Bernard Hopkins has secured his place in boxing history. He has done what the great Sugar Ray Robinson failed to do. The former middleweight champion has won the light heavyweight championship of the world. But wait just a minute. On June 11, the day after Bernard Hopkins dominated Antonio Tarver over the 12-round championship distance, you don’t see his name at the top of the rankings of any of the recognized sanctioning bodies. The WBC light heavyweight champion is someone named Tomasz Adamek, the WBA champion is Fabrice Tiozzo, the IBF champion is Clinton Woods, and the WBO champion is Zsolt Erdei.
Where is Bernard Hopkins’ name? Or for that matter, where was Antonio Tarver’s name on June 9? Antonio Tarver was recognized as champion by an entity which calls itself the International Boxing Organization, a name as familiar, almost, as Tomasz Adamek. Hopkins won the fight with Tarver, but he did not win the IBO title. According to Assistant IBO President Eric Plescow, “He’s not our champion. The title is vacant right now.” How come? Hopkins, according to Plescow, from the beginning said that he’s not going to pay the IBO’s sanctioning fee, that he doesn’t want the IBO belt. Hopkins cares deeply about his money, and he understands that his money is worth more than the belt of this fringe organization.
Hopkins, then, has become light heavyweight champion without winning a single sanctioning body’s title in the process. But no one is questioning his achievement. That is because the boxing public implicitly recognizes the worth of the sanctioning bodies’ titles. Nothing. Zero. The same amount that Hopkins paid in sanctioning fees.
It is ironic that the IBO, in its mission statement, boasts that “[w]e use the only independent objective computerized rankings in boxing today” and that “[w]e limit our role in boxing to ranking boxers, sanctioning matches authorized by our championship rules and awarding the championship title to the winner.” Well, not this time. Hopkins was not awarded the IBO title, and the “independent objective computerized rankings” (which sounds good) clearly took a back seat to the fact that Hopkins did not pay the IBO’s ransom. Of course, the IBO is no worse than its better-known counterparts the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO.
The problem is not Tomasz Adamek or Zsolt Erdei. And it is certainly not Bernard Hopkins. The problem is the landscape in which fighters are forced to ply their trade, a landscape in which the alphabet soup organizations hold tremendous power. They have the power to decide who is ranked, who will fight for a title, and who is champion, and, equally important, the power to influence who gets to fight for a meaningful payday. To be sure, there are many critics of these organizations. But the sanctioning bodies continue to exist because promoters and television networks and boxing websites and writers continue to recognize them, and in that way to validate them.
The sanctioning bodies, which grow rich off of the substantial fees they collect to sanction title bouts, have been plagued by corruption, by improper influence from powerful promoters and by simple bad judgment and bad practices. Congress took note of some of these problems when it enacted the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act in 2000. It found that “[t]he sanctioning organizations which have proliferated in the boxing industry have not established credible and objective criteria to rate professional boxers, and operate with virtually no industry or public oversight. Their ratings are susceptible to manipulation, have deprived boxers of fair opportunities for advancement, and have undermined public confidence in the integrity of the sport.” Congress recognized the problems, but did nothing meaningful to solve them.
Congress called on the Association of Boxing Commissions to develop “guidelines for objective and consistent written criteria for the ratings of professional boxers,” and declared that “[i]t is the sense of the Congress that sanctioning bodies and state boxing commissions should follow these ABC guidelines.” They were not trying to be funny, but our representatives, in their inimitable wisdom, called on these organizations that, according to Congress, manipulate ratings and operate with virtually no oversight to voluntarily follow the ABC guidelines. It should come as no surprise to anyone except our representatives that the sanctioning bodies chose not to follow “the sense of the Congress.”
The ABC did its job when it set forth an objective, if general, set of criteria for ranking boxers. Among those criteria were that “[s]anctioning organizations shall consider all active boxers in regard to a rating in a particular division (even if the boxer is rated by another sanctioning organization).” This rule makes absolute sense as any fair and objective ranking system would consider all boxers and would place the best boxers in the highest positions. It would not exclude an otherwise worthy boxer simply because a rival sanctioning body decided to place that boxer in its rankings. But the WBC and the IBF, in a game of chicken which has no consequences, blatantly flouted the ABC guidelines by specifically stating in their ratings criteria that another organization’s champion will not appear in their rankings. It is a practice that the WBA and WBO also follow. That means that the WBC lightweight titleholder, by way of example, the fighter who, according to the WBC, is the best in his weight category, the number one boxer, the champion, is not recognized by any of the other organizations, not by the IBF or WBA or WBO, as being even among the top ten fighters in that weight category. That fact alone speaks to the dishonesty of the ratings systems employed by the recognized sanctioning bodies.
