by Cliff Rold
First and foremost, it looks like one hell of a fight.
2000 U.S. Olympian Brian Viloria (31-3, 18 KO), resurgent as a titlist in his second weight class after title reigns at 108 lbs., versus Hernan “Tyson” Marquez (34-2, 25 KO), victorious against Luis Concepcion in one of 2011’s most savage bouts, has all the makings. Both men can box. Both men can punch. They’ve both shown vulnerability.
If anything left on the 2012 boxing docket is going to steal likely Fight of the Year honors from Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado, this is the best bet.
Beyond the fight in the ring, an element of history will be at hand. Viloria, the World Boxing Organization (WBO) titlist at Flyweight, and Marquez, the World Boxing Association (WBA) titlist at Flyweight, will both have their titles on the line.
It has become a little bit of mythology to say boxing’s titles were once always unified, that champions once came only one to a class. The history of the sport is full of instances where championship claims met counter claims and unification was deemed necessary (and, more importantly, promotable).
The Middleweight title was split for a big chunk of the 1930s. Various U.S. state commissions, most notably the New York State Athletic Commission, or Ring Magazine, or the British Boxing Board of Control, or all of the above, were occasionally at odds with the National Boxing Association (now the WBA).
The difference then, and now, was that split titles were more often a deviation of the norm than the accepted status quo. What we know today as the title picture began to evolve in February 1963.
The inaugural convening of the World Boxing Council (WBC) established the groundwork for what would become the modern state of near permanent title splits. Over the next now almost fifty years, boxing would grow from eleven weight classes in 1963 to seventeen today. Two more sanctioning bodies, the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and WBO, would grow to be recognized as titles of equal stature to the WBA and WBC.
And, today, including things like “Super” champions and interim champions, those seventeen classes provide ‘world championship’ belts for close to eighty different fighters.
And those are only the four most prominent bodies.
Through all of these changes, there have been unification matches between the champions of the various bodies in every division but one.
That is the piece of history Viloria and Marquez will share this Saturday (Wealth TV and WealthTV.com, EST). When the opening bell rings, they will be engaged in the first Flyweight unification between champions of the four major sanctioning bodies.
And it will mark the final of boxing’s seventeen divisions to give fans a unification clash.
At 112 lbs., it only took almost five decades.
While the fight will not crown a ‘lineal’ champion for the class (that honor remains with Japan’s Toshiyuki Igarashi, the WBC titlist), it does not lack for significance. Unification bouts are, usually, boxing’s equivalent of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” They indicate strongly that fans are getting a fight of above average quality between two of the best, if not the very best, in their division. They have provided some of boxing’s greatest battles, most memorable moments, and looks behind the curtain at the politics beneath the sport.
In preparation for Saturday’s Flyweight unification clash, let’s take a look back at the initial title splits and first unification clashes that followed in the other sixteen divisions, taking the fights in the order they arrived.
1st Unification Fight: February 6, 1967 – Muhammad Ali (WBC) UD15 Ernie Terrell (WBA)
Boxing always seems to start with the big boys. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, joined the Nation of Islam, and kicked off what would be a turbulent move from athlete to political figure. Years before he rejected the draft, the WBA elected to strip Ali of their title for the first time in 1964 just months after his upset of Sonny Liston for the crown. The WBA cited their rule against immediate rematches when Ali signed to face Liston again right away; the fledgling WBC continued to recognize Ali. On March 5, 1965, Ernie Terrell bested Eddie Machen by decision for a WBA title no one took too serious. Ultimately, it would come down to Ali and Terrell settling matters in the ring, Ali winning a dull decision. Heavyweight, and boxing, would go on to have more celebrated unification clashes. This was the beginning of what we know today and the title would be split again by the draft controversy soon after.
1st Unification Fight: April 7, 1972 – Bob Foster (WBC) TKO2 Vicente Rondon (WBA)
Citing that he had failed to defend his title for six months, Bob Foster was shorn of one of his two belts. The impetus: Foster opted to try Joe Frazier for the Heavyweight title before knocking dead another pretender to this throne. Rondon knocked out Jimmy Dupree in six rounds to win the WBA belt on February 27, 1970 and would make two defenses before being set to square off with Foster. Foster wasted little time in re-unifying the division, destroying Rondon and keeping the titles together until his first retirement in 1974.
