Who Are The Real Champs?

27.07.06 - By Mark Law: Here in 2006, it’s no easy task to decipher who is a genuine champion in the chaotic, almost unfathomable world of alphabet belts. If anyone is lucky enough to pick up a back issue of “The Ring” from, say, 1954 and flick through to the ratings page, it’s a delight to see only eight weight divisions with one champion in each. It’s nearly too perfect to comprehend! Was it really like that back then? Now it’s like we have eight champions per weight class, never mind only eight divisions!

There are so many alphabet titles floating around out there it’s unbelievable. And naturally, just about anybody can win one because the talent is spread so thin. New alphabet configurations seem to keep cropping up regularly what with the inter-continental titles, the international titles, the WBA, the IBF, the IBC, the JFK, the XYZ, and on and on and on. Will it ever end? It’s difficult to find a boxer without some sort of belt to put on the line each time he steps into the ring. Soon we will reach the stage when there are more titles than active fighters, and the sanctioning groups will have to wait for someone to turn pro so they can fill a vacancy. Maybe an application for a boxing licence will come with a free alphabet belt.

But who benefits from this ridiculous mess? Surely not the boxing fan. No one I know can even tolerate the existence of the alphabets groups, dismissing them as a joke and paying no attention to whatever title is supposedly at stake. However, there are genuine world champions currently entertaining us; Jermain Taylor at middleweight for example. His claim as ruler of the 160 lb division is undeniable. He beat Bernard Hopkins, who beat everybody. Case closed. But how do we know who is a real champ and who is a pretender? Who do we follow? We could choose just one of the alphabet groups to abide by, say for example the WBA, but that could be an exercise in futility because before long someone will win a WBA title after already failing in attempts to win the WBO and IBF titles. And we all know these alphabet belts are increasingly meaningless anyway, and not only because of some of the mediocre boxers who are able to win them, but also because some stars, such as Floyd Mayweather, win them and then freely discard them like an out-of-date carton of milk. In addition to that, becoming a so-called “world champion” is no longer a ticket to boxing immortality. Does anyone remember Aaron Davis, or Rene Jacquot, or Robert Daniels, who are among countless others who are swiftly lost in the mists of time once their reigns are over. John Mugabi is more famous for his loss to Marvin Hagler than he is for holding the WBC super-welterweight crown.

Maybe we should just give in and go with the flow. We could drop any sense of defiance and just accept the situation as it is. But if we do that we leave ourselves open to an eternity of whimsical title-strippings, absurd ratings, pointless mismatches masquerading as “world championship” fights and all the other shenanigans the sanctioning bodies indulge in. Plus there are those glossy, sugar-coated press releases they issue in which they portray themselves as saviours of the universe and how they only have our best interests at heart. Gimme a break!

I have often wondered why the boxers themselves are willing to go for these alphabet belts. I know that if I were a boxer I certainly wouldn’t want to hand over any of my hard-earned purse money in sanctioning fees. I’m the one in the ring busting my butt and I have to pay them for the privilege of carrying a cheap plastic belt into the ring with me! But would I be any better off as far as my status is concerned? Let’s take a look at the career of Tim Austin, who held the IBF bantamweight crown. Did holding that crown benefit him? Can anyone remember whom he defended it against? It could be argued that Austin would have got nowhere without IBF recognition, which could have been the factor in him gaining TV dates and more money. But simultaneously he was part of Don King’s huge stable and never really seemed to get any attention. There were extended periods of inactivity and when he did fight, he merely toiled away on undercards without much notice. He certainly had talent and could have really made his mark on the bantamweight division, but now thoughts of “What could have been?” spring to mind. Who’s fault is that? King’s? Austin’s? What about the IBF, who kept him defending against forgettable no-hopers for chump change? What if Austin just chucked his IBF belt and went after Johnny Tapia or Paulie Ayala? He could have achieved much more.

Another example is Lennox Lewis. After winning his rematch with Evander Holyfield, he held the WBC, WBA and IBF titles. He was subsequently stripped of the WBA title (what a surprise!) and tossed away his IBF title when he couldn’t be bothered to face Chris Byrd. Did being left with only the WBC title diminish his standing in any way? Of course not. He was still Lennox Lewis, the real heavyweight champion of the world, and it was beating Holyfield that pushed him to the upper echelon of the sport, not whichever three-letter formation he happened to be adorned with.

Maybe Charley Burley would have benefited from the opportunity of winning an alphabet belt. This supremely talented contender was sadly frozen out of the world title picture back in the 1940’s when there was only one world champion, whereas now he would have at least six or seven champs to choose from. Maybe he would have been grateful for being a WBF or WBC titleholder, but I think that Charley had a bit more integrity and would not have been content with that. Would he not have preferred to be a true, proper WORLD champion?

So if the alphabet situation is unsatisfactory, what’s the alternative? Well, “The Ring” magazine has a policy of recognizing one genuine world champion per division and this attempt at bringing some sort of order to the sport should be admired. After all, at least they are doing something.

Their policy was introduced in 2002 but so far has not been universally endorsed. This is not really a surprise because would a champion feel like a champion by having recognition from a magazine? And for their policy to gain total acceptance, it would mean other magazines, such as “Boxing Digest” and the UK’s “Boxing Monthly”, in other words their competitors, to support them, not to mention TV stations, newspapers and websites. Also, is “The Ring” sold worldwide? What about countries were it is not sold?

On the flipside, “The Ring” is not just a magazine, it’s almost an institution (though it doesn’t have as much influence as it once did), and has been in existence far longer than any of the alphabet groups, and therefore has been naming and recognizing world champions for far longer too. Plus, they charge no sanctioning fees, so from a historical and financial perspective, it’s not so bad being one of their champions. We can also throw in the bonuses of not being bullied into meaningless mandatories and not just anyone gets one of their belts; they have to be earned by beating one of the best.

It could be argued that “The Ring” is adopting a haughty attitude in proclaiming who is the rightful champ, as in “who are they to do that”? But do they have any less right than a bunch of guys in suits who decide to call themselves the World Boxing Gang/Club/Committee/Dictatorship or whatever.

It’s all so confusing! And it’s the boxing fan that suffers because we don’t know what’s going on. So what’s the answer? Most of us prefer one champ per division so why don’t we have it? What can we do? Unification in every division ain’t gonna happen so I guess we just have to wait for the boxers, promoters, TV companies etc. to realize that nobody cares if the WB-something-or-other’s international mini-junior-super-duper featherweight title is on the line. If nobody fights for an alphabet belt because nobody’s interested, the alphabets groups will have no choice but to go away and leave us alone. Wouldn’t that be nice? It could be a long wait, but isn’t patience a virtue? In the meantime, at least knowledgeable boxing fans know who the real champs are. As previously mentioned, Jermain Taylor is the true middleweight champion of the world, whereas Arthur Abraham is not. See? They can’t fool us!

Article posted on 28.07.2006

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