by Cliff Rold
It’s been a little more than a decade since “The Ring” elected to begin handing out belts to men deemed to have validated their place as the legitimate World Champions of their class. The hope was clearly to add clarity to a title scene in boxing that had become laughable and restore some dignity to the label of champion.
Let’s be honest: it never had the effect hoped for.
In the last ten years, sanctioning bodies have become more brazen. The WBA regularly has three men in a single division claiming their world titles. The WBC introduced Silver and Diamond belts while allowing name fighters to claim vacant belts under all sorts of absurd circumstances.
Manny Pacquiao debuting at Jr. Middleweight at a catchweight against an Antonio Margarito with no chops at 154 lbs.? Belt it. Canelo Alvarez is fighting a Welterweight from the same gene pool as Ricky Hatton? Belt that too.
Jorge Arce versus Angky Angkota in any weight class? Apparently, it’s a license to break out the vacant WBO straps.
It’s a joke until one stops to recognize, and accept, what sanctioning bodies really are.
Sanctioning bodies are businesses. They follow the money. The money comes before protecting the integrity of titles. The money comes before transparency. The money comes before what would otherwise be logic.
Money is the champion of the sanctioning bodies.
“The Ring” belt was offered as an alternative. ESPN strongly, and until the magazine was purchased by Golden Boy Promotions HBO occasionally, played the part of advocate. Purists who had kept an eye on the lineage of the titles dating back to before fights were filmed largely welcomed the chance to line up a brand with their bookkeeping.
Championships, in principle, should be won and lost in the ring. This was an alternative that wouldn’t see random strippings of the sort that nearly put the WBC out of business (see Jones, Roy and Rochigianni, Graciano) while honoring the reigns of men like Lennox Lewis even after undisputed became one or two belts less.
Last week, “The Ring” elected to embrace new rules for filling their vacant titles. The new rules read as follows:
NEW CHAMPIONSHIP POLICY
Championship vacancies can be filled in the following two ways:
1. THE RING’s Nos. 1 and 2 contenders fight one another.
2. If the Nos. 1 and 2 contenders choose not to fight one another and either of them fights No. 3, No. 4 or No. 5, the winner may be awarded THE RING belt.
THE RING also wants to encourage its champions to face worthy opponents. With that in mind, here are the six situations in which a champion may lose his belt:
1. The Champion loses a fight in the weight class in which he is champion.
2. The Champion moves to another weight class.
3. The Champion does not schedule a fight in any weight class for 18 months.
4. The Champion does not schedule a fight at his championship weight for 18 months (even if he fights at another weight).
5. The Champion does not schedule a fight with a Top-5 contender from any weight class for two years.
6. The Champion retires.
Some of these changes are reasonable. If a champion isn’t fighting in his weight class for a long period of time, they aren’t really the champion anymore. Establishing a timetable for vacancy is fair. A purist can point to men like Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson who sat on titles for years at the end of their careers. Jack Dempsey once went about three years without an official fight as champion.
In an era where top fighters are busy at three fights a year, non-title fights are almost nil, and exhibitions are no longer a source of income, freezing titles for more than a year and a half is counter to what’s best for the sport. Recognizing a new “man” in class, if that “man” earns it, isn’t a problem. It’s a solution.
Where the biggest sticking point lies is in making it easier to fill vacancies. If there is no value in ratings, then just line up the ten best alphabetically. “The Ring” making it possible for a number two to face a number five and be declared a World Champion is antithetical to the notion of crowning legitimate, strong Champions.
It is on this sticking point that this scribe elected no longer to participate in the Ring’s Ratings Advisory Panel. Others who had been contributing chose the same path. It’s not a wholesale condemnation of current editors. After some growing pains, they have done a fine job of modernizing their print edition and establishing a web footprint long needed for boxing’s oldest publication.
This is instead purely a purist’s reaction to approach.
It also isn’t the first time there have been criticisms of Ring’s title policy from this corner. Many will point to editorial changes at “The Ring” as the catalyst for the 2-5 problem. In so much as the new approach is a philosophical derivative of current editors Mike Rosenthal and Doug Fischer, it’s a fair point.
However, to pretend the previous regime was a purist panacea is simply not true. “The Ring” made plenty of poor choices both at the beginning of the title policy and throughout it’s implementation under Nigel Collins as Editor-in-Chief.
Ring abandoned pieces of their own history in starting their new title lines. Break out an issue of Ring from early 1984 and one will find Eusebio Pedroza recognized as Featherweight king and Sot Chitalada as Flyweight king. Ring stopped recognizing champions in the early 1990s but those lines never broke.
