Which heavyweight alphabet title is most credible in recent times?

by Geoffrey Ciani - After heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe dumped the WBC title into a garbage can it took approximately six years before we had another undisputed champ. Of course, that was when Lennox Lewis defeated Evander Holyfield for the “second” time (when the judges finally scored it right). This represented the last time a heavyweight successfully unified the WBC, IBF, and WBA titles. Lewis was subsequently stripped of his WBA title for the “sin” of facing Michael Grant, before he ever had the chance to defend all three titles.

Since that time, the WBO organization has become more or less recognized as a fourth major sanctioning body. This only further complicates matters. Which title is “most legit”? One way to delve into this is to explore the recent chronology of alphabet soup and consider the corresponding popular opinion of the time.. Lennox Lewis was hands down viewed as the best heavyweight in the world for his long reign. He did, of course, have one little hiccup when he may have overlooked Hasim Rahman in South Africa, but he avenged that loss in devastating fashion, hence redeeming himself.

Lewis was stripped of the WBA title almost as soon as he won it. The WBA required that he fight their number one contender, which was John Ruiz due to an illness suffered by Henry Akinwande. Instead Lewis squared off against Michael Grant, who at the time, was widely viewed as a consensus top three fighter alongside Lewis and Holyfield. Lewis versus Grant was the most logical fight at the time. After all, Lewis had already twice bested Holyfield despite having to settle for a terribly scored draw in their first encounter. Ruiz was considered a non-factor. He was the guy who had been bludgeoned by David Tua in a mere 19 seconds. Lewis did the right thing facing Grant. Meanwhile, Ruiz and Holyfield entered a rather forgettable trilogy for the WBA throne.

Before we start looking at the belts on a one-by-one basis, let’s first establish a chronology for the lineage of who was considered “the best”. Lennox Lewis held this distinction for as long as he fought. The last time he fought was in June 2003 or about three and a half years after he unified the titles. That was when he beat Vitali Klitschko. When Klitschko pummeled Kirk Johnson in December of that year Lewis announced his retirement shortly after. Combined with Klitshcko’s heroic efforts in his fight with Lewis, this acted as a symbolic passing of the torch. Vitali Klitschko was the man until he retired after suffering a series of injuries in preparations for fights against Hasim Rahman. That was around December 2005.

This is where it gets tricky. Although Klitschko was considered the best in the immediate post-Lewis era, there was a significant dissenting faction who believed that distinction belonged to Chris Byrd. Two and a half months prior to Vitali’s retirement, his younger brother Wladimir had re-established himself as a real player with a brave effort against Samuel Peter in a fight which Wlad came off of the canvas three times and scored a victory. When Wladimir annihilated Chris Byrd close to five months after his brother’s retirement, he rightfully assumed the mantle. Since that time, he has further solidified his position as the heavyweight’s ‘top dog’.

That leaves us with a simple list that looks something like this:

Popular Opinion

1. Lennox Lewis (November 1999—December 2003)
2. Vitali Klitschko (Dececember 2003—December 2005)
3. Wladimir Klitschko (April 2006—PRESENT)

Or alternatively, you could say:

1. Lennox Lewis (November 1999—April 2001)
2. Hasim Rahman (April 2001—November 2001)
3. Lennox Lewis (November 2001—December 2003)
4. Vitali Klitschko (Dececember 2003—December 2005)
5. Wladimir Klitschko (April 2006—PRESENT)

For our purposes, we will use the top list as the frame of reference. The only true gap in our sequence (December 2005—April 2006) is insignificant to our evaluation. We can simply examine the recent history of our reference list above and compare it with each individual belt holder starting after the point Lewis was stripped of the WBA:

WBA Heavyweight Champion:

—Evander Holyfield (August 200—March 2001)
—John Ruiz (Marc h2001—March 2003)
—Roy Jones Junior (Marc h2003—Fenbruary 2004)
—John Ruiz (February 2004—December 2005)
—Nicolai Valuev (December 2005—April 2007)
—Ruslan Chagaev (April 2007—August 2008)
—Nicolai Valuev (August 2008—November 2009)
—David Haye (November 2009—PRESENT)

Observation—The WBA champion was never considered the best heavyweight at any given time. As mentioned earlier, despite being stripped of the WBA, Lewis never lost that belt in the ring and probably would never have lost it were it not for politics.

IBF Heavyweight Champion:

—Lennox Lewis (November 1999—April 2001)
—Hasim Rahman (April 2001—November 2001)
—Lennox Lewis (November 2001—September 2002)
—Chris Byrd (December 2002—April 2006)
—Wladimir Klitschko (April 2006—PRESENT)

Observation—The IBF is looking pretty strong here. If you include the separate reigns of Lewis and Wladimir, the IBF belt has corresponded with the “right guy” for stretches of approximately 18 months, 11 months, and a 51 months. That’s close to six years. Furthermore, an argument can be made that Rahman was the best in his brief reign after he bested Lewis which would put us over six years. You can also make a case for Chris Byrd being better than Vitali during the period December 2003—December 2005.

WBC Heavyweight Champion:

—Lennox Lewis (*November 1999—April 2001)
—Hasim Rahman (April 2001—November 2001)
—Lennox Lewis (November 2001—February 2004)
—Vitali Klitschko (April 2004—November 2005)
—Hasim Rahman (November 2005—August 2006)
—Oleg Maskaev (August 2006—March 2008)
—Sam Peter (March 2008—October 2008)
—Vitali Klitschko (October 2008—PRESENT)

* Lewis was actually WBC Champ since February 1997, but for our purposes, we’re looking starting with Lewis’s successful unification of the “big three”

Observation—The WBC has a decent standing, too. Reigns of approximately 18 months, 28 months, and 20 months constitute around five and a half years or so. The same argument being made for Rahman in his IBF reign can be made for his first reign as WBC champ.

WBO Heavyweight Champion:

—Vitali Klitschko (*November 1999—April 2000)
—Chris Byrd (April 2000—October 2000)
—Wladimir Klitschko (October 2000—March 2003)
—Corrie Sanders (March 2003—December 2003)
—Lamon Brewster (April 2004—April 2006)
—Serguei Lyakhovich (April 2006—November 2006)
—Shannon Briggs (November 2006—June 2007)
—Sultan Ibragimov (June 2007—February 2008)
—Wladimir Klitschko (February 2008—PRESENT)

* Vitali Klitschko was actually WBO Champ since June 1999, but for our purposes, we’re looking starting with Lewis’s successful unification of the “big three”

Observation—This organization only recently became a “true” representation of the top guy when Wladimir Klitschko successfully unified against Sultan Ibragimov.

In conclusion, if we were to come up with a list based on the validity of the “big four” sanctioning organizations, it seems fair that the list should look something like this:

1. IBF
2. WBC
3. WBO
4. WBA

Of course, this is by no means an exact science and in the grand scheme of things these are entirely meaningless observations. Die hard fans these days are aware of the fact that the alphabet title does not necessarily make one a “true” champion. Real fans are too smart for that. There are objective means with which to gauge championship caliber. Most reasonable observers adhere to the list which included three men since November 1999—Lennox Lewis, Vitali Klitschko, and Wladimir Klitschko with Hasim Rahman deservedly being in the mix somewhere for his brief stint following his knockout victory of Lewis.

The shame in this is the alphabet titles represent a major point of confusion and frustration amongst casual fans. They do not keep up with all of the switching of hands of these various titles. They long for a day with fewer weight classes and one title per division—the way it should be. Seemingly simple changes like this would sure go a long way towards attracting more fans to the sport.


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Article posted on 09.06.2010

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