As with any sport, boxing is at its most compelling when the two very best competitors face each other —in fighting’s case, in a particular division. Boxing is most visually and intellectually interesting when two fighters of differing approaches but similar mindsets battle one another.
Put those two things together in the same fight, and that’s boxing at its finest. Saturday night’s undisputed junior welterweight title fight between Josh Taylor and Jose Ramirez was boxing at its very best. The two holders of all of the collective titles in the 140-pound weight division faced off, Ramirez with the intention of marching forward, Taylor with the intention of letting his opponent lead the dance but making him pay for getting to the area they both wanted to fight in.
After a thrilling firefight, Taylor emerged victorious by unanimous decision by scores of 114-112 across the board, retaining his WBA and IBF titles and snatching Ramirez’s WBC and WBO straps to become the undisputed champion of the 140-pound division.
Putting Taylor’s achievement into perspective also starkly illustrates how restrictive the sanctioning body system is in terms of getting in the way of major fights. Since the formation of the WBO in 1988, you can count on two hands the number of undisputed champions in men’s boxing: Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor at middleweight, Terence Crawford and Josh Taylor at junior welterweight, and Oleksandr Usyk at middleweight. Depending on whether you choose to define Teofimo Lopez as an undisputed champion or merely a fighter holding four belts, he may be included as well. In women’s boxing, the feat has been reached five times—by Claressa Shields twice at middleweight and junior middleweight respectively, Cecilia Braekhus and Jessica McCaskill at welterweight and Katie Taylor at junior welterweight. Shields, McCaskill and Taylor are currently reigning.
Braekhus herself had more undisputed four-belt title fights than have happened in men’s boxing entirely. In all, just seven four-belt undisputed title fights have occurred on the men’s side, and three of them involved Bernard Hopkins during his undisputed middleweight title reign.
This is evidence of several things. One, becoming undisputed champion is rare because it is extremely difficult. However, if boxing’s construct worked the way it ought to, even within a confusing four-belt system, one would think that undisputed title fights would happen all the time. But the reality is that sanctioning bodies are not just entities with differing opinions as to how to rank fighters in a given division. They are cash-driven entities whose motivation to determine the best fighter is secondary to which fighters’ handlers are willing to be the most loyal and charitable.
The fact that fighters so seldomly defend four titles at a time once they’ve won them is instructive as well. It is true that for some fighters, winning the fourth and final belt in a division provides closure on their run within a given weight class and they opt to move up in weight anyway. However, some might choose to stick around and rule for a while if satisfying four competing sanctioning entities at a time weren’t next to impossible.
This is boxing at its bureaucratic worst.
But as long as there are fighters like Taylor and Ramirez, the sport remains able to rise above itself. Saturday’s title fight was a true grudge match between two fighters who genuinely tried to get after one another in the hotel elevator during fight week, and not in the contrived way opponents often shove during press events when cameras are flashing. The action in the ring could have only been produced by fighters who were emotionally motivated.
How else can you explain Ramirez somehow getting up after getting knocked down for the second time in the seventh round? Ramirez was hit with an uppercut that should have ended the night—an unprotected, clean, full-torque uppercut landed by Taylor during a lapse in defense by Ramirez coming out of a clinch. Ramirez was never quite the same after that punch—he was never able to get as consistently close to Taylor as he was in the earlier stages of the fight, and yet, he managed to will himself to create some nail-biter sequences in the 10th and 12th rounds.
Taylor operated with the cold focus of a man who had obsessed over this fight since he woke up on New Year’s Day.
“I have been getting ready for this fight since my 30th birthday on January 2. I have been preparing for a long time and getting ready for this fight. I never had a drink and I think I trained on my birthday. I had a Chinese takeaway that night but I was into the gym the next day,” Taylor told the East Lothian Courier’s Cameron Ritchie. Taylor said he spent the final four weeks training in a gym with the heat cranked up to 100 degrees, torturing himself to prepare for the biggest fight of his career.
People like Taylor and Ramirez are wired differently—fighters want to fight. Even wholly unqualified boxers want to face the best in the world. The idea that the best fighters aren’t willing to face one another is generally a fallacy. Too often the onus is put on fighters, independent non-union contractors in a cruelly stratified system with no job security, to eschew the system and opt out of the sanctioning body construct. The number of fighters globally who could do that and suffer no financial consequences is in the low single digits, and only they could do it due to a longstanding legacy and global fame—fighters like Canelo Alvarez or Manny Pacquiao. And yet, even Alvarez and Pacquiao celebrate their title wins, because those are the tokens of accomplishment in their sport that presently exist.
Fighters want to fight. But they also want to make money. And as long as the sport is set up such that the path to money runs through cooperation between fighters’ employers and four separate ranking companies with individual agendas, they won’t be able to fight who they want to fight, or we want them to fight, nearly as often as they should.
The answer to when we will get the next undisputed title fight should theoretically be immediately evident. Instead, the answer is “when we get lucky again.”
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and broadcaster living in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman.