The modern fistic landscape is brimming with uneasy fans, bubbling in anger over one thing or another. Bad decisions sprinkle themselves over big fights like turd-smelling pixie dust and fighter inactivity, missed weights, whimsical promotions and demotions, piss-poor cards, and an assortment of other woes keep our teeth clenched and our eyes rolling. We surveyors of the art of self-defense wait in blood-soaked agony hoping for it all to change for the better, but this sport seems to have no intention of removing its form-fitting tank-top which reeks of dirty money and cigars.
There is always much ado about something in this sore-ridden game, but one aspect that is sorely underplayed by the masses is the sticky saturation of weight divisions. Without giving a history lesson on the birth of each one, it should suffice to say that boxing currently has 17 classes, ranging from 105-200+ pounds. The “classic” divisions—flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light-heavyweight and of course, heavyweight—go back, way back. Most date to the 19th century. Over time and for various reasons we have gotten add-ons. Why then, should the proliferation of weight divisions—and alphabet organizations (which I’ll cover at a later date)—cause a pitch-fork-and-torch-bearing fuss?
Missed opportunities galore
The clearest reason, yet one that few seem to connect the dots about, is the stomach-turning number of top-notch contests we never got to witness. Go look at the post-prime Hagler era of middleweights from 1987 to 1993. You had an absurd amount of talent. Names like Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Mike McCallum, Michael Nunn, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr., Nigel Benn, Sumbu Kalambay, Roberto Duran, James Toney, Herol Graham, Julian Jackson, Chris Eubank, Iran Barkley, Steve Collins, Gerald McClellan, and Reggie Johnson broke into the top-10 at various times. How many of these guys never fought each other and how many more, as fan, would you like to have seen?
Now it would be unreasonable to assume that a mix-and-match of all of these guys would be doable because circumstance would have prevented it. Some of these men were waning, some were ascending, so on and so forth. However, what happens if you scratch the super-middleweight division—and since I want to speak ideally, suppose from now on I’m conceptualizing one champion per division—from the history books? This would have pigeon-holed these men into largely one of two choices, compete at 160 or 175. No more midway point, no more trinkets to milk. They either went up and competed with the Virgil Hills of the world, or they stayed and competed with the brilliant cast of punchers, boxers, boxer-punchers, and stylistic variants mentioned above.
Another example is the small-men of the early 1990s. Strawweight was a newly-minted class when the Beristain-trained extraordinaire Ricardo Lopez took over the steering wheel and pounded out no-hoper after no-hoper, year after year. Michael Carbajal and Humberto Gonzalez, just three pounds north, had a few “super-fights”. Meanwhile the technically brilliant Yuri Arbachakov hovered at 112 and the slick southpaw Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson broke flyweight rank in 1993. Imagine the artificial barriers created by “sanctioning bodies” were never there and these men competed alongside one another. We would be talking about a little golden era of 112-pounders, wouldn’t we?
Envision Kostya Tszyu without 140, fighting among Pernell Whitaker, Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Ike Quartey, Shane Mosley, Vernon Forrest, Oba Carr, Cory Spinks, and Antonio Margarito. You must believe that Tszyu gets big fights that he missed lingering around junior-welterweight. Add Antonio Cervantes, another high-quality 140-pounder, to the list. Does he move to Duran’s lightweight or Jose Napoles’ welterweight? Do we get Aaron Pryor against Ray Leonard if “The Hawk” is forced to choose between welterweight and lightweight? Do we get Pryor in with a better version of Arguello?
How about Joe Calzaghe participating at 175 for years with Roy Jones Jr., Dariusz, Michalczewski, Antonio Tarver, Montell Griffin, etc. Would that have not been better than what we got?
What would we have gotten with Khaosai Galaxy, the famed 115-pounder, hanging around Jiro Watanabe, Miguel Lora, Richie Sandoval, Gaby Canizales, Jeff Fenech, Gilberto Roman, Wilfredo Vazquez, Sung-Kil Moon, Orlando Canizales, etc. at 118? Maybe he would have decided to drop the weight and moved to 112, where Sot Chitalada, Hilario Zapata, Jung-Koo Chang, and Humberto Gonzalez were.
To give a modern case, see the potential miss in progress in Naoya Inoue’s insinuation that he will move up to 118 now that he has disposed of Yoan Boyeaux. In the modern framework, he will be exiting 115, which houses Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Juan Francisco Estrada, Carlos Cuadras, Jerwin Ancajas, Roman Gonzalez, and Rau’shee Warren. Just about everyone under the feint glow of the boxing sun wants to see him paired-up with the winner of Rungvisai-Estrada. Now we might not get it. If 115 wasn’t available, however… You get the point.
Need I go on?
