Anthony Joshua stood and beamed at the cameras, surrounded by a rain-soaked, 80-000 strong crowd and displayed his full wingspan with the abduction of his shoulders—the fighter’s Herculean arms adorned with a plethora of world heavyweight championship belts.
Among the various trinkets was the IBF title, the red-and-gold strap that Joshua secured with his demolition of Charles Martin in 2016, draped over his left arm. Rather curiously, there were two black-and-gold WBA belts (though the WBA does love to hand out belts like candy), one on each arm, to represent Joshua’s reign as the WBA’s ‘Super’ Heavyweight Champion, which had begun with an epic eleventh-round stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko in 2017.
Then there was the raisin-coloured WBO title, the latest addition to Joshua’s collection following victory over Joseph Parker in March, hanging from the Brit’s right arm. Three-quarters of boxing’s world heavyweight title picture remained in the 28-year-old megastar’s possession after a seventh-round knockout of the dangerous Alexander Povetkin, which whipped that drenched crowd into a frenzy at Wembley Stadium. Only the green-and-gold WBC title, held by Deontay Wilder, stands between Joshua becoming the first four-belt undisputed heavyweight champion in history.
Or is it now 5?
Elsewhere on Joshua’s left lever was the IBO heavyweight title, historically an accolade that is rarely taken seriously, given that there were already four major ‘world titles’ to win in any of boxing’s seventeen weight classes (that’s sixty-eight belts) before the IBO came to pass. Sixty-eight belts, and that’s without even counting the myriad of secondary and interim straps that have since emerged. Purists yearn for the good old days when there were only eight weight classes, with one world champion in each division.
At this point that’s a scenario that’s likely never going to happen again, but what boxing really doesn’t need is widespread acceptance of a fifth major title. Though boxing doesn’t accept the IBO as a legitimate world title, right? Well, increasingly, there are signs that a growing number of those in the business do.
“Anthony Joshua has got four world championship belts,” Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn told Sky Sports News at the announcement of the Povetkin fight, when asked to clarify the situation regarding failed negotiations for a bout with Wilder and why Joshua deserved a bigger slice of the pie. “Deontay Wilder has got one.”
Since Joshua’s decision win over Parker, a number of publications with global readerships, including Forbes and The Times, have frequently referred to Joshua as a four-belt champion. To casual followers of the sport, the likes of whom a fighter like Joshua attracts by the masses, millions in fact, if they read or hear something often enough then it becomes a reality. The neophyte boxing fans that come along for the Joshua ride and end up sticking around don’t distinguish the difference between the multitude of titles without knowing the history of the sanctioning bodies. They don’t therefore immediately understand the context of why the IBO is regarded more lightly.
It’s exactly how the WBO ultimately gained acceptance through the 1990s and early 2000s, with popular or well-known fighters collecting the title and it becoming synonymous with their reign as a champion, which is also essentially the same as how the IBF began in the 1980s.
The Rise of the WBO
Chris Eubank was a huge catalyst in the WBO becoming recognised as a world title, after he and another household name in Britain, Nigel Benn, fought one of the best fights ever seen in a British ring in 1990. Millions of Brits watched on ITV as Eubank emphatically stopped Benn in the ninth round, a result that also made noise on the other side of the Atlantic as Eubank, the underdog, overcame a fighter that had just won five consecutive fights on American soil.
In that sequence Benn had beaten Doug DeWitt to win the WBO middleweight title and although the belt itself was insignificant at that point, when Benn destroyed Iran Barkley (conqueror of Tommy Hearns and having recently lost close decisions to Roberto Duran and Michael Nunn) inside a round, the Dark Destroyer was seen as a member of the elite at 160lbs, his ‘world title’ therefore becoming all the more legitimate.
That was compounded when Eubank beat Benn and after defending the title three times, the last of which against Michael Watson, Eubank moved up to challenge for the vacant WBO super-middleweight crown in an ill-fated rematch with Watson, who suffered near-fatal, life-changing injuries in the final round. By the time Eubank and Benn met for their much-hyped 1993 rematch, watched by 18 million Brits on terrestrial TV and broadcast to an estimated global audience of half a billion, the WBO had reached such a level of recognition that the bout was dubbed a unification between Eubank’s title and Benn’s WBC strap.
