By Michael Rosenthal
The out-of-control proliferation of “champions” continues unabated.
Promoters, writers and other boxing people recognize to various degrees the champions of five “major” sanctioning bodies – the IBF, IBO, WBA, WBC and WBO – as legitimate world titleholders, which is ridiculous if you look at the numbers.
Boxing once had one titleholder in each division, which was true to the essence of a champion. Only one fighter can be the best, right? If we assume that each of the five organizations mentioned above has one titleholder in each of the 17 weight divisions, that’s a total of 85 titleholders.
And if you add “regular,” interim and God knows what other absurd titles the alphabet people come up with, that number can exceed 100. If you could go back in time and share that figure with Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis, they would’ve given you a blank stare.
Of course, some fighters hold titles in multiple sanctioning bodies but you get the idea. This is crazy.
I understand the purpose all these titles serve. The main one is money. The sanctioning bodies couldn’t care less whether their rankings reflect reality (although the IBO uses a computerized system). They rank fighters based on the amount of cash they can expect to make in sanctioning fees, which is why some “champions” seem legitimate and some don’t.
For example, Jose Pedraza is a titleholder (WBO) in a division that includes Mikey Garcia (IBF, WBC) and Vasyl Lomachenko (WBA). Absurd.
TV people and promoters generally like titles because a “championship fight” is easier to sell than a non-title fight, which makes sense. And fighters, God bless them, dream of winning shiny belts from the time they first lace up gloves. A title, many of them would argue, is a title.
I’m sorry. In my opinion, the more titles that exist, the less they mean. And the “secondary” titles have absolutely no significance other than to denote that a particular fighter is highly ranked. I cringe when anyone refers to a WBA “regular” title as a champion, which is an insult to those who have truly earned that title.
There is no easy solution to the problem if it’s important to you that we have champions in boxing.
I have reluctantly recognized one titleholder each from the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO in my boxing articles for many years but I’ve always tried to play them down. And I’ve completely ignored “regular” and other secondary titles unless it’s confusing to do so, a stand I wish other writers would take.
We should – and do – give more weight to unified titleholders, who at least have taken another step to separate themselves from the pretenders. For example, there is no doubt that unified titleholder Oleksander Usyk is the best cruiserweight in the world.
Another option is to consider The Ring Magazine and Transnational Boxing Rankings Board rankings, whose rankings certainly are based more on merit than their sanctioning body counterparts. The fact that both have so few champions is evidence they don’t manufacture them.
But in the end it’s the fighters themselves – not their belts – that matter most to fans, who aren’t stupid. They might recognize Pedraza as a titleholder but they know he isn’t the best fighter in the lightweight division, an awareness that undoubtedly holds true in similar situations.
I like to think that I, too, have a pretty good handle on the cream of the crop. When Terence Crawford, Mikey Garcia, Errol Spence and Vasyl Lomachenko fight, I want to watch. They’re the best at what they do and they’re fun to watch. The belts at stake? I really don’t care.
Again, this column isn’t meant as an attack on any organization. And I don’t mean to minimize the success of those fighters who earn what we consider a major belt, even if we know others in the division are better than they are. These fighters deserve credit for climbing up a precarious ladder.
I just want to provide some perspective. If we label 100 fighters as “champions,” that word loses its intended meaning. That’s a shame.
Michael Rosenthal is the most recent winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades.