Seats were being carved into the Saudi desert as sport’s greatest prize prepared to shed years of dust and disdain.
Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury would repair splintered crowns and decide one heavyweight king. Several months on, both fighters are primed – alas, muddy waters remain. This Saturday, Joshua faces Oleksandr Usyk; October 9 sees Fury fight Deontay Wilder once more.
Two fascinating clashes but neither will do much to clear the fog. Why? There are up to a dozen claims to heavyweight supremacy. Joshua holds four belts, Fury has one. So do Trevor Bryan (WBA ‘regular’ world champion), Dillian Whyte (WBC ‘interim’ world titlist) and Manuel Charr (WBA ‘champion in recess’).
Anthony Joshua (left) now fights Oleksandr Usyk (right) after his Tyson Fury bout fell through
Fury will have to face Deontay Wilder (right) before he can think of a mega-fight with his rival
Several bogus straps remain up for grabs. Is it any wonder the undisputed heavyweight throne has been unoccupied since 2004?
Joshua-Fury collapsed due to a contractual quirk but the chaotic landscape – throughout all 17 weight classes – is the fruit of a system where alphabet bodies, each with their own three-letter-claim to legitimacy, have stepped into a void, charging fighters for the privilege.
Among their less rave reviews? ‘Terrorists’ who have ‘suffocated the growth of boxing’. But can the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Organisation, World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation shoulder the blame for all of boxing’s ills? The organisations are the bad guys, the people – as they call it – ‘ruining the sport’, as WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman says.
This bunch have devised ways to regulate a rudderless sport. But over 100 years have they helped brighten the sport’s fractured, shadowy underbelly? Unfortunately where they go, confusion and comedy often follow close.
Both organised crime and alphabet organisations have sought since the 19th century to bring order to a sport bereft of overarching governance. The first of today’s ‘big four’ appeared in 1921 as the National Boxing Association.
Boxing is currently suffering from a chaotic landscape governed by four bodies – including the WBC, led by president Mauricio Sulaiman
By 1962, it was the WBA; by 1988, in-fighting and geo-politics had spawned three rivals – WBC (1963), IBF (1983) and WBO (1988). Since then, the IBF has been embroiled in an FBI sting and others have faced accusations of corruption, favouritism and incompetence. Many more three-letter-bodies have not survived so we are left with four… and a half.
The International Boxing Organsation count AJ among their champions but mainstream recognition has eluded them. ‘When I started with the IBO, I had these grand ideas,’ explains president Ed Levine, who previously worked with the WBA, WBO and IBF. ‘I knew all the problems… I thought I’d make changes to what a sanctioning body is.’
Those lofty ambitions were tempered before long – even though familiar grievances remain. ‘Boxing is at a very good stage,’ insists Sulaiman, the only big-four representative to accept request for an interview. The Mexican rightly points out that his – and other bodies – have implemented important safety and administrative measures – including reducing championship fights to 12 rounds and supporting charitable causes.
For many fans, though, they have also taken boxing towards ignominy. Common accusations? Poor judging is too often accepted and doping offences are too often dealt with pick-n-mix punishments. Then there are the belts. Once, four world titles per division felt absurd.
There are four world title belts per division and countless champions in most weight classes
Now the WBA has multiple champions in most weight classes. The WBC has crowned ‘international’, ‘diamond’, even ‘franchise’ titlists. The WBO has both world and ‘global’ belts. ‘Interim’, meanwhile, lost its meaning long ago. Ring Magazine offer a better clue of each division’s top fighter with their own title – no easy job considering a recent trawl of BoxRec, who battle to document this mess, found there were 96 different ‘champions’ in men’s boxing, with 91 more titles unclaimed.
In the women’s game, there are more vacant belts than reigning champions. The appeal is obvious: more fighters earn ‘champion’ status, promoters can more easily sell a ‘title’ fight, and these bodies typically charge three per cent of a fighter’s purse to sanction ‘championship’ bouts. Streamlining belts, insiders argue, would deny many contenders a shot.
