“DAVE MARSH was winner, loser, and regainer of a synthetic Ohio lightweight championship, with belt to match, within the first year of his switch from amateur to professional endeavors.”
So said the Akron Beacon Journal in 1950. Does it ring a bell? Replace “Dave Marsh” with “Vasyl Lomachenko” and “Ohio lightweight championship” with a couple of wackadoodle WBO featherweight championships and you’ll wonder just how old Bob Arum is.
Ohio was also where Sandy Saddler picked up a belt between feather and light. A promoter made it happen; he sold fans a bill of goods that proclaimed Saddler’s second bout against Orlando Zulueta a championship match for “the junior lightweight title,” which had been defunct for about 20 years. Saddler was rated No. 1 at featherweight by The Ring. Zulueta was unrated, unheralded, and unknown. But he’d just defeated Dave Marsh in Cleveland, so arrangements were made.
Saddler won in a snoozer. No parades were planned because no one gave a damn. The title is “synthetic,” scoffed the Courier-Post in Jersey. “A title which Saddler held by the grace of Cleveland promoter Larry Atkins,” said the UP. After he retired, Saddler couldn’t recall ever putting it on the line.
These are anomalies, not echoes, so let’s resist the urge to conflate those days with these days. Ohio and everywhere else had their share of business interests willing to deceive consumers — willing, that is, but not able. Boxing writers back then wouldn’t let them; they were willing and able to mock sham titles out of existence. They couldn’t do much about Owney Madden and Frankie Carbo pulling strings behind the scenes, but at least no one was upending the very structure of the sport. Tweet this: In February 1950, there were 8 champions in 8 divisions. In February 2020, there are 78 champions, so-called, in 17 divisions.
The absence of centralised authority, of oversight, has always been at the heart of the problem. It’s why gamblers with guns took bets on barges during the days of John L. Sullivan. It’s why killers in pin-striped suits took pay-offs not far enough from the office of promoter Mike Jacobs at Madison Square Garden. It’s why boxing history is fraught with fake fighters like Philadelphia Jack O’Brien and haunted by broke and broken contenders like Murderers’ Row.
“Boxing is the filthiest, dirtiest business I’ve ever seen,” said former lightweight champion Willie Ritchie when he was California’s chief inspector in 1944. Paul Pender shook his head at “the practically impossible situation of trying to solve the dual claims to the middleweight title” when he retired as champion in 1963. “How much ignorance can we strive under? It’s foolish for chrissake.” Light-heavyweight king Bob Foster followed him into retirement in 1974. “It’s too much of a mental thing to fight the WBA and the WBC too,” he said. In between those years, Jack Dempsey was travelling across the country on business trips and speaking out about the need for competent trainers, pension funds, and most of all, the need for oversight. “There’s too much politics in the various commissions,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re doing. Boxing must be organised properly and controlled properly.”
These days are worse than ever.
THE COSTS OF DOING NOTHING?
Top fighters today have become so preoccupied with the “good business” of putting off primary rivals that they ought to wear ties into the ring. But we’re in the WTF Era, so they win titles anyway and with a lot less risk than in 1950. When there’s a whole selection to choose from and no one’s calling you on it, why take a risk? Shop around and find the title with the most give. So what happens? Good fighters easily win a pile of WBS belts — at times while sitting down at home — and with it comes the claim they’ve broken records held by greater fighters who are safely dead.
It’s making a mess of boxing history.
Barney Ross defeated all-time greats like Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin and is one of eight to take three legitimate championships in as many divisions. Today we are subjected to the idea that Adrien Broner, who couldn’t get by Marcos Maidana, has four. Those of us around in the mid-1980s remember hearing about Carlos Monzon’s record 14 title defences whenever Marvin Hagler defended his crown. We don’t hear it anymore, because in the WTF Era, the record jumped up to 20—twice. Floyd Patterson won the heavyweight championship of the world when he was 21 years, 10 months, three weeks, and five days old. When Mike Tyson was twenty, he won a WBS belt. It isn’t the same thing; not even close. Given that Tyson was three days shy of 22 when he defeated Michael Spinks and only then did he join the historical succession, Patterson’s achievement should still stand. But it doesn’t, because Isis ain’t the only ones tearing down historical monuments.
Boxing has become an irrational sport. The consequences are severe.
When Manny Pacquiao fought Timothy Bradley in 2016 for some silly “international” welterweight belt, Top Rank blew an opportunity to market it as a transcendent event—which it was. This was the win that made Pacquiao the first five-division champion in boxing history. Ignore the lie that he’s an eight-division champion; the truth is Pacquiao either defeated a legitimate divisional champion or took an open throne upon winning a No. 1 vs. No. 2 bout in no more and no less than five weight divisions. That’s not all: Pacquiao’s welterweight crown was his third glamour-division crown—a momentous feat given the poundage separating flyweight, featherweight, and welterweight. He joined Bob Fitzsimmons (middleweight, light-heavyweight, heavyweight) and Henry Armstrong (featherweight, lightweight, welterweight) to make boxing’s triple glamour-division champions a trinity of diversity.
As it was, the significance of Pacquiao-Bradley III was missed and Arum lost money on the event.
It’s no wonder boxing is the sole sport in the west with more ex-fans than fans. They’re beside you at the pub or the barber shop. They’re among the crowd in the café waxing nostalgic about Ali and panning a sport that insults their intelligence on every broadcast. They’re the ones the networks assumed only wanted to watch championship bouts and didn’t know the difference between championships and “championships.”
But they do. And now they’re watching football.
‘WHO’S THE CHAMPION?’
A few days before Christmas, a friend of mine who owns a roofing company threw a party in a garage in Boston, Massachusetts. The New England Patriots-Buffalo Bills game was on the wide-screen TV and commanded everyone’s attention but mine. I was looking at my watch. When the Jermell Charlo-Tony Harrison II show began at 8, I used up a favour and took over the TV. “This is gonna be a good fight,” I said. The crowd dispersed, one by one and in grumbling pairs. By the time Harrison went down in the second round, only three of thirty remained in front of the TV—former middleweight contender Rodney Toney, me, and a drunk roofer whose name I can’t recall.
“Hey,” said the roofer, “this is for the hic championship.”
“No it isn’t,” I said. “Boxing lies because it thinks you’re stupid.”
“I’m not hic stupid. Just a little shellacked.”
I pretended he wasn’t. “Harrison is ranked third at junior middleweight. Charlo is fourth. This is an important fight.”
The plastic cup he was manoeuvring to his lips went one way and his lips another when he paused his exertions and asked a surprisingly lucid question. “Who’s the champion?”
If he asked the WBC he’d get one name, the IBF another, the WBO still another, and the WBA would tell him there’s two. If he asked an absurdist, he’d get four names with explanations traceable to the pen of Lewis Carroll and then he wouldn’t need whisky to send the room spinning. So I gave him the honest answer: “No one.” Floyd Mayweather retired in 2015 and that division’s championship has been open since. I told him we won’t know Mayweather’s successor until the first contender faces the second contender.
Even a drunk knows that makes sense.
The next question went unasked. It’s a straightforward one.
The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board was formed in 2012. Co-founded by Cliff Rold of Boxing Scene, Tim Starks of The Queensberry Rules, and freelance me, the initiative grew out of a shared concern that begins with the understanding that without rankings that are authoritative, independent, and uncompromised, boxing can only be irrational. After designing a charter and a rankings system that takes the best of previous efforts and improves on them, we recruited journalists, archivists, authors, historians, bloggers, and commentators from around the world. What began with twenty-five members is now on five continents representing twenty countries from Argentina to Vietnam.
Stewart Howe, a computer analyst living in Peterborough, designed the website and the members’ forum to ensure that we produce and publish our rankings online every Tuesday.
Neither he nor anyone else involved has accepted a quid, euro, dollar, peso, or yen.
A cursory glance at the Transnational Rankings will tell you that those fighters passed off as champions these days—who carry titles that yesterday’s writers used to mock out of existence—are almost always in the top ten. They’re contenders.
