IN the late 1960s, the WBC and the WBA were the only two sanctioning bodies – and the WBA was definitely regarded as inferior. When they stripped a champion of his title, no-one paid much attention.
In 1964, they withdrew recognition of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali because – in breach of WBA rules – he agreed to a return with Sonny Liston, from whom he had won the title. In March 1965, Ernie Terrell won the vacant WBA title by outscoring fellow-American Eddie Machen. After two low-profile defences, Terrell met Ali and was trounced over 15 rounds.
In 1967, when Ali famously refused to be drafted into the United States Army (and lost his licence to box), the WBA lost no time in declaring the title vacant and setting up an eight-man knockout tournament to decide the new champion. It was interesting in that it matched some of the world’s best, and also threw up a few surprises. But few recognised the ultimate winner – Jimmy Ellis – as the world heavyweight champion. The WBC continued to support Ali – and when it became clear that he would not be able to box for some considerable time, they announced that they would recognise the winner of Joe Frazier and a valid contender.
Frazier (pictured above), the 1968 Olympic medallist, had been making a name for himself as a pro. He had been invited to join the WBA tournament but his management declined – and in March 1968, Frazier won recognition as world champion from New York and five other states by stopping old amateur rival Buster Mathis in 11 rounds. In February 1970, Frazier put Ellis down twice in the fourth and retired in the interval.
In 1965, the WBA stripped flyweight champion Salvatore Burruni, of Italy, for refusing to defend against Argentina’s Horacio Accavallo – who won their vacant “title” by outpointing Japan’s Katsutoshi Takayama in Tokyo. The flyweight title has been fragmented ever since.
In 1970, they stripped Bob Foster of his light-heavyweight title for refusing to defend against their No. 1 contender, Jimmy Dupree. Dupree was matched with Vicente Paul Rondón for the vacant title, and Rondón caused an upset by halting Dupree in six rounds. The rest of the world continued to recognise Foster – and when the two met for the undisputed title in 1972, Foster flattened Rondón in two rounds.
By and large, little notice was taken of the WBA’s actions (though the American monthly Boxing Illustrated supported their stance over Foster). The trouble was that from 1968 the WBC started going “strip-happy” as well.
In 1968, they stripped junior-lightweight (now super-featherweight) title-holder Hiroshi Kobayashi of Japan, and junior-welter (now super-light) ruler Paul Fuji, Hawaiian-born but Japan-based, for failure to defend against their respective No. 1 contenders. The “junior” divisions weren’t universally recognised, but it started a worrying trend.
In 1970, the WBC stripped Ismael Laguna of the lightweight title for breach of contract with promoter Aileen Eaton. Laguna lost the WBA title to Britain’s Ken Buchanan, who added the WBC strap by outpointing Ruben Navarro – and was later stripped by the WBC for agreeing to a rematch with Laguna rather than defending against their leading contender, Pedro Carrasco.
In 1973, they stripped bantamweight title-holder Enrique Pinder for agreeing to defend against Romeo Anaya, whom they did not consider a suitable contender. They should have waited until after the fight – Anaya KOd Pinder in three rounds.
In 1974, they stripped two outstanding champions, middleweight Carlos Monzón and light-heavyweight Bob Foster – Monzón for failing to agree to defend against No. 1 contender Rodrigo Valdes, Foster for refusing to agree to defend against either Argentina’s Jorge Ahumada or Britain’s John Conteh. The Foster decision seemed particularly harsh as only a few weeks previously Foster had successfully defended against Ahumada – the result, a draw, was controversial, but champions are normally allowed a period of grace between defences. As it was, Foster announced his retirement (though he later launched an ill-advised comeback) – and Conteh beat Ahumada for the vacant WBC title, while another Argentinean, Victor Galíndez, beat American Len Hutchins for the WBA belt.
In 1975, they vacated Koichi Wajima’s light-middleweight (now super-welterweight) title for refusing to defend against their top contender, Miguel DeOliveira, and in 1978 they stripped heavyweight Leon Spinks for defending against Muhammad Ali (from whom he’d won the title) rather than top WBC contender, Ken Norton.
