By Lyle Fitzsimmons
For whatever reason, I like life on the fringe.
When I was a kid hockey fan in Niagara Falls, the first thing I did with my preseason yearbook each fall was flip to the back to find the few pages devoted to the WHA.
As the USFL made its grand televised entrance a decade or so later, I was among the few early-80s football followers who could name as many New Jersey Generals as New York Jets.
I’m sure I still have some ABA basketball cards in a drawer somewhere, and, if there’s ever a viable anti-establishment alternative to Major League Baseball, you can pretty much count me in.
The mindset carries over to boxing as well.
As those who’ve read this space for years can attest, there’s no louder trumpet for the merits of lesser-heralded sanctioning bodies than mine. And while many lazily proffer an “all alphabets are bad” mindset before hopping into bed with a self-appointed magazine savior, my preference has long been to deconstruct the existing façade and put up a building that works well for everybody.
That is to say… sanctioning bodies are a necessary evil, so we might as well create a good one.
Toward that end, I spend a fair amount of time scanning the horizon for organizations out there grinding away in the hope they’ll find some traction in a mindset revolution.
Sometimes, as with the IBO a few years back, I stumble upon an entity that’s got enough legitimate things to say to warrant instant side-by-side inclusion with the so-called big boys.
Other times, well, let’s just say the jury’s still out.
Such is the case with the WBF – or more formally, the World Boxing Federation – now in its second incarnation since being conceived 24 years ago by Tennessee-based auto racing executive Larry Carrier.
The original ship foundered and sank during the presidential term of London’s Jonathan Feld in 2004, but it returned to the surface as a Luxembourg-based nonprofit in 2009 and continues today under the executive office leadership of South African administrator Howard Goldberg.
The group claimed a 15-percent increase in title bouts from 2010 to 2011, with locales including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea and the United States.
And citing that broad foothold, its website hails it as “firmly on the fast track to establish itself as the most serious contender to challenge the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO.”
To get a little more information, I chatted up Gianluca DiCaro, the organization’s marketing director.
The transcript of our exchange is as follows:
Q: There are dozens of sanctioning bodies out there – aside from the ones considered “major” – what is different about the WBF and why should people pay attention?
A: In all honesty currently there isn’t that much difference between any of the world sanctioning organizations, including the World Boxing Federation, as each has been created by people that believe that boxers deserve recognition for their efforts in the ring. I suppose the real difference between the World Boxing Federation and the majority of the others is that you will never see a WBF silver, platinum, diamond or super world champion. It is these misleading and unnecessary titles that cause the biggest problem. What makes an organization decide to have up to four world champions at the same weight other than additional sanctioning fees? I can’t think of any.
When I was approached by the WBF I was skeptical, that is until it was explained that their philosophy was clarity, within their whole organization and especially the titles. For instance, Michael Grant is the WBF heavyweight world champion – the only WBF heavyweight world champion – but if you were to ask people, especially here in the UK, who is the WBA world heavyweight champion, people will say Wladimir Klitschko, as he beat David Haye to lift the title in July last year.
But they are wrong, The WBA elevated the title to super for the Haye-Klitschko bout in order to release the regular title, which Alexander Povetkin beat Ruslan Chagaev to lift in August last year.
Q: How difficult is it to gain traction in an environment where most people – from fans to fighters to media members – are in an anti-sanctioning body mood?
A: It is very hard. The biggest problem is gaining credibility as well as convincing boxers, fans and the media that as an organization the WBF is not just another gravy train organization out to gain big sanctioning fees and first-class travel and accommodation for those within their organization.
Q: What is the biggest challenge the WBF has faced toward that end?
A: This is still ongoing. It is quite simply getting credible title contenders. True world-class contenders demand big money, something that not all but the big-name promoters can afford. To overcome this we are taking a proactive approach. Besides undertaking event publicity and marketing campaigns, in addition to those undertaken by the promoter, for any event that features a WBF championship bout part of my brief is to gain sponsorship monies to enable additional funds to be available to attract big names.
Q: These days, fighters like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. and some others seem to be able to call their own shots with little regard to titles or weight classes – with that the case, do title belts still matter? And if so, how can that message be conveyed to doubters?
