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Everyone who follows boxing knows that there used to be just eight “world champions”, one for each of the original weight classes.  And everyone also knows that there are now seventeen weight classes and four major “sanctioning bodies” (plus a number of minor ones), dishing out not only “world titles”, but also a lot of other belts that bring some purported distinction short of (or in some cases apparently superior to[1]) “world champion” status – so now we have silver, diamond, international, intercontinental, supreme, and super champion titles, to name just a few.

There being so many of them, and so many of them being meaningless, one might fairly ask why fighters are so obsessed with titles.  I have suggested a couple of possibilities in previous entries on this blog.  For one thing, many people (wrongly) believe that a fighter in possession of a title deserves special treatment by judges; and for another, fighters like to have something, however meaningless, to fight over.  But there are at least a couple more reasons.

One is expressed in the old cliché that titles, like Olympic medals, “can’t be taken away from you”: a consideration which is perhaps less trite in the case of fighters, from whom everything but their titles (including their money, their self-esteem and their higher cognitive functions) invariably is taken away.  I am sure that fighters love titles at least in part because for the rest of their lives, wherever they turn up, they will be introduced as “former World Champion . . .”.  Quite apart from the boost to the ego, this means a lot when they are competing with other has-beens for gigs “greeting” the punters at third-rate casinos, speaking on the after-dinner circuit and opening supermarkets, where most of the audience won’t even know that there are dozens of “champions” at any one time.

Another, probably the most commonly cited, is that more money can be made from the public when a title is at stake.   Certainly, title fights, and fights between boxers who are highly rated by the sanctioning bodies, are likeliest to be staged at the biggest venues, and most importantly, to be shown on television.  But it is hard to see why fighters, or anyone outside the sanctioning bodies, could see this an argument in favour of the present system.  All that follows is that titles put economic power in the hands of the unaccountable, unregulated sanctioning bodies, which only creates greater possibilities for patronage and corruption.

The grounds for naming a “champion” are usually straightforward, since if a challenger beats the titleholder, he takes over: but what is less clear is how challengers are decided.  All the sanctioning bodies produce “rankings” of fighters, determining who is eligible to fight for the title, and in the case of the fighter ranked No.1 behind the champion, who the champion has to fight to retain his standing.  But the process for coming up with such rankings is entirely opaque.  What’s more, different sanctioning bodies have historically been closer to particular promoters or fighters than others[2], undermining whatever objectivity the rankings may otherwise have.  It barely needs mentioning that each of these titles attracts a generous “sanctioning fee”, payable to the relevant sanctioning body or bodies[3].

The Ring magazine attempted to cut through all this opacity and complexity by developing its own titles and rankings, based on strict, objective, transparent criteria, and (perhaps most importantly) involving the payment of no fees.  The credibility of this process, and indeed that of the entire previously-venerated publication, went up in a puff of smoke in 2011 when the original editorial staff of the magazine were fired by Golden Boy Promotions (owners of The Ring since 2007), suspiciously large numbers of whose fighters subsequently began appearing at or near the top of the rankings[4].

This whole grubby charade was illuminated by a remark made recently by Mauricio Sulaimán, head of the WBC, following his organisation’s curious decision to elevate Julio Cesar Chavez, Jnr. to number one contender at super middleweight, despite his never having fought at that weight, and despite the fact that there are very many other fighters with an ostensibly superior claim.  Sulaimán explained it thus[5]:  “The ranking’s sole purpose is to list those fighters eligible to fight for the WBC title. It is not a popularity contest, it is not a way of saying who is best in the division” (emphasis added).

Just think about that for a moment.  The WBC rankings are not a way of deciding who is the best boxer, only who is eligible to fight for a title.  For “eligible to fight for a title”, it is pretty clear we may simply read “willing to pay a sanctioning fee in the near future.”  Otherwise, why would all the sanctioning bodies exclude from their rankings any fighter who holds or who has committed to fight for a title from another such body?  After all, anothing sanctioning body’s champion and designated challenger are, prima facie, more than likely to be among the best fighters in the weight class.  But as Sulaimán puts it, “if George Groves states his intention to fight for another championship [i.e., the title of another sanctioning body], we cannot retain his ranking because he is busy for three to six months and he holds up other fighters who are eligible”.

