Pernell Whitaker puts his hands on his hands after getting robbed by the judges against Julio Cesar Chavez.

The World Boxing Association’s president, Gilberto Mendoza Junior, stated months ago that he was surprised by the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s decision to suspend Saul “Canelo” Alvarez over his two failed drug tests, saying that he was “positive that Canelo is innocent because he’s had a long career where he never had any positive results.

That was the second time after it was revealed that Alvarez was popped for clenbuterol that Mendoza had come to Canelo’s defense, all before the evidence was laid bare, each time proclaiming his innocence. As a lawyer, the junior Mendoza seemed to be familiar with presumption but could not seem to see how easy it was to poke redwood tree-sized holes in his ‘He’s never been caught before, ergo he’s clean’ statement’. After all, Lance Armstrong passed test after test, year after year, before getting caught.

He was not the only one donning his verbal chimalli shield and deflecting criticism from Golden Boy’s “Golden Boy”, however. Mauricio Sulaiman, who heads the Mexico City-based World Boxing Council, was confident enough to give Alvarez his “absolute vote of confidence.” The line of reasoning was like an echo: “He has never previously tested positive for anything and he’s been in the Clean Boxing Program for many years.” (Turns out he wasn’t.)

Sulaiman remained adamant thereafter, stating that it wasn’t fair that Alvarez had been accused of doping and that it was in fact “bad meat”. Mauricio even had an employee, a doctor, give a face-value assessment of the test results. The sporting world was taken aback by what Dr. Antonio Fernandez Hernandez had to say, that is, the same thing his boss said.

This habit on the part of influential members within boxing to put the cart before the horse, this exoneration without the facts, is but a mere drop in the ocean of troubling tendencies which have stifled boxing from entering the mainstream sports world.

Palm-Greasing

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Does corruption exist in prizefighting? Given the history of fight-fixing, admitted or uncovered; the conveniently bad scoring from even the most experienced judges; the commissions who oversee boxing having their fair share of woes; and the testimony of those engaged dating from boxing’s inception, it would be naïve not to believe so. To think that the Dukes of Alphabet Hill are somehow disconnected from all of this would be an exercise in credulity.

The most obvious case is the WBC’s near-death experience with bankruptcy after screwing Graciano Rocchigiani, a big-punching southpaw from Germany. The story goes like this:

Roy Jones Jr. had failed to defend his WBC title against his mandatory challenger Michael Nunn by the deadline of November of 1997. The organization proceeded by declaring their title vacant and paired Rocchigiani against Nunn to crown a new trinket-wearer, with printed material on the tickets and rules showing before the fight, quite clearly, that this was for the belt Jones had vacated. Rocchigiani went on to decision Nunn in Berlin, Germany. Three months afterward the WBC changed the lefty’s status to “interim champion” and declared that Jones Jr. was “champion in recess”, removing Rocchigiani from the “champion” position in their rankings and saying that it had been a mistake due to “typographical errors”. Graciano Rocchigiani filed a lawsuit and won a $31 million-dollar judgement.

Former IBF founder Bob W. Lee, whose goal it was to provide an alternative to the WBA and WBC he viewed as corrupt, was found guilty of money laundering and tax evasion after a four-year investigation by the FBI. Bob Arum and Cedric Kushner, two of boxing’s biggest promoters at the time, admitted to paying the International Boxing Federation, with Arum saying that he was extorted for $100,000. The New Jersey-based operation was accused of taking $338,000 in bribes altogether.

Austin Trout is currently engaged in a $40-million-dollar lawsuit against the WBO. Trout alleges that the organization removed him from their ratings without justification and then replaced him in the top spot with Liam Smith, who would go on to win their vacant title.

While not corruption per se, who can forget the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas press conference debacle? Don King protested loudly about the count being longer for Douglas than it was for Tyson by referee Octavio Meyran, in an attempt to get the WBC to play along and let “Iron” Mike keep his belt. King had controlled the WBC for a decade and feared what would eventually became a reality, a “Buster” Douglas-Evander Holyfield match that netted Douglas $25 million and the exchange of the title. Señor Sulaiman nearly went with it until they were all shouted down by a group of rational observers.

Whether most of the “big four” have covered their bases better lately is hard to tell, but similar practices remain. Boxers still earn spots and shots in whimsical fashion. A recent example, which deals with a relationship I will expound upon, is Darleys Perez being moved up to #1 in a months’ time after doing nothing of note and being ranked #6 in one class higher the month before. Regardless of what reason the WBA may give, it’s all too obvious that Eddie Hearn wanted Luke Campbell to get a crack at a shiny piece of metal and leather and the WBA obliged.

Pugilists still get demoted and promoted at the drop of a hat, too. Why in the world was Jorge Linares stripped of his “full” title by the WBC, only for them to have Dejan Zlaticanin and a Bolivian named Franklin Mamani, who may have broken the top-100 in a thin lightweight division, fight for it? Linares was neither that inactive or unwilling to fight Zlaticanin.

Why did Gervonta Davis and Jesus Cuellar get to leapfrog Alberto Machado, who held a version of the WBA title after putting on a fine performance against Jezreel Corrales? Cuellar had not fought in over a year-and-a-half, was coming from one division south, and lost to Abner Mares in his last outing. Machado is not the first “regular” belt-wearer to get bypassed, either.

Alphabet Soup Rankings

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I remember Michelle Beadle of ESPN being asked a while ago by HBO’s color commentator Jim Lampley on The Fight Game whether she follows boxing regularly, to which her response was something to the effect of, ‘Not really, it’s too confusing.’

How easy it is to relate to her lack of enthusiasm as a fan of this ancient endeavor? After all, what sort of masochist does it take to follow the exchange of sixty-eight major trinkets over seventeen weight divisions, their second/third/fourth-tier offshoots, and the linear/lineal championship line, especially when other sports are so cut and dry? In other athletic arenas the #1 and #2 players/teams meet, they play, and one goes home a world champion. Not in boxing…well, not to most fans.

First things first, how does one get put on the road towards obtaining one of these “championships”? Unlike football, basketball, baseball, and hockey—the United States’ biggest sports—there is not a well-defined playoff system in boxing. There is only a general, but not strictly followed, ratings system used by various bodies in which several routes are taken to establish a holder for their title. Sometimes fighters engage in eliminator bouts, sometimes they get promotions (e.g., if you hold a secondary belt you may receive a promotion, or you may not), sometimes they just work their way up the ladder.

The alphabet organizations—WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO—who divvy out “world championships” seem to follow two basic forms of logic in handing out their ratings. One seems to be that boxers who have put together a recent string of success at a relatively high level usually find their way in. The second is that each organization, by matter of “policy”, will discriminate against fighters that the others have rated and have installed as “champions”. A cursory glance at their websites will highlight this.

Aside from those two commonalities, a lot of it seems arbitrary and confusing. It clears up when you start to unravel the political machinations behind them.

The most obvious modern example is the Bob Arum/WBO tandem. It cannot be through sheer luck that Top Rank fighters have occupied the WBO’s “championship” spot in so many divisions and that four welterweights under “Grandpa Bob’s” promotional banner, or those affiliated with it, rounded out the top-4 before the Jeff Horn-Terence Crawford contest, can it?

If that is not convincing enough, maybe the fact that Top Rank has had a virtual monopoly on the WBO’s 147-pound trinket since 2009 will do it for you. Once Miguel Cotto defeated Carlos Quintana in December of that year, it subsequently passed into the hands of Manny Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Timothy Bradley, Jessie Vargas, Manny Pacquiao, Jeff Horn, and now Terence Crawford.

The WBO has had a fond relationship with the Europeans, as well. That is how they made their initial mark—crowning men like Chris Eubank, Steve Collins, Joe Calzaghe, Sven Ottke, Artur Grigorian, etc.

Panama-headquartered WBA has its carpet laid out for certain folks, too, though they have done it for much longer. It was not that long ago that they were cozied up with the Koreans, giving all sorts of unworthy challengers shots at their belts. Anyone remember 1980s’ Hi-Sup Shin, a guy who earned a #1 spot by killing (yes, I do mean that literally) the 7-5-4 (3 KOs) Andy Balaba, who was somehow rated #2. Shin was eventually pasted in a round by Santos Laciar.

