BOXING’S sanctioning bodies are like vampires. They’ll enter only if invited. Let them in, though, and it won’t take long for the blood-sucking to begin.
On March 31 in Cardiff, Anthony Joshua opened the door. Covered in belts, having added another to his collection with victory over Joseph Parker, he acknowledged them, one after the other, and welcomed them into the room: “I have the IBO, WBO, IBF, WBA…”
Few in attendance noticed the back-to-front order, much less cared. To them, these are merely belts; they all look the same; a bit of leather, a bit of metal; three letters. Yet invites and order are important in this free-for-all of a sport, and for as long as Joshua claims an IBO title as one of his four children, he not only leads WBC champion Deontay Wilder by a score of 4-1 but inadvertently legitimises a sanctioning body, the International Boxing Organization (IBO), long ignored by purists intent on keeping this mess as streamlined as possible.
Then again, not everyone is a traditionalist and not everyone feels the IBO should be the bastard child of a dysfunctional family. Billy Schwer, for instance, keeps the IBO lightweight title he won in 2001 with him in the back of his car. “It goes everywhere I go,” he says, gearing up to deliver a motivational talk at a Just Eat sales convention, “and people love taking pictures with it.
“Today we’ll have a montage of clips of me knocking people out, and then we’ll play some Rocky music and I’ll walk in with the IBO belt above my head. I’ll get on stage, go into my presentation, and talk about how I became world champion at the fourth time of asking. That belt adds a massive level of credibility to me as a speaker.”
The IBO’s search for credibility, meanwhile, began in 1988, the year it was founded. Its president, Ed Levine, would implement a computerised ranking system that removed the more subjective elements of other sanctioning bodies’ rankings and actually attempted to rate the world’s best boxers based on points gained for wins. But still the IBO have had to fight for their seat at the table.
“The IBO ranked everybody, even other champions, in their top 15,” says Brian Magee, the IBO super-middleweight champion from 2001 to 2004. “They had independent rankings. They didn’t drop people to spite them or because they were ranked with other sanctioning bodies.
“You’d look at some of the other rankings and find fighters ranked only because their promoter had a good relationship with the people running the sanctioning body. The WBO was an example of that. A lot of their rankings were hard to believe. But the IBO had the fairest system and the most accurate rankings.”
Since its inception an IBO belt has attached itself not only to Anthony Joshua but Gennady Golovkin, the current middleweight champion, Lennox Lewis, Manny Pacquiao, Roy Jones Jr, Wladimir Klitschko and Ricky Hatton. Not bad. Yet the argument, in those cases, is that the IBO title was only ever the cherry and never the cake; that it was just another piece of leather and metal to go with all the other – more important – pieces of leather and metal.
“When I said I’d be world champion before the end of the year I was indicating I’d be ready to fight Carl Thompson for his IBO title,” David Haye said in 2004, days before he lost an IBO cruiserweight title fight against Carl Thompson. “If I beat Carl I’d have a version of a world title, but not the one I’m aiming for. I’d be fully aware of that fact and wouldn’t try to fool anyone into thinking I’m a legitimate world champion. I’d fight Carl for no title. The title doesn’t mean anything to me.”
It didn’t then, no. Not when Haye was 23 years of age, serious, and seemingly destined to win other versions of the world title. But maybe the IBO title means different things to different boxers and maybe its relevance changes depending on the situation.
“Most boxers will say the WBC, WBA and IBF are the main world titles because they have more history behind them and great fighters have held them,” says Jawaid Khalid, who made seven defences of the IBO welterweight title between 2001 and 2004 and retired as their champion. “But if you get a chance to fight for any world title I think you should consider yourself lucky. Unfortunately, you might not be considered one of the best world champions, but you’re still a champion. That’s what I like to believe.”
Khaliq sits in his living room and looks at the belt in question, as well as his Commonwealth one and a few trophies from his amateur days. “Good memories,” he says, before revealing he makes a point of checking the contents of his wooden cabinet every morning. “It makes it all worthwhile when people have a look and start asking me questions,” he adds. “It gives you the chance to tell a few stories.”
Khaliq’s IBO title reign was indicative of the belt in many ways. It consisted of a few wins against solid contenders, but, for the most part, was a world title reign bizarrely constructed away from the best welterweights in the world. Khaliq, star of Nottingham’s Harvey Hadden Leisure Centre, won’t argue the point, either.
“Every boxer wants to test themselves against the best,” he says. “Some people might say my opponents were past their prime but they were recognised former champions who held other belts and were either in the top 10 or close to it.
“We were always looking at bigger fights, but sometimes you can’t get the fights you want. I beat whoever was put in front of me and I think I’d have beaten a lot of the top guys, too. But I lost my hunger near the end because I got messed around and didn’t get the chances.”
