Almost from the moment that Antonio Tarver captured two of the light heavyweight belts vacated by Roy Jones following his venture into the heavyweight division, he seemed intent on making up for his late pro start by determining that he would battle the best in the world come what may.
He found out very quickly what that would mean as it related to his title belts and his choice of opponents. Choosing to face Roy Jones in his first defense of his titles meant that one of the belts was lost. Choosing to face Glen Johnson in the first defense of his second reign meant the loss of the rest of the most commonly known title belts.
It is not all that important to know the names of alphabet belts that were won in the ring and stripped in the various ratings committees. What is important is that with the mass strippings, a new slate of light-heavyweight titlists representing the WBA, WBC and IBF would emerge. Also of note, the WBO title (that will get more explanation later) would emerge as a factor in deciding who was and is the real champion.
Antonio Tarver, despite being the premier light heavyweight, including being the bearer of The Ring Magazine belt, carries with him only the belt from one sanctioning body – the less-than-fabled IBO belt. The IBO is barely on the map. Though not any more or less noteworthy in their ratings than the more established bodies, the organization, and the many other organizations that have popped up in the last couple of decades, goes almost unmentioned and unnoticed by boxing writers and the sporting public.
Perhaps not incidentally each of the representatives of the four commonly known sanctioning bodies is from Europe. Following the completely dominating reign of Michael Spinks that ended in 1985 with his heavyweight title victory over Larry Holmes, the title was fractured for years until the utter dominance until recently by his fellow American Roy Jones.
Jones consolidated the WBA, WBC and IBF belts and was generally seen as the first undisputed champion since Spinks.
Enter Dariusz Michalczewski and the picture gets muddier as to which fighter had the stronger claim to universal recognition.
Longtime WBA titlist Virgil Hill beat German Henry Maske to add the IBF belt to his collection. He promptly lost the belt to Michalczewski, the then-WBO belt holder, in a unification bout leading some to proclaim him the first true champion since Michael Spinks. Michalczewski subsequently dropped the IBF and WBA straps in favor of the WBO.
In any case, no one until Jones made title unification a long-term project. He defended the unified title seven times. He and Michalczewski somehow avoided each other.
But while Jones was criticized for his choice of opponents, he still listed among his title defense victims Julio Gonzalez (the eventual conqueror of Michalczewski); Clinton Woods (the present IBF titlist); highly regarded Eric Harding; Lou Del Valle (WBA titlist); and Reggie Johnson (IBF titlist) as a light heavyweight.
Other than his impressive title victory over Hill, Michalczewski could point only to Montell Griffin as a noted top fighter against whom he defended his WBO title. The rest of his 23 defenses were relatively soft touches and prior Jones victims (Richard Hall and Derrick Harmon).
Jones kept the collection of belts together by engaging in mandatories against the odd assortment of “number 1” contenders foisted upon him by the sanctioning bodies. The trouble came when he left the division for heavyweight riches against John Ruiz.
With his departure – one that turned out to be temporary – Tarver was pitted against Montell Griffin for the vacant IBF and WBC belts. The WBA “super” title languished long enough to be added to the mix when Tarver and Jones met for the second time.
But don’t get too far ahead. Tarver lost the IBF for inexplicable reasons when he chose to give Jones the famous rematch the result of which was a second round knockout that left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to the identity of the world’s best light heavyweight.
The whole world except for the members of the IBF who elected to pit Glen Johnson against Clinton Woods for their belt not once but twice as the first bout ended in a draw. Johnson of course captured the belt in the second bout and his path was to cross with Tarver’s in a big way.
The trouble was, of course, the WBA, WBC and IBF each had differing ideas as to who would vie for their respective belts. The WBA and WBC did not see Johnson as a worthy enough challenger for their esteemed belts. The IBF likewise did not view Tarver as title shot worthy.
After Johnson became the second man to knockout Jones, he and Tarver decided to meet to determine the truly best. Only they would do so without their belts. They were stripped for fighting each other.
Their two 12-round struggles for supremacy in the division settled the issue to most observers, but the major sanctioning bodies began steadily ordering title matches and “mandatory” challengers – none of whom were named Tarver, Johnson, or even long-reigning ex-champion Jones.
The IBF pitted Clinton Woods – yes, the same man who lost in title tries against Jones and Johnson – against Rico Hoye for the vacated belt. Woods stopped Hoye and recently successfully defended against the capable Gonzalez.
In an unusual twist, Fabrice Tiozzo, a former WBA light heavyweight titlist in the mid-90’s and more recently a WBA cruiserweight titlist, dropped weight and recaptured the WBA belt from Silvio Branco.
If you want to know how Branco became the titlist, you have to be able to comprehend the WBA’s policy of recognizing a “regular” world champion and a “super” world champion.
The WBA lineage that led to Tiozzo being the current “world” champion included a string of titleholders who won and lost so-called championships while Jones and later Tarver were the WBA’s “super” champions. (A current example of this bizarre arrangement is undisputed welterweight champion Zab Judah’s claim to the WBA’s “super” world title, while Luis Collazo lays claim to the WBA’s “regular” world title). The bottom-line is that the WBA can charge sanctioning fees for both types of title fights.
Tiozzo, by all accounts a talented fighter, will take on Australian Paul Murdoch in December. Murdoch holds not a single win against a widely recognized light heavyweight.
Poland’s undefeated Tomasz Adamek gained the vacated WBC title with a hard-fought 12-rounder against unheralded Australian Paul Briggs in Chicago in May and defended against German Thomas Ulrich in October. He has proven himself an exciting fighter; what he has not proven is how he will respond against a truly highly ranked light heavyweight.
Zsolt Erdei, the Hungarian WBO claimant (and some would suggest the lineal champion despite the dubious grounds upon which that claim is built), is also undefeated. Since taking the crown from Gonzalez he has defended successfully four times against what could be charitably considered fringe contenders. In October he stopped Mehdi Sahnoune in the 12th round of a title defense.
With the possible exception of Woods, who seems willing to fight top-rated contenders, the other three sanctioning body-created titlists appear content to chase down mandatory challengers. Indeed none of the belt holders have attempted to chase down Tarver at a post-fight press conference in the fashion Tarver did when he confronted Jones, who was basking in the glory of capturing the heavyweight belt from Ruiz.
Moreover, there is no known movement afoot to unify the belts in Europe despite the close proximity of the so-called world champions to each other.
Tarver remains in a rush to squeeze in a hall of fame career into what has to be only a minimal number of remaining years at the top. While it would be instructive for him to once again consolidate the belts to the boxing fans in parts of the world that have been fooled into believing that any man with any belt is a champion, Tarver probably will not have time to get to each of the belt holders. He can only crash so many post-fight news conferences, and he can’t be expected to travel to every out of the way arena hosting numerous light heavyweight title defenses.
He will undoubtedly reconcile himself to the fact that until his reign is over he will see a number of European titlists who claim to be the one true champion. He will also likely find new mountains to climb. For Antonio Tarver, knowing that he is the one true champion will simply have to be enough.