Four's Company

BY Eddie Goldman ON February 20, 2006
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There is no major sport as bizarre as boxing. Other sports let you smash someone else's body, even several athletes against just one, as in American football. Other sports have subjective judging criteria, as do many of the events going on right now in the Winter Olympics. And still more share with boxing a history of fixed contests, inept or corrupt officials, and gambling scandals, such as hockey, basketball, baseball, and on and on.

Yet no major sport crowns four world champions at the same time.

Boxing has four major alphabet sanctioning bodies, still functioning although they are among the most despised organizations in the sporting world.

Now seeking to replace, upstage, or maybe just embarrass these alphabets are four – count 'em, four – independent rankings polls. There is The Ring Magazine, Dan Rafael's ESPN.com rankings, the Boxing Writers' Rankings Poll, and the WBM Pro Boxing Poll. In addition, several websites have their own rankings.

There are not four sitting Presidents of the United States. There are not four reigning Super Bowl champions. There are not four current Miss Americas. Even polygamists rarely have four spouses.

But in boxing? Four's company, both for the alphabets and for those who are trying to sell their new, improved products.

Maybe the rest of the world should follow boxing’s lead. Then there actually could be four Presidents of the United States. We could have Bush, McCain, Gore, and Clinton (Bill or Hillary, take your pick) all at once. Or Bush Sr., Bush Jr., and Bill and Hillary, sort of like the Klitschkos’ dream of hoarding all the heavyweight belts between them.

Another alternative is for the four polls to do what is almost never done with the alphabet champions: have a unification or elimination tournament. Dan Rafael could fight Nigel Collins, with the winner getting a crack at one or both of the media polls’ reps. And since the voters in the WBM poll are unidentified, their guy could wear a mask in his fights.

Or perhaps in that hallowed boxing tradition, we could build up to that tournament with a series of mismatches. Dan Rafael could first face some junior high school editor, while Nigel Collins could duke it out with Judith Miller.

Sound good so far? Well, except that the four spouse thing scares me. Or makes me feel sore. I mean, I don’t want to share a wife with three other dudes.

OK, enough satire, you say? Fine. But you like the four-headed monster that controls the business now?

To see one glimpse of the ongoing damage it causes, take this past Saturday’s fight card on pay-per-view. In the main event was Antonio Margarito, who is ranked number two at welterweight by ESPN.com, The Ring, and the WBM, and number one by the BWRP. Also fighting was undefeated junior flyweight Brian Viloria, ranked number five by The Ring, number one by the WBM and BWRP, and number four by ESPN.com in their combined 108/105-pound rankings.

Despite the fine credentials of its headliners, this show had to be on pay-per-view because no American network would buy it. And it was not distributed by either HBO or Showtime. At the same time, a promotional push was in progress for this coming Saturday’s Mosley-Vargas show on HBO pay-per-view.

So two fighters who are universally ranked in the top tier of their weight classes were only seen on TV by a rabid and select group willing to shell out 40 bucks for this one card, and a week before Mosley-Vargas. The alphabet titles, one apiece owned by Margarito and Viloria, carry almost no weight, while the four more credible rankings are almost unknown by the public and have virtually no prestige, and certainly no drawing power.

If all this rankles you, here are some very serious suggestions, as hard or near impossible as they may be to attain:

Using the leverage of the coming November Congressional elections, have a bipartisan bill to establish a national boxing commission passed, either before or after November, whichever increases its chances of passage. Include a section requiring under federal law enforcement of provisions regarding the sanctioning bodies having to explain in writing their rankings, and that they must consider all fighters in a weight class, regardless of whether they are fighting for other belts and are supposedly “unavailable.” Failure to do so means fines and then a ban on operating within the jurisdiction of the United States.

Have an independent organization, and not just one commercial media outlet with its own agenda (e.g., ESPN.com, The Ring, BoxingRanks.com with the BWRP, etc.), establish a media poll. In the U.S. this could be the Boxing Writers Association of America, and would, of course, include as potential voters those already involved in their own rankings. Anyone could still issue rankings, but this new poll would become recognized as being on the same level as the Associated Press and other similar polls are in other sports.

Since boxing is an international sport, such a media poll would, naturally, have to be international in scope. There is no single international boxing media body, so whoever organizes this poll would have to take great care to make it as worldwide as possible.

Of course, all this would be unnecessary if boxing had a central authority, but as we noted last week, that is less likely to happen than Hillary Clinton choosing as a running mate Dick Cheney.

Many boxing journalists with whom I have spoken agree in principle with the need for such a media poll. There is less consensus, however, about the specifics of it.

Some want such a poll to be conducted by a panel of experts. Deciding just which experts select this panel, of course, is another problem.

Others want the poll to be democratic and open to all boxing journalists. Even so, the line between fan and journalist has to be drawn somewhere, and by someone.

The issue of conflicts of interest is yet another hurdle. The BWRP, for example, invited journalists who work for TV networks, which in turn have contracts with fighters. Deciding where to draw the line here is also complicated, and another area where reasonable people might disagree.

Then there is the issue of financing such a venture. Cookie sales?  T-shirts? A poll tax? Google ads on the poll’s website? Costs can be contained, especially with the newest free Internet services, but they will not be nil.

While all these and other problems exist, almost any solution within the parameters listed above is far superior to what we have now. And no poll format can be perfect.

The alternative is not pretty, or, to keep it pugilistic, sweet. But we must act soon, and decisively.

Unless, of course, three of you guys want to send me the cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses of your wives.

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