1st Unification Fight: June 26, 1976 – Carlos Monzon (WBA) UD15 Rodrigo Valdez (WBC)
When Monzon didn’t take his mandatory, Valdez was matched with “Bad” Bennie Briscoe for the WBC title on May 25, 1974 and won the title with a seventh round knockout. Valdez would make four defenses before the showdown the division needed. The richest fight in division history to that time, Valdez entered with personal distractions that may have affected him. Monzon scored a knockdown in the 14th to ice the decision. A greater fight would come in a 1977 rematch, Monzon coming off the floor to retain the title and retire as champion. Unlike the case in most divisions by then, and later, the title would stay unified right away with Valdez winning both vacant belts with a second win over Briscoe just months later. The title would stay unified well into the 1980s.
1st Unification Fight: January 21, 1978 – Roberto Duran (WBA) TKO12 Esteban DeJesus (WBC)
When Ken Buchanan opted for a more lucrative rematch against the man he’d taken the title from, Ismael Laguna, the WBC lightened the load around his waist. Pedro Carrasco, in a historically controversial fight, won the title and it passed along through various hands. Duran, who defeated Buchanan in 1972, began one of the great title reigns in any class and his final fight as champion was a fitting farewell. DeJesus was the first man to defeat Duran, in a 1972 non-title fight, only to be stopped by Duran in a 1974 WBA title try. He famously had Duran down in the first round of each. DeJesus beat Guts Ishimatsu for the WBC belt and the rubber match came to pass. It was one of Duran’s finest performances and left no doubting the better man in their rivalry. Duran left to pursue bigger game and the title would stay apart until well into the next decade.
1st Unification Fight: September 16, 1981 – Sugar Ray Leonard (WBC) TKO14 Thomas Hearns (WBA)
The contentious cut ending of the first fight between Jose Napoles and Armando Muniz in 1975 led to an immediate rematch and a split of the Welterweight crown. Napoles kept the WBC title, and the lineage. Angel Espada won the WBA title that would eventually end up with Thomas Hearns after a second round detonation of Pipino Cuevas in 1980. Ray Leonard won, lost, and then won again the WBC crown in 1979 and 80, setting the stage for one of the biggest fights in boxing history. In Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year, Leonard came from behind to stop the undefeated Hearns in the 14th round of a classic. Leonard would make one more defense before retiring due to injury and the title would be split once again.
1st Unification Fight: May 15, 1987 – Evander Holyfield (WBA) TKO3 Rickey Parkey (IBF)
Unlike the previous alphabet unification firsts, Cruiserweight didn’t really start from a point of unity. The WBC gave birth to the class in 1980. The WBA crowned their champion in 1982. The founding of the IBF in 1983 added a third ingredient to the alphabet soup and, theoretically anyways, created more opportunities for showdowns between champions. Parkey won the IBF belt from Lee Roy Murphy in October 1986, just months Holyfield’s classic WBA title win against Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Both men made a single defense before being paired in what would be a short night for Parkey. Holyfield walked through him in three rounds and later added the WBC belt with a stoppage of Carlos DeLeon in April 1988 to complete the unification of the division. Holyfield moved on to greater things at Heavyweight and the titles stayed apart for many years.
1st Unification Fight: June 12, 1989 – Thomas Hearns (WBO) D12 Sugar Ray Leonard (WBC)
Murray Sutherland won the IBF belt in 1984 to inaugurate a new entrant to boxing’s span of weight divisions. The WBA would join the fray in 1987, crowning Chong-Pal Park after Park gave up the IBF belt. The WBO, founded in 1988, and WBC crowned their first champions in the division just days apart in November 1988. Those two men would square off less than a year later in a rematch of their other unification first. Hearns got the better of Leonard this time around, dropping Leonard twice and surviving a final round scare only to be on the bad end of a draw verdict. Ironically, the next attempt at unification would feature the same belts, the same verdict, and another rematch of a lower division’s classic when WBC champion Nigel Benn and WBO champion Chris Eubank battled to a draw in October 1993. It wasn’t until Sven Ottke (IBF) won a decision over Byron Mitchell (WBA) on March 15, 2003 that a unification fight at 168 lbs. would end with a winner.
