Rating heavyweight fighters has always proven controversial. Sanctioning bodies, boxing magazines, and guys at your local tavern will never agree with precision on a firm top ten. In times past, however, disputes were usually settled in the ring. Indeed it is difficult to point out a top heavyweight since the Joe Louis-era began who was widely seen as deserving of a title shot only to be denied. What has changed of late is that today there are four sanctioning bodies operating with separate titlists who are not obligated to meet each other in the ring. Some would suggest that certain belt-holders are unwilling to do so. Because of this state of affairs, an entire era may pass where the top two, three, or four heavyweights – fellow contemporaries – may never compete with each other.

The purpose of this article is to examine the simultaneous top ratings of the four sanctioning bodies and the major deficit their ratings present when defining the best, most qualified fighters contending for a world heavyweight title.

The inordinate control of boxing by the more well known worldwide sanctioning bodies, often referred to as the alphabets, is the subject of much derision among fans, fighters, managers, and most promoters who do not control some aspect of the ratings.

Most of the ill feelings are well deserved. Fighters who toil in obscurity, skipping encounters with ranked – and feared – contenders all too often find their way into so-called mandatory title defenses only to lose and fall back into the shadows of the boxing world.

It is useful, therefore that we compare, contrast and analyze the top ratings of the heavyweight division of the four most talked about sanctioning bodies: the World Boxing Council; World Boxing Association; International Boxing Federation; and the World Boxing Organization.

(One could successfully argue that the plethora of other sanctioning bodies carries as much validity as those listed here, but you’re not here to read a book).

The four sanctioning groups have titlists that most of the boxing community, if not the wider sports public, know: WBC – Vitali Klitschko; WBA – John Ruiz; IBF – Chris Byrd; and WBO – Lamon Brewster. All four have successfully defended their respective belts.

The fact that they have avoided each other is a continuing source of frustration of boxing fans and all the more reason that a comparative analysis is necessary.

For our purposes here, however, the titlists are not the focus. We’re concerned with the top contenders in each of the ratings.

The ratings were taken from the respective sanctioning bodies’ Internet websites on October 7th.

Comparison of the various ratings proves difficult. There is little baseline agreement between the sanctioning bodies. A total of 22 fighters inhabit the various ratings. There is no consensus on the top rated fighter. In fact we cannot say “number 1” fighter because quite oddly the IBF and WBA list their number 1 slot as “Not Rated.” Odder still is the fact that only two names, Calvin Brock and Samuel Peter, appear on all four top ten lists.

Each body lists a different top contender: WBC – Hasim Rahman “interim” titlist, and Sinan Samil Sam, number 1 contender (we’ll explain later); WBA – Nicolay Valuev; IBF – Ray Austin (although Wladimir Klitschko in defeating Samuel Peter is now supposedly the next mandatory challenger for titlist Chris Byrd); and WBO – Luan Krasniqi (since the ratings Krasniqi has challenged for the WBO belt and was stopped in 9 rounds by titlist Lamon Brewster. Further, Wladimir Klitschko is now the next mandatory challenger for Brewster with his win over Peter).

Rahman, the WBC’s “interim” titlist, scheduled to face V. Klitschko on November 12th, is of course the former world champion. His interim status came with his victory over Monte Barrett and it affords him a title shot or the title outright should the champion refuse to meet him. It also affords the WBC the opportunity to charge a sanctioning fee for interim belt fights.

Rahman holds knockout victories over the likes of Lennox Lewis, Corrie Sanders, Kali Meehan, and of late a decision against Monte Barrett. One could argue against his top rating due to losses to an aged Evander Holyfield, John Ruiz, Oleg Maskaev, and of course Lewis in their rematch, but at least there are significant wins to support the claim.  Score one for the WBC.

However, his name no longer appears as the number 1 contender, that position is now occupied by Sinan Samil Sam, the WBC’s international titlist. Confused? You should be.  Rahman, a worthy title challenger for anyone, is actually above number 1 but below Klitschko. The interim title is apparently of higher value than the international title. If you can figure that one out please drop me a line. You can remove the positive score for the WBC from the paragraph above.

The Germany-based Turkish Sam’s biggest wins have come over journeymen Danny Williams and a way over-the-hill Lawrence Clay-Bey. He also has losses to Luan Krasniqi and Juan Carlos Gomez, the former cruiserweight titlist. He holds no wins against fighters generally accepted as top 10 material. None. Yet he is considered better than all other heavyweight contenders in the world – including Gomez who pitched a near-shutout decision against him.

Rahman is not in the top 10 of the WBA and IBF, and is rated number 4 by the WBO.

Sam is rated number 10 by the WBA and number 9 by the WBO.

