January is here, meaning it’s the time of year when boxing looks ahead to what may be on the horizon in the upcoming months and simultaneously reflects on what happened in the previous twelve. Debate is split between the best fights that can be made now that a new year has begun and the end of year awards to commemorate the best of the recently departed annum.
But as we enter 2020 and the start of an entirely new decade, reflection in particular is especially pertinent. Never mind who the 2019 “Fighter of the Year” was, who was the “Fighter of the Decade”? Was the fight of the past year as dramatic and enthralling as anything we have seen since 2010?
Perhaps a more important, yet much less prevalent, discussion however is how boxing as a whole has changed over the past ten years. It’s well documented that boxing continues to be plagued by numerous issues that frustrate fans and many involved with the sport. There aren’t enough fights that truly pit the best against the best, there are too many protected fighters, far too many outlandish scorecards. Too many instances of blatant bias or corruption.
On a personal note however, my biggest gripe with the sport today is the continued fragmentation of championships. Modern day boxing has too many belts and seemingly with each passing decade has been watering down what it really means to be a champion.
So has the past decade seen an improvement in this matter? Unfortunately, the fact that you happen to be on this site reading this article means that’s a question you more than likely already know the answer to.
At the start of 2010, there were four universally recognised sanctioning bodies within the sport, the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO. That was one more than at the start of the previous decade – the WBO didn’t earn universal recognition as a major world title until the mid-2000s – but, despite the attempts of the IBO to legitimise itself as the fifth major sanctioning body in recent years, as 2019 closed mainstream acknowledgement remained with that quartet. That’s the good news. Boxing managed to get through an entire decade without accepting yet another sanctioning body, saner heads generally prevailing that it’s bad enough we already have four of them.
Yet that didn’t mean that boxing couldn’t find a way to add more “world champions” to an already overcrowded picture. Again, in 2010 we had four sanctioning bodies and there were – as there thankfully still remains at the time of writing – seventeen weight classes, meaning that at any given point there was the potential for sixty-eight world title belts within the sport. The past decade has seen the advent of multiple champions recognised at the same weight by the same sanctioning body. The WBA and WBC in particular, ironically the two most respected and longest established of the four major bodies, have over the past ten years begun handing out world titles like confetti in exchange for lined pockets.
Since the turn of the century the WBA has occasionally recognised both a ‘super’ and ‘regular’ champion at the same weight class, a situation that was actually born out of Lennox Lewis’ reign as undisputed heavyweight champion. The original reason for the creation of an elevated champion however was, to quote directly from the official WBA rules: “in order to give the Unified Champions a more flexible time to defend their titles as well as the challengers the chance to fight for the title.” So while the very creation of the WBA’s split ‘super’ and ‘regular’ title system was frustrating in that it added yet another world title belt to the scene, at least the original intention here was (supposedly at least) simply a method from which unification bouts could happen more frequently, without the WBA champion having to fear being stripped of their hard-earned title.
For a number of years this continued to be the case, where the WBA would only recognise a fighter as a ‘super’ champion at a weight if that champion had indeed unified with either the WBC, IBF or WBO. Only this scenario would in turn make the WBA ‘regular’ title available and for that reason, the confusing nature of having two WBA champions at the same weight rarely reared its head throughout the 2000s, given the relative lack of unified champions within the sport. But fast-forward to the present day and, somewhere along the way, the WBA have begun recognising both ‘super’ and ‘regular’ champions at the same weight regardless of whether or not the ‘super’ champion is unified.
Dmitry Bivol, for example, is currently the WBA ‘super’ light heavyweight champion and is not unified, but there also exists the WBA ‘regular’ 175lb strap that Jean Pascal earned from Marcus Browne in August of last year. Callum Smith is the WBA ‘super’ super middleweight champion (the consecutive supers making that one extra confusing to decipher) and likewise remains un-unified; yet Canelo Alvarez, who incidentally is a unified champion at middleweight, is also the WBA ‘regular’ champ at 168lbs. The scenario also currently exists at welterweight, where Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman met last July in a supposed attempt to ‘unify’ the WBA regular and super titles at the weight, which should have meant following Pacquiao’s victory that the regular title was now redundant, but it instead became vacant and was recently picked up by Alexander Besputin. You can also find two separate, non-unified WBA ‘world champions’ at super featherweight and featherweight, meaning that there are currently five weight classes where the WBA has an extra world champion for no particular reason at all, other than to milk sanctioning fees for all they’re worth.
In addition to this, the WBA also sometimes recognise an interim champion and a WBA ‘gold’ champion (essentially another ‘interim’ belt allowing additional sanctioning fees to be collected alongside those for the actual interim title). At certain times there have been both two WBA ‘world’ champions and two WBA ‘interim world’ champions. I could go on, we could get into the WBA ‘international titles, but by this point you probably have a headache and you also get the picture; basically the WBA like creating ways to hand out new title belts and get paid for doing so.
