Professional boxing is a maze of sanctioning bodies, promoters, and government overseers in an international, year-round sport. While frequently (though figuratively) spat upon by critics who extol the supposed virtues of the more mainstream team sports, boxing endures for one primary reason: the big fight.
In years past, the big fight included title fights and key bouts between top contenders vying for the chance at the one true champ in each weight class. Today there exist no less than nine “world” sanctioning bodies (take a deep breath before trying to recite this list): WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO, WBU, IBA, IBC, IBO and NBA. That does not include the vaunted Ring Magazine belt. I’m sure that by the time you finish this article there will be a new organization that springs into existence.
The WBA has also added something called “super” champion for titleholders who hold belts of two or more organizations. This allows the sanctioning body to sanction (and collect fees) for other fighters to contest for the lesser title of “champion,” as well as sanction (and collect fees) when their super champion defends. Confusing? You bet.
Okay, that diminishes one aspect of the “big” fight. But what about top contenders fighting elimination bouts for titles? Consider for an instant that next month the WBO will sanction a title eliminator between Lance “Mount” Whitaker (formerly known as Goofi – like the Disney character but spelled differently) and someone named Luan Krasniqi. You know Krasniqi don’t you? Of course you do. His last fight was a European Union title defense against Timo Hoffmann that ended in a draw.
How confident do you feel now that title eliminators are showcasing the top fighters? Whitaker belongs somewhere in the top 15 heavyweights, but not in a title eliminator. And Krasniqi? You tell me.
So how do we get to the big fights? Like it or not, money is, more often than not, the driver for such matches.
Other factors, such as small-time promoters protecting turf or fighters who are not confident in their abilities, are the usual impediment.
The high-end promoters such as Don King, Bob Arum, Main Events and Golden Boy, among others, are guided by markets and will eventually get the big fights in front of us often enough to keep the sport alive.
Although much of the boxing public loves to hate the big-time promoters, they are not the true enemy. No, the spoiler is the promoter with a narrow view of the world who continually puts his fighters in against nominal opposition in front of hometown crowds.
He does so in the hope that he can regularly fill arenas, perhaps have a local TV contract (usually outside the U.S.), while keeping his champions – from whatever sanctioning body – with their crowns intact. In some cases such promoters have been proven correct often enough to continue the practice.
The focus for the rest of us should be to keep up the pressure on promoters and fighters to face the best in the sport as often as possible.
Here’s a list of what writers, fans, promoters, fighters, managers and even sanctioning bodies can do to help their sport — and ultimately themselves:
1. Boxing writers vote with their coverage. Call the big fights big and the farces farces. Pound away at the various champions who avoid top competition until they meet the best in their respective weight classes and constantly note whom they avoid. Are you listening Joe Calzaghe?
2. Fans vote with their dollars and Euros at the live gate, on pay-per-view, and with their cable subscriptions. Most promoters are listed on the internet, as are all of the sanctioning bodies. Write to them about whom you want to see. Refuse to shell out $59.95 on pay-per-view to see the local tavern tough guys duking it out for the (take-your-pick) sanctioning body title de jour. Incidentally, thank you Main Events for a reasonably priced and entertaining ESPN PPV.
3. Promoters and fighters, including their managers, should push the major U.S. networks for fight dates and featured events, with the focus being on creating stars. Although it is true big promoters gain the most when the popularity of the sport crests, it is also true that local promoters realize a spillover effect. Likewise, skilled journeymen fighters can realize paydays far in excess of their proportionate abilities as “name” fighters climb the latter.
One needs only to remember the rise of Ray Leonard as he fought regularly on ABC’s Wide World of Sports during his march to, and including, his title-winning effort against Wilfred Benitez on November 30, 1979. He didn’t go the closed-circuit route (the precursor to today’s pay-per-view) until his defense against Roberto Duran June 20, 1980.
Another example is that of Riddick Bowe when he began his career. His manager Rock Newman wisely signed a multi-fight deal that put Bowe on CBS Sports for perhaps less money than he could have made elsewhere. The net result was Bowe’s popularity skyrocketed and he quickly became a fighter with a marquee name.
Of course, in each of the examples above, Leonard and Bowe had Olympic bona fides and both had undeniable talent.
The fact is: stars must be built. That’s what drives the big fight.
4. Sanctioning bodies that fail to recognize the champions of the other sanctioning bodies should continue to be chided forever. It is ridiculous, for example, that Vitali Klitschko, the current WBC heavyweight champion, is unranked by the WBA, IBF and WBO. Such a situation renders all rankings meaningless.
While some of the lesser-known sanctioning groups do rank champions of the others – most of the boxing world has been boiled down to the WBC, IBF, WBA, and to a lesser extent the WBO.
If one of the major sanctioning bodies today changed their policy and ranked the other champions, they could break away from the pack quickly.
For example, if the WBA ranked Vitali Klitschko its number one contender, he could be offered a shot at current champion John Ruiz as a mandatory challenger. If he refused, the next ranking contender, perhaps IBF champion Chris Byrd, could be offered the bout as a mandatory.
This would require the WBA champion to face one of the true best heavyweights, assuming they were willing, and would force promoters to negotiate non-binding fight contracts, because mandatory contenders cannot be compelled to sign long-term contracts.
Obviously there is some benefit in upholding the status quo, but the competition would improve the stature of the sanctioning bodies instantly and perhaps one or more of them would fall off the map.
However it happens, big fights need to continue to be the goal of every person participating in the sport. Club fights serve as the incubator for top fights, much in the way minor league baseball serves the major leagues. The future of boxing depends on the best of those fighters emerging from that very difficult process to engage in the big fights that serve as a draw for the sport.
If they remain hidden from view in small markets and off TV, their fame – and thus the claim that their fights are “big” – will not grow. Likewise, even the “big” names must get their faces on broadcast TV, perhaps fighting non-title bouts, to nurture their audiences for the next big fight.
It is a shame that Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson, two high-octane fighters, could walk down any street in America and go largely unnoticed.
Now, on to the big fights many would like to see (and should push hard for).
Vitali Klitschko vs. Chris Byrd – This rematch is long overdue. Klitschko has developed considerably since their first meeting, a fight in which he quit on the stool. Byrd, a smallish heavyweight, has made the most of his talent despite being hard-pressed to defend his title. This unification fight needs to happen to either close a bitter chapter for Klitschko or gain some big-time recognition for Byrd. Oh, and don’t count on much excitement in this match. Just pray there isn’t a draw. Chances of this bout happening in the next year: 10% (Damned unlikely. Byrd is trying hard to not fight anyone named Klitschko. He might actually fare better than he thinks against Vitali).
Glen Johnson vs. Joe Calzaghe – Forget titles for a moment. Johnson was unceremoniously stripped of his title for facing, and beating, arguably the best lightheavyweight in the world, Antonio Tarver. Crazy, huh? Calzaghe has been withering on the vine despite holding the WBO super-middleweight title. He’s 38-0 and much of the boxing world – and certainly the sports public at large – barely know him. And no one knows if he can really fight (though I suspect he can). This is a huge bout for Britain, but it is also an old-fashioned big fight for the rest of us. If Calzaghe can swallow hard and ditch his WBO belt, he has a chance at becoming a superstar. Johnson would have a chance to add luster to an already respectable record. Chances of this bout happening in the next year: 20% (Call me an optimist. Every time I hear Calzaghe or someone from his camp calling out one of the stars of the sport, for a brief moment I believe that’s what they really want. Unfortunately, it just never seems to happen).
Bernard Hopkins vs. Jeff Lacy – Hopkins’ place in history is already secure. He’s a great fighter in the tradition of Sugar Ray Robinson and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Lacy, on the other hand, is a relative green-horn. What makes him special, however, is a clear desire to face the big names, and tremendous power. He also fights as if he has something to prove – perhaps due to his relatively lackluster performance in the Olympics. It’s the classic young lion taking on the grizzled king of the jungle. Chances of this bout happening in the next year: 50% (Hopkins avoids no real contender – never has. Time is working against this one, however. He may not get it in before he packs it in for good).
Bernard Hopkins vs. Winky Wright – Winky is already a proven commodity and he is putting it all on the line against Felix Trinidad. I won’t be at all surprised to see him emerge the victor in their upcoming contest. Brilliantly skilled, left-handed, and fearless, he possesses many of the qualities that must be in place to take on Hopkins. Still, it is a fight too close to call. Chances of this bout happening in the next year: 50% (same reason as with Lacy above).
Zab Judah vs. Kostya Tszyu – Could there possibly be a more anticipated rematch? Two solidly skilled champions. Tszyu, who returned from a long lay-off to overwhelm Sharma Mitchell – a fight many thought he would lose – has gained an aura of greatness. He has a tough match upcoming against Ricky Hatton, but he’s a big favorite to retain his title. Judah devastated Cory Spinks. So much talent. Both are true champions using any measure. Chances of this bout happening in the next year: 70% (Okay, there are promotional problems and logistical issues, but both of these fighters want this match. The winner will perhaps reign supreme on the pound-for-pound lists of everyone).
Manny Pacquiao vs. Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales, etc. – No, I don’t mean a three-way. This august group could continue to fight each other in any combination for years and they would fill arenas – and deservedly so. Chances of some combination of the above happening in the next year: 90% (The fighters want it, the promoters are for it, the cable backers love it, and the fans will pour in. Once we get these worthless mandatories out of the way, look out).
Clearly there are many other matches to be made, but particular sanctioning body letters next to the names of the participants are not – and should not – be the driver.
If you want to see the best, demand the best. And do it now.