“Introducing John L. Sullivan” [without acronyms] by George Bellows (1923)
The Heavyweight King
Tyson Fury knows what the alphabet gangs do not: They don’t decide who the real champ is.
Showtime’s Brian Custer recently referred to Deontay Wilder as the “world heavyweight champion” and so contributed to the mass confusion in boxing. Would-be fans —precisely the demographic the sport needs to attract— scratched their heads and wondered what the hell happened two weeks ago when Tyson Fury defeated Wlad Klitschko and was declared the “heavyweight champion of the world.” An unknown number of them reached for the clicker.
The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a fifty-member, all-volunteer initiative representing eighteen countries invites them to put the clicker down and stay tuned. It recommends approaching the sport as they would a holiday with family. When Uncle Ralph staggers over to intrude on a pleasant exchange claiming something is that assuredly isn’t, wave him off. If he can’t take a hint and proves immune to courteous correction, escort him to the door and lock him out in the cold. He’ll sober up eventually. Boxing is overrun with Uncle Ralphs. We find them well-poised on television and meticulous in print, but most of their claims regarding the championships are gobbledygook. Do any of them really believe there are eighty-six champions in the seventeen weight divisions? Do they know the difference between Deontay Wilder’s belt and the divisional crown?
THE CROWN VS. BELTS
Tyson Fury, insists the Board above the nonsense and the din, is heavyweight king. He takes his place in a succession that includes the vanquished Wlad Klitschko, fellow Briton Lennox Lewis, Fury’s namesake Mike Tyson, and thirty-three others give or take. Each divisional succession is an ongoing march through history with expected breaks and disruptions and which began with the first championship bout fought under the Marquess of Queensberry rules. The heavyweights’ stretch back at least to Gentleman Jim Corbett, if not John L. Sullivan — both sons of Eire like Fury himself.
Anyone with more sense than a partridge in a pear tree knows that there are two paths into a divisional succession: (1) defeat the true champion or (2) if said champion retires or otherwise abdicates, earn a top-two ranking and defeat the top or next-best contender.
And what of “world heavyweight champion” Wilder? He did neither. In January 2015, he defeated Bermane Stiverne (then ranked third in the Transnational Rankings when he was ranked sixth) after both contenders surrendered a percentage of their purses to the WBC. That belt Wilder carries is quite literally bought and paid for. It’s a fabrication; a fabrication puffed up by boxing media as something more but that had nothing to do with Wlad Klitschko and therefore had nothing to do with the heavyweight crown.Wilder was fervent anyway. “I want to fight four times a year,” he said afterward. “Whoever’s ready, I’m ready.” The response of ESPN’s Dan Rafael was proof positive that the language in the sport must change: “Fight fans who have been searching for a [sic] American heavyweight champion surely are also.”
Tyson Fury understands the problem better than most. “If I want a belt, I can go and buy one,” he said last year. “It’s pointless. There’s the status of saying you’re a ‘world champion’, but when there’s twenty-five different world sanctioning bodies, it doesn’t mean nothing.”
TYSON FURY IN MUHAMMAD ALI’S FOOTSTEPS
Earlier this month, the IBF stripped Fury of their belt because of his intention to give Klitschko a rematch. The heavyweight king responded while doing roadwork. “They should take all of them away from me if they want,” he told reporter Peter Lane. “But they’ll never take what I’ve done.”
He’s in good company. The WBA pulled the same stunt on Muhammad Ali in 1964 after he agreed to a rematch against Sonny Liston. It was a move laughed at by yesterday’s more discerning boxing writers. “The WBA is an imaginary organization,” wrote Red Smith. “When Liston and Clay fight again and the winner is recognized as champion by the public, the press, and the participants, the WBA’s pretensions to power must evaporate.” At the other end of Ali’s career, the WBC took their own swing at his legacy when they stripped Leon Spinks in 1978 for agreeing to fight him in a rematch. They “awarded” the belt to Ken Norton and it was begrudgingly acknowledged by increasingly less-discerning boxing writers.
Trainer Peter Fury was more correct than we supposed when he compared Fury’s upset win over Klitschko with Ali’s upset win over Liston. Fury’s recent dismissal of homosexuality and the value of women in society left him wide open for censure, but Ali said worse. Before becoming America’s secular saint, Ali was a divisive figure who routinely thumbed his nose at the majority culture. “A black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman,” he said during a Playboyinterview in 1975. And what of a Black Muslim woman who wants to go out with a white man? “Then she dies. Kill her, too.” In case you haven’t noticed, Ali is celebrated by the very demographic that now condemns Fury.
A HERALD OF CHANGE?
Fury, who shuffled his feet familiarly a few times during the Klitschko fight, can likewise redefine himself as something other than a provocateur of the political left; he can step forward as a herald of change in boxing. Reform is in the air. It’s in his ear. “Gonna speak with [promoter] Mick [Hennessy] and & Tyson to give all belts away. Win em & vacate the lot. Money racket,” tweeted his trainer on December 9. “We know who the real champ is.”
The IBF, WBA, WBC, et al. would rather we didn’t. Unaccountable to anything outside their counting houses, they will continue to thrive in the mass confusion and make decisions based solely on their interests.
The heavyweight king is expected to do what is in his interests, but is also signaling his willingness to do something more. The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board’s only interest resides in that “something more.” It will continue to provide clarity for fans and fighters alike by publishing clean, globally-represented rankings at www.tbrb.org and identifying “the real champs” with virtual crowns that don’t cost a thing.
Springs Toledo is a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. Special thanks to Jose Corpas and Tim Starks.