The idea that boxing needs a shake-up is not a new one. Despite its recent surge in popularity, for the best part of the last decade, the sport has been in decline. Growing complexity with the number of belts and titles, erratic matchmaking, and enforcement of mandatory challenges, as well as pressure from new sports such as MMA, have all worked to erode the supreme grip with which boxing once fight fans.
There are a large number of boxing organizations worldwide, but the WBA, WBC, WBO, and IBF are widely considered to be the only ones that really matter. The IBO and IBU are occasionally relevant, but their belts and champions are seldom held with much regard.
The introduction of new belts and titles
While most of the top organizations are guilty of this, we need to look no further than the WBC s the king ‘most diluted divisions’. For a long time, there was just one champion per division for each of the top organizations, meaning that before 2007 when the WBO achieved top billing, there were just 3 champions per division.
In 2007 the WBC, WBA, and IBF collectively recognized the WBO as a serious organization, so following that date, there was the potential of having 4 separate champions per weight division. The WBC however, has continued to confuse the situation by creating a growing number of belts and titles in each division.
In 2009 the WBC introduced its ‘Diamond Championship belt’, initially designed as a one-time honorary title to award to the winner of a historic fight between two high-profile and elite boxers. The first belt was awarded to Manny Pacquiao, after winning his sixth world title, across five weight divisions, with his 12th-round TKO of Miguel Cotto at Welterweight.
In 2010 the WBC introduced the ‘Silver Championship belt’, which is considered a secondary belt and essentially simply a renaming of their Interim titles. It sits below ‘World Championship belt’ and is separate from its ‘Diamond championship’.
As of now, the Silver champion isn’t guaranteed the next shot at the World title based on their Silver ranking, unless he/she tops the World rankings separately. This is because the WBC now recognizes Interim and Silver champions, as well as Interim Silver champions, which means the mandatory challenger to the WBC World title might not be the WBC Silver champ, confused? Yeah, us too.
FRUSTRATIONS GROWING WITH BOXING’S SANCTIONING BODIES
The WBC also awards an ‘Eternal Champion belt’, which is another honorary title, awarded to extremely dominant champions that have never lost a world title and retired undefeated from the sport. Essentially the WBC thought it was necessary to create a new belt to recognize champions whose performances were so amazing they should be remembered forever. For example, if there was some sort of famous “hall of boxers” where they could be applauded for their achievements, but on an international scale… you know? Oh yeah, the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which already exists, is very famous and does the exact same thing as the ‘Eternal Championship belt’.
The newest addition to their list, unveiled in June 2019, is the WBC Franchise champion, which is a champion who cannot lose their ‘Franchise status’ or pass it on to another boxer, even if they lose a title fight. This is the most confusing one of all and the one that has been almost universally and very openly derided by the boxing world. This unlosable title has so far been awarded to Canelo Alvarez and Vasily Lomachenko, with a possibility of Tyson Fury joining them soon. It’s basically a ‘best buds with Mauricio Sulaimán belt, with the added promise to ‘make up, make up, never ever break up’.
The WBC is not alone in its belt creating craze though, as the WBA also has its WBA Regular and WBA Super champion in each division. At first, it was thought that the WBA Super champion was basically a WBA Regular champion who held belts in different weight divisions, with the Super title being given to them so they could hold onto their belts without having to make mandatory defenses in multiple divisions. However, this isn’t the case anymore and the WBA recognizes both a Super and Regular champion in each division, each of them having to defend against separate mandatory challengers.
As a result of these added belts, most fans simply recognize the WBA Super champion and ignore the WBA Regular title completely. This would be fine if the regular title didn’t add to the complexity of matchmaking and make it harder for promoters to fix fights between boxers as a result of the ever-more-convoluted ranking system. The WBA is now making its regular and super champions fight each other, which leads to the question, “What was the point in the first place?”
What about Interim titles?
Well, I’ve never agreed with interim titles at all. It’s essentially a title given to a boxer who fights for a title that was vacated as a result of the true champion being out of commission due to injury or legal issues. In this situation, organizations now crown an interim champion instead of, oh I don’t know, waiting for the champion to be ready to fight again.
