The date is September 23, 1952, and all-time great Rocco Francis Marchegiano, a.k.a. Rocky Marciano, has just knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott to become the World Heavyweight Champion. The prestigious title was accompanied by a total hardware count of one, the National Boxing Association (NBA) title belt, which became the World Boxing Association (WBA) ten years later. Only six other fighters worldwide could wear this belt, albeit in different weight classes.
World Champions in September 1952
– Flyweight (112lbs): Yoshio Shirai (Japan)
– Bantamweight(118lbs): Vic Toweel (South Africa)
– Featherweight (126lbs): Sandy Saddler (USA)
– Lightweight (135lbs): Lauro Salas (Mexico)
– Welterweight (147lbs): Kid Gavilan (Cuba)
– Middleweight (160lbs): *VACANT* Sugar Ray Robinson (USA) –vacated the title 5 months earlier. The title remained vacant until October of 1960.
– Light-Heavyweight (175lbs): Joey Maxim (USA)
– Heavyweight (unlimited): Rocky Marciano (USA)
Looking at this list, one can see why “World” was a necessary nomenclature in those times and how “Champion” carried a distinction like no other in sports. The seven World Champions on this list carried an aura of invincibility among all sports fans worldwide. Robinson, who did not lose his title in the ring, can be included in that list. The high respect for these eight fighters was universal, true to the times before boxing politics became the sport’s driving force.
Fast-forward to February 5, 2024. Canelo Alvarez, the undisputed Super Middleweight Champion of the World, is ridiculed daily by casual-level fans who label his accomplishment of unifying an entire division, one champion at a time, as “cherry picking.”
Undefeated 6’9 Heavyweight Champion of the World Tyson Fury, the only fighter in history to win all 7 recognized Championship Belts in the ring from the respective champions, is being accused of cutting his own eye with a razor to avoid a routine defense against a Cruiserweight, whose biggest Heavyweight accomplishment is twice out-boxing a paper champion fight quitter named Anthony Joshua, the most timid, manufactured Heavyweight in the 21st century.
“World” Champions like Floyd Mayweather Jr, who refused to fight outside of his hometown, where he held considerable influence over the local economy and Boxing commission, has more championship belts in his trophy room than he has had championship fights, including 17 from the WBC alone.
Fighters like Gervonta “Tank” Davis, a.k.a. Abdul Wahid, parade around the ring wearing a WBA belt to cheering fans, even while there was an undisputed champion in the same weight class. Fighters like Devin Haney and Jaron “Boots” Ennis receive their championship status via email and their belts via Federal Express.
On the female boxing side, unproven boxer Claressa Shields, recently exposed getting knocked out cold by an amateur fighter in light sparring, has more “world” title belts in her trophy room than she has had fights. The World Boxing Association (formerly the NBA) recognizes as many as 68 “World Champions” over seventeen weight classes in the men’s category alone.
That is four recognized “World Champions” wearing the same belt in each weight class. The World Boxing Council (WBC) is now creating entirely new title belts on a fight-by-fight basis. It would take an IRS Tax Auditor to determine precisely how many WBC “World Champions” exist at any given time.
The International Boxing Federation (IBF) works closely with individual promoters, stripping brand new champions of their belts mere days after winning them to pave the way for more marketable fighters like Anthony Joshua to attain the belts through the path of least resistance against the opponent of their choice.
The Ring Magazine belt, established in 1922 and generally affiliated with the Lineal Championship, is now owned by leading boxing promoter Oscar De La Hoya.
This creates possibly the most significant conflict of interest in the sport, despite Oscar’s unmatched integrity in never using this influence to benefit his own fighters or sanction his rivals.
WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG?
Many arguments can be made about where things went wrong, and corruption, greed, and the accompanying politics altered the purity of the world’s greatest championship.
In fact, the first universally recognized championship, the NBA/WBA, was actually created as a democratic opposition to the perceived tyranny of the New York State Athletic Commission, which had begun determining championship status in 1920. A few blatant examples of enablement stand out in modern history.
