(Re-written February 2013 by MJ Law)
There is only one world, therefore there can be only one champion of it, right? Not according to boxing's alphabet groups.
There are many “world titles” floating around and the stage has been reached whereby it’s almost impossible to figure out who is champion of what. And naturally, just about anybody can win one because the talent is spread so thinly. It’s difficult to find a boxer without some sort of belt to put on the line each time he steps into the ring. Will we reach the point when there are more titles than active fighters, and the sanctioning groups will have to wait for someone to turn pro so they can fill a vacancy? Sometimes it seems that situation may not be far off. Clearly, the achievement of becoming a world champion is drastically devalued. And the distinct possibility exists, and occasionally occurs, when a fighter can, for example, win a WBA title after already failing in attempts to win the IBF title. That fighter can then still call himself a “world champion”, which of course is illogical. Being world welterweight champion now means much less than it did 30 years ago because the champion now is likely only one of a number of claimants, and the merry-go-round of titleholders is relentless. Does anyone remember Aaron Davis, or Rene Jacquot, or Robert Daniels, who are among countless others who are swiftly lost in the mists of time once their reigns are over? John Mugabi is more famous for his loss to Marvin Hagler than he is for holding the WBC super-welterweight crown. In the last 30 years, the WBC alone has crowned over 300 champions!
The alphabet groups do not help themselves due to their inconsistency. They do not rate title-holders of other sanctioning bodies and they do not even agree on the names of certain divisions! The WBA have minimumweight set at 105 lbs, whereas the WBC call this division strawweight and the IBF label it mini-flyweight. The WBC tend to favour the prefix of “super”, as in super lightweight, while the others prefer “junior”, as in junior welterweight.
Bobby Czyz was a top light heavyweight in the late 1980’s but he was not a universally-recognized world champion
Furthermore, they produce ratings than many fans find almost unfathomable. Wladimir Klitschko had to defend his IBF heavyweight crown against Ray Austin in 2007, who was their number one contender. How exactly did Austin reach that lofty status? The best names on his record were a faded Larry Donald, the ordinary Lance Whitaker and Sultan Ibragimov, all of whom he had drawn with. Austin had never beaten a genuine world-class heavyweight in his prime, yet the IBF deemed him the most worthy opponent for Klitschko. Why? Was anyone demanding this showdown? Not surprisingly, the limited Austin was flattened in two rounds in a pointless mismatch. No one benefited from this needless contest, except the IBF who collected a sanctioning fee. The heavyweight division did not move forward and Klitschko did not enhance his status. He could have made far more money elsewhere. This is one example of an endless stream of meaningless mandatory defences for alphabet belt-holders that has occurred year after year. In addition, the alphabet groups have regularly stripped their title-holders for unfair reasons. In 1987, IBF heavyweight title-holder Michael Spinks was stripped for failing to defend against Tony Tucker. A Spinks-Tucker clash was by no means a mouth-watering bout that boxing fans were crying out for. Instead, Spinks opted to face Gerry Cooney and regardless of Cooney’s credentials, for Spinks it was a much more high-profile contest with greater financial rewards. At least Cooney was a recognizable name and a murderous puncher, which made for quite an intriguing fight, and in the long run made far more sense than facing Tucker. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, Spinks immediately vanished from the IBF ratings. But when he signed for a fight with Mike Tyson the following year he miraculously re-appeared, being ranked fifth for no other apparent reason than to justify the sanctioning of the fight, yet he had not had a fight to earn a ranking! It should be noted that all three alphabet groups earned a whopping $200,000 each in sanctioning fees for the Tyson-Spinks bout. Incidentally, Spinks was the lineal world heavyweight champion anyway.
Of course, it’s not just the IBF who is guilty of difficult-to-explain practices. In 2007, WBC lightweight champion Joel Casamayor was mysteriously demoted to interim champion. In 2000, unified heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis was stripped of his WBA belt for defending against Michael Grant instead of John Ruiz, even though Grant was more deserving. In 1989, WBA middleweight champion Sumbu Kalamabay was stripped of his title because he opted to take on IBF counterpart Michael Nunn in a unification bout. The list goes on and on and on. Do your homework and you will find many instances of title strippings over the last quarter of a century. Belts are taken from boxers almost on a whim but there's very likely financial reasons behind it (check out a book called Boxing Confidential by Jim Brady and you will be given a greater understanding of just how these alphabet groups operate).
