Rankings, Belts, Weight Classes and Mandatory Challengers: A Guide for the Casual Boxing Fan

WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF leave casual fight fans referring to the sweet science as “Alphabet Soup.” Add to these the dozens more obscure sanctioning bodies and multiply that by the number of weight classes – 17 total – and the number of belts, champions and challengers can be dizzying. Fans are left confused as to who is really the champion, why so often the two best fighters are never mandatory challengers for one another, and how all the various weight classes come into play.

A basic understanding boxing’s framework with regards to champions, weight classes, and mandatory challengers will assure any fight fan a more fulfilling (and less frustrating) experience following the sport.

There are so many sanctioning bodies, which ones really matter?

WBC, WBA, IBF, and WBO are the four largely recognized sanctioning bodies. Belts from the dozens of obscure sanctioning bodies across the world are considered more like trophies than recognition as the world’s champion.

However, as discussed below, the sanctioning bodies operate under a system that often precludes the best fighters from being challengers to one another. Accordingly, there is now a Ring Magazine belt. The goal of the Ring Magazine Belt is to identify the true champion in each given weight class, and to rank the others without restrictions. Nonetheless, Ring Magazine is not a traditional sanctioning body the likes of WBO, WBC, WBA, and IBF.

What are the Weight Classes? Why so many?

Like sharps and flats in music, most of boxing’s named weight classes have additional classes that are slightly heavier or lighter but carry the same name. For example, both WBC and IBF recognize 147-lb fighters as Welterweights and 160-lb fighters as Middleweights. However, there is a weight class in between that falls at 154lbs. WBC refers to this weight class as Super Welterweight, while IBF refers to the same weight as Junior Middleweight. Much like F# and Gb describe the exact same note (the note slightly higher than F and slightly lower than G), Super Welterweight and Junior Middleweight describe the exact same weight class (slightly heavier than Welterweight and slightly lighter than Middleweight). Here are all of the weight classes with their corresponding contract weights:

Strawweight/Minimumweight: 105 lbs

Junior Flyweight (WBO/IBF)/Light Flyweight (WBA/WBC): 108 lbs

Flyweight: 112 lbs

Super Flyweight (WBA/WBC)/Junior Bantamweight (WBO/IBF): 115 lbs

Bantamweight: 118 lbs

Super Bantamweight (WBA/WBC)/Junior Featherweight (WBO/IBF): 122 lbs

Featherweight: 126 lbs

Super Featherweight (WBA/WBC)/Junior Lightweight (WBO/IBF): 130 lbs

Lightweight: 135 lbs

Super Lightweight (WBA/WBC)/Junior Welterweight (WBO/IBF): 140 lbs

Welterweight: 147 lbs

Super Welterweight (WBA/WBC)/Junior Middleweight (WBO/IBF): 154 lbs

Middleweight: 160 lbs

Super Middleweight: 168 lbs

Light Heavyweight: 175 lbs

Cruiserweight (WBA/WBC/IBF)/Junior Heavyweight (WBO): 200 lbs

Heavyweight: > 200 lbs

As the sport has grown and evolved, more specific weight classes have been created in order to maximize competitiveness. Each weight class has a champion by each of the four major sanctioning bodies.

Fighters often put on weight or lose weight in order to move from one weight class to another. Manny Pacquiao holds the record having won titles in eight different weight classes.

How are rankings and mandatory challengers determined?

Each sanctioning body has their own specific methods, bylaws, etc. However, the general process is quite similar from one to the other.

The President appoints a committee that is made up of various professionals within the sport, and the committee must include members from each continent because it’s an international sport,” says WBO President Francisco “Paco” Varcarcel. “The committee ranks fighters by their record, amateur career, caliber of opponents faced, amount of fights, and recent activity. When it’s really close, they order an elimination bout.”

There is another committee called the championship committee,” Varcarcel explains. “This committee determines, amongst the fighters ranked by the general committee, who is the mandatory challenger to the current belt-holder.”

The WBC has a Ratings Committee which is formed by 22 members from many different parts of the world,” says WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman. “There is a procedure which is followed every month to have the official ratings after such process. There is also a rating appeals committee which resolves any appeal received by any party.”

What happens if a boxer refuses to fight a mandatory challenger (or if his promoter refuses to make the fight)?

Once one accepts the fact that two people can never be forced to fight one another, one must wonder what kind of teeth a mandatory challenger recognition has against a belt holder who refuses to fight a mandatory challenger.

World champions and challengers who refuse to participate in a mandatory bout lose any recognition from the WBA,” says WBA President Gilberto Mendoza. “However they are entitled to request special permits in order make rules flexible according to the scenario. It will be subject -in the case of WBA- to the championship committee.”

We can´t force the will of the parties to box or negotiate,” Mendoza continues. “We do have purse bid rules, also the special permits but at a certain point we must apply the rules by stripping a champion or not recognizing a mandatory challenger. The toughest part is that the fans are screaming for these bouts. There should be a mutual agreement between sanctioning bodies and promoters. For the WBA this is a pending task.”

Why are the two best fighters in any given weight class not always mandatory challengers to one another? If Vitali Klitschko and Wladimir Klitschko were the two best Heavyweights for so many years before Vitali’s retirement, how was one never mandatory for the other? What about the elusive Mayweather vs. Pacquiao dream bout? How was one never a mandatory challenger for the other?

A champion in one sanctioning body cannot be a challenger in another” explains Varcarcel. “This explains why so often two of the best fighters in any given weight class are not mandatory challengers to the other.”

The now-infamous Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, the dream bout that never was, cannot be ordered by any of the sanctioning bodies for this very reason.

Paquiao was rated number one by the WBC after his comeback win against Rios,” Sulaiman explains. “However, he decided to fight Bradley for another organization title [WBO] instead of pursuing the fight against Mayweather.”

Manny Pacquiao indeed won that championship bout against Timothy Bradley. Accordingly, he is now WBO Welterweight Champion and thus precluded from being a mandatory challenger to Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s WBA or WBC belt.

In the matter of the Klitschko brothers, there has been a more personal reason to never make these elite heavyweights mandatory challengers to one another.

While sanctioning bodies in their rules do not refer to this matter, it is an old custom that local boxing commissions forbid brothers from boxing against each other,” says Mendoza. “At WBA’s discretion this bout would not be approved.”

The Ring Magazine rankings are often relied on as a rankings system that ranks all fighters without regard as to whether any one fighter is already champion in one of the major four sanctioning bodies. However, the Ring belt does not have mandatory challengers, and thus cannot order any particular matchups. Rather, every fight a Ring Champion fights is ultimately for the Ring Championship.

This general framework of boxing’s weight classes, rankings and mandatory challenger rules should make the sport more enjoyable to follow and less frustrating to understand for the casual fan.


Bill Barner is a former certified “USA Boxing” Judge, Referee, and Trainer. He is a former sparring partner for several amateur and professional fighters and currently practices criminal and immigration law in South Florida for BarnerRossen PA. He has appeared in The Ring Magazine, Bleacher Report, VOICE Magazine, Youngstown Vindicator, and is a regular contributor to East Side Boxing. He can be reached at barner@barnerrossen.com or on twitter @BarnerBill.