From the outside, though, boxing appears an indecipherable web of leather and gold. ‘It’s sold pay-per-views, it’s sold tickets, it’s done its work,’ says promoter Kalle Sauerland, who believes they – and the rise of 24-hour TV – played their part, too.
‘But there comes a point where you water it down… (and) like inflation with a currency, suddenly your money is not worth anything.’ One insider recalls a fight when their boxer hoped to become his nation’s youngest-ever world champion. But when sanction arrived on fight day, ‘they’d upgraded him… to world champion.’
Too often fighters are forced to face unworthy contenders instead of rival champions
The source remembers: ‘I called them up and said: “What the f*** are you playing at?”… he needs to fight to become world champion.’ The decision was quickly reversed – but not before the fighter’s manager noticed. ‘He always says at press conferences, even now: “The country’s youngest ever world champion!”‘ The fighter lost that night.
Elsewhere, in 2016, heavyweight Ian Lewison beat Zhiyu Wu in China for the WBO Asia-Pacific title. He was born in East Dulwich. The WBA recently announced a reduction in their titles so perhaps the nadir has passed. But Usyk (cruiserweight) remains one of only five undisputed champions of this four-pronged era.
Titlists can too easily co-exist – Joshua has reigned alongside one of Wilder or Fury for nearly six years without being forced to face either. Instead, champions are too often allowed – or mandated – to fight unworthy challengers. Why? Each sanctioning body has their own top 15; none includes rival champions.
‘Not practical,’ Sulaiman insists. ‘It would create much more confusion… if you see a champion ranked No 8.’ If only there was a way to determine their true standing. That might help prevent embarrassment elsewhere. In 2001, Darrin Morris twice rose up the WBO rankings after his death. Britain’s Luke Campbell recently climbed the WBC rankings. He had already retired.
Boxing has been accused of bribery – with Bob Arum admitting to paying off a WBA official
It would be less serious if ratings weren’t a sport of their own. Titles aren’t just earned in the ring; climbing the ladder is a year-round battle. Conventions offer prime opportunity for networking and negotiation – rival teams sit alongside one another, taking it in turns to state their fighter’s case.
‘You talk through their records, their achievements,’ a source explains. It can pay to tug at heartstrings. One manager recalls a heavyweight outlining his desire to win a particular organisation’s belt, using examples of one of the fights he watched with his father and uncle when he was younger.
‘That really swayed them… I actually think (he) ended up fighting for the title. That’s why they tells fighters: “Do you want to be world champion, or not? Get you’re a** on a plane, get your little wedding speech ready”.’
No surprise, perhaps, that this system has sparked accusations of bribery. Sulaiman denies the WBC have ever accepted money to tweak a fighter’s ranking or fix a fight. Bob Arum previously admitted making ‘payoffs’ to a WBA official, while prosecutors alleged the IBF’s ‘culture of corruption… bastardised’ boxing during the 1990s.
‘Ratings were not earned – they were bought.’
Promoter Eddie Hearn (left) has warned that there will come a time where the sport will demand that it is no longer beholden to governing bodies
IBF founder Robert Lee was convicted of money laundering and tax evasion but cleared of accepting $338,000 in exchange for inflated rankings. During negotiations for Joshua-Fury, Eddie Hearn floated a time when boxing was no longer beholden to these bodies. ‘At some point we have to take charge of the sport and say: “No more”,’ he said.
Levine sympathises. ‘He felt the sanctioning bodies were getting too much power and I agreed.’ But is it realistic? ‘He has the right thinking, I just don’t think that will happen in the next years,’ Sauerland says.
Why? ‘Everybody complains, but all fighters want to have a world title,’ Canelo Alvarez once said. Sulaiman is even less diplomatic. ‘A very irresponsible comment,’ he says. ‘It is the structure that the world of boxing has and – like it or not – one that has been working for the last 60 years.’
That is up for dispute, of course. Much like the identity of the world’s No 1 heavyweight. Still we wait.