Draw a straight line from those men to the return to Ring handing out belts to ‘real world champions,’ and one finds Naseem Hamed and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam in perfect succession to Pedroza and Chitalada.
“The Ring” chose to overlook their claims. Ironically, their belts ended up backing into the correct lineage anyways, but that doesn’t omit the initial flaw.
Paraphrasing, the argument made at the time was that things had been too broken up over the years, but there was nothing broken there at all. One can wonder if they were trying to avoid the then still-relevant argument about Roy Jones and Dariusz Michalczewski as regarded the lineal Light Heavyweight title but nothing more than the original dictum and forward course were ever soundly offered.
To make it worse, discussion with Ring staff members over the years made clear they recognized the already established history. It compromised not only the initial soundness of the policy but also their pages. There was nary a mention of the split history in their pages. When Manny Pacquiao became the first fighter to win lineal titles in four weight divisions, the accomplishment was well celebrated at ESPN, USA Today, Yahoo, and here at this site.
Ring chose largely to point out Pacquiao had won three Ring belts instead. It was strictly true, but the “Bible of Boxing” was treating the larger historical accomplishment as Gnostic gospel. It was an intellectually dishonest presentation of context.
Writing for MaxBoxing in 2008, this author also offered the following:
Since becoming a recognizer of championships again, other problems have arisen with Ring. Among them are:
• Crowning Rosendo Alvarez at 108 while the lineage ran through Jorge Arce in a straight line from Michael Carbajal-Humberto Gonzalez;
• Ignoring the lineage at 115 lbs. that belonged to Masamori Tokuyama in a straight line to the Jiro Watanabe-Payao Poontarat fight in 1984;
• Crowning Paulie Ayala at 122 lbs. for his one clear win over Bones Adams in 2002 after three arguably bad decisions in a row for Ayala against Hugo Dianzo, Johnny Tapia and Bones Adams and with no other wins in the division. Ayala never defended his hollow crown; and let us not forget…
• The coronation of big brother Vitali Klitschko as Heavyweight champion for his first win over a currently rated Ring top ten fighter, ever, against Corrie Sanders in 2004. Much as he was loathsome to watch, John Ruiz’s rebound from the Roy Jones loss with wins over Hasim Rahman and Fres Oquendo were more meritorious than anything Klitschko had actually finished when he entered the ring with Sanders.
To their credit, they have been on the ball on other occasions. Their recognizing Jose Luis Castillo-Juan Lazcano as being for the then-vacant Lightweight title in 2004 appeared correct and was validated by an excellent series of fights that culminated in Castillo-Corrales I…most of their titlists are accurate to date, so it's not as if they're way out of the ballpark there even if they did back into history rather than embracing it. Finally, through much of modern boxing’s rich and unique history, Ring’s belts have been a constant from old pictures of Nat Fleischer and Ray Robinson to the casket of Apollo Creed. When a fighter proves to be his division’s true champion, having that belt there is a bonus and a cool aesthetic.
Despite these flaws, Ring’s title was still one that could be supported because the principle was, if not perfect, at least aiming to get there. They were still trying to find champions first, even after the inherent conflict of being owned by a promoter first came to the fore. The new 2-5 allowance changes that. It puts filling vacancies ahead of crowning champions and, in a sport with no shortage of vacancy filling, what’s the point of that?
For instance, theoretically, Juan Carlos Salgado and Roman Martinez could face off under current rules and be declared the champion at 130 lbs. without facing an Adrien Broner or Takashi Uchiyama. Even if they elected not to pull the trigger in that case (and note new rules do not say they will pull the 2-5 trigger in all cases), that it exists as an option is a step in the wrong direction. It dramatically changes the mission of their title policy and, ultimately, invalidates it.
For fans who still want to track lineage, the resources are out there. ESPN, HBO, and other outlets can continue to trumpet the value of the designation without needing any belt to do so. As of now, all but one of Ring’s titles is held by someone with an air tight claim to the lineal throne (there is debate about Cruiserweight, particularly because of the way Marco Huck was maneuvered out of the number one spot prior to ever competing at Heavyweight before returning immediately to Cruiserweight. The BoxingScene ratings never had Huck #1 and also recognizes Yoan Pablo Hernandez as champion for twice defeating the only man to cleanly beat Huck, Steve Cunningham).
The evidence of a decade says the existence of Ring belts hasn’t been a critical factor in getting fights made. The hope that 2-5 possibilities could encourage matches is likely to go unfulfilled. When it happens, it will be a derivative of business decisions made without much regard to whether Ring straps are on the line or not.
The new policy simply lowers the bar. Boxing has enough low standards. “The Ring” need not contribute.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]