Prior to the 70s, the #2 boxer would literally wait for the #1 guy to be ready to fight, if the champ took too long, he was stripped and #2 became the official #1. If and when the former champ did come back, he had to fight the belt he vacated again. As it works now, they crown an interim champion and the champion fights him when he’s back, to defend his title against the interim titleholder. So basically, they just renamed “#2 guy” to “Interim champion” because they felt like it and because they can make more money for interim champs than they can non-champs.
So, what about the mandatory challengers, for example, Dillian Whyte?
Each of the organizing bodies deals with their mandatories very differently. When we say very differently, we mean ‘chalk and cheese’ differently. The IBF, for the most part, has historically been the most stringent when it comes to enforcing its regulations. The IBF is not afraid to strip champs of belts for not making mandated defenses, as well as being strict in enforcing timelines for those defenses to be made.
Under the current circumstances, with COVID-19 all but grounding the world for the last few months, the IBF has made applaudable exceptions to its rules, allowing Anthony Joshua some extra time to make a defense of his Heavyweight title against their mandatory Kubrat Pulev. Under normal circumstances, the IBF would have stripped Joshua by now for not meeting their original deadline, as they did to Canelo Alvarez in 2019 for failing to fight Sergiy Derevyanchenko.
The WBC, however, enforces its rules so haphazardly, that promoters and boxers have been openly criticizing their behavior in the media for most of the last decade. The poster boy for ‘poorly-enforced-mandatory rights’ has to be Dillian Whyte who has waited for a title shot since October 2017, or December 2019 if you join the WBC in penalizing him for his false-positive drug test from UKAD, which they later admitted was incorrect and revoked.
Either way, the WBC has built a reputation for enforcing mandated challenges on some occasions but dragging their feet in others. One recent example is the expeditious way they got Dominic Breazeale a fight with Deontay Wilder in May 2019, in a little over a month following Fury opting out of his rematch with Wilder in February 2019. Compare this with the incredible wait Whyte has faced to get a shot at Wilder, now replaced by Fury, which again looks to be postponed as Fury is set to face Joshua.
Fury recently said that he’s not interested in facing Dillian Whyte, a stance he’s allowed to take mainly because he’s dealing with the WBC and not the IBF. Just because he’s not interested in facing Whyte, doesn’t mean he gets to avoid the fight, because Dillian Whyte is the mandatory challenger. While the IBF has allowed Joshua some flexibility regarding Pulev due to the logistical issues, the WBC is seemingly considering allowing Fury to rule-break because he has a more lucrative contract with AJ in the works. Mauricio Sulaimán knows that the WBC is set to make a good deal of money and gain huge media exposure for the Fury v AJ fight, so it appears he’s favoring Fury’s contract over Whyte’s position as mandatory.
Fury’s rematch clause with Wilder, as well as his two-fight contract with Joshua, should be none of Mauricio Sulaimán’s concern. The WBC is a governing body, not a promoter or stakeholder in each boxer’s career. Their job is to enforce the rules which give their organization, their belts, and their champions credibility.
If AJ signed a contract to fight Whyte instead of Kubrat Pulev and went ahead with it, the IBF would strip him of his title and fine him. If he signed a contract with Whyte but broke it to defend against Pulev, the IBF would lose no sleep over AJ’s ensuing legal situation with Whyte as they had rules for him to follow. If a boxer wants to keep their champion status, they need to follow the rules, anything they do outside of that is one the. Or so it should be, as the WBC isn’t keen on enforcing its own rules when it’s not the most profitable option for them.
The WBO was also guilty of this, funnily enough with Whyte on the receiving end again, as they made Oleksandr Usyk their mandatory Heavyweight challenger to Anthony Joshua, based solely on his Cruiserweight champion status. Before Usyk had had a single fight as a Heavyweight, he was next in line for a title shot, leapfrogging Whyte in the process. Whyte told talkSPORT, “I can’t get over the fact the WBO have made Oleksandr Usyk mandatory challenger for their heavyweight title. It’s a joke, pure and simple. I get it that he was the undisputed cruiserweight champion, but at least let the man have a fight at heavyweight first. You can’t just hand it to him. But this is boxing, it’s full of nonsense. If you let yourself get bogged down in the politics and the hype then this sport will make you lose your mind”.
Frank Warren blames Eddie Hearn, not the WBC
Ever the rival, Warren as quick to take aim at Hearn over Whyte’s WBC issues. While Warren has openly sympathized with Whyte and his struggles to gain a title shot, he placed the blame for the WBC AND WBO situation, firmly at Hearn’s feet. Warren told talkSPORT, “According to his promoters, who say they are the best promoters in the world, they’ve had him in that position for the last two years. He was number one in the WBO, they didn’t force the issue there and Oleksandr Usyk, another one of their fighters, took his position… Also, they’ve got Anthony Joshua, so why don’t they make that fight? You’ve got to look at Matchroom.”
While Hearn has also voiced his disapproval of the WBC’s treatment of Whyte, there might be truth to Warren’s barbed statement. On February 23rd, 2020, Hearn tweeted “No need for a third let’s go straight for it in the Summer! #undisputed”, referencing Fury’s trilogy fight with Wilder and offering an AJ v Fury super-fight instead. The problem with that is, that Dillian Whyte is the WBC mandatory. So all things being equal between Whyte and AJ, which they should be with Hearn, he should’ve been pushing for Whyte to get a shot at Fury next, but instead, he chose to promote Joshua. Whyte was on it straight away and replied to his promoter, “@EddieHearn How about doing what’s right and forcing him to fight me first as the number one challenger”.
Hearn against Fury as WBC ‘Franchise champion’
Hearn, for his part, has been making efforts to get Whyte a title shot, at least since Whyte took action against the WBC. Speaking to iFL TV, Hearn drew parallels between Whyte’s current situation and Devin Haney’s quest to fight Lomachenko, which got derailed by Lomachenko becoming ‘franchise champion’
Hearn said, “We know that the obvious move here is to make Tyson Fury the ‘franchise’ champion. I’ve discussed it with Dillian, it’s pretty obvious. And I’ve seen this with Devin Haney and Vasiliy Lomachenko. Devin Haney wanted to fight Vasiliy Lomachenko. So we stayed with the WBC, we moved up their governing body, we fought in a final eliminator. He fought Zaur Abdullaev, which was also for the interim-championship because Lomachenko was going to have an undisputed fight. Bang, we’re mandatory to Vasiliy Lomachenko”
“All of a sudden Top Rank requests that Vasiliy Lomachenko gets made franchise champion and the WBC makes Lomachenko the franchise champion, meaning that you cannot get near him. You cannot touch him. He doesn’t have to make a mandatory and if he loses he is still the WBC franchise champion. What is the point of searching for greatness if you are never allowed to get there when you deserve it? In that instance, we spent all the money pushing Devin Haney up the WBC rankings… having sanctioned events, international titles, silver titles, final eliminators, interim-titles, only to be told that you can’t fight the champion. Then you become world champion. It is an honour to become WBC champion and Devin Haney is WBC world lightweight champion. But you don’t get the respect, you get the criticism. People say ‘oh, well it’s an email belt.’ It’s not Devin Haney’s fault, he was desperate to fight the WBC world champion, Vasiliy Lomachenko, and then was told he couldn’t do it.”
Hearn explained to iFL TV how Fury becoming ‘franchise champion’ would jeopardise Whyte’s title hopes in the same way, “Dillian Whyte has spent years going up the WBC rankings… paying for international titles, silver titles, interim-titles, eliminators, final eliminators, to make sure that he can get a shot at the WBC World champion. Get his payday. Get his chance at legacy and achieve his dream and then, just as he’s there, a few months away you say ‘Tyson Fury, you are now franchise champion and Dillian Whyte, sorry mate you can’t get him, but great news you are the new WBC heavyweight champion of the world.’ and then everyone says ‘well you’re not the real heavyweight champion of the world.”
Hearn’s frustrations must pale in comparison to Dillian Whyte’s. Whatever you think of Whyte as a boxer and an athlete, whatever you think about his past reputation, it’s strange to see an organization show such a lack of parity to fighters. This kind of situation, with its complexity and effect on fair matchmaking, is exactly why boxing has been in decline over the past few years. Other sports, like MMA, that don’t have to deal with the same level of politics have gone from strength to strength, while boxing has remained frustratingly stagnant.
While ‘fixing’ boxing is obviously no easy task, the first step on that road is sure to admit that there is a problem, to begin with. Whether it’s favoritism, an unwelcome abundance of belts, multiple conflicting governing bodies, or simply boring matchmaking boxing needs a shake-up. Let’s hope it happens.
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