What about Tae Jin-Moon, Seung Ho-Lee, Tae-Ho Kim, and Young Ho Oh? Maybe those names ring a bell? Moon took a whipping from Rocky Lockridge for 11 rounds; Lee didn’t have the ability to make it out of the first against Mark Breland; and Kim and Oh were out of their depth against Samuel Serrano. The most famous example, of course, is Deuk-Koo Kim, whose WBA-sanctioned fight against Ray Mancini had tragically public consequences.

Nowadays Mendoza & Company regularly partner up with Eddie Hearn. Hard to argue otherwise, unless one can explain why Jorge Linares spent four of his last seven contests in with boxers under Matchroom’s watch. It is even harder when you see all the photos of them being chummy with one another.

The WBC have always bestowed their fellow countrymen with gifts, which is why Mauricio Sulaiman was taking the Saul Alvarez breakup like a jaded ex-girlfriend. They all but handed him his first 154-pound title when he was matched against a welterweight in Matthew Hatton, a rugged fighter who never competed on the world level and squeaked by a shopworn Lovemore N’dou two years prior.

It should be added that the trinket that was all but given to Alvarez was made possible because Sergio Martinez dropped it. The WBC then proceeded to strip Martinez of his 160-pound belt. This setup what was supposed to be a layup for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr against Sebastian Zbik.

Hardcore fans might remember fondly Erik Morales getting a crack at one of their vacant straps against Pablo Cesar Cano, despite losing the fight before. Maybe they recall Rafael Marquez “earning” a shot against Toshiaki Nishioka, even though he had not won a fight at 122 in over three years. It might also be recounted how much the WBC admired Daniel Zaragoza, Jose Luis Ramirez, Antonio DeMarco, and others.

What very few will have any knowledge of is the World Boxing Council’s all-around debacle in handling Christina McMahon’s attempt at grabbing Zulina Muñoz’s green belt in Juarez, Mexico. Weight issues, poor judging, a doping scandal, you name it.

All of this, nevertheless, falls short of the comedic value given to us by the ranking of dead people that has occurred. Both the WBA and WBO made the error, with the former dropping Ali Raymi from #6 to #11 posthumously and the latter moving Darrin Morris up from #7 to #5 after he had passed away from HIV-related meningitis.

Too Many Titles

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In the second paragraph of the third section of this article I mentioned lower-tier belts along with their first-tier counterparts. Boxing is replete with various levels of “champions”, from in-state, to regional, to continental, to international, all the way up to world. Some of them are fine, acting as springboards to greater glory; meanwhile some can be good fun. After all, being something like the heavyweight champion of Indiana is not a highly sought-after prize, but it is a good story for the perpetually curious grandkids, or the booze-breathed, droopy-eyed ladies at the local waterholes looking for a fling.

Some have extensive and rich history, like the Lonsdale Belt, which has been awarded in Britain since 1909. The Ring’s waist-fitting prize is another old but well-received addition to any boxer’s cabinet of awards.

Unfortunately, it’s been a toilet bowl-esque swirl since the early prizefighting days. Fistiana has seen a continued uptick of organizations and belts, each wanting a piece of the lukewarm pie. After the WBA (formerly NBA) came the WBC; after the WBC came the IBF; after the IBF came the WBO; and now with clever marketing, and no thanks to boxingscene.com and others who lend them a helping hand, another organization is making a push towards the mainstream. (One can only hope it fails. Boxing doesn’t need any more confusion.)

As if four “world championships” for seventeen weight divisions were not enough, the WBA and WBC have become notorious in handing out offshoots of their main trinkets to line their pockets. The WBA’s second-rate and nonsensical “regular” belts have been particularly joke-worthy for fight game pundits, but the WBC takes the cake for its not-so-exemplary model at 140 pounds. They have Jose Carlos Ramirez as their “full” titleholder; they have an “interim” belt-holder in Regis Prograis; a “diamond champion” in Mikey Garcia; a “silver champion” in Josh Taylor; and an “international champion” in Ohara Davies (Davis defeated Kamanga recently). See how difficult it is to sort through the trash heap?

The WBO have followed suit on occasion, which can be seen with their recent christening of an “interim” titlist in Carl Frampton. They did it with Avtandil Khurtsidze at 160, as well.

