For many fight fans, Saturday night’s show from Madison Square Garden bore an air of reassurance – reassurance that all is not lost for the purist, for those whose ideals extend further than their wallets. We all know that since the 80s the steady proliferation of new governing bodies and belts have devalued and fragmented world championships. We also know this causes a lack of clarity – observers scratching heads, engaging in furious debates over who can truly be called a ‘champion’. In the meantime the pay-per-view model has top-ended boxing economics into a nightmarish caricature of capitalist elitism. Most agree that all this is bad news for the sport.
Yet while we yearn for bygone, simpler days when one man ruled each weight class and world title fights were rare and treasured events, we also have to acknowledge modern realities. Boxing is less of a sport than a business. Promoters and media partners call the shots. Everything is profit driven. The most dominant fighter of recent years, Floyd Mayweather Jr, personified this, playing the system, adopting the nickname ‘Money’ and steering his career towards maximum earnings and Pay-per-Views with minimal risk. He made rational choices that served him well. Floyd boxed as a businessman, not a fighter – the ultimate, multi-millionaire product of his era.
Outside of a minority of hardcore admirers, Mayweather’s approach won few friends and his retirement, even if it does not prove to be permanent, has brought optimism. There are signs that the green shoots of sport may again be sprouting from boxing’s barren soil. Gennady Golovkin, the toothy, smiling, schoolteacher-looking middleweight champ from Kazakhstan, as far-removed in character from Money May’s hip-hop-video posturing as its possible to be, coldly destroyed IBF titlist David Lemieux in 8 clinical rounds in New York, then announced to the world that he doesn’t really care about money and is focused instead on glory.
Now the WBA ‘Super’ and IBF champion, Golovkin holds two of the four most prestigious titles at 160 lb. Of course, his unification dreams can only be attained if the other titlists, at the present time, Ireland’s Andy Lee (WBO) and Puerto Rican legend Miguel Cotto (WBC) agree to face him but his desire to do so is genuinely refreshing. Despite not yet able to accurately describe himself as an undisputed champ, there are few who dispute his position as the world’s number one middleweight.
In a similar vein WBC flyweight champ Roman ‘chocolatito’ Gonzalez continued his impressive run with a nine-round demolition job on Brian Villoria. The little Nicaraguan has been named by many observers as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, has already beaten WBA super champ Juan Francisco Estrada and appears to be as dominant in his weight class as Golovkin is in his.
There may be 6 or 7 flyweights claiming various versions of the world title, but fight fans will know Chocolito is the man. Along with Gonzalez at fly and Golovkin at middle, Wladimir Klitschko (WBA Super, WBO, IBF) is clearly the top heavyweight while Sergey Kovalev (WBA Super, WBO, IBF) can be similarly regarded at Light-Heavy. Fiddly Cuban maestro Guillermo Rigondeaux (WBA Super, WBO) is way ahead of the rest at Super Bantam, despite a lack of potential unifications in his division. That makes five weight classes of the current seventeen with a clear, stand out champion.
Elsewhere, Andre Ward could surely have been seen in that light at super-middle were it not for long periods of recent inactivity while other divisions have two or more title holders who would need to face off before a judgement could be called. Make no mistake – it is in men such as these on whom the sporting future of boxing rests. We need real champions, who value competition above money. In boxing that means we need real titles, with real title-holders.
That is not to suggest that accolades bestowed by governing bodies have intrinsic value in themselves. Reckless regard for truth, manipulation of rankings and flagrant self-interest seem endemic within all who administrate boxing, but it is only through aiming for genuine championships that the sport can remain to be seen as sport. When that is lost, as has seemed the case at times in the last 30 years, it becomes reduced to a brutal, gladiatorial peep-show. The question of why you are watching two men damage each other’s bodies and brains becomes harder to justify when it is not part of a well-defined journey. Fighting for the title, fighting an eliminator, these things have to mean something for boxing to mean something.
An interesting aside within the mess of alphabet soup obscuring boxing’s sporting face is to compare the value of the various championships on offer. There has been a perception for many years that of the four main governing bodies the WBC is the most prestigious. Is this really the case?
Historically, the original title was actually the WBA, from whom the WBC split in 1963, but the WBA has devalued itself by dividing its belts into ‘Super’, ‘regular’ and ‘interim’ versions. The IBF was originally thought of as a poor cousin when it was formed in 1983, then gained instant credibility when dominant heavyweight champ Larry Holmes relinquished the WBC title to assume theirs. In a similar vein, the WBO struggled for credibility after forming in 1988, particularly by naming Italian Francesco Damiani as its initial heavyweight title holder, rather than Mike Tyson. Over time, however it has gained prestige and is now largely regarded on an equal footing with the rest.
Yet it is notable that of the five real world champions discussed earlier in this article, only Gonzalez holds that famous, green WBC belt. Indeed, a quick scan of current titlists reveals several WBC title holders who are arguably the weakest champs in their division. Deontay Wilder’s elite heavyweight credentials are questionable, to say the least. Featherweight Gary Russell Jr has already lost to WBO champ Vasyl Lomachenko while Miguel Cotto continues to annoy everybody by refusing to defend his middleweight title at the correct weight limit. Somehow, the WBC allow him to force challengers to come in at a catchweight.
While the governing bodies continue to make themselves and sometimes boxing look ridiculous, it is not the individual titles themselves that particularly matter, but rather how they are won and defended. Unfortunately such information is only processed by those who obsess over the sport and its details. Outsiders and novices remain flummoxed. While we wait for the authorities to see sense and re-organise themselves for the greater good, as was mooted for a time last year, the emergence of true champions like Golovkin serves an important cause, clearing up some of the confusion that has reigned for so long.
“I like old-school boxing” he said, after his title win. “I’m a fighter, not a businessman. My goal is all the belts.”
For fans who grew so tired of Floyd’s naked profiteering, that stilted Kazakh accent is like poetry, signalling a new era and a new figurehead.
It feels good.