IBHOF inductee Graham Houston assesses the worth of titles in boxing today, where every fight of 10 rounds or more appears to have a championship belt of some sort at stake.
There was a time when an excellent boxer could go through his career without winning a title, of any sort. In the 1950s, a British boxing editor named Gilbert Odd sough to redress this somewhat by introducing something called a Certificate of Merit. A boxer who gave a particularly noteworthy performance would be awarded a framed certificate, like the ones you see in a doctor’s office, acknowledging the boxer’s achievement.
That was then. Now, it’s a given that fighter with any sort of ability will win some sort of title.
On the Queensberry Promotions bill last weekend the three main bouts were all for some sort of title. One was for something called the World Boxing Organisation Global championship. (Australia’s Tim Tszyu holds one of those.) It’s almost as if the sanctioning bodies are saying: “You want a title? We’ll find one for you.”
While this is bewildering for boxing fans, it’s good for the boxers and promoters. A sanctioning body championship belt leads to a world Top 15 rating. And promoters obviously want to advance the careers of their fighters. So to win any sort of sanctioning-body belt will advance a boxer’s career.
For those of us who try to follow boxing, though, keeping track of champions has now become impossible.
In the 1950s and into the 1960s, there was usually one world champion in each weight class. Occasionally a title was divided, usually when the then-powerful New York commission and the old National Boxing Association (forerunner of the WBA) each had its own champion.
Occasionally the European Boxing Union, or the British Board, or even a US state, would install its own champion. In the 1950s, for example, Joe Louis having announced his retirement, Britain recognised Lee Savold as world heavyweight champion after Savold stopped British champion Bruce Woodcock, while Ezzard Charles was NBA champion.
Generally speaking, though, there was one world champion in each division.
Now we have four major sanctioning bodies (five if you include the IBO) plus other outfits that offer their own versions of world titles. Who can keep track of it all?
For a British fight enthusiast back in the 1950s and ’60s, the titles of the most importance were world, European, British Empire/Commonwealth and British championships.
Back then, a European champion was a fighter of considerable standing in the boxing community.
Now we have fights for the IBF European title and the WBO European title. We have a European Union title. So, at any given time, four boxers could all call themselves a European champion in the same weight division.
Indeed, in an age where it’s considered almost essential for a fight to be billed as a championship bout, we have all manner of belts on offer. Inter-Continental, International, Pan African, Pan Pacific, Youth — the list goes on and on.
What of unification title fights? At one time, a unification title bout was just that, when two champions met. Sugar Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns I, for instance. Or the rubber match between Roberto Duran vs Esteban De Jesus. Or Carlos Monzon vs Rodrigo Valdes.
But this was when we had just the WBC and WBA. Now we have the IBF and WBO. That’s four titles to unify. Josh Taylor did it against Jose Ramirez. And Jermell Charlo (WBC, WBA and IBF champion) attempts to do it on Saturday against Brian Carlos Castano (WBO titleholder).
But titles don’t stay unified. Each sanctioning body has a mandatory contender. How can a champion keep four sanctioning bodies happy?
When the WBC introduced what it calls a franchise champion, things had become so confusing that at Boxing Monthly (gone but not forgotten) we simply stopped listing champion designations in our world ratings.
We now have champions and interim champions, champions in recess, Silver and Gold champions, franchise champions. At the WBA there are “super” champions and “regular” champions.
Not even the most dedicated fight follower could possibly name all the world champions.
Folks who follow boxing know the score. They know what does and does not constitute an appealing contest. For the average fan, I believe, the term “title fight” has lost its magic. Because, today, almost every fight scheduled for more than eight rounds is a title fight.
What matters is the fight itself. When bantamweight champions Carlos Zarate and Alfonso Zamora clashed in the 1970s there was no title are stake. It went off as a non-title bout. But that didn’t lessen interest. It was an intriguing match-up.
Today, I’m not sure if a fan can even remember which title was at stake half the time.
But there’s no going back.
At least a fighter, even one who isn’t exceptional, can look back on his career and have a championship belt of some description to show for his efforts.
And with all these sanctioning bodies and a plethora of titles, the days when a deserving boxer was frozen out from getting a championship fight — not “connected” or simply too dangerous, whatever — are long gone.
It’s just that titles aren’t what they used to be. And that is what’s sad about it.
Main image: Manuel Charr, WBA Heavyweight Champion In Recess. Photo: World Boxing Association.