- On December 11, 1983, Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes decided he deserved an easy payday before facing dangerous mandatory challenger Greg Page. When the WBC refused his request, Larry relinquished his WBC belt and adopted the newly minted IBF title since they would allow him to do whatever he wanted in their quest for legitimacy. Larry brought immediate clout to arguably the worst title organization in the sport but also set a precedent and trend that would be followed for the rest of time by fighters who wanted to make their own rules and choose their own opponents.
- On November 7, 1988, the WBC, notorious for their “marketing over legitimacy” business model, created an entire weight class to satisfy Sugar Ray Leonard’s desire to be a five-division champion. “Sugar” was awarded two belts of two weight classes that night after defeating Donny LaLonde, something not allowed even in today’s cesspool of “belts for bucks” and boxing politics. It has taken more than 40 years for a fighter, Hall of Famer Canelo Alvarez, to come along and clean up this division born of greed and boxing politics. No good deed goes unpunished.
- On February 11, 1990, unheralded underdog Buster Douglas knocked out undefeated and undisputed Mike Tyson in perhaps the biggest upset in Boxing History. In a brief yet revealing moment of panic and at the hest of influential promoter Don King, the WBC, and the WBA refused to recognize Douglas as the new champion. The frivolous argument was that Douglas had received a long count in a flash knockdown earlier in the fight. This argument has become a comical coping mechanism for casual-level fans not equipped with the mental fortitude and integrity to admit when a fighter they like has been defeated. Case-in-point being Tyson Fury’s three dismantlings and two highlight-reel KOs of Deontay Wilder. These naysayers move the goalposts and begin their own count the instant the stricken fighter falls, as if a fighter is supposed to follow the count of a million fans, not the referee. Amid massive backlash, the WBA, and the WBC did an about-face and reversed their decision, thus rightfully recognizing Douglas as the champion. To their credit, the IBF had immediately recognized Douglas as the rightful champion.
- On December 8, 2015, at the hest of British promoter Eddie Hearn, the IBF stripped newly crowned lineal and unified Heavyweight Champion of the World Tyson Fury a ridiculous nine days after he won the belt for not defending against mandatory challenger Vyacheslav Glazkov. This political move was made simply to pave an easy pathway for heavyweight Anthony Joshua to get a championship belt without facing the champion. Joshua, however, was also scared of Glazkov and waited for Charles Martin to be gifted the paper title by way of a knee injury suffered by Glazkov. Joshua then felt safe enough to vie for the paper title against a safe opponent. Today, Joshua, Eddie Hearn, and the IBF are at it again. The IBF was poised to strip Tyson Fury of the title immediately after he’d won it in his ill-fated unification match against paper champion Oleksandr Usyk and were already scheduling a bout for the vacant title while it was still around the waist of Usyk.
Countless other examples loom in recent Boxing history.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
Do we blame fighters like Larry Holmes and Sugar Ray Leonard, who brought legitimacy to the belts of compromised sanctioning organizations and unnecessary weight classes that damage the sport for decades to come just to fatten their pockets and stroke their egos? Do we blame promoters who, by definition, are only doing the job they are paid to do by getting the most money and attention for their fighters?
Do we blame the sanctioning bodies for their greed and dilution of the championship integrity in exchange for the finances necessary to keep their corporations alive? The answer to all of these is a resounding no. We have only ourselves to blame for this mess. It is up to us, the fans, to decide whether we should pander to this corruption. Our responsibility is to turn our backs and not support politics, even when it benefits our favorite fighters.
WHICH TITLES STAND ABOVE THE REST?
- World Boxing Council (WBC)
Despite a perfidious and compromised history, the WBC have somewhat redeemed themselves in recent years by allowing their champions to remain champions until beaten in the ring. Although this has been taken advantage of by the likes of Jermall Charlo, they are clearly on the right track, as proven by their integral move of resisting intense pressure from Team Usyk to strip Heavyweight Champion of the World Tyson Fury for being injured in training, in order to give paper champion Oleksandr Usyk the dubious distinction of becoming the first Undisputed Email Champion of the World.
