By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Wladimir Klitschko won a fight on June 20.
And in doing so, the talented Ukrainian defended both his myriad heavyweight title belts and his essentially universal recognition as the division’s top fighter for the seventh straight time.
This time around, however, there was a little more to it.
Along with the blessings of the IBF, IBO and WBO, Klitschko’s win generated simultaneous notice from a righteous media and fan base somehow blind to all claimants not deemed worthy in advance by the folks at Sports & Entertainment Publications, LLC.
More specifically, the California-based company’s flagship magazine entity – The Ring.
In business with fluctuating success since a 1922 origin, Ring has long been identified by both a brazenly reverential “Bible of Boxing” tagline and its occasional awarding of championship belts to “genuine world champions” of its choosing.
The magazine’s profile has picked up noticeably in recent years, due at least in part to a 2007 transaction in which it and three other titles – KO, World Boxing and Pro Wrestling Illustrated – were purchased from the Kappa Publishing Group in suburban Philadelphia.
Their new owner, the aforementioned Sports & Entertainment Publications, is a limited liability company formed by boxer/entrepreneur Oscar De La Hoya for the sole purpose of operating the publishing properties and exploring other publishing opportunities.
De La Hoya is also founder of Golden Boy Promotions, which, along with Sports & Entertainment Publications, is tucked under the wider blanket of Golden Boy Enterprises – whose assets include real estate and various entertainment, sports, media and financial services.
And, of course, he is also a former Olympic gold medal winner who went on to claim championship status – some more dubious than others – in each and every weight class from 130 pounds to 160.
Therein lies the rub… or at least the first in a series of them.
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Somehow, while De La Hoya’s magazine is busy branding itself the very symbol of championship legitimacy, press releases churned out by Golden Boy’s publicity department continue to refer to the boss as a “10-time world champion, who collected titles in six different weight divisions.”
That might be news in particular to Ring’s long-time middleweight king and De La Hoya’s Golden Boy colleague Bernard Hopkins, who stopped his now-chum in nine rounds when they met for the WBC, WBA and IBF belts held by Hopkins, and the WBO crown claimed by De La Hoya, in 2004.
Hopkins was viewed as the consensus champion for much of his run at 160, particularly after defeating Felix Trinidad in a unification tournament finale at Madison Square Garden in 2001.
De La Hoya, on the other hand, fought just once in the division before meeting Hopkins, defeating largely unknown WBO incumbent Felix Sturm by a widely disputed decision.
Yet the very same writers and fans are quick to trash De La Hoya’s claim as a fringe middleweight “champion” back then, are scrambling for a seat on his Ring bandwagon now, seemingly undeterred by the magazine owner’s continued use of the word as a convenient double entendre.
But wait… there’s more.
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For much of the last 30 years, promoters Don King and Bob Arum – while inarguably providing momentum to keep boxing on the mainstream map – have been the frequent go-to targets of both media and fans for any number of hard-to-quantify, back-room offenses.
Some involved their fighters getting high-profile bouts at the expense of more-qualified colleagues. Others involved their fighters getting title shots ahead of more-deserving contenders. And a few involved allegations of their fighters – after the fact – claiming they’d been robbed of millions.
As a result, nearly every word from the fight-makers’ mouths is taken with a grain of salt and diluted down to the 10 percent that’s believable and the 90 percent that’s hyperbole. Or, in King’s case specifically, the 1 percent that’s informative and the 99 percent that’s bombastic.
Such critique is the obligation of self-respecting journalists and the pastime of well-informed fans.
Still, where Ring is involved, it seems such examination is off limits.
Rather than the cynicism warranted when a vested promoter controls a medium covering the business he promotes, declarations from the Ring since its purchase are somehow perceived closer to “gospel” than “suspect” on the same scale of objectivity.
And though their promotional track records are longer and accomplishments more plentiful than De La Hoya’s, it’s hard to imagine either King or Arum getting the same free ride from perception gatekeepers had they been the ones to buy themselves a boxing magazine.
Still, that’s not all.
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Make no mistake, the idea that Ring – or any other entity – is sincerely dedicated to honoring truly elite fighters in all divisions is undeniably a positive.
Focusing on the best athletes is good. Creating buzz for the biggest fights is good. Taking steps to cultivate sustainable interest in the sport is good.
And making any progress toward scaling its mountain of problems is beyond good.
But lost somewhere between title belt euphoria and sanctioning body disgust is the reality too many Kool-Aid drinkers seem reticent to comprehend.
Those flawed bodies, though oft-times the devil incarnate, do play a vital role.
And improving and/or streamlining them – not eliminating them – should be the objective.
Toward that end, Ring’s claim as a clear route to Valhalla is frilly and self-serving rhetoric.
To illustrate, using the magazine’s suddenly signature champion as a model, here are a few scenarios to point out issues that still remain, even in a new era of rampant enthusiasm:
Now that he’s got new jewelry to wear, let’s say Klitschko – or any other Ring champion – chooses to ditch his IBF, IBO and WBO baubles with the idea of carrying the Ring belt only.
But instead of the timely cycle of No. 1 and mandatory contenders offered by the alphabets, he decides to take a less-taxing path, meeting only foes on the periphery of consensus Top 20 lists and big names not necessarily more accomplished than less-celebrated colleagues.
Or perhaps he simply doesn’t defend for 12 or 18 months at a time, a la Jack Dempsey.
What would the Ring do?
Playing by its existing rules, not very much.
According to the “About Our Ratings” section on ringtv.com – the magazine’s online presence – the only three occasions when a fighter will lose his championship status are “when he retires, moves to another weight division or is defeated in a championship bout.”
So if he chooses, Klitschko could be the boxing equivalent of a Supreme Court justice – putting on his robe and handling the occasional non-threatening challenger while ruling above the fray, until either age or boredom convince him to change direction.
Champion for life.
In realistic terms, short of fully establishing itself as a body with mechanism to rule and regulate its title-holders, the Ring is left utterly powerless to combat championship conflicts that will surely arise when the blissful honeymoon period ends.
An emperor, though respectably well-intentioned, with no clothes.
And if it does take the step into sanctioning – officially hopping into bed with an enemy so often railed against – it creates an even more dangerous conflict of interest as long as De La Hoya’s is ultimately the name on the paychecks for both sides.
As much as the gathering flock might insist otherwise, neither is a solution that in the long run leaves boxing significantly better than it’s been.
In fact, it only ensures the very same “how do we fix it?” discussions five years down the road, after another half-decade’s worth of fans have given up and switched gears to MMA.
Be careful what you wish for “Bible” thumpers… it seems you just might get it.
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THIS WEEK’S TITLE-FIGHT SCHEDULE:
WBA bantamweight title – Vienne, France
Anselmo Moreno (champion) vs. Mahyar Monshipour (No. 12 contender)
Moreno (25-1-1, 8 KO): Fourth title defense; Won only previous fight in Europe
Monshipour (31-3-2, 21 KO): Ex-WBA champion at 122 (2003-06); First title fight at 118
FitzHitz says: Monshipour in 7
Last week’s picks: 4-0
Overall picks record: 13-2 (86.7 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons, who has every issue of The Ring from 1981-1986 squirreled away somewhere in his garage, is an award-winning 20-year sports journalist and a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/fitzbitz.