Saddler’s bout with Zulueta for that “synthetic” title, was a 10-round fight. It wasn’t even the main event. The main event that night was another 10-rounder featuring a middleweight contender. What’s the point? Back when boxing made sense, contenders were taken more seriously than sham championships. We’ve forgotten the status a contender once carried in his neighbourhood, in his country, in the world of sports. It was only a few years after Saddler-Zulueta II that On the Waterfront was shot and Budd Schulberg spoke through Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in the back of a cab.
“You saw some money,” said Steiger as defensively as the absurdists today.
“You don’t understand!” said Brando, agonized. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”
A resurgence wouldn’t require a revolution. Once the go-to rankings are agreed upon by enough publications and networks, it may be merely a matter of semantics, of adjusting terminology. It could be that easy. If 96 per cent of the sham champs are actually contenders, why not call them what they are? Instead of perpetuating nonsense, why not honour their actual achievement of fighting their way into the top ten of a worldwide rankings system that is unspoiled by conflicts of interest, favours, or cuffed envelopes—that’s real, in other words.
THE RETURN OF THE KINGS
Absurdists hold to the marketing myth that fans want to see a “championship” at stake. Fans want to see something at stake and there’s always something at stake when two professionals duke it out. Think it through. There are over seventy sham champs right now. If boxing regains its senses and exchanges fictions for facts, it will streamline the whole field. All 170 contenders will be aiming in the same direction –upwards– and sharing the same goal. When there’s one goal and one boulevard to get there, they would have far less incentive to avoid rivals because defeating them gets them into striking distance of not only the crown singular but the real money.
Vacant championships would be the exception instead of the norm and perhaps, just perhaps, boxing could eventually adopt uniform standards that include the requirement of two defences per year. That’s 34 Saturday nights. That’s not bad.
That’s not all. Non-championship bouts, more frequent, could return to a safer 10 rounds. Championship defences, 12 rounds. Championship bouts between No. 1 and No. 2, relatively rare, could be 15 rounds. These could be marketed once again as real events.
As of this writing in 2020, boxing has only five true champions in its 17 divisions. By June, we can expect four more to emerge.
On February 22, Deontay Wilder (#1) faces Tyson Fury (#2) in a rematch that will crown the official winner the heavyweight champion of the world.
On March 21, Mairis Breidis (#1) faces Yunier Dorticos (#2) to crown the cruiserweight champion of the world.
On April 25, Naoya Inoue (#1) faces Johnriel Casimero (#2) to crown the first bantamweight champion of the world since 1987, when Bernardo Pinango abdicated.
In May or June 2020, it is not unlikely that Vasyl Lomachenko (#1) will face Teofimo Lopez (#2) and that will crown the lightweight champion of the world.
—And there are rumblings of another four #1 vs. #2 match-ups that could crown champions at super middleweight, jr. middleweight, featherweight, and jr. flyweight. By December 2020, there could well be ten or more champions recognised by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
It’s nothing to get excited about. Not yet.
Until the structure is amended and more step up to put a stop to the nonsense, the singular champions will be lost in a crowd, the contenders beneath them will continue being too distracted by belts to aim their ambition in a straight line, and millions of former fans will continue to walk away from broadcasts, leaving only us die-hards and drunks.
By the 10th round of Charlo-Harrison II, the roofer was sobering up and showing real promise as a student of the sweet science. “Harrison is the grandson of Henry Hank, a contender back in the ’60s,” I said. “Back then, being a contender meant something.” In the eleventh round, Charlo threw a short left hook and caught Hank’s grandson, who went stumbling backwards and fell. A minute later it was over.
“Now that was a fight!” said the roofer.
Now he knows what it was, and what it wasn’t. And what it wasn’t it didn’t have to be. We left before the WBS belt appeared and the absurdity began.
Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War, In the Cheap Seats, Murderers’ Row, and Smokestack Lightning. His work has been featured on NPR’s Here & Now, recognized 35 times by the Boxing Writers Association of America, and was honoured in Best American Essays 2019. He is among the volunteers on the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, serving in the role of oversight.