“In chaos, there is fertility.”
― Anaïs Nin
Ask any boxing “purist” about the biggest problem facing the sport in this modern era and most will tell you, without hesitation, that it’s the proliferation of world titles.
“There are four world champs in each division, sometimes more…sometimes two or more world champs in just one sanctioning body, alone. Throw in interim champs and silver champs and diamond belt holders…”
It’s a mess from a purist’s perspective, yes…but, you know what? Not one single person is staying away from boxing because they can’t figure out who the “real” champ is. Not one single fan is ditching the sport because the WBA has a “regular” world champ and a “super” world champ. There are lots of reasons for the sport’s fall from the mainstream, but it’s not because the public doesn’t know who the “real” world champions are.
Boxing has always been a star-driven sport. If people aren’t embracing the sport as a whole, it’s because the stars just aren’t there. If the stars were there, it wouldn’t matter if there were fifty world champs, people would pay to see them and media outlets would be clamoring to cover them. Money tells the tale of who is the “real” champ in boxing and world titles get united real quick when sanctioning bodies feel that they have a star on their hands with real earning potential.
Without that star power, belts are split up for maximum earning potential—and this is not a bad thing. Actually, multiple world champions add more to the sport at this stage of the game than they subtract.
The heavyweight division is a perfect example of this dynamic.
The fall of three-belt consensus champ Wladimir Klitschko eventually led to his belts being split up. One ended up in the hands of the UK’s Anthony Joshua, the other in the hands of New Zealand’s Joseph Parker, and the third will be given to the winner of the upcoming Shannon Briggs-Fres Oquendo bout. Joshua is in position to be the next big thing in the division and, should he beat Klitschko this April, that prospect will become reality. The money swirling around Joshua will bring in the biggest and best challengers and will probably lead to title unification bouts. But, even if the WBA, WBO, and WBC titlists don’t make their way to the UK to face IBF champ Joshua, people will still recognize Joshua as the heavyweight champ if he’s properly promoted. Until then, though, bouts billed as heavyweight title fights will generate the kind of interest and revenue on three different continents that “regular” fights featuring contenders-to-the-throne would never generate.
As much as many would hate to admit it, boxing leans heavily on the sanctioning bodies and the current chaotic boxing model. While piss-poor officiating and awful judging are byproducts of a deeply compromised system headed by four deeply compromised organizations, the sport gains more from the current set-up than it loses.
The current system allows for four individual paths to growth for fighters. Eventually, paths may converge for unification bouts. Maybe all four champs will be tied together only by fans, who will debate the merits of each titlist. Whether champion vs. champion fights get made or not, boxing wins. The fan buzz, now so much a part of the way boxing promotes itself, is there.
This is no longer 1959, when boxing was small enough to be kept orderly and the sport got a boost from the mainstream press. Boxing is now, truly, an international sport with dozens of different nations sanctioning bouts, using thousands of registered fighters, under the watch of thousands of separate commissions, funded by hundreds of different promoters, overseen by four recognized sanctioning bodies and at least a half-dozen lesser-regarded organizations.
In the purist’s dream world, high-end bouts that do take place would mean less, drive fewer casual fans to the arenas and TV sets, and result in a dull, sterile fight picture. They would also do a real number on a fighter’s career earning potential because, like it or not, belts do matter when it comes to a fighter’s perceived prestige and earning potential.
A one champion, one division move would be deadly to the current version of the sport. This is not to say that improvements shouldn’t be made to the infrastructure of the sport. However, a wistful turn to fantasy league logic would hurt more than help at this point. This is a bitter pill to swallow for all those who are reformers at heart– this writer included.
Boxing is a sport being torn in hundreds of different directions, all at the same time. But that same force is also holding it in place, keeping it commercially viable in an era where a niche sport has had to depend on its sub-niches to stay relevant. Sometimes, the only real enthusiasm whipped up in the boxing world these days comes from the “will he/won’t he fight him” debates created by this four world champ system and the fact that fans in various corners of the planet can embrace a home country hero as their own world champ.
But through all the chaos and disorder, most of the big fights do eventually get made. Money, the underlying force behind all of boxing, will always power the push behind giving fans the fights they want to see. And the current system, like it or not, does allow greater ability for more fighters to become actual stars at the worldwide level.
Thomas Wolfe once wrote that you can’t go home again, and this is especially true when it comes to boxing. The purists and reformers need to be pragmatic in the way they see the business these days and understand that people are trying to make money in a business where it is increasingly difficult to make a profit. When there’s not enough money to be made in boxing, fewer people will be involved in the business—from promoters all the way down to the fighters, themselves—and that means less action available to followers of the sport.
Fans need to ditch the urge to claw desperately at a past that’s never coming back and embrace the necessities of now.