They have also resisted equally intense pressure to strip Undisputed Super Middleweight King Canelo Alvarez and give the belt to David Benavidez, who is a heavyweight that squeezes down to 168 to beat up on 160lb fighters and has already lost the same title for cocaine use and failing to make weight. It is no coincidence that the most accomplished fighters in today’s rankings wear the WBC belt, including Tyson Fury, Canelo Alvarez, Naoya Inoue, Artur Beterbiev, Terence Crawford, and Devin Haney.
– Created yet another weight class in recent years, Bridgerweight.
– Still crowns multiple champions in the same weight class. Creates new title belts for big-money fights, including the cringe-worthy and opportunistic Black Lives Matter, Juneteenth, and Queen Elizabeth belts. All shameless attempts at capitalizing on the deaths of prominent figures both in history and the modern day.
2. World Boxing Organization (WBO)
Another belt with a sordid past that has begun hitting its stride in the 21st century. In the 90s, the WBO was mainly a fourth-place medal worn by obscure, up-and-coming Europeans and Americans like Riddick Bowe as a replacement for belts thrown in the garbage can for demanding he faced his mandatory challenger Lennox Lewis. The WBO was no doubt brought into prominence by the greatest Featherweight of all time, Prince Naseem Hamed of the UK, whose only “loss” was to Marco Antonio Barrera, who utilized the most flagrant fouls ever allowed in Boxing to earn his illegitimate victory that should have been a DQ loss, and Fighter of the Decade Manny Pacquiao, who’s only legitimate losses were to lucky punchers Juan Manual Marquez, Boonsai Sangsurat, and Rustico Torrecampo. Today, the WBO remains quiet and integral while the other organizations out-maneuver each other on a weekly basis.
Notable current champions include Naoya Inoue, Artur Beterbiev, Canelo Alvarez, Teofimo Lopez, Tim Tszyu, Terence Crawford, and Oleksandr Usyk.
– Still recognizes “Interim” and “Super” champions. Eliminate these, and the #1 spot easily becomes theirs.
3. Ring Championship
The Ring Championship would have made an easy #1 if not for their recent activities in crowning champions via email. The Ring Championship is a mostly hypothetical title, which should be its strength, but they have weakened it by allowing their ego to bring them into the physical realm. When champions Devin Haney and Tyson Fury vacated their Ring belts out of frustration with boxing politics, Ring responded by emailing their belts. The proper response should have been that the ring title cannot be vacated. A power move like that would have easily cemented the number-one spot.
International Boxing Federation (IBF)
The IBF has plummeted in recent years, which says a lot for a title belt brought into prominence by enabling a Heavyweight Champion to duck a dangerous mandatory challenger. The IBF has become so absurd in recent years that you or I could be crowned champion on any given day if they type in the wrong email address during a title exchange. Check your spam folder daily.
World Boxing Association (WBA)
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It’s hard to imagine the belt once worn by Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Sonny Liston can now be seen around the waist of Gervonta “Tank” Davis, a fighter who arguably lost to the only legitimate contender he ever faced in Isaac “Pitbull” Cruz. The WBA should issue medals to their 68 possible “World Champions” instead of belts since they crown as many as four “champions” in each weight class.
International Boxing Organization (IBO)
The IBO continues to struggle for legitimacy despite being brought into semi-prominence by all-time greats Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko decades ago. One reason for their failure to gain a foothold has been their earlier uncanny resemblance to the WBA belt.
This led to many unified champions sneaking the IBO belt into their hardware collection to fill the absence of the WBA belt at a casual glance.
In recent years, the IBO has changed its belt color from black to a darkened green, most likely to discourage fighters from using their belts as a mere stunt double for the WBA belt. With its history of Hall of Fame champions like Thomas Hearns, Manny Pacquiao, Prince Naseem Hamed, Lennox Lewis, Tyson Fury, James Toney, and Bernard Hopkins, plus noteworthy names like Floyd Mayweather Jr, Jeff Mayweather and Roger Mayweather, the history and pedigree of the IBO is solidified.
All it needs now is a legitimate lineal champion to take them seriously enough to honor their mandatory challengers and wear their belt exclusively. With the ambiguous and waning legitimacy of the current leaders in the sanctioning body cartel wars, the IBO is in a prime position for a sudden takeover.