A: Why would I? There have been a lot of great fights that were not for titles. For instance, the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy, in my view some of the greatest fights ever. Saying that, though, Gatti’s championship career got restarted following this trilogy of fights. Prior to the first Ward-Gatti bout it had been five years since Gatti last fought a championship bout. After the trilogy he competed in six straight championship bouts. At the end of the day a great fight is a great fight, but when there is a title up for grabs it does seem to add that extra incentive that can lift a fighter to give that little bit more, plus of course he or she has something to keep and show for their efforts.
Q: Your website has quotes and cites statistics claiming “15 percent” growth from 2010 to 2011, among other things. What does that mean, exactly? What are the signs that the WBF carries more weight in February 2012 than it did in February 2011?
A: The growth figures are based purely on the increase in the number of WBF championship bouts that took place last year. What those figures do not show, and which I think is far more important, is that there were more countries hosting WBF title fights in 2011 than in 2010 and in 2012 even more countries will be hosting WBF championship bouts than ever before.
Q: Only a few of your world champions – Michael Grant and Ali Funeka, for example – are recognizable to anything more than the hardcore boxing fans. How does a sanctioning body make progress when the majority of its titles are either vacant or held by lesser-known fighters?
A: Again we go back to the ability to attract the right people to compete for the WBF titles. Now while not wishing to give too much away, all I can say at this point is that over the coming months you will notice some positive changes in this direction.
Q: Several of the lesser-regarded sanctioning organizations seem to serve as farm systems for the major groups. That is to say fighters win the lesser belts on the way up and graduate to shots at the more significant belts. Is that a role the WBF would ever be content in playing for the long term?
A: Not at all. While we accept that is the view right now, it is our intention to compete with the big four head on in the near future. As I said earlier, we are being highly proactive in developing relationships with promoters around the world. We understand that they need fights that will attract big audiences and television coverage, and as I said we are aware that sometimes the cost of having the right opponents take part can be beyond all but the biggest promoters’ budgets unless they receive additional support.
Q: Explain your stance on rankings. Are the ones posted by BoxRec.com the ones on which your organization relies to establish championship bouts, etc.?
A: Unlike most world sanctioning organizations, the WBF decided against creating our own ranking system. Rightly so, I think. I mean, if you look at the rankings of any of the other organizations, they do not show a true picture of who is positioned where in the division. A good example of this is that former two-time IBF cruiserweight world champion Steve “USS” Cunningham is not even ranked by either the WBC, WBO or the WBA. Also even where a fighter is ranked by them, such as Ola Ofalabi, his position is different with each – No. 1 with the WBO, No. 4 with the WBA, No. 7with the WBC and the IBF – whereas the BoxRec rankings give a much truer picture as every boxer in the division is listed.
Q: Upon its beginnings, the WBF was an American-based organization. Since its restart in 2009, it’s much centered in Europe, Africa and Asia. Is the feedback for additional sanctioning bodies better in other parts of the world? Is the WBF more accepted and respected outside the U.S.?
A: Not at all, the WBF has been increasingly active in America. North American Coordinator Alan Santana has been building some excellent relationships which will be leading to many more championship bouts taking place in America over the coming year. In addition to Alan’s efforts, I am in early stages of discussions with two of the major players in America, one East Coast and the other West Coast, and am hopeful that later this year that a WBF championship bout will headline a major televised event there.
Q: If we have this conversation again five years from now in an ideal world, how has the landscape changed? Where are the WBF and its contemporaries?
A: I feel that the WBC’s position will not alter one iota, purely down to their being so well established. However, I do honestly feel that within that time frame the WBF will be seriously challenging the IBF, WBO and WBA for position.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBO junior lightweight title –St. Louis, Mo.
Adrien Broner (champion) vs. Eloy Perez (No. 1 contender)
Broner (22-0, 18 KO): First title defense; One distance fight in last 13 (40 total rounds)
Perez (23-0-2, 7 KO): First title fight; Won all four fights in 2011 (26 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: “If challenger gets it beyond halfway, it could get interesting.” Broner by decision
WBO light heavyweight title – Cardiff, Wales
Nathan Cleverly (champion) vs. Tommy Karpency (No. 11 contender)
Cleverly (23-0, 11 KO): Third title defense; Seventh fight in Wales (6-0, 1 KO)
Karpency (21-2-1, 14 KO): First title fight; Two fights in last 21 months (3 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: “Karpency’s got a nice story, but probably doesn’t belong here.” Cleverly by decision
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
Last week's picks: 2-0
Overall picks record: 283-96 (74.6 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.