Wladimir Klitschko is the premiere heavyweight of this era. With a six-foot six-inch frame that looks like a replica of Bourdelle’s Hercules the Archer and a disposition that evokes Rodin’s The Thinker, he casts an imperial shadow over everything beneath him. His record stands at 58-3 with 50 knockouts and it shines bright enough to bring to mind diadems and golden scepters. It has been over eight years since he lost—since the spirit of Jack Dempsey possessed Lamon Brewster and turned him inside out, and he has gone on to defeat nearly every rival in the division. As a result, his well-earned status as the premiere heavyweight in the world has been upgraded to an unearned status as heavyweight champion of the world.
THE RING was behind his coronation.
On June 20th 2009, Wlad, then ranked number one, induced a global epidemic of narcolepsy when he waltzed to victory in a fight HBO wisely declined to broadcast. His opponent was third-ranked Ruslan Chagaev, a late substitute who lost every round and quit on his stool. Nevertheless, The Ring recognized Wlad as its champion.
Why would the most prestigious ratings body since the 1920s, a ratings body that sought to determine “the true champions” in every division, allow a shortcut to the throne?
In its April 2002 issue, THE RING announced a new championship policy that sought to validate a surge of marquee fighters who had been unifying the alphabet belts, among them Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones, and Bernard Hopkins. While the overriding goal was to return integrity to championship boxing, then managing editor Eric Raskin said, “there’s no denying that we wanted to fill vacancies whenever we felt it was justifiable.” So, in addition to the perfectly sensible criterion of crowning champions after “a box-off” between the number one and number two contenders, the editors stretched the logic a bit: “Or, in certain instances,” they added, “a box-off between our number one- and number three-contenders.”
“We talked it over, and we agreed it made sense,” Raskin said. “If there wasn’t much to separate #2 from #3, if it felt like #2 didn’t have some strong claim to needing to be involved in a title fight, we could sometimes recognize #1 vs. #3.”
At the time Wlad faced Chagaev, the second-ranked contender was elder brother and fellow giant Vitali Klitschko. Despite the obvious fact that there was much to separate him from Chagaev, then Editor-in-chief Nigel Collins buffed up THE RING magazine belt. “A match between Wladimir and No. 3 contender Chagaev meets THE RING'S criterion,” Collins said, because “the brothers have stated many times that they will never fight.”
“We promised our mom not to fight each other,” Wlad said. “I wouldn’t do it, even for $1 billion…you can’t put a price on your mother’s heart.” In other words, the flagship division is being held hostage by Ma Klitschko. Her sons are dutiful all right but the whole thing is hard to fathom in certain neighborhoods where brothers fight like LaMottas every Sunday or so. The Toledo brothers spent years swapping pleather in the parking lot, stone-deaf to Ma in the window and we’re better for it.
The first application of the provision is harder to defend. In February 2004, Lennox Lewis retired and THE RING was eager to fill his throne, no doubt believing it was in the best interest of the sport. A semi-retired Corrie Sanders had stopped Wlad and so advanced to number three in a division as deep as a puddle. Vitali, then number one, vowed to avenge Wlad and THE RING declared this gesture of brotherly love a championship bout. Ignored was Chris Byrd, who owned a stoppage win over Vitali and was ranked number two.
It should be noted that THE RING acted in good faith despite the controversy; and at least one former editor has had second thoughts. “If we had it to do over,” Raskin said recently, “we probably wouldn’t include that provision.”
In May 2012, that provision was expanded into absurdity by a new, Golden Boy-installed editorial board. THE RING, they said, failed to determine boxing’s true champions because so many thrones remain unfilled, which is akin to claiming that coastal erosion is the fault of the lighthouse keeper or smog is the fault of the traffic cop. Their response does away with the concept of “true champions” altogether and suspiciously advances the secondary objective of filling vacant thrones. And who is the beneficiary? Fans fed up with the glut of make-pretend champions? Certainly not. The beneficiary behind the change is the promotional company behind THE RING.
Here’s an eye-opener. If the editors apply the revised policy allowing first or second-ranked contenders to face third, fourth, or fifth-ranked contenders, THE RING can indeed fill more of its vacant championships, but would that be in the best interests of the sport? Look closely: If Floyd Mayweather (#1) fights either Saul Alvarez (#3) or Erislandy Lara (#4) at junior middleweight, if Mayweather (#2) fights Paulie Malignaggi (#4) at welterweight, if Chris John (#2) fights Daniel Ponce De Leon (#4) at featherweight, and if Anselmo Moreno (#1) fights Leo Santa Cruz (#5) at bantamweight, the end result could be four more Golden Boy champions no matter who wins. The plain fact that every one of them is a Golden Boy fighter placed in position by a Golden Boy-owned ratings body makes any presumption of good faith naïve.
The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board is picking up where THE RING fell down. We begin with a corrective: The provision that installed the Klitschkos on the throne has no standing. “When a champion retires or vacates the championship, the first-ranked contender must fight the second-ranked contender to fill the vacancy,” the charter states. “Lesser contenders do not constitute the best, and the fact that they are allowed to compete for vacant championships by other organizations does not make them so. The gravitas of the true championship will be vitiated no longer. Therefore, no allowances for third, fourth, and fifth-ranked contenders will be made.”
Light heavyweight Chad Dawson, super middleweight Andre Ward, middleweight Sergio Martinez, junior featherweight Nonito Donaire, and flyweight Toshiyuki Igarashi are kings who earned their thrones the hard way—the only way that makes sense in a combat sport. Seventy claimants crowd them, propped up by the so-called sanctioning bodies and Golden Boy’s magazine. The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board defies any notion that claimants are anything more than contenders; and this includes the Klitschko brothers, who have indeed defeated nearly every rival in the heavyweight division but have yet to defeat the only one that matters. We will not refer to any of them as “belt-holders,” “title-holders,” “titlists” or other terms suggesting that they are what they are not. We will not rubber-stamp shortcuts or confuse the premiere fighter in a division with royalty. A throne must be seized, never assumed.
Whether the twelve remaining thrones will be seized or even recognized amid the false glitter of yesterday’s belts depends on the fans’ willingness to seize the future.
The stakes are high. Boxing has become a sport without universally recognized champions—and a sport without universally recognized champions recedes into irrelevance. The consequences are plain to see. Go to ESPN.com’s main page to find your boxing update; you won’t see it mentioned in the menu bar; you’ll have to click on “More Sports” and then scroll down to find it—under women’s basketball. We have devolved into an odd and insulated subculture unable to separate sense from nonsense, rightfully ridiculed by the rest of the sports world. Keyboard critics aren’t helping. Too many attack WBC President José Sulaimán as a little tin god and then turn around and acknowledge the WBC belt as if it meant what Sulaimán says it means.
Ultimately, the problem isn’t little tin gods. It isn’t THE RING either, despite their hopelessly compromised ratings. The problem is us. Will we keep sitting around with spit buckets over our heads or stand up in the corner?
—The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board has already come out fighting.
The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board’s website is at www.tbrb.org.
Graphic: “The Empty Throne” by Vajrasimha. http://vajrasimha.deviantart.com/art/The-empty-throne-139743853
Thanks to Eric Raskin for his assistance and honesty.
Springs Toledo is a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.