A rallying call that is often raised in boxing media today is that there are too many champions and we need to return to the “good ol’ days” of one champion per division. At first glance that makes sense. After all, isn’t it confusing that we can have four (or more) recognised world champions in a weight class? That there can be a WBO Champion, an IBF Champion, a WBC champion and a WBA champion? How about a RING champion? Or a Transnational Boxing Ratings Board champion? Or the host of minor champions… IBO, WBF, WBU? Surely they must be running out of acronyms soon? And that’s without looking at the fact that each sanctioning body can have multiple champions in a weightclass… super belts “normal belts”, interim belts, diamond belts…
It’s clearly a mess. And I fully understand why people want to go back to the old days when there was one champion. We all knew how it worked then. And I sort of agree… albeit with one rather large caveat.
It isn’t true.
This article is based and inspired by an article from the Queensbury Rules blog, courtesy of the Guardian, relating to the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board. You can go to the above Guardian link and see a rough version of these thoughts in the comments. I should stress here that I’m certainly not criticising the TBRB. They have the best intentions, a selection of reputable members and I wish them well in their attempts to supplant (the these days rather underwhelming) RING rankings as the chief independent arbiter of independent boxing rankings. I disagree with some of their analysis of quite who should be champion but that does not impact on my appreciation of their work and to their credit they have, as far as I can see, avoiding the temptation to hark back to that nostalgia driven past of one champion per division. But it is seemingly inevitable these days that whenever the concept of one champion-per-division is raised, it is not long followed by a reference to how things “used to be”.
And things weren’t like that.
To give a very brief overview of the situation today, there are four major sanctioning bodies (the above mentioned WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF) who are recognised as having the ability to award world titles. As such a boxer who holds one of their belts is generally able to call himself a world champion. These bodies can also award multiple belts per division, normally a “normal” title, an interim belt (where a champion has not faced the number one contender but has not been stripped) and a “super” belt for when a champion defeats and unifies with another world title holder in the same division. In addition RING magazine awards a “RING Title”, an honorary title in something resembling a lineal fashion and holders of the RING title are generally considered a world champion.
Frankly, it’s somewhat confusing just to type and I haven’t even scratched the surface of it. Boxing politics is normally a cesspit and the sanctioning bodies are up to their neck in filth. There’s no doubt it can be very confusing for someone new to the sweet science.
But the issue is things have always been like that. There have virtually always been multiple bodies who sanction “world title” bouts.
The Police Gazette once held the same amount of respect as the RING does when it comes to determining a world champion. The RING has done so for much of its existence. The National Boxing Association (the forerunner to the WBA) had champions. The American Boxing Association had champions. The National Sporting Club had a world champion. The International Boxing Union had a champion. Even regulators were in on the action… the New York State Athletic Commission had world champions up to the 1960’s, the British Boxing Board of Control sanctioned world title bouts, the California State Athletic Commission had world champions, other states and countries had their own world champions. Sometimes a champion who had retired designated that the world champion would be the winner of an upcoming bout and at other times promoters simply invented a world title for their boxers to compete for. You can even look to the earliest days of boxing where there was a “coloured world champion” and a “white world champion” in addition to the above.
One can see this confusion right at the start of modern boxing history. Today we look back and consider the transition to be relatively smooth; John L. Sullivan to James J. Corbett to Bob Fitzsimmons. But if we look at reports from the time the picture is far more cloudy. At the time the likes of Peter Maher, Frank Slavin, Peter Jackson, Tom Sharkey, and Fitzsimmons (before beating Corbett) all won bouts for the “world heavyweight championship” and were all backed by respectable organisations and bodies. Who was the champion in 1895… Corbett who held the lineal title? Fitzsimmons who had beaten Maher, who himself had won a version of the heavyweight title when Corbett announced his retirement and gave his blessings to the Maher-O’Donnell winner as his successor? Peter Jackson, who took over the Police Gazette’s claims after beating Frank Slavin (remembering that at the time the Police Gazette was viewed as being able to determine the world champion)? If one were to track down reports of the eventual Fitzsimmons vs Corbett bout you’ll find the newspapers and scribes almost equally divided with regards to who was “the” champion going in… and after Sullivan announced his retirement in 1891 then there were a large number who thought the “champ” was Peter Jackson after he defeated Slavin for Police Gazzette recognition.
These days Sam Langford is regularly considered the greatest boxer never to have won a world title and a man who was frequently denied even the opportunity to even box for them. But at the time he won “world titles” in at least three seperate weight classes. As a perfect example, consider the scene in December 1913, Paris. Today, we look back and consider Jack Johnson’s bout against Battling Jim Johnson as the lone contest for the world heavyweight title at that time. But if we were in Paris in December 1913, then wouldn’t we consider Sam Langford’s victory over Joe Jeannette a world title bout? After all, the Langford/Jeannette bout had the blessing of the French boxing authority (something the Johnson bout a few weeks earlier didn’t) and was also legitimised the IBU which in turn was supported by the major regulators (which the Johnson bout again wasn’t). In addition Langford won world titles recognised by the IBU and NSC across multiple weight classes. During that same 1913-14 period the likes of George Chip, Jack Dillon, Jeff Smith and Eddie McGoorty (as well as a number of others) could all claim to be “the” middleweight champion and have a reputable body back their claim.
The situation continues into the 1930’s. The history books say that Schmeling was “the” champion after defeating Sharkey in their first bout… but what they don;t say is that NYSAC stripped him due to the controversial nature of the bout and ending as well as his refusal to have an immediate rematch and instead held the winner of Sharkey vs Carnera to be the world heavyweight champion… as can be seen here. A similar situation appeared shortly after; the history books tell us that Louis beat Braddock who beat Max Baer beat Carnera. But at the time the IBU recognised Schmeling as the champion on the basis that Braddock and his team backed out of a signed agreement to face Schmeling and that the German had already defeated Louis, as can be seen here. That article also touches on another controversy; the IBU had previous removed recognition from Baer due to him not facing their number one contender Pierre Charles, who in turn faced George Godfrey for the vacant belt (which Godfrey won). And that’s without touching on the fact the British Boxing Board of Control originally supported the IBU in viewing Schmeling as the champion but then reversed their position when he refused to face their contender Tommy Farr and instead recongised Louis when he agreed to face Farr.
The history books tell us that after Marciano retired the heavyweight title passed on to Floyd Patterson after he defeated Archie Moore for the vacant belt and that Moore in turn never held a world heavyweight title. But that would come as a surprise to those living in Toronto during 1956, as they had just witnessed Archie Moore defeat James Parker by TKO in a bout that was advertised as being for the world title by Jack Solomons, the leading promoter of his day.
To mention Archie Moore again, in 1948 he faced Ezzard Charles in Cleveland. Charles is often considered the greatest light heavyweight of all time but the history books say he never won a title at that weight. Again, that would come as a shock to those in and around Cleveland at the time as that bout was promoted as a world heavyweight title bout on the basis that the NBA would strip Gus Lusnevich unless he faced the winner within 60 days… which he didn’t.
That’s just a brief list of the most obvious examples. One can go back to any period in boxing history and with a little digging find multiple boxers all with a claim on “the” world championship. Little different from today in fact.
So why the nostalgia? Why do people act as if there was only ever one world champion in those days?
The first reason is media. Today if I want to discover who the champions are I can go online. I can search on boxrec, I can go onto wikipedia, I can check the various sanctioning body rankings. I can look for results on fightnews or one of the hundreds (if not thousands) of various news sites (be that general or boxing specific) and pugilistic focused blogs. “World” title bouts are now often broadcast internationally and even if I can’t watch it on TV in my location I can normally stream it… and if I can’t stream it live I can go onto youtube or one of a multitude to other video hosting sites and watch it there within a day or two.
Previously I couldn’t. Bouts often weren’t televised, or at least not televised outside their immediate location and radio coverage was spotty at best. There was no internet and newspapers didn’t have the reach they now have. The previously mentioned Moore vs Parker bout had no radio or TV coverage past southern Ontario (and none in the US) and the newspapers generally didn’t have much distribution outside Canada. Simply put while if that happened today I would quickly be able to discover it was a world title bout, back in 1956 as someone who lives in London I was unlikely to even know it had happened, let alone who won and that it was for a version of the world heavyweight title. Today, I know that Shinsuke Yamanaka is the WBC Bantemweight title holder… but he’s never boxed outside Japan, never had a bout broadcast on a British TV network and as he’s never faced a British boxer virtually never been mentioned in the newspapers. Without the internet I’d have no idea he exists let alone that he held a title and I’d be far more likely to think that the British Jamie McDonnell (the IBF belt holder) is “the” champion, simply because he’s the only one I’d have seen or heard of. We are simply more aware of multiple champions today then even a dedicated boxing fan would have been in previous years.
Secondly, over the years a number of bodies, notably the RING but also several others, have gone about deciding who the champion was at a given point. It was they who decided that the Moore vs Parker bout wasn’t for the world heavyweight title, it was they that decided that Langford never won a world title and it was they who came up with the Sullivan to Corbett to Fitzsimmons lineage. As history has passed we have allowed the rival claims… be it the Police Gazette, be it NYSAC, be it the IBU, be it the NBA to fade and only recognise those these subsequent bodies have in turn recognised. I have little doubt that in the future someone will do the same for the titles today… that what we now call RING or Lineal champions will be decided and other claims… be they from the sanctioning bodies or other groups, will come to be viewed in the same way we consider those earlier claims.
I should stress this piece isn’t a defence of the sanctioning bodies or the multitude of champions (although I do believe a devil’s advocate case can be made for them). I do fully understand why having so many belts is an issue, how confusing it can be to someone new to the sport and how awful boxing politics can be. There is clearly some value in having a single man considered the champion of the division (although I do note that just because someone is champion doesn’t mean they’re the best or faced the best competition… such is the danger of “to be the man you’ve got to beat the man” style lineal belts) and I’m not going to disparage anyone’s attempts to do so.
But those who hark back to the good old days of only having one champion are harking back to an age that didn’t exist. Boxing has always had multiple belt holders… some more well known than others, some more respected than others… and as boxing does, boxing survives. A proliferation of title belts is neither new nor a killer blow to boxing.
Perhaps the nay-sayers should remember that.