By Jake Donovan
No matter what happens in Saturday's super welterweight clash between Liam Smith and John Thompson, both fighters can put on their respective resumes that they've fought for a major title.
The manner in which they've arrived to that point, however, is a tale that won't like make the personal highlight reel for either fighter or their camps.
The World Boxing Organization (WBO) was gracious enough to put its super welterweight crown at stake for Saturday's vacant title at stake in Manchester, England. The belt became available after the sanctioning body stripped its previous claimant, Demetrius Andrade for failure to defend in a timely manner.
It also became available for Smith and Thompson after what was described by the WBO as "an oversight" that magically dropped previously ranked Austin Trout from the ratings long enough to not get the opportunity at a second title reign.
Andrade (21-0, 14KOs) - an unbeaten southpaw from Providence, Rhode Island who served on the 2008 U.S. Olympic boxing team - earned the strap in a vacant title fight win over Vanes Martirosyan in Nov. '13. Just one defense came of his championship tour, a one-sided 7th round stoppage of England's Brian Rose last June in New York.
By his own admission, a foolish move was made on Andrade's part to pass on the chance to face Jermall Charlo when he had the opportunity. A career-high purse was offered for the optional title fight, but an internal rift and eyes on a sweeter deal prompted the boxer to sit on the sidelines.
The WBO was to assign a mandatory challenger for the 27-year old, but never came about. By the time Andrade attempted to circle back around to a fight that was previously on the table, Charlo had moved on to face and eventually beat Vanes Martirosyan.
In the months that followed, only two fighters occupied the top spot in the WBO 154 lb. rankings - Ukraine's Oleksandr Spyrko and wildly popular former champ Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez. Spyrko never gravitated towards a title fight or eliminator, and eventually slid down the ratings.
Alvarez tended to other business. A three-round destruction of James Kirkland in May served as his return to American cable giant HBO and also the first step towards securing an eventual shot at World middleweight champion Miguel Cotto, with the two due to throw down on November 21 in Las Vegas.
Despite such well-known plans, Alvarez went from unranked to number-one in the WBO May ratings. One night prior saw France’s Michel Soro score a knockout win over Glen Tapia, a feat that earned the 27-year old a number-three ranking (Tapia was ranked number two at the time of the fight).
Trout was number three heading into May, dropping one place after more notable wins were registered by Alvarez and Soro. Had original plans held true, Trout – a former super welterweight titlist – would have faced Anthony Mundine in another part of Texas hours before Alvarez knocked out Kirkland in front of 30,000 strong in Houston.
Instead, Mundine pulled out of the fight – a tactic that has become habitual for the Aussie boxer in recent months – leaving Trout to face and knockout late sub Luis Galarza. It wasn’t enough to warrant a promotion, but his intention to remain active, thus keeping him in the WBO ratings and now one spot ahead of Smith, who previously moved into the Top 5 following a regional title fight win in April.
What happened after that is the type of monkey business that has fans and media constantly frowning on the sanctioning bodies. Worse, such events have been met with a mere shrug of the shoulders in absence of a valid response.
John Thompson was a late entrant into co-promoter Artie Pelullo’s Boxcino 154 lb. tournament on ESPN2. The New Jersey-based boxer jumped in on 24 hours notice after Cleotis Pendarvis failed to make weight and was forced to withdraw. Thompson went on to run the tables, scoring a pair of decision wins before knocking out tournament favorite Brandon Adams in the 2nd round of their finals match in May.
Amazingly, the very same Inter-Continental title that helped Smith earn a Top 5 ranking was at stake in the Boxcino finals. It enabled Thompson to advance to the number five spot in the 154 lb. division, with Smith inexplicably dropped altogether.
The swap was brought to the attention of the WBO, who re-inserted Smith into the July rankings – entering one slot higher at number three, with Spyrko dropping to number four and Thompson remaining at number five. The move resulted in Trout somehow being removed from the rankings.
Apparently his handlers weren’t quite as vocal (read: threatening) as the team behind Smith’s career, as repeated inquiries into the move went ignored for two months – long enough for Andrade to be stripped and for Smith to move into position to fight for the vacant title.
Despite Andrade’s team filing a valid appeal as well as Trout’s handlers wondering what happened to their fighter, the WBO moved forward with its own agenda to fill the vacancy. With Alvarez agreeing to terms for a Cotto clash, Soro and Smith were ordered to meet for the crown. Just as the title fight was announced, Soro withdrew due to promotional issues that couldn’t be sorted out in time.
Soro’s departure left the door open for Thompson – whose co-promoter Pelullo plays the same role in Andrade’s career – to face Smith for the title, which leads to their upcoming clash Saturday evening in Manchester, England.
While Andrade’s appeal didn’t produce the desired result, the southpaw will fight for an International version of the WBO title – perhaps insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but enough of a consolation prize to suggest there will be more to come for the unbeaten ex-champ.
As for Trout? The WBO managed to finally respond to his team in September, at which point the boxer – who never turned down a chance to fight for the title, nor was he offered such an opportunity - magically re-appeared in the number four spot of the rankings, wedged directly in between Smith and Thompson. The reinsertion was written off an “omission” on the part of the sanctioning body, with his placement coming after a 6th round knockout of Joey Hernandez earlier in the month.
Efforts to have the fight blocked – or at least its world title status removed – were denied by the British Boxing Board of Control, which does not get involved in the dealings of sanctioning bodies, just the fighters themselves. With that, comes the latest – though most certainly not the final – step in the bizarre journey leading to this title fight.
Whoever comes out ahead tonight between Smith and Thompson will leave with the comfort that the win was earned by beating a quality fighter. However, the belt that comes with such a victory will have to be worn knowing the opportunity came as the result of the type of dealings that continues to cast sanctioning bodies in a negative light.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com.
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