This approach is not restricted to the WBC.  Compare this, from the WBA’s rules:  “Ratings represent the best opinion of the Association as to the relative qualification of the boxers in particular weight categories at a particular time and who are available and willing to fight for the Association’s title”. Note that ratings are based on “opinion”, not objective criteria, and “qualification” is not defined.  More importantly, however, “[t]he Committee may demote or remove a boxer from the ratings based on any relevant factor, including . . . failure to pay or allow to be paid sanction fees.”

The IBF apparently represents an improvement in explicitly stating that ratings “must be based solely on win/loss records, level of competition, [and] activity”.  However, they are also subject to “a boxer’s adherence to IBF/USBA rules and regulations”, which of course includes payment of sanctioning fees.  What is more, again, “[b]oxers that contract to fight for other world titles shall be considered unavailable and will be removed from the rankings”.  And, wouldn’t you just know it, “[a]ll ratings criteria are subject to exception by approval of the Ratings Committee.”

My personal favourite criterion for deciding on a mandatory challenger, however, comes from the WBO, who insist that, inter alia, “[i]n the event that the Champion has a contract with a major television network (HBO, SHOWTIME, ZDF, Sky or other similar broadcast company)”, the mandatory challenger must be “an acceptable challenger to the Champion’s television network”.

So the rankings of the sanctioning bodies are nothing like those of The Ring‘s old system.   In no case is ownership of either a sanctioning body’s title or the right to challenge the titleholder based solely on a fighter’s merits as a fighter.  This being so, what is the point of the ranking?  And therefore, what is the point of the title?

One final thing.  The spirit of The Ring’s original ranking system lives on, in the form of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org/), who are hereby appointed Official Rankings Provider to The Rumpus Compass.  We bestow this honour on the basis that . .

  1. Their rankings are at least rankings (i.e., an attempt to rank fighters by how good they are) rather than whatever it is the alphabets produce;
  2. The rankings look more or less right;
  3. They are a great bunch of guys (one member of the committee is our favourite “Jewish collegeboy”, podcaster Eric Raskin)
  4. We have a soft spot for plucky no-hopers; and
  5. Any organisation with a name as bad as “The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board” can only be in it for the right reasons.

[1] From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Boxing_Association): “The WBA recognizes the title holders from the WBC, WBO, and IBF organizations. The WBA refers to a champion who holds two or more of these titles in the same weight class as an “undisputed champion” or “super champion”. This applies even if the WBA title is not one of the titles held by the “undisputed champion”.

If a fighter with multiple titles holds the WBA’s title as well, the fighter is promoted to “Super Champion” and the WBA title becomes vacant for competition by other WBA-ranked boxers. As a result, the WBA tables will sometimes show a “WBA Super World Champion” and a “WBA World Champion” for the same weight class, instead of “WBA Champion”.

A WBA champion may be promoted to “Super Champion” without winning another organization’s title . . . The WBA will promote their titlist to a “Super” champion when he successfully defends his title five times.”

[2] Most famously, for many years the WBC was accused of taking orders from Don King.  Also, Bob Arum went on record to admit that he had bribed senior officials at the WBA, and when Bob Lee of the IBF was jailed on numerous counts of racketeering the names of both Arum and King were mentioned in court.

[3] The old joke that WBA stands for “we be askin’”, and WBC for “we be collectin’” is too good to omit.  Readers are invited to submit their own suggestions for “IBF” and “WBO”.

[4] Allegedly.  Readers interested in events surrounding this episode are directed to Ivan Goldman’s discussion of it at http://www.cjr.org/feature/the_ring_is_counted_out.php?page=all.  Having read Goldman’s article, you may feel the urge to enjoy again what Manny Pacquiao did to Oscar de la Hoya: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-8zGw-1YAM.