By Jake Donovan
Purists suggest that it's the influx of alphabet organizations that led to the demise of boxing. Too many people calling themselves champion, not enough clarity or accountability in those divisions where such titlists refuse to unify or even take risks.
It's a fair argument only if your chief complaint centers on the difficulty of keeping up with who is the man to beat in a given division.
Otherwise, there’s no little to suggest that a few extra belt holders floating around have contributed that greatly to the demise of the sport, at least from a ratings standpoint. Unification matches and fights featuring the best versus the best take place far more frequently today than was the case really at any point during the 1990’s.
Sure, the sanctioning bodies still make more questionable decisions than favorable ones, but there were far more fans 20, even 15 years ago then the sport presently claims today.
Nevertheless, some in the sport decided to do something to eliminate, or at least reduce, the confusion that comes of more than one fighter in each division calling himself “champion.”
The first wave began in the mid-1990’s, during the ring walk for the HBO-televised rematch between James Toney and Montell Griffin. Toney entered the ring while a member of his entourage hoisted an alphabet title in the air. It wasn’t a major title, but was still sold as a “world championship,” prompting color commentator Larry Merchant to declare that it was time to simply pick a single fighter in each division to serve as THE champion, with all others to be deemed “titlists.”
Right idea, very bad strategy. What was ignored that evening – and apparently for the next 12-plus years by those who need belts or magazines to tell them who is and isn’t a world champion - was the fact that a legitimate light heavyweight world title fight was staged two weeks earlier in Germany.
The division’s top two rated fighters, Henry Maske and Virgil Hill collided in what on paper was packaged as a unification match but in historical terms viewed as the starting point for light heavyweight title lineage. Twelve rounds later, Hill prevailed by split decision to fill the eleven-year vacancy left behind by former undisputed champion Michael Spinks upon the latter’s defection to the heavyweight division and eventual boxing history.
A lineal light heavyweight champion was born, though it went virtually ignored throughout the boxing world. So too, did Hill’s lone attempted defense, an unsuccessful bid against then-undefeated Dariusz Michalczewski seven months later, in which three of the four major alphabet belts were at stake.
The lone title not up for grabs was the one in the process of being passed back and forth between Roy Jones Jr and Montell Griffin. Jones won an interim title in a November 1996 bout against McCallum – in fact, one night before Hill-Maske I - and received an upgrade when Fabrice Tiozzo decided to move up to cruiserweight. Griffin won the belt by 9th round disqualification in March 1997, three months before Hill would lose to Michalczewski.
Jones regained his old title two months after that. Because he was generally regarded as the world’s best fighter and far more familiar to the American media than was Michalczewski, title lineage was ignored and Jones was named de facto light heavyweight champion.
The Ring magazine followed this trend in early 2002 when instituting a championship policy of its own. On the surface, the criteria is far more credible than that boasted by any of the major sanctioning bodies, though such a comparison is setting the bar way too low. Yet, it remains the lone line of defense whenever anyone from the magazine is prompted to explain questionable decisions made through the years – for instance, not only ignoring boxing history, but trying to rewrite it altogether.
Thankfully, some in the industry are able to keep its eye on the bouncing ball and with a little bit of research are able to recognize the historical links that already exists in several divisions.
Sometimes, perhaps even more often than not, a lineal champion and The Ring champion of a particular division are one and the same.
Other times, they are not, in which case, ratings such as those maintained by cyberboxingzone.com and of course Boxingscene.com (through site co-manager Cliff Rold) serve as an invaluable source in reconnecting with boxing history.
With that caveat, we move on to the following series: a detailed look at the title lineage of all 17 boxing divisions. Some claim current champions; the rest feature broken links, some as brief as a few months, others as long as several decades.
If the championship policy of The Ring is to be strictly adhered to, then there are several divisions in which we may never again see a world champion crowned. Sometimes, it just needs to be that way, as it’s wrong to reward a fighter for merely being the best in his division, but never coming close to definitively prove it.
In other instances, there’s no need to search for that fight, since a historical lineage already exists, long before the folks at The Ring attempted to reinvent the wheel.
The following series examines both worlds and, in instances where vacancies exist, the best possible solution to crowning a world champion, even if it means someone other than the top two fighters in a division vying for such a crown.
Current Lineal Champion: None; title vacated in 2004
Last Lineal Champion: Lennox Lewis (regained in 11/17/2001; officially retired 02/06/2004)
Length of previous lineage: 11/30/1956-02/06/2004
Title changed hands: 23 times (Lewis KO4 Hasim Rahman; Rahman KO5 Lewis; Lewis KO6 Shannon Briggs; Briggs MD12 George Foreman; Foreman KO10 Michael Moorer; Moorer MD12 Holyfield; Holyfield MD12 Bowe; Bowe UD12 Holyfield; Holyfield KO3 James Douglas; Douglas KO10 Mike Tyson; Tyson KO1 Michael Spinks; M. Spinks UD12 Larry Holmes; Holmes TKO10 Muhammad Ali; Ali UD15 Leon Spinks; L. Spinks SD15 Ali; Ali KO8 Foreman; Foreman KO2 Joe Frazier; Frazier UD15 Ali; Ali TKO7 Sonny Liston; Liston KO1 Floyd Patterson; Patterson KO5 Ingemar Johannsen; Johannsen KO3 Patterson; Patterson KO9 Archie Moore for vacant World title).
The road to filling the vacancy: The same fight that's been suggested as far back as April 2007 – Wladimir Klitschko vs. Ruslan Chagaev.
Most American boxing fans look at the logistics and ask, “Why hasn’t it been done yet?” Both fighters are based out of and primarily fight in Eastern Europe. Therefore, it should be easy enough to get the two of them in the ring.
This is boxing. Nothing is that easy.
Both Klitschko brothers used to be promoted by Klaus Peter-Kohl’s Universum Promotions, the same Germany-based company that presently has paper on Chagaev. While there’s nothing that says their K2 Promotions company can’t do business with their old promoter, it has yet to occur since the Ukrainian fighting brothers decided to call their own shots in 2004.
Politics aside, such a fight won’t happen anytime soon. Wladimir is rumored for a summer showdown with David Haye, which gives Chagaev time to vie for his old crown, presently in the possession of the man whom he already defeated, Nikolai Valuev. Injuries forced Chagaev into “Champion in recess” status by the same sanctioning body that once again claims Valuev as their man.
A rematch serves as the ultimate title eliminator. The winner can then theoretically fight either Klitschko, providing both brothers get past their next tests, Wladimir against Haye, and Vitali in a dangerous mandatory alphabet title defense against Juan Carlos Gomez next month.
The best scenario for boxing is for the Klitschko’s to unearth an old formula, where one brother loses and the other gains revenge. If such were to occur in 2009 and beyond, it would undoubtedly mean that the division’s top two heavyweights eventually faced each other, in which case a king is finally crowned and false rumors of Lennox Lewis’ return can finally end.
Current Lineal Champion: Tomasz Adamek (SD12 Steve Cunningham 12/11/2008 for vacant title)
Last Lineal Champion: David Haye (KO7 Jean-Marc Mormeck 11/08/2007; vacated 05/12/2008)
Length of current lineage: 12/11/2008 - present
Title changed hands: Once (Adamek SD12 Cunningham for vacant World title)
The road to maintaining the title: After 18 years without a lineal champ, those who have since carried the torch have been reluctant to rule with iron fists or activity of any kind.
O'Neil Bell and Jean-Marc Mormeck managed a grand total of zero successful defenses over reigns that extended nearly two years. Even if you factor in Mormeck's first tour as RING champion, his nine-month stay ended with his first defense, the stoppage loss to Bell.
David Haye is the only lineal cruiserweight champion in the post-Holyfield era to make a successful defense, knocking out Enzo Maccarinelli. Fittingly enough, he vacated the crown soon thereafter, truly emulating Holyfield in bolting to the heavyweight division.
Greater promise finally appears on the way.
Newly crowned king Tomasz Adamek is wasting no time in establishing his reign. The transplanted Polish boxer-puncher, now living in Jersey City, NJ, makes his first defense, a mere 11 weeks after winning the crown from Steve Cunningham in a 12-round war on VERSUS last December. He faces undefeated American banger Johnathon Banks on February 27 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, the same venue that housed his title winning war over Cunningham. The bout will air live on Showtime's Shobox series.
Current Lineal Champion: Zsolt Erdei (UD12 Julio Cesar Gonzalez 01/17/2004)
Length of current lineage: 11/23/1996 - present
Title changed hands: Four times (Erdei UD12 Julio Cesar Gonzalez; Gonzalez SD12 Dariusz Michalczewski; Michalczewski UD12 Virgil Hill; Hill SD12 Henry Maske for vacant World title)
Do we need to declare a new champion? There's no question that the past 11-plus years have served as a dark cloud for light heavyweight title lineage.
It started out well enough; Hill traveling to Germany to unify two belts in his win over Maske helped truly put the world in world title. He enjoyed the stay so much that he went back seven months later in efforts to collect one more belt, only to be dethroned by Michalczewski in one of the last bouts to air on American free-TV network ABC.