There is also an impression given that rules are made up spontaneously or ignored when they’re inconvenient. In 1987, Julio Cesar Chavez was the WBA lightweight champion, yet the WBC ranked him number one in their ratings, which ensured a fight with their champion, Jose Luis Ramirez. This blatantly went against their practice of not ranking title-holders of other sanctioning bodies. Why was there an exception for Chavez? All this attacks the credibility of the alphabet groups and can render their belts virtually worthless. But why are the boxers themselves are willing to go for these alphabet belts? They have to hand over a percentage of their hard-earned purse money in sanctioning fees, and it’s not the suits that represent the alphabet gangs who have to bust their butts in the ring. Would boxers be any better off without an alphabet title? Let’s take a look at the career of Tim Austin, who held the IBF bantamweight crown from 1997 to 2003. Did holding that crown benefit him? Can anyone remember whom he defended it against without checking first? Anyone memorable? Any bouts that will guarantee plenty of coverage in the history books? It could be argued that Austin would have got nowhere without IBF recognition, which could have been the factor in him gaining TV dates. But simultaneously, he was part of promoter Don King’s then-huge stable and never really seemed to get the attention his ability warranted. There were extended periods of inactivity during his prime years and when he did fight, he merely toiled away on undercards without much notice. He certainly had talent and could have really made his mark on the bantamweight division in the mid-to-late 1990’s, but now he seems to be a fighter who never reached his potential. Who’s fault is that? King’s? Austin’s? What about the IBF, who kept him defending against unqualified challengers for chump change? What if Austin had just dumped his IBF belt and went after contemporary rival headliners Johnny Tapia or Paulie Ayala? He could have achieved much more and made big money too. Another example is Lennox Lewis. After winning his rematch with Evander Holyfield in 1999, he held the WBC, WBA and IBF titles. He was subsequently stripped of the WBA title (what a surprise!) and his IBF title was removed when he proved reluctant to fight Chris Byrd. Did being left with only the WBC title diminish his standing in any way? Certainly not. He was still Lennox Lewis, the real heavyweight champion of the world, and it was beating Holyfield that pushed him to the upper echelon of the sport, not whichever three-letter formation he happened to be adorned with.
So who is responsible for maintaining the existence of all these alphabet belts, apart from the alphabet groups themselves? There are two main culprits; TV networks and promoters. TV networks seem to think that a boxing match needs to have a title on the line in order for it to attract viewers. But is it really necessary? Consider the case of Danny Garcia. At the beginning of 2013, this hotshot from Philadelphia was a budding star with talent to burn. Would he be appealing if he was billed as "Danny Garcia, the WBA junior welterweight champion"? Or would he be more appealing if he was billed as "Danny Garcia, the Philly sensation who flattened Amir Khan and ended the career of the great Erik Morales"? It is the fighter that is the attraction, not the title. As for promoters, they appear to use alphabet titles to secure their deals. How many promoters have tried to sell a fight to a TV executive who doesn't know any better by claiming, "This is a sure fire ratings hit because it's a world title fight!". And how many promoters have signed up a new prospect by declaring, "Hey kid, you sign with me and I'll get you a title shot by the end of the year!". But there are now so many titles that they have become devoid of meaning. Is there still an ambition for a fighter to get his name in the record books by winning a so-called world title? If there was a record book of all world title bouts then it would have to be thousands of pages! It would be like a telephone directory! A fighter would have to literally plough through hundreds and hundreds of names in order to find his own.
