Too Many Boxing Titles

shane mosley06.07.07 - By Scott Crouse: Founder and former editor of Ring magazine, Nat Fleischer, once told a story related to him by James J. Corbett which illustrated the tremendous popularity of the heavyweight champion of the world. Corbett said he was scheduled to appear on stage in a vaudeville show in Hamilton, Ohio and ended up lodging at the same hotel as President McKinley who was there for a speaking engagement. When the President heard that Corbett was at the hotel he invited the champ to his room and after chatting awhile they walked together to the lobby on their way to their respective assignments.

A large crowd had gathered and was shouting choruses of “Corbett, Corbett” as the two dignitaries walked by. Corbett overheard some people in the crowd wondering who the gentleman was walking with the champ, and they agreed it must be his sparring partner, Con McVey. President McKinley took it all good-naturedly and said to Corbett as they were about to part: “We live and learn Mr. Corbett. I never before realized how much more popular a champion boxer is than the President!”

If the same situation were to occur today, I believe the very opposite would happen. The crowd would undoubtedly recognize the President and figure the large gentleman next to him was just another bodyguard, having no idea he was a boxer, much less the heavyweight champion of the world. Even if the champ was wearing shorts, boxing gloves, and holding his championship belt over his head the crowd would assume it was merely an entertaining publicity stunt along the lines of, “Together, we’re going to fight to lower the crime rate”; or, “I’ll be your champion of economic growth and prosperity.”

What has happened in the intervening century to bring about such a dramatic and depressing reversal? Since the answer, historically speaking, is too long and complex to be dealt with in an article of this length and because I don‘t need an acute case of carpal tunnel syndrome, let me seek to answer a related but easier question: “Why is boxing in such a state of decline?” (And if you don’t believe it is in decline, then try asking your friends or relatives to name three current professional boxers--and no, Rocky Balboa doesn’t count).

There are a variety of reasons why the numbers of boxing fans are decreasing. However, the foremost reason that I believe accounts for the large degree of disinterest today is that there are simply too many titles and champions. The average fan has lost the ability as well as the inclination to recognize and identify them and this has created an impassable chasm between sport and sports fan.

In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace entreats a reluctant Robert the Bruce to join him with these words: “Your title gives you right to the throne of Scotland, but men don’t follow titles, they follow courage.” As much as that might have applied to the quest for leadership in thirteenth-century Scotland, it applies as well today in the sport of boxing which is chock full of titles, but essentially leaderless and running out of true followers. Boxing fans, frustrated with too many titles and too few recognizable stars, are tuning out and turning away. The courage which Wallace spoke of is still plentiful, and in my opinion, unequaled in any other sport. The problem is that it’s just spread too thinly among a plethora of titles and champions.

The exponential increase of titles and title-holders, created by the various sanctioning bodies like the WBA, WBC, and IBF, is suffocating the sport by generating a prevailing attitude of confusion and indifference among fans. In my opinion, these organizations have almost single-handedly destroyed the sport of boxing with their practices and with their propensity for the insanely stupid. In my view, they care about pleasing the fans about as much as the IRS cares about customer satisfaction. Clearly the most destructive influence they’ve had, as far as fan disinterest, has been to minimize championship merit by maximizing championship status by awarding far too many fighters a little trinket they like to call a championship belt. With more titles than shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day, fans have become confused, detached, and worst of all, apathetic to the sweet science. Almost every other sport has an identifiable champion or leader, someone universally recognized as the best. But in boxing asking the question, “Who’s the champ?” is as absurd as visiting the Playboy mansion and asking, “Who’s the blonde?”

At the end of the season there is only one MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL champion. Only one champion is crowned in the Boston Marathon, Kentucky Derby, Tour de France, and Bassmaster Classic. You don’t have multiple champions at Wimbledon, Daytona, or Augusta. There aren’t multiple winners on American Idol or Survivor. Fans of any sport or competition simply want someone to stand out and rise above the rest; someone they can identify as the best and call the champ. Even at the Westminster Dog Show there is awarded “Best in Show”--not three or four trophies for every breed of dog that enters.

Going back fifty years to 1957, consider that there were a modest total of only eight world champions from heavyweight to flyweight. Not only were fans able to identify the world champions but many of the contenders as well. Moving forward twenty years to1977, the number of world champions had increased to twenty. This was mostly due to the advent of the World Boxing Council in 1963 which, combined with the World Boxing Association (formerly the National Boxing Association until changing its name and global focus in 1962), now created two champions in most divisions. However, when we come to 2007, with the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization long since added to this alphabetical quagmire there are, by my latest count, a mind-numbing total of sixty individuals who are recognized as world champions!

In the past, like the aforementioned 1957, everyone knew who the middleweight or lightweight champion of the world was. Today, even the most dedicated boxing fans are hard-pressed to name every titleholder in a given weight division. As was illustrated in the opening story, until recently the heavyweight champion of the world was one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet. Today, one of the heavyweight titleholders could be standing next to you and he would be about as recognizable as last year’s final pick in the NFL draft.

Owning a title has become like owning a Hummer—it used to be special, but now that everyone has one, who cares? The irrelevance of world titles can be demonstrated by considering this: Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, Ricky Hatton, and Manny Pacquiao—four of the biggest names in boxing—do not own world titles (as recognized by one of the alphabetical title-bestowers ). Now consider that Ruslan Chagaev, Zsolt Erdei, Alejandro Berrio and Stipe Drews do own world titles. No wonder boxing’s more screwed up than Britney Spears.

The resultant mess from championship belts being distributed more liberally than promises at a political pep rally is apparent. It begins by diluting the talent pool within each of the divisions. If there are four world champions who represent four sanctioning bodies, then there are four sets of ratings with four sets of contenders. This creates too many “contenders” and significantly diminishes the talent within each division.

This contender-crisis creates undeserving challengers for each of these titles. Fighters who otherwise might never make it into a legitimate top ten are given number-one status by a particular alphabet organization and a shot at their title (paying exorbitant sanctioning fees to these organizations doesn’t hurt either). Titles are then won by unknown and undeserving fighters. This is to take nothing away from the fighters themselves, but this situation allows fighters to win titles who might never have even been ranked otherwise. It also makes more likely the potential for mismatches and uncompetitive fights, as well as provides title-holders the excuse to avoid the best fighters in their division.

This ultimately leads to a major identity crisis among boxing’s lengthy list of world champions. After all, when there are sixty world champions how can even the most hardcore fan know who they are? One is more likely to know the names of the Lighting Director and Key Grip in Rocky V than the names of all four titleholders in any given division.

Winning a world title is supposed to be special. It is supposed to distinguish between the elite and the non-elite. It is supposed to set one apart from the others as the very best. But when everyone owns a title, then who can legitimately claim to be the best? And the sad reality is if everyone is a world champion, then no one is a world champion.

Boxing as a sport, if nothing else, is a survivor. It has survived its share of scandals and scoundrels, riots and racism, mobsters and mismatches, fixes and Fan-Man. But right now the greatest enemy to its survival is the fact that it has sixty or more individuals who call themselves world champions—the best. Let’s not kid ourselves. Boxing, in one form or another, has been around since people were drawing pictures of woolly mammoths on cave walls and getting their boxing news on stone tablets. It’s really not a matter of whether it will survive, but whether it can thrive. For boxing to capture the attention of audiences like it once did and garner the type of devotion it used to it needs to give fans identifiable heroes. A champion needs to be someone who has earned the right to be called the very best, not just someone who owns a title. After all, men don’t follow titles...

Article posted on 06.07.2007

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