So, in a 10-year period the WBC stripped their title-holders in eight of the 11 universally recognised divisions. In the other three, the flyweights, as we’ve seen, had been split by the WBA: the welters were split when champion José Nápoles, unable to satisfy the mandatory demands of both bodies, relinquished the WBA title: and when Vicente Saldivar retired as undefeated world featherweight champion the WBC and WBA set up separate bouts for their versions of the vacant title. This last set a pattern that would be repeated whenever a champion retired or relinquished his title.
But, going back to the eight, the WBC miscalculated badly. In their arrogance they imagined that no-one took the WBA seriously, and the WBC’s kingpins would be universally recognised. But in the eyes of the fans, titles should be won and lost in the ring. The result of the WBC’s high-handedness was to elevate the WBA, and give their titles and title-holders credibility. Or maybe, rather than elevating the WBA, the WBC came down to their level. The end result was the same.
From time to time new weight divisions were introduced, which outraged traditionalists but actually made sense – before this happened a fighter whose best fighting weight was between divisions had either to boil down or give weight away. The pattern would be that one body would introduce a new division, and set up their inaugural titlist – then the other would follow, and set up their ruler. More division.
In 1983, the IBF set themselves up as a third “world” sanctioning body – but they did a very clever thing, which subsequent new bodies (including the WBO) did not. They went through the list of recognised WBC and WBA belt-holders, and gave their support to whichever they felt more worthy. Result – they began with a set of recognised rulers, and so they had credibility from the outset. That credibility increased when heavyweight Larry Holmes had a disagreement with the WBC and relinquished their belt, continuing to defend the IBF title – and super-lightweight Aaron Pryor, having retired as undefeated WBA super-lightweight boss, came back after a few months. The WBA had accepted his retirement and set up a new belt-holder (Johnny Bumphus) – the IBF continued to recognise Pryor, and he made two more successful defences of their title. Having two high-profile champions in Holmes and Pryor really enhanced the IBF’s status – over time the rest of the titles would become fragmented, but that didn’t affect how the IBF were perceived.
By contrast, when the WBO was formed in 1988, they created a new “world champion” in every division – with the result that it would take many years before they were regarded as the same level as the other three. Their first-ever title bout matched Tommy Hearns with James Kinchen for the super-middleweight belt, Hearns winning a majority verdict. Hearns was already recognised as a modern great – but he was far from being accepted as a genuine world champion after beating Kinchen.
Over the decades, split world championships has come to be regarded as the norm. Now nobody knows who the real champions are.
In October 1974, I was at ringside at Wembley to see John Conteh beat Jorge Ahumada for the vacant WBC light-heavyweight title. On the BN staff at the time, I had done the prediction – and picked the big-punching Ahumada. I’ve never been so glad to be proved wrong – Conteh boxed brilliantly to win clearly on points. I really felt proud to be British.
At the time, Víctor Galíndez was widely expected to win the vacant WBA title (which he did). “Who needs Galíndez?” the BN editor wrote in his Conteh-Ahumada report. The fact is that Conteh needed Galíndez – and boxing needed Conteh v Galíndez. It would have been a great fight – and it would have established who was the world’s best light-heavyweight. As a Briton, I was saddened that Conteh wasn’t universally recognised – the same as WBA featherweight Barry McGuigan or super-welter Maurice Hope (WBC). I would love to have seen McGuigan settle the question of supremacy with Ghana’s Azumah Nelson, and Hope with Ugandan Ayub Kalule. But these intriguing fights – like so many others – never happened. We never did find out who was best in the world.
I remember discussing this whole question with then-BN editor Claude Abrams, some years ago, and he said: “Nowadays it’s the fighter that makes the belt.” That’s so true.
And it’s also true that it’s the fighterS (plural) that make the fight. Promoters and TV companies seem to be obsessed with titles – and they, too, should take plenty of the blame for the fragmented titles mess. They appear not to realise that the fans don’t have this obsession – they want to see a good fight. If they’re interested in paying to watch A against B, they will – if they’re not, the fact that it’s for a title won’t make any difference.