Frankly, Khaliq’s IBO title wasn’t much of a bargaining chip. It didn’t generate the kind of cash needed to attract big-name opponents, nor were his rivals in any rush to get their hands on it. For others, though, the belt was the key to everything.
“I was with (manager) Roger Levitt, who knew a lot of people and was well-connected,” says Kevin Lueshing, the IBO welterweight champion in 1996. “I made over 150,000 dollars for my IBO title fight because Roger Levitt got some woman to sponsor me and ensured that in the contract it said that if I was to win a world title – of any status – I was to be paid 150,000 dollars. So, although the purse was only 5,000 dollars, I had to fight for that IBO title.
“Also, it gave me a bit of recognition. In my next fight I got the chance to challenge Felix Trinidad for the IBF world title.”
Lueshing treated his IBO title bout with the unheralded Nino Cirilo, 21-9-3, as if it were an eliminator, not a world championship fight. Moreover, he capitalised on the confusing nature of boxing’s world titles to exploit a loophole and make some life-changing money. It worked. He won the fight in two rounds. He got paid. Then came ‘Tito’.
“Will I be remembered for winning the IBO title? No,” he adds. “I’ll be remembered for knocking down Felix Trinidad.
“People don’t really care about titles anymore. So long as you’re boxing 12 rounds, and there’s some kind of belt on the line, that’s all that matters. However, to a boxer’s legacy, the type of belt you win does matter. For example, I would rather win an IBF or WBC than an IBO. If you fight Gennady Golovkin and manage to beat him, what will be more beneficial to your career: a win over Golovkin or his IBO title?”
At some point, they were all invited. First it was the WBA, then it was the WBC, then the IBF, and more recently the WBO have wormed their way into a less-than-exclusive club.
“The WBO went through the same ordeal as the IBO,” says Schwer. “People opposed and ridiculed it, but in the end accepted it. Whether that happens with the IBO, I don’t know. We’d all love for there to be one champion, but today it’s all about business.”
“Thirty years ago you could win a WBO title at the drop of a hat,” says Lueshing. “They used to be considered a joke. But now people rank it as one of the big four. I’m sure, as long as people keep mentioning it, the IBO will go through the same journey.
“The WBU (World Boxing Union), though, was a joke. Ricky Hatton was getting serious money to defend that title, but, as soon as (its founder) Jon Robinson died, it just went.
“You never see WBU title fights now because it was just made up to suit the TV situation at the time. No one wanted to keep it because they all knew it was a s**t title. But nobody back then was telling Ricky Hatton he wasn’t a world champion. What were they advertising on TV? ‘World Championship Boxing’ on Sky Sports.”
Hatton eventually won other belts, so was never defined by his WBU title reign. Nor, thanks to a WBA title win in 2012, was Brian Magee defined by his relationship with the IBO.
“I only rate the WBA above the IBO because I got more money fighting for it and those fights were bigger,” he says. “I don’t think the IBO is on the same level as the WBC, WBA and IBF, but I’d put it above the WBO. It seems to be held by better fighters now and there can be no denying the rankings are better than the WBO rankings.”
Magee cherishes his IBO title for another reason.
“My belt actually came from Lennox Lewis,” he explains. “He was on holiday in Jamaica at the time so the IBO sent his belt over to me and sent him a new one. That made it extra special for me. Now, whenever I watch his heavyweight title fights and see that IBO belt on his shoulder, I know that’s the one I have with me.”
With his talk about to start, Billy Schwer grabs his IBO belt from the back of his car and remembers the time he beat Newton Villarreal over 12 rounds at Wembley Conference Centre. He then remembers ending the night in hospital.
“I kept it very quiet,” he says. “I was in hospital for two days with concussion and then had my first defence just three months later. I still had concussion. I was sparring and getting punched in the head and thinking, no, something’s not quite right here.
“But I shook it off. I thought, it has taken me 20 years to win a world title and I need to make it pay. I was a bit reckless; a bit mindless. On reflection, I should have waited longer for that first defence because I got knocked out (by Pablo Sarmiento).
“After the Sarmiento fight I went back to hospital but travelled in style. I went in the ambulance. We’re going through central London, the sirens are blaring, we’re dodging traffic, and I’m conscious but uncertain about my future health. I was fearful of falling asleep in case I didn’t wake up. It’s a dangerous business and, in that moment, I realised my life as I knew it was over.”
He says the next two years were the hardest. There were money issues, marital woes and bouts of depression. But one thing that couldn’t be taken away from Schwer was his IBO belt.
“I’m very proud to say I’m the former IBO champion of the world,” he says. “All those people who says it’s not a world title are not boxers. For a fighter, it’s a big thing to achieve.”
What’s clear is the IBO title means different things to different people. As a so-called world title, it means very little in the context of determining the best boxer in the world. This point needs to stick and needs to be repeated; there really is no more room at the inn. Yet, equally, to those who fought to within an inch of their life for one, it would appear to mean the world.
And who are we to argue?