Let’s call a WBA ‘regular’ champion for what they really are: effectively the sanctioning body’s number one contender but in the possession of a shiny belt that they’ve paid for handsomely. The WBA now seem intent on having two or more ‘champions’ at every weight, regardless of circumstance, meaning we now have at least five title belts on offer in all of the sports seventeen divisions. So that’ll be eighty-five potential ‘world title’ belts on offer at any given time.
No, wait, we haven’t even gotten onto the WBC yet, so there’s more. Much more.
When Manny Pacquiao bludgeoned Miguel Cotto to a twelfth round stoppage in November 2009, winning the WBO welterweight title in the process to notch his sixth world title across five weight classes, the WBC awarded the Filipino star the newly-created ‘diamond’ belt, which, as per the WBC’s website, was “created as an honorary championship exclusively to award the winner of a historic fight between two high-profile and elite boxers.”
This was in spite of the fact that Andre Berto reigned as WBC welterweight champion at the time and thus caused immediate confusion, but the WBC’s intention with the ‘diamond’ belt was simply to find a way to cash-in on the lucrative, high-profile bout between Pacquiao and Cotto. The belt has since been handed out for other particularly noteworthy bouts throughout the 2010s where the WBC title itself was not on the line, again allowing Mauricio Sulaiman and Co. a chance to get a piece of the pie.
The problem with the diamond belt is, especially for the more casual observer who may already be confused by the number of belts in the sport, the added uncertainty over who the real WBC champion is at any given time. ‘Diamond’ makes the belt sound more important than the actual WBC title itself, which isn’t the case. The ‘diamond’ titleholder and the actual WBC titleholder are never the same fighter also, so again, particularly for the layman, this creates the illusion that there are two WBC champions at every weight, just like the WBA.
And ever since the ‘diamond’ title came onto the scene, the WBC have got even more creative in churning out a variety of additional belts, just for fun (and sanctioning fees). In early 2010, the WBC created the ‘silver’ title, first won by featherweight Justin Savi and first thought to be a replacement to the WBC interim title. As it materialized however, the ‘silver’ title would exist alongside the interim belt somewhat akin to the WBA structure of (or lack of) intermediate belts. By the middle of the decade, the floodgates really opened and we saw WBC belts created for pretty much any scenario that they felt they could get away with.
The ‘emerald’ belt was commissioned to commemorate Pacquiao’s long awaited clash with Floyd Mayweather in 2015. The ‘money’ belt was at stake for the winner of Mayweather’s sideshow attraction against Conor McGregor in 2017. The WBC ‘Mayan’ title, made from ‘fossilised amber’ was then on offer for the winner of Canelo’s first fight with Gennady Golovkin in 2017, and was available again when Canelo decisioned Daniel Jacobs last May, this time the red-Mexican finally getting his hands on the oh so coveted trinket. Bizarrely, the WBC also gave a ‘Mayan’ belt to Tyson Fury for his decision win over Otto Wallin in September. The winner of Amir Khan’s bout with Neeraj Goyat last July was scheduled to win the newly-commissioned ‘pearl’ title, but I guess somewhat admirably the WBC actually withdrew this belt when the fight fell through and Khan went on to fight Billy Dib instead. The sanctioning body did however state that rather than the belt being scrapped, the pearl title would “be reserved for another special occasion in the future.”
Then we get to the WBC ‘franchise’ champion. This, more than any amongst the plethora of titles above, simply reeks of both corruption and nonsense.
In June 2019, just a month after pocketing the fees for the ‘Mayan’ belt handed to Canelo for his win over Jacobs, the WBC announced the creation of a new ‘franchise’ champion, the status of which Canelo was elevated to with immediate effect. According to the WBC, the franchise champion was created so that a fighter “shall enjoy special status with respect to his or her mandatory obligations, holding multiple titles and competing for titles of other organisations, as the WBC board of governors rules on a case-by-case basis.”
Basically, for being a longtime favorite son of theirs, Canelo would remain in possession of a WBC title for as long as he chooses (pays sanctioning fees) without the need to ever defend said title against a mandatory challenger. In the meantime, the WBC would elevate another fighter to be the actual WBC champion at the weight, which in this case saw Jermall Charlo jump from ‘interim’ champion to become the WBC middleweight champion. In October, Vasyl Lomachenko was upgraded to ‘franchise’ champion at lightweight, with Devin Haney subsequently being moved up from his interim position to become WBC lightweight champion. The need for Haney to have shoulder surgery in December then led to the WBC naming him ‘champion in recess’ and ordering the number one and two contenders, Javier Fortuna and Luke Campbell, to fight for his vacant belt in the meantime (of course, the WBC aren’t going to let a potentially sidelined champion prevent them from cashing in on sanctioning fees).
The past decade has seen boxing’s title belt picture go from frustrating to outright shameless and as we enter the twenties, it’s hard to imagine things getting better, more than likely they will get worse. Fighters like belts, sanctioning bodies like money, and neither fact is going to change.