Believe it or not, there are a total of 102 recognized ‘world’ championships in existence in professional boxing today. Discounting the 34 champions which may be of an “interim,” “youth,” or “regular” status, and the six world title straps which are currently vacant, and that makes an even 62 pugilists who possess what most boxing fans would regard as a potentially legitimate claim to a world championship belt. That’s right: 62 world champions. Needless to say, this is absurd, not to mention chaotic.
Now let’s take a step back. With the 62 active world champions in the world today, only four of them are recognized by The Ring, the venerable boxing magazine which has been awarding its own title belts to lineal champions for many decades. Their designation as champion has long been recognized as the highest honor a fighter can achieve in his respective division. Similarly, the Transnational Boxing Rankings panel at the moment recognizes five world champions. In other words, less than ten percent of the supposed world titles in existence are currently held by boxers who are widely recognized as being legit champions.
But to further illustrate the totally preposterous nature of this situation, let’s cast aside the idea that The Ring or any other non-partisan recognition is desirable. For argument’s sake, let’s instead adopt the position that the true champions in boxing are those that can, somehow, simultaneously satisfy all four widely recognized “alphabet” sanctioning bodies (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO) by unifying all four titles. By that standard, there have only been three true world champions in the last 13 years! Those being Oleksandr Usyk, Terence Crawford, and Jermain Taylor.
Now, just for perspective, let’s turn the clock back 78 years when Henry Armstrong stepped into the ring in Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles to challenge Ceferino Garcia for his fourth world title, that being four out of only eight world championships that existed at that time. Weight divisions have since evolved to encompass 17 different categories, from strawweight to heavyweight. But can we argue that boxing has evolved in any positive way when we now take for granted that a fighter who holds a title belt and a “world championship” of some stripe is really just a mere titlist?
When Armstrong was competing, and when he actually held three world titles at once, the whole notion of being a world champion was vastly different from today. It was regarded as a rare and special feat and accomplished fighters such as Charley Burley, Lew Tendler or Billy Petrolle, just to name a few, who never held aloft a championship belt were still big draws and held in high regard by fight fans.
When did things change? Well, the first modern sanctioning body which is still in existence today was born in 1962 when the National Boxing Association changed its name to the World Boxing Association in an attempt to encourage more international participation. It’s interesting to note that at that time the NBA stated it would not attempt to appoint its own title bout officials or impose its will on championship fights, and would not collect purse bids or sanctioning fees.
Given the situation today and all that has happened since, it is almost comical to think about the NBA’s original promise. For example, in 1995, Mike Tyson, who had been inactive for four years due to his being incarcerated, found himself ranked as the number one contender by the WBC immediately upon his release from prison. In 2000, Bob Arum admitted to paying IBF president Bob Lee $100,000 to sanction a fight between George Foreman and Axel Schulz, an unheralded fighter who had done little to deserve a title shot. And more recently, the WBO and WBA continued to rank Darrin Morris and Ali Raymi in their respective divisional ratings while each was in fact deceased.
It’s clear that champions are not always anything more than titlists with a belt to state the contrary. Take Adrien Broner, for example. While he barely prevailed in decision wins over fringe contender Adrien Granados and a blown-up featherweight in Daniel Ponce de Leon, he can boast with a straight face about being one of boxing’s 17 four-division world champions, alongside Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Thomas Hearns and Floyd Mayweather. All it took were victories over journeyman Paulie Malignaggi and Argentinean unknown Vicente Martin Rodriguez to earn half of that distinction, while the fact that Broner is 0-3 in the three biggest fights of his career doesn’t even need to be mentioned.
That said, while Broner has at least showcased some legit talent over the years, other titlists have not. Perhaps the sport’s most embarrassing example of a world “champion” is current WBA regular heavyweight titlist Manuel Charr, who was stopped by cruiserweight Mairis Breidis just a year before he won the title. The fact that boxers of the level of Charr can call themselves world champions in this day and age is a true black eye to the sport, as well as a slap in the face to the great champions of the past.
Fighters have long suffered the effects of sanctioning body hypocrisy, as witnessed when Terence Crawford was forced to vacate his hard-earned IBF title for refusing to defend against the inexperienced Sergey Lipinets. Or years earlier when Sergio Martinez reigned as the recognized middleweight champion of the world and the Argentinian saw his WBC belt slide out from under him when he refused to fight unproven mandatory Sebastian Zbik and the latter then fought Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. for the “vacant” WBC crown. By the time Martinez regained from Chavez the title that he never should have lost, the gross disparity in class made us wonder anew if being a sanctioning body champ was any kind of accomplishment, especially given the sanctioning fees and fairy-dust mandatories involved.
So with these 102 titles floating around, why, at least to some, are they still such valued entities? For one thing, boxers and their managers and promoters still use them as ground for leverage in negotiating fight contracts. While the champion is not always entitled to the lion’s share of the purse, there’s power in numbers when it comes to the amount of alphabet straps around your waist.
Further, depending on a boxer’s promotional and network support, certain titles can be more convenient, and thus profitable, to hold than others. For example, Keith Thurman and Mikey Garcia, both Al Haymon-advised Showtime fighters, have been able to sit on their respective WBC titles for over a year without making a single title defense, while Terence Crawford wasn’t even given so much as breathing room before the IBF imposed their will on him. Similarly, Adonis Stevenson has been able to sit on his WBC title for years without facing a single mandatory.
Historically, fighters involved with Don King have been known to receive political favors from José Sulaimán and the WBC, most notably Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez. A particularly infamous situation regarding sanctioning body politics ensued when Pernell Whitaker had to settle for a bogus draw against Chavez after two of the three judges were appointed by the WBC. Whitaker’s trainer Lou Duva claimed that after the fight, WBC officials approached him saying “What are you complaining about? This is the perfect result. Everyone wins.”
Unfortunately for the boxing world, nobody really wins in these situations except for the powers-that-be. The same kind of greed and politics which plagued the much anticipated Whitaker vs Chavez affair still largely dictates the state of affairs in the sport today, with no oversight in place to stop it. However, while boxing is forced to live with this clear and ever-present deficiency, the World Boxing Super Series is now helping to make unification matches more likely and put some much-needed pressure on the four main alphabet kingpins.
Of course it would be ideal if these so-called sanctioning bodies allowed champions to unify freely without the fear of being stripped for not facing dubious mandatories, especially mandatories which bring no value to a fighter’s record or to the sport at large. The ideal outcome would be for all four to come together to create one unified entity that can bring boxing back to its roots, back when each division had one, recognized champion, and there were no bogus “titlists” to be found anywhere.
Will that ever happen? Not as long as there are boxers and managers and promoters willing to play the “titlist” game in order to hype so-called “championship” fights and in the process sell more tickets and acquire more bargaining power. And at this rate, it won’t be long before every top ten contender in every division will have a “world title” belt of some kind or other, a development that might force boxing to trash the whole enterprise and start over fresh. Which, when you think about it, may not be such a bad idea! — Alden Chodash