Some bum or bums broke into the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Canastota headquarters and stole six championship belts. They did it during the early morning hours of November 5, when the two middleweight kings who first lifted those belts were safely dead.
The widow of Carmen Basilio told Syracuse.com that she was “heartbroken” and appealed to the public for help. “They stole our heritage,” the nephew of Tony Zale said. Haley Zale, a grandniece as relentless as any contender in the 1940s, has been storming social media (#BringBackTheBelts) to spread the dragnet she says the Hall of Fame and the Canastota police failed to do. “I will find you. I am not giving up until I find you,” she said in a YouTube video. “I will gladly knock you down with the Zale two punch trademark: A right to the heart. A left to the chin.” She’s had her hands wrapped for six months and counting.
Among the missing treasures are the two championship belts Zale won in 1941 and 1948 and the belt Basilio won after his victory over Sugar Ray Robinson in 1957. Had the burglars witnessed what it took to win those treasures — had they watched Zale take a nine count in the first round to resume what the New York Times described as “a painfully savage” attack to Georgie Abram’s ribs, an attack mirrored sixteen years later by a blood-soaked Basilio — they would have genuflected before the glass encasements and went on their way.
The stolen belts had been donated by the Zale and Basilio families as memorials to the fighting spirit.
Current middleweight king Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez recently cast off a belt that has nothing to do with the world championship for reasons that had nothing to do with the fighting spirit. His belt was greener and gaudier than yesterday’s treasures though it carries none of the gravitas. Over the past six months it was stripped, vacated, and bequeathed without a punch being thrown. It is merely an article of trade and no pleather-wearing sports writer can make it anything more.
Had Canelo cast it off in protest against the trick titles, a blare of trumpets would have followed. But his protest seems to many to be for all the wrong reasons. He cast it off because he, or more specifically, Golden Boy Promotions wants to stall negotiations with middleweight monster Gennady Golovkin. “I will not be forced into the ring by artificial deadlines,” said Canelo’s official statement. Golovkin has since been handed Canelo’s belt. The whole scenario reminded me of a friend from my youth who looked like Ian McShane but when danger drew near, he’d fall down and fend off bullies with offers of tribute. “I’ll give you my watch! I’ll give you my watch!” he’d say. “I’ll give you my belt!” said Canelo.
Boxing fans are turning on him. “Until Saul @Canelo Alvarez fights @GGGBoxing,” said one fan on twitter, “I encourage everyone to call him Saul ‘Cobarde’ Alvarez.” Mexicans are leading the charge, roundly condemning Canelo’s apparent reluctance as “no es digno de un boxeador Mexicano.” The fighters are weighing in. “To vacate and show another you ain’t got no heart to face him,” said Billy Joe Saunders, ranked third in the Transnational Middleweight Rankings. “I couldn’t sleep at night.” Juan Manuel Marquez urged Canelo to confront his promoter and demand the Golovkin fight, “the boss is the fighter,” he told Golpe a Golpe.
Canelo knows his reputation is at stake. He has reportedly directed Golden Boy to continue negotiating with the Golovkin camp and publically declared that he will fight Golovkin at the division’s weight limit of one-hundred sixty pounds, thus ending the catch weight craze that has diminished the middleweight championship.
Fight News editor-in-chief Karl Freitag sees wisdom in the decision to vacate the belt because it transferred control from the sanctioning body behind the belt, which was poised to insert himself into negotiations between the two camps after the deadline passed. Golden Boy. “The Canelo camp,” he writes, “can now negotiate with the Golovkin camp without having the split decided by the WBC, without the risk of losing the fight to a rival promoter, and a catch weight is still in play.”
Freitag makes a compelling case even if it is drowned out by charges of Canelo’s cowardice.
It all boils down to this: if Golden Boy values the reputation of its star fighter, it will offer Golovkin a respectable percentage of the take without a catch weight. If that happens, the burden shifts to Golovkin to come to terms and fight Canelo this year.
Golovkin must be prepared to accept less than his advisers would prefer. Marvin Hagler had damn-near fifty professional fights and was avoided by two champions before Vito Antuofermo finally fought him. The split was 80-20. Print out Harry Greb’s record and you have to turn the page four times before his opportunity appears. His accomplishments far exceeded Golovkin’s by then; he had been a contender for six years, defeated ten Hall of Famers twenty-eight times, and was competing in three divisions. The middleweight champion was Johnny Wilson, suspended from fighting in sixteen states for offering terms that were effective refusals to defend against Greb (among them was not only a catch weight but the right to choose his own referee). In the end, Greb was forced to accept no more than twenty-five percent of the take if he lost to Wilson and nothing if he won. Greb won.
Why did Hagler and Greb agree to such terms? Because it was worth it. A shot at the middleweight world title did not mean a shot at a middleweight world title. The definite article “the” is the critical difference. They fought for what everyone agreed was the singular divisional championship.
Golovkin, by contrast, is distracted by belt collecting. “Still need #AllTheBelts almost there,” he tweeted on May 23. Two days later he’s asking fans for thoughts about a tournament to find his next opponent, which looks like a signal that Canelo no longer has anything Golovkin wants, which may be precisely the signal Golden Boy was hoping for.
While Canelo would be well-advised to demand that Golden Boy make the fight, Golovkin should replace advisors that have zero comprehension of boxing history. It is Canelo and no one else who stands in an unbroken line that began fifteen years ago and in a succession stretching back into the nineteenth century. It is Canelo who has what was stolen from Canastota last November — the true championship held aloft by Hagler, Basilio, Zale, and Greb.
That belt he cast off and Golovkin picked up isn’t worth stealing. It’s one of many gaudy fabrications made profitable to the organizations behind them by sanctioning fees paid by fighters. Golovkin’s claim as the “unified WBC, WBA, IBF, IBO middleweight champion of the world” is as empty as that glass encasement at the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, Haley Zale’s search continues and she hopes you’ll spread the word. On May 29, she visited her uncle’s grave on what would have been his one-hundred third birthday. Despite the missing belts, Tony Zale’s title is engraved forever and for all to see: “Middleweight Champion of the World.”
Graphic courtesy of Canastota Police Department
Special thanks to Jose Corpas and Douglas Cavanaugh. Details regarding Greb’s concessions to Wilson are found in S.L. Compton’s Live Fast, Die Young (Windmill, 2006). Springs Toledo is a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and the author of The Gods of War (Tora, 2014) and In the Cheap Seats (Tora, 2016)