Then it went to poop.
The back end of the '90s and the opening years of the 21st century were marred by the Michalczewski-Roy Jones lineage versus belts debate. Jones became the unified champion, though all three titles collected were of the paper variety. His first was in a revenge knockout win over Montell Griffin to claim an interim version of the title previously held and eventually vacated by Fabrice Tiozzo. The other two belts won were one or two fights removed from having been pried from the waist of Michalczewski, who left the Hill fight a three-belt – and lineal – champion, but soon thereafter became a victim of sanctioning body politics.
It was The Ring's decision to instead crown Jones as their inaugural champion under their revised policy that created the debate that lives on to this day, even though both fighters are far removed from the fold.
Michalczewski spent his entire reign in Germany and Poland, rarely if ever fighting against worthwhile opposition. Erdei, who beat the man (Gonzalez) who beat the man (Michalczewski) has all but offered more of the same, with all twelve of his title fights (11 if you discount the Yuri Barashian fight, as the challenger was overweight and therefore ineligible to win the title) taking place in Germany and Hungary against mostly substandard competition.
Early defenses against the likes of Hugo Gary and Thomas Ulrich suggested Erdei was interested in restoring credibility. That changed in 2007, when Erdei and his handlers settled for the bottom feeders of the division. It is this course that should allow for an extended but ultimately forgettable reign.
Those who turn to The Ring for an alternative are now left with a dead end.
Even if you disagreed with their anointing Jones as champion by default, there have been several bouts along the way to eventually fill the imaginary vacancy. Few will argue that Jones and Antonio Tarver were the top two lightweights in the world when the first met in November 2003, or again in May 2004. Even if that weren’t satisfying enough, then the first meet between Tarver and Glen Johnson in December 2004 surely would've ended all debates.
Following that string, the title has traveled from Johnson to Tarver, to Bernard Hopkins in 2006, to Joe Calzaghe last April. Calzaghe has since vacated the crown earlier this week after abruptly announcing his retirement.
The only problem in that thread is, it doesn't offer much better in the way of honorable defenses.
Tarver's first defense after winning the rematch against Johnson came in a rubber match with Jones, who had been away from the ring for 13 months and was coming off of back-to-back knockout losses. His second – and last – defense – came against Hopkins, who lost two straight to Jermain Taylor and was moving up from middleweight.
Hopkins' reign lasted 22 months, but managed to avoid fighting anyone who actually campaigned at light heavyweight. Winky Wright moved up from middleweight, adding ten pounds of fat to meet Hopkins at a catchweight in their July 2007 stinker. His title reign ended nine months later against Calzaghe, who had previously spent his entire career at super middleweight.
For those in search of a new champion, there's only two bouts that make sense, possibly one if a certain candidate either calls it a career or decides to sit out 2009.
The bout most are calling for is a showdown between old lion Bernard Hopkins and undefeated new kid on the block Chad Dawson. The ageless Hopkins managed to once again resurrect his career with a near-shutout of Kelly Pavlik in their catchweight bout last October. Dawson has ascended to the top of the rankings with a series of notable wins over the likes of Tomasz Adamek, Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson.
The latter of the three was the closest decision, and in the eyes of more than a few a controversial verdict. Dawson received the toughest test of his career, falling apart down the stretch only to escape with a close decision in their title fight last April.
Johnson faces Daniel Judah later this month on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights. Assuming he wins and Dawson once again gets past Tarver in their HBO-televised rematch next month, a second fight between the two is in high order.
This is where the equation becomes tricky.
If such a fight is made, a decision has to be made whether or not Bernard Hopkins has earned the right to stand in their way. The Ring magazine has the Philly native as their number-one contender, with Dawson and Johnson right behind him. There’s no precedence for declaring a fight between number-two and number-three sufficient means to fill a vacancy, but would prove problematic if the fight took place, only for Hopkins to later decide to call it a career.
Do you retroactively declare the Dawson-Johnson winner the champion? If true lineal champions weren’t eligible for such privileges, then why should it apply here?
It’s less problematic for Boxingscene. Assuming both fighters win out, the next quarterly ratings will have Dawson and Johnson at one and three, respectively, with Johnson moving up on the heels of Calzaghe’s retirement (the Welshman is presently rated number-two).
But that’s if Boxingscene were compelled to crown a new light heavyweight champion.
As is the case with The Ring filling a vacancy without their number-one contender participating, so too is precedence lacking to declare a new lineal champ when, for better or for worse, one already exists in Zsolt Erdei.
Next up: Part II, which will look at five more divisions.
Jake Donovan is a voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Comments/questions can be submitted to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com.