There are so many examples of this.
For a while in the 1970s, the bantamweight division was dominated by two Mexican “Z” men – WBC holder Carlos Zárate, and WBA ruler Alfonso Zamora. Both were unbeaten – both had a string of inside-schedule wins (Zárate had scored one points win, but that was all). They just had to meet, and were duly matched for April 23 1977, at California’s famous Inglewood Forum.
The ideal, of course, would have been for the titles to be on the line, but one of the bodies refused to sanction that – so it went on as a non-title 10-rounder. If the fans were disappointed, it didn’t stop them snapping up every ticket – and the fight was the slugfest it promised to be, Zárate prevailing in four rounds. The fact that no title was at stake didn’t matter – what mattered was that it was an exciting fight, and settled the question of supremacy.
Going back decades, American lightweights Beau Jack and Bob Montgomery had a tremendous four-fight series at Madison Square Garden over a period of just over 14 months, the score finishing at two wins each (all on points). The first three involved the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) version of the world lightweight title – Jack lost the title to Montgomery, won it back and lost it again. They finally clashed in a 10-rounder, with no title at stake – but did the fans care? Of course not – they knew those two would always put up a great fight, and the gate receipts set a record for a non-title, non-heavyweight bout. (Jack won a majority verdict.)
In 1985, Mark Kaylor and Errol Christie squared off at Wembley for a highly anticipated British middleweight title final eliminator. This too promised to be a cracker, and was, with Kaylor prevailing in the eighth after both had been on the floor.
This was an official-ordered eliminator, with more than one leading promoter interested – and Mike Barrett secured it with a bid of £82,000. For a British title eliminator! More to the point, on the same bill was a European title bout – Londoner Jim McDonnell against Spain’s Jose Luis Vicho for the vacant featherweight belt. A European title would normally be considered more important than a British one, let alone an eliminator – but it was the eliminator that got virtually all the attention, from fans and media alike. McDonnell won, on a highly creditable fourth-round KO.
At that time, big fights weren’t shown “live” on TV – they were shown the following night. On November 6, the BBC showed Kaylor vs Christie in full – and, as an afterthought, the McDonnell knockout. Just that.
Croydon’s Duke McKenzie was a fine fighter, winning versions of the world title at three different weights – IBF fly, WBO bantam, and WBO super-bantam. His points win over Gaby Canizales for the bantamweight belt was a total masterclass – McKenzie dropped only a share of one round on one of the official cards. Leading American referee Steve Smoger told me afterwards that he had never seen a ‘reigning world champion’ take such a one-sided beating. Where was it held? The Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre! After losing the title, Duke stepped up again and took a unanimous decision over super-bantamweight belt-holder Jesse Benavides – at Lewisham Concert Hall.
McKenzie was a good boxer and a fair puncher – of his 39 career victories, 20 came inside the distance. But he couldn’t sell tickets. Over his three reigns, he made three defences at the Albert Hall. In one instance, I remember talking to one of the promoter’s staff at ringside before the show started, and he said gloomily: “I’ve never seen such an empty Albert Hall for a world title fight. You could let off a cannon and not be guaranteed of hitting someone!” Cruelly, how good you are doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales – even with a title at stake.
In fact, certainly in the 1960s and ‘70s, shows at the likes of Wembley and the Albert Hall didn’t necessarily involve any title. Quite often the top-liner would feature a leading British boxer against a high-profile overseas opponent. And those fight sold.
One major ticket-seller from the 1960s was West Ham “Golden Boy,” heavyweight Billy Walker. He could top at Wembley against just about anybody, and the fans would turn out in force. He had two title bouts, both in 1967 – against German Karl Mildenberger for the European belt and Henry Cooper for the British and Commonwealth. And both times he was stopped. It didn’t affect his popularity – or his drawing power – one bit.
So the fans don’t really worry about titles. What about the fighters?
There’s evidence that having a belt or trophy to fight for can bring out the best in them. Even if the belt isn’t that highly-regarded, no-one can dispute the joy a fighter feels as it’s wrapped around his waist.
Some years ago, Budweiser ran knockout tournaments in America, the ultimate winner at each weight receiving the Budweiser belt. That produced some exciting bouts between high-profile contenders. I saw no harm in that – any more than I did in this country, when the “British Masters” belts were introduced. Why shouldn’t a winner receive a belt, or other trophy – as long as it’s not made out to be something it’s not? I’m far more in favour of the British Masters belt than something like the WBO European, which deflects attention from the European title proper.
The WBF have never been taken seriously as a “world” sanctioning body.
In 1999, Carshalton’s Delroy Leslie beat Matthew Barney for the vacant Southern Area middleweight title, which entitled him to challenge WBF titlist Ruben Groenewald. Leslie beat Groenewald on points, only to lose his first defence against Londoner Lester Jacobs.
In June 2001, Jacobs defended against Walsall’s Jason Collins at the Paragon Hotel, Earl’s Court, winning by ninth-round stoppage. Covering the fight for BN, I wrote: “To call it a ‘world’ title bout is nonsense.” Jacobs, who also promoted the show, wasn’t happy, and took me severely to task in the programme notes for his next promotion, saying he was proud to be WBF champion.
I also described the bout as “fast-moving and at times very exciting, with both men’s efforts being roared on by an enthusiastic crowd.” It was a good fight between two Brits who gave everything. It didn’t need a phoney label.
But the question arises – would they have given their all without the incentive of a title belt? Collins got up from a heavy knockdown in the first to take the fight to the champion. How much of a spur – to both of them – was the belt? As I said earlier, I’ve no problem with belts or trophies being awarded in any fight. Just don’t call them something they’re not. (Collins’ record going in was 9-8-5 – how can that qualify a fighter for a world title shot? His final tally was 15-40-6.)
And there are other incentives besides titles. We have local derbies: we have a “home” fighter anxious to look good in front of his fans. And we have bouts where it’s hard to see where the loser can go.
The greatest fight I ever saw was at the Albert Hall on May 28 1968, featuring American heavyweights Leotis Martin and Thad Spencer. Both had been included in the WBA’s eight-man tournament to find Muhammad Ali’s successor, with Martin being eliminated in the quarter-finals (by eventual winner Jimmy Ellis) and Spencer in the semis by Jerry Quarry.
That was an all-out war, which saw underdog Martin survive a horrendous cut to floor and halt Spencer in the ninth. That paved the way for some high-profile bouts for Martin – he had six more outings, winning five, including a sensational ninth-round KO of former world champion Sonny Liston. Spencer boxed seven more times, with one draw and six losses.
Sometimes, the only incentive is just to do your best.
One of the most thrilling fights I’ve watched (and reported on) was a 10-rounder at York Hall in June 2011, between Choi Tseveenpurev (a Mongolian based in Manchester) and Jackson Asiku (a Ugandan based in Australia). It was non-stop action, with Tseveenpurev winning on points. My report said: “The winner is an undefeated WBU and WBF champion, the loser a former IBO title-holder… But this fight needed no belt. The fighters gave 100 per cent and the crowd loved it.”
Some readers may remember an old black-and-white film entitled Requiem for a Heavyweight, starring Anthony Quinn. In the book (by Rod Serling), a hard-bitten fight manager tells an enthusiastic young hopeful: “There are eight champions in this game. The rest are also-rans.” In his author’s foreword, Serling describes that as the most important line in the book. Nowadays there are Heaven knows how many champions – many of whom would have been also-rans not so long ago.
I must mention someone else who has to shoulder some of the blame for the fragmented titles situation – my old friend and long-time BN letter-writer James (Jim) Byrne. Decades ago, after yet another new “world” body had been announced, Jim wrote to BN and announced his intention of setting up WART (World Also-Ran Titles). You should have done it, Jim – you could have made a fortune. As it was other BN readers recognised a money-making idea and set up a bewildering array of so-called “world ruling bodies.”
And talking of letters to BN, on January 8 1971, I had one published lamenting the problems of having rival WBC and WBA champions. The headline was “Oh for one world ruling body.” It seemed a pious hope then – more than 50 years on, it seems further away than ever.