Naseem Hamed won the WBO featherweight title in 1995, making fifteen defences as he also became lineal champion at the weight. Over the years and through a number of high-profile match-ups, the WBO slowly became accepted as the fourth major sanctioning body in boxing. If you look at the some of the champions that have proudly worn the IBO title since the turn of the century, it parallels with the rise of the WBO are plain to see.
The IBO Gaining a Foothold
Joshua picked up the vacant IBO title with victory over Klitschko, who had previously held the belt ever since his IBF title win over Chris Byrd way back in 2006, making eighteen successful defences up until his loss to Tyson Fury (the belt becoming vacant when Fury relinquished his unified titles and took a hiatus from the sport). The winner of the Klitschko-Byrd IBF title bout had also received the vacant IBO strap, but the fact that Klitschko never dropped the belt and always paid the sanctioning fees indicated that he held it in high regard. The fact that the IBO don’t enforce any mandatory challengers helped to enable this however, as the likelihood is that if he’d been obliged to make a compulsory defence at the risk of his other world titles, Klitschko would have dropped the IBO belt quicker than a Dr. Steelhammer right cross.
By taking a different approach to the other sanctioning bodies in not calling for mandatories, the IBO was able to attach itself to the world’s premier heavyweight for a number of years, having previously done the same with Lennox Lewis, who also never dropped the belt after picking it up in his rematch with Evander Holyfield for the WBA, IBF, WBC and lineal crowns in 1999. It was Lewis who became the IBO’s first real marquee champion consequently. Curiously, the IBO made their vacant heavyweight title available for Lewis-Holyfield II several months after they had stripped Denmark’s Brian Nielsen (remember him?). 1999 was the year that Ed Levine joined the IBO as a major shareholder, a pivotal figure in the organisation’s development because after Levine became president – a position he holds to this day – the IBO started to become more mainstream and top fighters holding IBO titles became more prevalent.
There’s been Lewis, Klitschko and now Joshua at heavyweight. The triumvirate of Roy Jones, Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson all held the IBO light heavyweight title on the line when they exchanged meetings between 2003 and 2005. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao both had stints as IBO rulers in the mid-2000s, as they jumped through weight classes collecting other baubles. Then perhaps the biggest proponent of the body in recent years, Gennady Golovkin, held the IBO middleweight title from 2011 right up until his recent defeat to Canelo Alvarez, defending the title seventeen times along the way. Incidentally, Canelo scored himself some affection from hardcore fans of the sport in the wake of his controversial points win over GGG by refusing to pay the IBO’s fees, thus making their current 160lb title vacant. George Groves was seen as similarly heroic when he did the same earlier this year, even more so because he took the title from Chris Eubank Jr, who’d publicly proclaimed that his IBO title win over Renold Quinlan made him a legitimate ‘world champion’.
The Champion of Integrity
The things is, as much as many boxing fans rejoice when a fighter treats the IBO with that level of disregard, their rejection of the body is not personal. The IBO pride themselves on being the ‘Champion of Integrity’. And they really are. Take a look through their methods and practices and you’ll see that, by comparison to the Big Four, the IBO have proven to the most ethical, consistent and least corrupt sanctioning body in the sport.
Levine actually runs a fantastic organisation. While the WBA are eager to have multiple champions of their own in the same weight division to maximize their earnings through fees, while they along with the WBO and IBF pick and choose contenders and compile rankings based on favouritism and promotional clout, or indeed finances, the IBO run a transparent computerised ranking system, based solely on fighter’s results. It’s still not a perfect system and every once in a while you do get the Renold Quinlans of this world contesting the title, but at least they have a system and stick to it.
The IBO have never been involved in a lawsuit. They are a non-profit organisation, a far cry from the greedy suits in the other sanctioning bodies. They should be commended for trying their best to clean boxing up and do things the right way. In a lot of ways, the IBO are exactly what boxing needs. It’s just a crying shame that boxing really doesn’t need a fifth major title. There are far too many belts as it is, which is one of the principle reasons that the mainstream public no longer take boxing seriously. Sure, a Joshua can still pull in a crowd. But at one time being the Heavyweight Champion of the World (singular) was the biggest prize in sport. In the main, boxing is now a sideshow to most of the population.
The WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO are going nowhere and as the already established four, there just isn’t room for another three-letter acronym at the top-table of boxing, however good the IBO may be.