WHEN I was a kid I would scour through the boxing magazines and carefully study the world ratings in each division. Unlike today we all knew who the world champions and their contenders were. At one time there was a value to being a contender that went beyond being in contention for a possible world title shot. It pertained to the ultimate legacy of the boxer. Boxing history is replete with fighters who never became world champions but still formed great legacies by being a contender at one time during their career. Now it just doesn’t carry the same prestige. That’s sad because making it into the top 10 should be an achievement which requires no apologies. Times change, I get that, but with this world-title-or-bust mentality we have today, it is not considered much of a career achievement to just have been a contender.
The recent matchup between Avni Yildirim against Canelo Alvarez makes that mentality understandable. That Yildirim could be rated as a contender at all was highly questionable. That he was Canelo’s mandatory was simply outrageous. The WBC will likely never be able to explain Yildirim’s ranking to any degree of satisfaction. But they’re of course not the only ones. The IBF have been handing out title shots to some woeful mandatories and the WBA create new belts so there’s enough to go around.
The diminished prestige of being a contender can be traced directly to the sanctioning bodies. Even if we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and recognise the extra opportunities for boxers today, the logjam they create is unavoidable.
It is tiresome by now to hear complaints about there not being one champion per division. But they’re the sum of too many world ratings. Differences of opinion are understandable, but when the ratings are so different from one group to the next the only conclusion to draw is that the rankings simply cannot be collated on achievement alone.
Unlike the past when there was one champion per division and 10 contenders, now we have four major sanctioning body champions (and that’s before we start looking at ‘regular’, ‘franchise’ and ‘interim’ titlists) all of whom have a different set of contenders which vary significantly.
As the years passed more and more weight classes were added making it easier to become a contender in whichever division the boxer competed in at the time. Almost any fighter of moderate talent, but with the backing of the right promoter, can be ranked in the top 10 of one of the alphabet groups. Needless to say, there have been too many contenders whose ranking can be explained by who they know as opposed to who they have beaten.
I’m from a different era where being a contender really meant more than just putting pressure on a world champion to grant a title shot. It was a career achievement that defined the boxer. When I think of fighters like Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, Bennie Briscoe, and Don Fullmer among others, the fact they were contenders – as opposed to fighters who failed to win a world title – comes to mind first.
Not only is contender status now diminished, but anything short of a world championship as well. European titles used to be much more relevant than they are today. Many boxers parlayed that European title into a world title opportunity. What about the cherished Lonsdale Belt? That too has been a casualty of myriad world championships.
One of the most famous lines in boxing folklore was uttered by Marlon Brando in the movie On The Waterfront. In it he plays a former boxer whose career didn’t go to plan. “I coulda’ been a contender” lamented Brando. Today, he most certainly would have been.