Perhaps the WBA makes the best case for the abolition of the sanctioning bodies and their rankings. It has promulgated a set of virtually incomprehensible rules which conclude with these guiding principles, set down here verbatim:
“THE POSITIONS IN THE WBA RATINGS ARE BASED ON THE FOLLOWING PRINCIPLES
1.- THEY ARE NOT PERSONAL PROPERTY
2.- THEY ARE NOT LIFE LONG
3.- THEY ARE NOT TRANSFERIBLE
4.- THEY MUST BE WON
5.- THEY ARE VARIABLE
6.- RULES MUST BE COMPLIED TO KEEP THEM
7.- THEY CAN BE LOST”
It is a safe bet that not even Fabrice Tiozzo, the WBA light heavyweight champion, can begin to comprehend this list of principles.
Even when the sanctioning organizations make sensible, or at least defensible, decisions, the system as it exists does not work. On January 7 at Madison Square Garden, an unprepared and unfocused Zab Judah, owner of the IBF and WBC titles, lost a unanimous decision to challenger Carlos Baldomir. Baldomir won the WBC title, but Judah kept the IBF belt. There was talk at the time that Baldomir was not granted the IBF title because he did not pay the IBF’s sanctioning fee, but according to IBF president Marian Muhammad, that reason was secondary to the real reason. Baldomir did not win the IBF title, says Muhammad, because he “refused to participate in the second-day weigh-in” mandated by the IBF’s rules. “Because he didn’t participate in the second-day weigh-in, win, lose or draw he couldn’t win the title.” According to the IBF’s rules, participants in a title fight need to weigh within ten pounds of the weight limit on the morning of the fight. That is, Baldomir would have had to weigh 157 pounds or less on the morning of his welterweight title fight. Because Baldomir chose not to participate in the second-day weigh-in, Judah kept his title under the rules of the IBF.
There is a legitimate argument that a second-day weigh-in makes sense in terms of fighter safety. It helps to ensure that boxers fight in their proper weight divisions, and that one fighter is not substantially outweighed by his opponent come fight time. The danger of such a weight disparity was demonstrated in another fight at the Garden. On February 26, 2000, Joey Gamache suffered a brutal second-round knockout at the hands of a much bigger Arturo Gatti. Gamache spent the next two days in the hospital and never fought again. The contract weight for the fight was 141 pounds, but HBO’s unofficial scale had Gatti weighing 160 pounds by the time he entered the ring. According to a lawsuit filed by Gamache, he suffered brain damage as a result of the beating he took. In that context, the IBF rule mandating day-of-the-fight weigh-ins makes sense. But in the case of Baldomir-Judah, the end result is still wrong. Carlos Baldomir won the fight in the ring, and he should have won the IBF belt with it.
The larger problem, then, the problem that must be addressed, is that so many organizations exist at all, each with its different rules and its different rankings and its different champions. It is very simple – there should not be four, or more, world champions in the same weight division. There are not four baseball teams that win the World Series each year. Four football teams do not win the Super Bowl. And four tennis players do not win in the men’s singles division at Wimbledon. The fact that there can be four so-called world champions in each of boxing’s divisions, and sometimes a WBA “superchampion” to add to that number, diminishes the title “champion.” And it diminishes the sport of boxing, promoting chaos where clarity is needed.
As long as there are multiple sanctioning organizations – even if those organizations act responsibly, even if they have rules that are objective and reasonable, and even if they employ principled people to enforce those rules (all of which remain pipe dreams at this moment) – the chaos will continue. What is needed is a single entity to rank boxers and to name a single champion in each weight category. An entity that employs credible and objective criteria for its rankings, and knowledgeable and principled people to implement those criteria. An entity whose rankings will earn the respect and the recognition of writers and commentators and television networks and boxing websites. An entity that will take the place of the existing sanctioning organizations.
Since the sanctioning bodies have no reason to walk away from the power they possess and the profit that comes with it, they must be forced out of the boxing business. Only Congress has the authority to accomplish this by creating or empowering an entity which will obviate the need for the existing sanctioning bodies. In order to restore some integrity to the sport and to the title “champion,” our legislators must stop giving advice and instead hand down a mandate to create a legitimate body that ranks fighters and names champions. Congress could create a national commission to take on this job, or appoint an already existing body such as the Association of Boxing Commissions or the Boxing Writers Association of America or the committee of people who vote for each year’s class of inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Money that presently goes to pay for sanctioning fees and feeds the organizations that are infecting the sport with their many champions could be paid into a fund for boxers, a fund which is used for health benefits or pension benefits for fighters.
What would be key is that the boxing public, and the writers and commentators who speak to the boxing public, recognize such an entity’s ranking system, thereby giving it legitimacy. Change sometimes seems impossible in boxing, but there may be hope. After all, on some level the boxing public already understands who are the real champions. With his victory over Tarver, Bernard Hopkins is recognized as the world light heavyweight champion – except, of course, by the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO.