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Undisputed Middleweight Title on Shaky Ground

BY Aaron Tallent ON July 21, 2005
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With his split decision victory over Bernard Hopkins last Saturday, middleweight Jermain Taylor is one of boxing’s two unified, undisputed champions (welterweight Zab Judah is the other). The passing of the untainted title is boxing at its purest. No keeping track of who has which alphabet soup belt. No praying that Showtime and HBO can reach an agreement on putting fighters in the ring. It is just one guy ruling the roost in his division and every other contender fighting for a shot at the title.

Every fan loves boxing for the simplicity of a single titleholder. It helps creates stars and makes the sport much easier easy to follow.

Hopkins was about as anonymous as a middleweight champ could be until his career-defining win over Felix Trinidad. With that victory, he unified the WBC, WBA and IBF titles and for the next three and half years brought order to his division. “The Executioner” even took it one step further and added the offshoot WBO title with his win over Oscar De La Hoya last fall.

Hopkins will be considered one of the greatest middleweights of all time and the shining example of successfully boxing into old age. However, he should also be remembered as a fighter who respected the distinction of undisputed champion.

Hopkins has never thrown his belt in a trashcan instead of fighting an opponent, as Riddick Bowe did with his WBC heavyweight title when Lennox Lewis was his mandatory challenger. He has never abandoned his division for a higher weight class. And he has never made any “I’m bigger than titles now” comments like his arch-nemesis Roy Jones.

Now Taylor has all the belts and the undisputed title. The Taylor/Hopkins rematch scheduled for October 1 will likely be pushed back to December because of a cut Taylor’s forehead suffered in Saturday’s fight. No matter the date, the middleweight division could very well be the most exciting division of the year.

But will it make it through the year with an undisputed champion? A division title is harder to unify than the original Van Halen. The undisputed title is even harder to keep together. Lennox Lewis unified the heavyweight championship in 1999 and had already vacated the WBA belt by his next fight.

Very few undisputed titles survive the transition from one champion to another. Before the Executioner’s reign, the middleweight title was last unified in the spring of 1987 when Marvelous Marvin Hagler owned all the belts. In April of that year, he defended his WBC belt against Sugar Ray Leonard and lost a split decision. When Leonard would not give him a rematch, Hagler retired, vacating his WBA and IBF belts. In October, Sumbu Kalambay decisioned Iran Barkley for the WBA belt, as did Frank Tate over Michael Olajide for the IBF title. The title belts stayed separated for the next 13 years.

There is a possibility that these belts could go their separate ways once again. The most obvious scenario would be if Hopkins beats Taylor in the December rematch. The fat lady is not singing a tune for the Executioner’s career just yet. He used the same strategy of his previous fights, studying his opponents early and going in for the kill in the later rounds. The only problem this time around is that Taylor’s aggression kept Hopkins from winning any of the earlier ones. Still, he performed well enough to convince one judge he won the fight.

Say Hopkins beats Taylor and wins all those belts back. Is he going to break his promise to his mother and fight past 41, an age he reaches this January? If not, then he would have to retire and vacate the WBA, IBF, WBC and WBO titles, each of which those sanctioning bodies would fill on its own. Having four separate champions does wonders for a division. Just look at the heavyweight ranks.

The most similar instance occurred in the heavyweight division back in 1978, when Leon Spinks upset a 36-year-old Muhammad Ali for the undisputed, unified title. Times were much simpler then because the WBA and WBC were the only sanctioning bodies. Nevertheless, the title still found a way to split.

Trouble arose when Spinks opted for a big money rematch with Ali instead of fighting the WBC’s number-one contender, Ken Norton. The WBC stripped Spinks of the belt and gave it Norton, who lost it to Larry Holmes in his first defense. Then “The Greatest” took Spinks’ WBA belt in a rematch. Ali announced his retirement in 1979, thus vacating his belt and ushering in one of the worst eras in heavyweight history.

Taylor is a much more talented and focused fighter than a prime “Neon” Leon, and Bernard Hopkins has way more in the tank at 40 than Ali did at 36. The circumstances may still play out in a very similar fashion. If so, the division that currently represents the purity of boxing will find itself another example of everything wrong with the sport.

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