The WBA’s next mandatory challenger (though rated number 2 behind the mysterious “Not Rated” at number 1), is the 7-foot, 300-plus pound Russian Valuev who holds an eye-popping 42-0 (1 NC) record that would seem on the surface to make him a top contender.

However, his significant wins, over 38-year-old fringe contender Larry Donald (a very controversial nod), and Cliff Etienne (who was coming off a knockout loss to Calvin Brock), are hardly the stuff of legend.

Watching him on Boxen.com leaves one with the impression that he belongs in the top 15 to 20 world-rated heavyweights, but inasmuch as he has not taken the full measure of a legitimate top contender, his claim to the top spot is dubious.

His tremendous height and reach advantage notwithstanding, he is very easily hit. He is fairly athletic for a man of great size but his versatility pales in comparison to the likes of many top heavyweights.

He is tentatively scheduled to challenge John Ruiz in December.

Valuev is not rated in the top 10 by the WBC, IBF or WBO.

Ray Austin has climbed to the top-rated spot in the IBF (remember, the IBF lists its number 1 spot as “Not Rated” so he’s officially number 2 behind no one) on the strength of a recent win over Owen Beck. He also holds draws with Larry Donald and Lance Whitaker. Only three fights back he fought a 6-rounder. The 34-year-old, like Sam and Valuev, has never beaten a consensus top 10 fighter.

Austin, however, will have to wait in line for a shot at the titlist Byrd. W. Klitschko is mandatory, though number 4 rated behind recent challenger and loser to Byrd, DaVarryl Williamson. Klitschko gained the mandatory challenger position by beating the IBF number 5 rated Peter. Again, if you are confused by all of this you should be.

Of course if you want to be confused further, just realize that Williamson received the mandatory title shot by climbing over Klitschko in the ratings after losing to him.

Austin is rated number 7 by the WBC, and is not in the top 10 of the WBA or WBO.

Lamon Brewster, as mentioned, recently stopped the number 1 rated WBO contender Luan Krasniqi.

The Kosovo-born German Krasniqi, a former Olympic bronze medallist, had also never beaten a real top 10 fighter in his career. A solid win over former fringe contender Lance Whitaker, in a WBO-sanctioned title eliminator, propelled him into the Brewster match.

His backers will of course argue that a previous win over Sam should also credit him with a win over a highly ranked contender. Given the facts about Sam, however, the claim is not supported by ground-truth.

Krasniqi is not in the top 10 of the WBC, WBA, or IBF.

In fact, several other fighters appear on only one of the four sanctioning bodies’ top 10 ratings:  Corrie Sanders; David Tua; Jameel McCline; Juan Carlos Gomez; Lance Whitaker; Larry Donald; Oleg Maskaev; Oliver McCall; Owen Beck; Sergei Lyakovich; and Sultan Ibragimov.

Puzzling rankings, meaningless mandatories and ludicrous title eliminators are having a stifling effect on the perceived state of the heavyweight division.

Are the fighters in the division today really a step down from past eras? It’s not likely when eras are studied closely and not through sentimental eyes. But with titlists clearly avoiding each other, the dilution of the talent pool in title fights diminishes the health of the division.

Today, each time one of the current belt holders defends his title, he effectively completely overlooks three top fighters when looking for a suitable contender – all with the complete backing of a self-created, self-interested sanctioning body. This twisted situation is the one critical element that distinguishes this era from all others during or since Joe Louis’ reign.

Certainly pre-Joe Louis, many black fighters were bypassed for hard-earned rankings and title shots and it was a clearly disgraceful.

Today’s situation is not of that magnitude but it is equally indefensible.

Promoters in the U.S. and Europe will continue to diminish the drawing power of heavyweight titlists with four championship belts afloat. Just inspect the purses of Vitali Klitschko and Hasim Rahman, two truly top fighters, and compare their take home pay with that of Bernard Hopkins, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones et al.

Chris Byrd pulled in a relatively low-wage of $425,000 as a titlist defending against a mandatory challenger, DaVarryl Williamson, in an undercard bout for Toney’s fight with Dominick Guinn.

Slowly but surely, heavyweight title bouts, have slipped in importance. When was the last pay-per-view event with a heavyweight title as the anchor? Tough to recall, huh? Brewster-Krasniqi was unseen by American audiences. Who will pay big money for Ruiz-Valuev? That, friends, is a troubling pattern.

Boxing fans can see what is happening and they do not like it.

Heavyweight fighters in championship bouts should draw heavy paychecks and large, worldwide audiences. They should own pay-per-view dates. They should pull other weight divisions into greater recognition by capturing the imagination of casual as well as hardcore boxing fan.

One unified heavyweight champion – not belt holder, not titlist – can lift the sport’s popularity and restore luster to the title “champion.” Now is the time to set things right. .