As sort of a cherry on top to why there are far too many trinkets floating about, and a way of highlighting why other sports do not operate in a similar manner, take a gander at how long it takes to gather all the hardware to be labeled a “unified champion”. Terence Crawford accomplished the feat in August of last year after blitzing Julius Indongo, thirteen years after Jermain Taylor last did it in July of 2005. Adding more belts in the future only expands this travesty and puts off potential fans.

Lack of Competition

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It has been announced this year that the Eastern Conference in the NBA will pit its number one seed against its number eight and that will determine an NBA Finals winner, a new world champion. The Western Conference has decided that it will crown its own Finals victor by pairing its number one and number four seed. In a press-released statement the NBA also said that the winners of each Final will not compete with one another this year because the “unified Finals” game needs time to marinate.

Ridiculous proposition, right? Again, welcome to the world of boxing. It is a regular occurrence to see this sort of thing and much worse. Mismatches for “world championships” are commonplace and not these near-even contests between sporting behemoths you expect elsewhere.

Pick a guy who has been collecting and defending alphabet titles for years and you can focus the lens on one of boxing’s biggest shortcomings—the insufficient number of competitive contests for so-called “world championships”, all sanctioned by the alphabet bodies.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, for example, has participated in twelve matches involving trinkets and three have been close to even money—Austin Trout, Erislandy Lara, and Gennady Golovkin. Deontay Wilder, ranked #2 at heavyweight by boxing’s independent ratings board in Transnational, has been in eight title fights and two have been close to splitting opinions. Leo Santa Cruz has won belts in three divisions, fought in what looks to be a whopping total of fifteen title fights, and yet two—both Frampton bouts—have been viewed as a pick ‘ems going in.

Errol Spence’s drubbing of inexperienced Carlos Ocampo is the latest in one-sided showcases and we should see another one soon in Gilberto Ramirez versus Roamer Alexis Angulo.

As a note, although last year was viewed as a good one regarding quality of contests from start to finish, you cannot sweep matches like Artur Beterbiev vs. Enrico Koelling, Dmitry Bivol vs. Trent Broadhurst, Zolani Tete vs. Siboniso Gonya, Gilberto Ramirez vs. Max Bursak, Wanheng Menayothin vs. Melvin Jerusalem, Jerwin Ancajas vs. Israel Gonzalez, Leo Santa Cruz vs. Chris Avalos, anyone Naoya Inoue fought, and loads of others under the rug.

You can’t ignore that there is a historical precedent to this, either. Look at the innumerable soft touches boxers like Sven Ottke, Samuel Serrano, Omar Narvaez, Artur Grigorian, and Chris John had. Men have made careers out of it. Even revered fistic combatants such as Wilfredo Gomez, Ricardo Lopez, Khaosai Galaxy, Dariusz Michalczewski, and many others stockpiled not-so-live bodies.

Should people labeled “world champions” traverse such a relatively straight road?

What Does it Mean?

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The amalgamation of these factors has slowly drained the term “world champion” of authenticity, reducing it to something barely coherent. This is a status that is supposed to conjure up images of a robust conqueror, one who stands atop a pyramid of the fallen or the yearning. This description used to be more apt in years past when boxing journalism was splashed over local newspapers and criticism was levied at pretenders to a throne created by fewer entities. Now it seems as if pugilistica is saturated by social media fanboys and even the loftiest publications are compromised by their sponsors/owners.

It all reminds me of a review for A. J. Liebling’s classic, The Sweet Science, done by Rafael Garcia of The Fight City nearly two years ago. Garcia starts the entire article with this:

“One of the obvious realizations upon re-reading A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science is that while much has changed in the sport over the last 60 years, other things haven’t at all. In Liebling’s time, boxing was much more than the niche spectacle it is today and was instead part of the cultural fabric of North America. More revealingly, being a champion meant a great deal more then than it does now…”

What can be deduced from this is that part of the reason that the “sweet science of bruising” was interwoven in early American society, among other things, is because the word champion had unambiguous clout. He was identifiable, he was committed, he wore the crown with pride. At one time the heavyweight champion was the baddest man on the planet.

Now we have squabbling fiefdoms with a bunch of claimants to petty thrones. While that may provide complex and distracting storylines, we all end up watching the show to know who the true king is.