There’s no denying that Marvin Hagler (seen here on the right against Thomas Hearns) was a legitimate world middleweight champion
Mike Tyson (standing) became the lineal world heavyweight champion when he beat Michael Spinks in 1988
Maybe someone like Charley Burley would have benefited from the opportunity of winning an alphabet belt. This supremely talented contender was sadly frozen out of the world title picture back in the 1940’s when there was only one world champion, whereas now he would have at least six or seven champs to choose from. Maybe he would have been grateful for being a WBF or WBC titleholder? However, I like to think that Charley had a bit more integrity than that and would not have been content with only holding a single alphabet belt. Would he not have preferred to be a true, proper WORLD champion? Furthermore, the alphabet groups appear to have actually prevented or failed to generate as many worthwhile matches as they have mandated, maybe more. In the early 1990’s, they could have forced leading bantamweights Junior Jones (WBA) and Orlando Canizales (IBF) to face each other, but they didn’t. Also in the early 1990’s, they could have forced heavyweight stars Riddick Bowe (WBA/IBF) and Lennox Lewis (WBC) to face each other, but they didn’t. And in the mid-1990’s, they could have forced light heavyweights Roy Jones (WBC) and Dariusz Michelczewski (WBO) to face each other, but they didn’t. Sadly, the alphabet groups have their own agendas and it’s the sport that suffers. They have a glaring opportunity to work together and initiate their belt-holders to square off against each other in order to bring sensibility to boxing, but instead they seem content to let the turmoil continue. Boxing needs to untangle itself from the mind-boggling maze of disorganisation it currently finds itself in. Casual fans don’t have a clue what’s going on and have little or no idea what all these titles mean. Ever heard of the Baltic Sea title? Apparently, the WBC has one. It goes along with all the continental, interim, international and super titles that are also up for grabs. Do all these titles exist to provide an opportunity for everyone to have one? I can't think of any other sport that has watered down to this extent the achievement of winning anything. We are in a situation whereby any boxer can just about win any title without having to face a decent opponent. What about US football? What if there were a couple more Super Bowls? Teams such as the Seattle Seahawks and the Detroit Lions, who rarely win anything, can then have a chance at being Super Bowl champs! Or what about tennis? The last British player to win the men's singles title at Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936. British tennis fans have been desperate for another ever since. In the mid-to-late 1990's, hopes were pinned on Tim Henman, who never quite made it all the way. But if there were three or four Wimbledon tournaments each year he could have succeeded. He could have entered the one with the weakest opposition to ensure he would be victorious. See the point? Would US football fans or tennis fans put up with any of this nonsense? Of course not, but boxing fans have no choice. It's our sport. It wouldn't exist if we didn't follow it. Why can't we have a proper world champion? That’s where this website comes in.
Keen observers will note that in our lineal championships section some recent contests for vacant world championships coincide with The Ring magazine’s choices. Naturally, ratings are subjective to a certain extent but the leading fighters in each division are, in most cases, obvious. We are not competing against the The Ring or anyone else; boxing needs uniformity, not more disputes, and The Ring’s ratings make plenty of sense. Of course, they may miss something and they notably did when they began their new championship policy in 2002. They had their flyweight crown vacant when in fact Pongsaklek Wonjongkam was the lineal world flyweight champion. However, the magazine is a crucial guide for fans as precious few other sources highlight who is a legitimate champion and who is not.
This website covers the history of the divisions and tracks all the genuine world title bouts, with all alphabet belts and title strippings being ignored. But if you're wondering what a lineal champion is, it's really quite simple. As an example, let's start from the beginning of the heavyweight division. It's 1892, the Queensbury rules are gaining acceptance and John L Sullivan is the bare-knuckle champion. Why? Because he beat everyone. The most worthy opponent for him is James J Corbett. Why? Because he's beaten everyone too. The bout is fought with gloves and - hey presto! - we have the first fight of the gloved era for the heavyweight championship of the world. Corbett boxes brilliantly and wins. He's the first champ.
A lineal world champion can only lose his crown in the following ways; he retires, he dies (a terrible tragedy but a horrible fact of life), he moves to another weight division or is beaten in the ring. And whoever beats him in the ring becomes the new champ. How can anyone else be the champ unless they beat the champ, right? Simple! So in 1897, Corbett loses to Bob Fitzsimmons. Therefore, Fitzsimmons becomes the new champ. And in 1899, he loses to James J Jeffries, who becomes the new champ. See how easy it is to follow? And it could really be like this now! But.....in 1905, Jeffries retires. Crikey! No more lineal champ! The chain was broken! But guess what? We were saved because Marvin Hart and Jack Root, the two most likely successors, squared off that same year. Hart won and a new lineage began. And so it goes on. I don't have to go through the entire history of the heavyweight division to illustrate how logical the concept of a lineal championship is. It may be old fashioned, but the concept of a champion being crowned in the ring should never be outdated. Champions shouldn't be created in board rooms with a bunch of stuffed shirts stripping this guy and stripping that guy and then handing out titles to whoever they feel like, regardless of merit. And during a coffee break deciding to create an interim title because the champ has a shoulder injury and may be out of action for six months. What's that? No sanctioning fee for at least six months??? Quick, create an interim champ! Oh brother.....