1st Unification Fight: March 17, 1990 – Julio Cesar Chavez (WBC) TKO12 Meldrick Taylor (IBF)
Takeshi “Paul” Fuji was stripped of the WBC belt prior to his defense against Nicolino Locche and, two days after Locche stopped him for the WBA crown, the WBC would crown Pedro Adigue as their champion in class. The division waited over two decades for a clash of champions. It got a doozy. Chavez and Taylor were both undefeated and regarded as two of, if the not the two best period, fighters in the world. Taylor built a lead on the cards while Chavez chipped away and steadily eroded the faster man. In the closing moments of the final round, Chavez dropped Taylor and referee Richard Steele stopped the bout with two seconds left on the clock. The outcome remains a source of debate to this day. Ring Magazine named it the Fight of the Year in 1990 and, later, the fight of the decade. Various boxing politics saw Chavez give up the IBF belt in 1991 after two defenses.
1st Unification Fight: March 15, 1991 – Brian Mitchell (WBA) D12 Tony Lopez (IBF)
After a gap of two decades and change, the Jr. Lightweight division was reborn in 1959 and would be intact until Hiroshi Kobayashi was stripped of the WBC belt in 1969. More than two decades passed before an attempt at some unification. Mitchell, the long reigning WBA titlist, traveled to Lopez’s turf in Sacramento for a quality clash that just didn’t settle matters. Mitchell would be forced to give up his belt prior to their rematch, traveling again later in the year to win a hard fought decision for the IBF title. It wasn’t until Acelino Freitas (WBO) won a decision against Joel Casamayor (WBA) on January 12, 2002 that the division would find a unified, if not undisputed, alphabet titlist.
1st Unification Fight: March 13, 1993 – Michael Carbajal (IBF) KO7 Humberto Gonzalez (WBC)
Like Cruiserweight, 108 lbs. didn’t start from a singular champion and then split. The WBC started the class in April 1975 and the WBA joined them four months later; the formation of the IBF and WBO meant two more titles over time. Built for a couple of years, some unification finally came in the form of this all-time classic. The Ring Magazine choice for Fight of the Year, declared by Ring the greatest fight in division history in 2002, Carbajal and Gonzalez made what would be their Hall of Fame mark together. Carbajal was dropped twice, badly in the fifth, only to roar back with a savage assault and fantastic finish. Gonzalez would win two rematches and the two belts would stay unified until 1995.
1st Unification Fight: December 16, 1995 – Terry Norris (WBC) UD12 Paul Vaden (IBF)
Fresh off regaining the crown, World Champion Koichi Wajima was relieved of his WBC belt shortly after a revenge defeat of Oscar Albarado. Miguel De Oliveira won the WBC belt against Jose Duran and the titles stayed split for some two decades. Unification came close in 1984 when WBC champion Thomas Hearns and WBA champion Roberto Duran signed to face off. Duran was forced to give up his belt for skipping over mandatory Mike McCallum, denying Hearns three unique places in unification history. History instead settled on this largely forgotten, and forgettable, clash easily won by Norris to help punctuate a Hall of Fame run in the division. Norris would make four defenses of his two belts before giving up the IBF crown.
1st Unification Fight: February 8, 1997 – Naseem Hamed (WBO) TKO8 Tom Johnson (IBF)
The retirement of champion Vicente Saldivar resulted in the WBC and WBA recognizing two different fights as crowning a new champion. It took almost thirty years for someone to try to start putting titles (four by then) back together. The big punching Hamed lured Johnson to London and put on one his best performances to add a second belt to his collection. He gave up the IBF half of the equation after two defenses, but tried to add the WBA in 1998 only for Wilfredo Vazquez to be stripped. Hamed would also win the WBC belt with a decision in 1999 but never defended.
