” Esdaile said. “Those in power don’t like to recognize black men in power.”
John Stearns, the author of the story, said the piece was more focused on how Connecticut’s budget issues affected the industry, and he meant no intentional slight to Esdaile.
“Not every story can have every voice,” Stearns said.
New York City poses a financial obstacle because its venues still get the prime time fights in the Northeast. The Barclays Center hosted Adrien Broner vs. Mikey Garcia with Irish gold medalist Katie Taylor, who sometimes trains in Connecticut, fighting on the undercard in July of 2016.
“Are we going to host the heavyweight world championship here?” Dowd said. “Probably not.”
But Esdaile’s supporters still have faith. Jeffrey Dressler, 68, from Hartford, has been a ring announcer and education advocate in Hartford for 25 years. He said Esdaile has his finger on the pulse of Connecticut boxing and knows how to fill a venue. On October 20, Esdaile organized the Connecticut NAACP’s ninth annual “The Great Debate,” and filled Webster Bank Arena with 8,000 people, per the Connecticut Post. The venue’s max seating capacity is up to 10,000 people according to its website.
Esdaile said he has accomplished more in one year than previous chairmen have in 20, and he expects to achieve all of his goals in the next three to five years.
“I want to be the best boxing commissioner in the country,” Esdaile said. “Hands down.”