Major rule changes define eras. At least that seems to be the case for boxing. So what constitutes the modern era of boxing? Is it the reduction of maximum rounds from the former fifteen to twelve? Is it perhaps the glove’s material? Color TV? HBO specials? In my honest, humble, and self-proclaimed awesome opinion, the most notable change might be boxing’s international sanctioning bodies.
This first came to my attention when reading on articles of countries that count their official number of world champions from the 60’s onwards. Why, you ask? Because that time marked the beginning of the current regime in boxing, that of the big four world sanctioning bodies: WBA, WBO, WBC and IBF. This is quite an oddity, considering how pretty much every other sport seems to have a single mayor authority: soccer has FIFA, basketball has FIBA, baseball has the WBSC and so on. But who gets to decide on the validity of these sanctioning bodies? Is there an authority among authorities internationally in boxing?
Even in more recent times, there have been other international/world boxing organizations. Micky Ward, famous for his legendary trilogy with Arturo Gatti and being played by Mark Walhberg, won the WBU World Championship, so he was a world champion but not a… (Emphatic inflexion) World Champion. This and other organizations will be reviewed and are considered “minor” sanctioning bodies. But first, let’s take a look at their predecessors.
History: NBA & NYSAC
The good-ol’ NBA (which would eventually become the WBA) kept things the American way: if you are a champion in our national league/association, you are the world champion, a tradition kept strong by the other U.S. sports leagues. Leave it to Americans to claim their league is representative of the entire planet. The MLB has the World Series, although Japanese and Cuban leagues could certainly give them a run for their money; the NFL Super Bowl winners are regarded as “world champions”, though, as the name implies, it’s the national league. But that’s just my pet peeve.
After prizefighting was made legal in the states in 1920, the National Boxing Association and the New York State Athletic Commission both had a claim to name world champions. It was a simpler time, one in which being a world champion meant you really were the very best in your division (of course, you were almost certainly American). But the 60’s gave way to other organizations to emerge.
The “minor” governing bodies
As I said, with the WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF around and no single major authority to monopolize the madness, other organizations are considered minor governing bodies. Yet they all have the right to give their officially sanctioned world championships.
Is there really a difference? They all have similar names, which are generic acronyms with three letters of identical elements: the word boxing, possibly to avoid confused bear or bingo fanatics at their door; the word “international” or “world” to denote their self-appointed prestige, and another word to show they mean business (organization, association, club, union, party, confederation, republic or whatever sounds like you have a big headquarters will do).
The noteworthy ones are the World Boxing Union, the International Boxing Organization, the International Boxing Association and the International Boxing Union. See, I’m not making this stuff up. So the WBU, IBO, IBA and IBU have all had world champions that we know, like Manny Pacquiao, Wladmir Klitschko and Bernard Hopkins, as well as other fighters you will never, ever hear or read about. Of course, there are also more anonymous organizations like the WBF, UBO, and UBF. They… also exist.
So what really makes a difference? Money and power, both of which they have for a single reason: they called dibs. Ok, that may sound petty and childish, but it really is because they have been around longer. Boxing is a popular sport and whoever first decided to… well, take care of important sanctioning body matters like making up rules and claiming commissions for wearing a suit and tie (before I get accused of ignorance, I’ll just say that I like to exaggerate to make a point) is now in control. The current minor bodies were born from the 80’s onward, so they can’t really get in on the major status.
Bonus: The Ring
Wouldn’t you love to see your favorite fighter win the Boxing Tribune middleweight title? The most famous boxing magazine out there, The Ring, also gives a world championship belt. This is more than a fun symbolic belt, it’s meant to be awarded to the “lineal” world champion. Basically, it would be a sort of tie-breaking claim that there is but a single true champion in the division. Except that it has to do with their own ranking, which is different from each individual organizations’ ranking, which don’t always have their world champion at #1. This title has caused a lot of controversy over the years, and for good reason. The concept itself is promising, since it would give us a single linear champion to recognize. Instead, it becomes yet another world championship of questionable validity, now coexisting with the other four world championships, as if things weren’t confusing enough already.
Who is in charge?
What, were you expecting a big reveal? The WBA, WBO, WBC and IBF each recognize only the other three as official sanctioning bodies. There is no arbitration, higher authority or institution to forbid it or make them accountable, for that matter. Corruption is not an issue but a commonplace practice. Moreover, they have the validity on International Boxing Hall of Fame inductions, regional/national boxing associations and broadcasting deals. They’re the rich kids from the block and you can’t go inside their kick-ass clubhouse. This oligopoly has a consensus on whatever rules they come up with, and no one to respond to.
So, what’s next?
The outlook seems hopeless, like this four-headed behemoth is unstoppable. But do not despair. There is at least some minor positive progress.
The AIBA, the authority on amateur boxing, has opened a professional boxing branch that is still new but could grow significantly in the next decade. This could shake up the current dynamic. As fans, we want the sport of boxing to free itself from its tainted image and greedy, unscrupulous authorities. It’s a long, wobbly road, but well worth taking the hits.