June 8, 2018
June 8, 2018
lineal heavyweight championship

Action Images/Lee Smith

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LINEAL heavyweight champion of the world. You’ve probably heard it too many times already. Tyson Fury will tell you he is the lineal heavyweight champion of the world. But is he really? And what exactly is the lineal heavyweight champion of the world?

Basically, and in an ideal world with some idealistic thinking, the lineal championship – the odd retirement withstanding – can be traced directly back to the days of John L. Sullivan, the old bareknuckle king who ruled long before governing bodies came along and made things complicated.

In the first world heavyweight title fight fought under Queensbury Rules in 1892, Sullivan – ageing and adapting to the concept of boxing gloves – lost to James J. Corbett who in turn was vanquished by Bob Fitzsimmons who was then beaten by James J. Jeffries. And so on and so on and so on. The man who beat the man who beat the man. Keep reeling off champions for long enough, the names of those truly regarded as the man, and eventually you will end up at Tyson Fury.

lineal heavyweight championship of the world
 CHAMPION: Fury celebrates his victory over Wladimir Klitschko in 2015

So why do we need governing bodies telling us who the man is then if we have this simple method of sorting out the champions from the pretenders? Truth is, as boxing fans, we hate the governing bodies. They’re expensive, they appear to make up the rules as they go along, and they have so many phoney titles it’s frankly impossible for even the most loyal supporter to keep abreast of who rules what.

But they do have their plus points too. They will ensure their champion is active. If a champion is inactive for a long period of time, they will strip them to ensure their belt is regularly being contested. Also, they don’t stand for their champions failing drug tests, even if some of the bodies do appear to forgive offenders rather quickly.

And they will, or at least should, make sure their champions are fighting the most deserving contenders. Even though each of the bodies have sanctioned some terrible challengers over the years, not one of the WBA, the WBC, the IBF or the WBO would allow Tyson Fury to defend against someone as inept as Sefer Seferi and have the audacity to call it a world heavyweight title fight.

A recent (ish) case in point was the second reign of George Foreman who, after dethroning WBA and IBF (and lineal) champion Michael Moorer in 1994, was stripped of the WBA belt for refusing to accept Tony Tucker’s challenge and later lost the IBF strap when he didn’t give Axel Schulz his deserved rematch. The wholly undeserving Crawford Grimsley, who Foreman outscored after his brainless gift over Schulz, was not a sanctioned challenger (if you ignore, and you really should, the spurious WBU and IBA). By the time Foreman lost to Shannon Briggs in 1997, the only title on the line was the increasingly hard to decipher lineal one.

To be clear, as a purist, I have massive respect for the heavyweight lineage but I am not blinkered enough to ignore the pitfalls in this championship system.

Let’s go back to the reign of the aforementioned Jeffries for the first stumble. He retired, unbeaten, allowing Marvin Hart, Tommy Burns and then Jack Johnson to fill his boots before he embarked on an unwise comeback in 1910. Being thrashed by Johnson meant the lineage could continue (Johnson had beat the man who beat the man) but, with that logic, do we ignore the accomplishments of Hart and Burns and the pre-Jeffries reign of Johnson? Of course not.

Further evidence can be found when examining the reigns of Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano and Lennox Lewis, each of them very much the man when they retired while atop the division. What followed those retirements, like Jeffries’ first exit, were periods of uncertainty but new champions came along. They had to, of course.

Once a champion retires or, in Fury’s case, fails a drug test, then surely they lose their right to the championship, lineal or otherwise, and regardless of whether a replacement is there or not.

Just because Fury never lost his titles in the ring, another fact being rolled out over and over again, the bottom line is he did lose the titles, and for good reason. Granted, he relinquished some, was stripped of others, but the failed drugs test hanging over him almost certainly triggered his hiatus. A failed drugs test.

Now that is all now resolved and a punishment has been served doesn’t mean he should be welcomed back to the throne without doing some serious work first. Think about it, if Lewis announced his comeback tomorrow at the age of 52 would his first fight back be recognised as a world heavyweight title fight and everything that’s happened since 2003 forgotten? Again, of course not. Extreme example, perhaps, but the point still stands: lose, retire, or break the rules, and the championship ceases to be yours.

Which should beg the question: If Fury is not the lineal champion, who is? Because, despite all of the evidence outlined above, it’s important for a division to have a true leader, to have one king that all others aim at. A good old-fashioned world champion. A numero uno.

Anthony Joshua’s claim to be the man is a strong one, though in my opinion, not yet strong enough. For a new champion to be crowned following the previous champion’s retirement or sustained inactivity, the two best fighters should collide for the right to be called king. And back in the days of Jeffries, Tunney, and Marciano, finding a heir was a simple one-fight process. Alas, we don’t live in those days anymore so the process is longer, and it’s one that – fingers crossed – should be over once Joshua and Deontay Wilder meet in the ring (even haters of the pair surely must acknowledge they’re one and two in the division at the moment).

So Tyson Fury, by returning to boxing, must take his place among the other contenders. His most loyal fans will tell you he’s still champion but that may also end up doing his comeback a disservice. Because if his return ultimately leads to victory over Joshua or Wilder, he will deserve to be hailed a true two-time world heavyweight champion, a rarity by the way, and a far bigger achievement than holding the subjective lineal title hostage for nearly three years.