It’s all so thin now
Logically, what has followed is that the reproduction of weight classes has thinned them all out (though it’s padded the wallets of the alphabet soup guys). In this way, they appear “weak”, or whatever synonym you can conjure up.
A striking example is the middleweight division from 2010 until the present day. While it’s often been seen as less-than-stellar during that span, and one look at the rankings from each year mostly confirms that, it would be quite the opposite if junior-middleweight never existed. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Saul Alvarez, Miguel Cotto, Erislandy Lara, Austin Trout and even Demetrius Andrade and Jermell Charlo were rated in the early part of that timeframe. Picture a potential snapshot of the hypothetical middleweight rankings in about 2013 now. Few would venture to say that a class with Sergio Martinez, Gennady Golovkin, Peter Quillin, Daniel Geale and the aforementioned 154-pounders was lacking.
You move this forward two years and now you have Saul Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin, Daniel Jacobs, Erislandy Lara, Miguel Cotto, Billy Joe Saunders, both Charlos, Demetrius Andrade, Austin Trout, Peter Quillin and others. Again, not a terrible bunch.
In this proposed setting Guillermo Rigondeaux must have picked 118 or 126. What transpires? He either gets a bantamweight that contains Shinsuke Yamanaka, Naoya Inoue, Anselmo Moreno, Carlos Cuadras, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Rau’shee Warren, etc., or he plays with the bigger guys at 126—Vasyl Lomachenko, Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, Gary Russell Jr., Nicholas Walters, Lee Selby, and more.
As with the previous section, the examples can be applied over and over, and over and over. Pick a year with even a few junior/super divisions and you will see that without them the traditional classes are bolstered in quality.
The overall benefit is worth reiterating at greater length: If you reduce the number of classes, a larger degree of talent is pooled into the same areas and because of that, the likelihood of us getting the fights we want is exponentially higher. This, in turn, has a tremendous legacy-building effect that is woefully lacking in today’s game. It’s too common of an occurrence to see high-quality boxers miss one another for one silly reason or another. A mere three pounds can be the difference anymore; the same goes with holding a trinket by a governing body that will feed a fighter soft touches for the remainder of their reign, granted they get enough kickback money to line their pockets with.
This can be a headache for historians and longtime fans because there is more grey area than ever before. There are few super-fights (forget the PPV buys as the lone metric, I’m thinking more like Oscar De La Hoya vs. Shane Mosley I, where two guys were at their best physically and sold well) and even many of the best are maneuvered into propitious situations nearly each time out. What we are left with is either reading traits into a pugilist that they never show, only give us a glimpse of, or display against lower-level opposition. Call it nostalgia if you like, but this is often why fighters of yesteryear emerge victorious in debates about historical placement and hypothetical contests—we usually have a better grasp of their composition.
On top of this, pitting the best with the best is the truest method of keeping fans, bringing new ones in, and generating revenue. This simple concept seems to have been lost on many promoters, but it works.
Back to the future
I am all but a casual observer of mixed martial arts and its flagship organization the UFC, but on this topic—and others, namely having one champion per division—they got it correct. White & Company recognized early on that too many classes took away from the overall quality of a division, and the sport. They adopted the more original format from boxing and then restructured the weight limits. What they have produced is a streamlined and easy-to-follow setup that helps a general sports fan latch on, much in contrast with the jumbled mess that is the mostly unsweet science.
Boxing therefore, needs to look to its more golden roots by shedding the excess fat and reverting to its previous structure, potentially with an added cruiserweight division. Let’s face it, heavyweights are bigger than they have ever been and a stopgap between 175 and 200+ makes some sense. Of course, even this could be remedied with a more substantial makeover of the pound limits.
Now before the trumpeters come ablazing, telling me that this will never happen, ask yourself if it is worth working towards a better sport. If it is, let us not be shackled by this lowly vision. It is one perpetuated by the self-serving puppeteers who run the alphabet soup organizations and their collaborators in the athletic commissions and elsewhere. It can be done.
If a nation like the United Arab Emirates (South Korea, Taiwan and Botswana are others that have seen rapid change in a short time) can be transformed from a desert backwater into a budding Middle-Eastern table-sitter over the course of a few decades, I don’t want to hear about how tackling a sport is outside reformation.
Pugilism, unlike a lot of sports, has global appeal. There is something alluring about this ancient athletic endeavor that crosses cultural divides. The archaic struggle which transpires inside the roped square plays on our inner-caveman, teasing out the violent qualities the post-Industrial man has done a better job of suppressing. The battles can also serve as a microcosm to our lives—the constant struggle to get get back up after hitting the floor until the final 10 is tolled.
Revolutions can start with a wick. Bring your matches…or your pen, or your keyboard, or whatever method you can use to undercut the pervasive corruption and help bring boxing into the limelight again.