Roll Up, Roll Up, Come Get Your Titles Here
Interim, regular, super, silver, recess, emeritus. Names you would not expect to find next to the words ‘World Champion’. You wouldn’t ever see a FIFA emeritus World Cup, or a PGA interim champion. But in the sweet science these words are bandied around without a blink of an eye. Being a world champion is every fighters dream and yet the “big four” or “alphabet boys” as they are commonly referred to, are seemingly doing their best to water down and devalue that achievement, all in the name of one thing: money. A closer look at each one:
The WBA are proving to be the worst offenders. Thanks to their logical way of thinking, they brought in the ‘interim’, ‘regular’ and ‘super’ titles. The oldest of all the organisations, they were formed in 1921 in America and were originally titled the NBA (National Boxing Association). It was originally put together by thirteen American states to counterbalance the influence the New York State Athletic Commission held over the control of boxing. Although it sanctioned bouts, provided a rankings list and occasionally withdrew recognition from one of its champions, it never appointed its own officials and, more significantly, it never collected sanctioning fees. Although even back then, it recognised different champions to the NYSAC. In 1962 , it changed its name to the World Boxing Association, in recognition of boxing’s growing popularity, and also its own increased membership as it began to attract further international countries. In 1975, the headquarters were moved to Panama after a majority of votes were held by Latin American nations. Apart from a brief spell in the early 2000’s when it was based in Venezuela, this is where it still resides today. But it has seen its fair share of controversy, namely fighters mysteriously appearing in rankings or acquiring title shots through connections with various promoters. But this is a familiar story throughout all of the organisations. The idea of the ‘super’ title was to reward a fighter who had captured another organisations championship, a ridiculous statement as the fighter should be referred to as a dual titlist. But this action then allowed some bright spark to come up with a ‘regular’ title, who would become mandatory for the ‘super’ champion. In straightforward terms, a number one contender. But that would mean less sanctioning fees. So the title was formed. As for the utterly pointless ‘interim’ bauble, this was formed when the ‘regular’ champion was unable to defend his title. And you wonder why the fans become so confused when one organisation cannot sort itself out.
The World Boxing Council (WBC) were formed in 1963, initially with eleven countries on board, to form an international organisation that would unify all the boxing commissions throughout the world in order to control the expansion of boxing. Representatives of these met in Mexico, where the organisation has remained based. The groups that originally recognised several champions that were different from the WBA were, NYSAC, the European Boxing Union (EBU), British Boxing Board Of Control (BBBC), and the National Boxing Association Of America. On their own, they lacked the international status they desired. The WBC now has 161 members and is viewed by many in the sport as the most prestigious of the big four, with the famous gold and green belt displaying the flags of all of the countries involved. In 1983, it took the unprecedented step of reducing its title fights to twelve rounds from fifteen. This followed after the tragic death of Kim Duk-koo who died from his injuries in a fourteen round loss to WBA lightweight champion Ray Mancini. This was done for medical reasons after consultations and investigations revealed the effects of dehydration. Cynics argued the move was to allow title fights to fit into a one hour TV slot. Nevertheless, within four years all the governing bodies had jumped on board. Former president Jose Sulaiman enjoyed a far too close for comfort relationship with promoter Don King, with many decisions involving King’s stable of fighters leaving those in the business scratching their heads. Sulaiman was even referred to by one writer as King’s “errand boy”, due to the favouring in the rankings of King’s stable. The titles of ‘silver’ and ‘emeritus’ are connected to the WBC. ‘Silver” titles are for top contender’s awaiting a shot. In other words, pointless. Emeritus are more for achievement. Again, pointless.
Joining the party in 1983, The International Boxing Federation (IBF) was formed when Bob Lee, then president of the United States Boxing Association (USBA) lost in his bid to unset Gilberto Mendoza as WBA president. Lee, along with others, decided to form their own organisation. Based in New Jersey, it was originally named the USBA-International, but changed its name to the IBF. It named its first champion in cruiserweight Marvin Camel but was fairly ignored until 1984 when it then recognised four of the biggest stars in boxing at that time, Larry Holmes, Marvin Hagler, Aaron Pryor and Donald Curry, as champions. In Holmes case, it was a particularly defining moment as he relinquished his WBC title to hold the IBF belt, giving them instant credibility. They also held the very last bout scheduled for fifteen rounds when minimumweight champion Samuth Sithnaruepol outpointed In-Kyu Hwang by unanimous decision in Thailand, 29 August 1988. They were also the first organisation to create a super-middleweight division, Murray Sutherland being the first ever twelve stone world champion. But in 1999, the organisation came under federal observation when Lee was convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for altering boxer’s rankings. It was a huge blow to their reputation.
We also have the WBA to thank for the creation of boxing’s fourth body, the World Boxing Organization (WBO). At a WBA convention in 1988, a group of Puerto Rican and Dominican businessmen broke away from the organisation over a dispute over certain rules that they felt should be applied, and decided to form their own championship. Despite sanctioning Thomas Hearns vs James Kinchen for their super-middleweight title as their first bout (Hearns outpointed Kinchen to become boxing’s first five-weight world champion), they struggled for recognition at first, although they built strong relationships with Great Britain and also Emanuel Steward and his Kronk stable. Things changed in the 1990’s when it gained credibility thanks to fighters such as Chris Eubank, Dariusz Michalczewski, Johnny Tapia and Naseem Hamed holding their title for sustained periods. They were then joined by other esteemed champions in the caliber of Marco Antonio Barrera, Oscar De La Hoya, Joe Calzaghe and Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. It took until 2012 for Japan to finally allow its boxers to fight for a WBO title. They first introduced their ‘super’ title for fighters who had achieved certain criteria. Yet again, completely pointless.
Other organisations have tried to jump on board boxing’s gravy train (IBO, WBU, WBF, IBC, IBU), with only the IBO gaining any real recognition, although it is still viewed very distantly from the others. The Ring Magazine belt holds great value as it generally held by the best fighter in the division and requires no sanctioning fee. Many of the great champions in history have been seen to wear this distinguished belt.
Sixty-eight titles are up for grabs over seventeen divisions, excluding ‘super’ and ‘interim’ titles. With their value becoming watered down, many fighters are relinquishing them to focus on bigger fights against their rivals. This is allowing the level of some championship fights to become of no more than a regional contest. This is a real shame for those who remember when being world champion meant you really were the best in the division.
All sports are about levels, with the best rising to the top. In boxing, with so many titles to aim for, this doesn’t need to be the point anymore. The right connection can see any level of fighter contest a championship now. And whilst we still get the big fights we crave, wouldn’t it be good if the title that mattered were also on the line too? The days of one world champion per division are nothing but a distant memory. But the memories of those who were remain glorious and strong.