1st Unification Fight: July 18, 1997 – Johnny Tapia (WBO) UD12 Danny Romero (IBF)
Founded by the WBC in 1980 and added by the WBA in 1981, July 5, 1984 should have been the date discussed here. The fans at Castle Hall in Osaka, Japan were told before, and after, that they were seeing unification. However, shortly before the fight, WBA titlist Jiro Watanabe was stripped of his belt for attempting to unify and was left officially with only the WBC belt of Payao Poontarat. It would instead fall to this memorably built clash of New Mexico natives, a grudge match that resulted in a rare HBO main event below 122 lbs. The late Tapia put on a fantastic display of boxing and would go on to defend both belts twice before moving to Bantamweight.
1st Unification Fight: August 23, 1997 – Ricardo Lopez (WBC) TKO5 Alex Sanchez (WBO)
The division was born when the IBF crowned Kyung-Yung Lee for stopping Masaharu Kawakami in two. Kawakami was making his pro debut and would retire at 0-3 (according to BoxRec). It was a start. Lee would give up his belt immediately to pursue the WBC title and so it went. The WBC belt would be won by the man some would still call the division’s lone great fighter, Ricardo Lopez, in 1990. Lopez would begin adding other titles with a comprehensive beating of Sanchez before two career-defining attempts to win the WBA belt against Rosendo Alvarez. The first ended in a contentious draw. In the second, only Lopez could win titles after Alvarez badly missed weight. The result was a decision for Lopez in what Ring Magazine hailed the greatest fight of all time at 105. It may only have been passed since by 2011’s WBA clash between Akira Yaegashi and Pornsawan Poorpramook.
1st Unification Fight: February 19, 2000 – Erik Morales (WBC) SD12 Marco Antonio Barrera (WBO)
The WBC inaugurated this class in 1976, the WBA added it in 1977, and through most of its early years the WBC had Wilfredo Gomez so, well, they won. It wasn’t until the start of an epic trilogy that two titleholders at 122 lbs. would square off. The result was the Ring Fight of the Year and their 2002 choice as the greatest fight in the division’s history. On the strength of a debatable last round knockdown, Barrera looked to many like the winner but it was the more consistently active Morales who got the nod. Morales elected not to keep the WBO belt and it was immediately given back to Barrera.
1st Unification Fight: April 30, 2010 – Fernando Montiel (WBO) TKO4 Hozumi Hasegawa (WBC)
When Enrique Pinder opted to face Romeo Anaya instead of Rodolfo Martinez, the WBC crowned the winner of Martinez-Rafael Herrera as their guy (ultimately, that was Herrera). The title was almost unified later in the decade, but WBA titlist Alfonso Zamora and WBC titlist Carlos Zarate ended up contested as a non-title fight above 118 lbs. so as to avoid paying two sanctioning fees. The unification bout the division finally got was such for only one of the contestants. Japan does not recognize the WBO so only Montiel had a chance to unify here; he did just that. Being slightly outboxed through three rounds, Montiel landed the biggest hook of his career to drive Hasegawa to the ropes where he unloaded to earn the stoppage. Montiel would lose both belts to Nonito Donaire and Donaire would vacate them after one defense for a move to 122 lbs.
1st Unification Fight: November 17, 2012 – Brian Viloria (WBO) vs. Hernan Marquez (WBA)
When Salvatore Burruni was stripped by the WBA for failing to defend against former champion Hiroyuki Ebihara, the Flyweight title fell into a split that has remained to this day. It is the longest stretch between initial split and first unification bout in the alphabet era.
Think about that for a moment, about all of the great Flyweights who never faced off. There was never a clash between Miguel Canto and Guty Espadas; no showdowns between Mark Johnson and Yuri Arbachkov or Nonito Donaire and Pongsaklek Wonjongkam. For 47 years, Flyweight has existed with no two champions (of two, or three, or four available) sharing the same ring at the same time.
It’s remarkable that it took this long.
It’s a credit to Viloria and Marquez that this piece of history ends in just days. Given their styles, there is much to anticipate and plenty of room to wonder. Will boxing get a fight along the lines of Chavez-Taylor or Carbajal-Gonzalez? Will it be a footnote along the lines of Ali-Terrell or Norris-Vaden?
Will it result in a draw?
The answer will unfold at the L.A. Sports Arena on Saturday. At Flyweight, at least a unification question is finally being asked.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]