By Cliff Rold
Title unification was never easy.
That was true well before the WBC broke away from the WBA in the 1960s. In the 1930s, the middleweight and flyweight titles had a slew of claimants to the world title. Everyone was making enough money that holding off on ultimate ‘unification’ took about a decade to complete.
Money is the root of it after all.
Most of the fighters who hold belts aren’t worried about losing a boxing match. They’re worried about losing a check. If you’re a Strawweight champion making five figures for a title fight, that’s a hell of a lot better place to be than the strawweights without a belt. Risking a title against another champion makes it harder to make a living. It only makes sense if it pays well more than defending often in front of a paying home court until a dangerous mandatory comes along.
It’s not very sporting but, for most of the beltholders in boxing, it’s rational.
They made the risk worth the reward for the fighter with more to lose this weekend.
To be sure, both Julius Indongo and Terence Crawford have a lot on the line. Each holds two of the four most recognized sanctioning body titles. They stand to have the largest audience of their respective careers on ESPN (10 PM EST/7 PM PST) with solid fight week coverage to get the word out.
Unlike Crawford (31-0, 22 KO), an American fighter with an established base of fans in Nebraska and lots of US TV exposure, Indongo (22-0, 11 KO) likely has less chance to rebound if he loses this weekend. Indongo is already 34 and, for most American fans, unknown even with his WBA and IBF belts.
Indongo might have been able to milk those belts for a while and spread out the paydays. Instead, he’s trying to finish a gutsy road trip trifecta.
Namibia’s Indongo went to Russia and knocked out Russia’s Eduard Troyanovsky (26-1, 23 KO) last year for the IBF strap. He went to Glasgow to beat Scotland’s Ricky Burns for the WBA strap.
Now he’s in Lincoln Nebraska trying to go from invisible man to undisputed champion in three fights.
Lose memorably and there could be other days for Indongo. Lose wide and he may be forgotten as quickly as he emerged. Indongo is gambling big on himself and deserves credit for it.
Crawford merits plenty of credit too. The WBC, WBO, and lineal champ is a talented fighter on the cusp of the real high dollar promised land. Indongo is the sort of guy a man in his position might not normally want to mess with. Indongo is longer, taller, and has shown the pressure of being the away team does not stifle him.
The risk for Crawford isn’t that a loss could make him anonymous. For Crawford, the risk is that a loss could provide a long-term rationale for fighters to avoid him and cut off his avenues to the biggest fights that could be made.
He is, in some sense, where the late Vernon Forrest found himself in 2003. After two wins over “Sugar” Shane Mosley, Forrest was the lineal welterweight champion and the consensus 2002 Fighter of the Year. He could begin to realistically dream about chasing the golden goose of his era: Oscar De La Hoya. All he had to do was keep winning and hope public pressure and consistent victory opened a door down the road.
Forrest opted for a unification clash with wild swinging, big talking Ricardo Mayorga. The odds were heavily in Forrest’s favor.
Mayorga stopped him in three and then won a decision in the immediate rematch.
Forrest was far from done. HBO and Showtime still had room for him and he added two reigns at Jr. middleweight. It was a hell of a career.
It just never quite landed on the jackpot fight.
Crawford has won recognition from both Ring and TBRB as the rightful champion at lightweight and Jr. welterweight. He’s already had a hell of a career but the true riches lay just a little farther away. This might be the absolute worst time to lose he could find.
It’s what makes this a fight to be excited about. While both men are getting a reported seven figures, that’s not the sort of sum after taxes that puts one in a safe zone for life. They’re getting good money in the hopes of great money somewhere down the line.
They’re also fighting to do something only one other fighter has done.
Since the WBO came into existence in the late 1980s, only two fighters have held all four major belts simultaneously: Bernard Hopkins who unified the middleweight crown and Jermain Taylor who took it from him. The winner Saturday will be the third.
Unification was never easy. In the four-belt era, it’s so difficult almost no one even bothers to try.
Crawford and Indongo are both bothering. Who will find their risk rewarded?
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]