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Judging the sanctioning bodies: The IBF

IBF
With its recognisable red championship belt, the IBF has had to come through some particularly trying times to get to where it is today. Paul Wheeler investigates

HISTORY

IN 1977, the United States Boxing Association (USBA) was established, with this organisation proving to be the precursor to the International Boxing Federation (IBF), which was formed six years later in 1983 (under a different name).

With the USBA being a national entity, it initially served as a gateway for boxers aiming to advance into the rankings of the World Boxing Association (WBA). At the time, the WBA was one of only two recognised global sanctioning bodies in the sport, with the World Boxing Council (WBC) being the other. In April 1983, the members of the USBA voted in favour of worldwide expansion. Thus an international division of the organisation – named the United States Boxing Association-International (USBA-I) – was created.

The USBA-I’s founding president was Robert Lee Snr, who had previously run for the WBA presidency. The reason for the formation of this new outfit was “to offer advancement possibilities to those who sought them and provide more opportunities for young fighters entering the professional boxing arena to showcase their talents and reach their goals of becoming world champions.”

Starting out, the USBA-I credited certain boxers as world champions if they had already proved themselves at world championship level and if they would likely be open to competing under the jurisdiction of the organisation. The middleweight, Marvin Hagler, was one such fighter. As the dual WBA and WBC titlist at the time, he was the natural choice.

When the WBA and WBC declared that Hagler’s upcoming title defence, against Wilford Scypion in May 1983, would be contested over 12 rounds instead of 15, Hagler was not in agreement with this decision. This led the WBA and WBC to withdraw its sanctioning of the bout, which opened up an opportunity for the USBA-I to authorise it as its inaugural championship contest. Hagler subsequently won the fight and maintained his status as world champion.

In December 1983, the world’s consensus number-one heavyweight, Larry Holmes, relinquished his WBC belt and accepted recognition from the USBA-I as its title-holder in the division. This was a major coup for the organisation, as it enhanced its global credibility.

In November of the following year, Holmes successfully defended his crown against James “Bonecrusher” Smith in what was the sanctioning body’s first-ever heavyweight title fight. It was also during 1984 that the USBA-I was rebranded as the International Boxing Federation/United States Boxing Association (IBF/USBA). At the beginning of 2018, it was decided that the name would be changed to simply the International Boxing Federation (IBF), with the USBA title remaining in existence as a regional championship under the IBF umbrella.

The current president of the New Jersey-based organisation is Daryl Peoples, who succeeded Marian Muhammad in May 2010. Muhammad had taken over from Hiawatha Knight in October 2001, who was the first female to assume control of a world boxing sanctioning body. Knight’s predecessor was the USBA-I founder, Robert Lee Snr, who resigned in January 2000. More on this later…

Marvin Hagler
Hagler is a big part of the IBF’s history (Getty Images)

TITLES

EACH of the big four sanctioning bodies endorses various lower-tier and regional championships under its banner, such as International, Inter-Continental and Youth belts, as well as continent-specific straps. However, unlike the WBA and WBC, who have been heavily criticised for instigating multiple versions of ‘world’ titles (Super, Franchise etc), the IBF and the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) are far less culpable in this regard. (The WBO do occasionally promote existing world champions to Super status, though when this occurs, the promoted boxer remains the sole belt-holder in their division. A secondary champion is not installed, which is in contrast to the WBA and WBC’s procedures.) 

True, the IBF and WBO have crowned Interim titlists in the past, but such action is understandable when, for example, a world champion is temporarily unable to defend their belt due to injury. The problems occur when sanctioning bodies abuse this system and misemploy Interim titles, simply in order to attribute a ‘world’ championship label to more bouts. The WBA and WBC in particular have been guilty of this.

When it comes to enforcing world title contests between champions and their mandatory challengers, the IBF is certainly considered as the strictest and most consistent of the alphabet quartet. This hard-line stance is admirable, as in principle it rightly rewards boxers who have worked their way into a mandatory contender spot and therefore earned their chance to challenge for a world championship.

While the IBF’s unwillingness to cower and yield to the wants and wishes of big-name fighters and promoters is refreshing, this uncompromising attitude does not come without its issues. For instance, its tough approach can make it difficult for unified and undisputed champions to preserve their standing as multi-titlists. This causes world titles to become fragmented, which muddies the championship waters and creates confusion for followers of the sport who yearn – entirely justifiably – for a single, definitive champion in each division.

Take the well-publicised case of Tyson Fury. In November 2015, he travelled to Germany and pulled off a sensational upset by defeating the long-reigning WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight king, Wladimir Klitschko. Just four days after the fight, it was revealed that Klitschko had chosen to invoke his rematch clause. (In the end, the bout never actually took place.) Yet only six days later, and a mere 10 days since beating Klitschko, the IBF announced that it had stripped Fury of its title.

Due to his contractual commitment to the Klitschko return, Fury would have been unable to fulfil his mandatory obligation with the IBF – which was to defend against its top-ranked challenger, Vyacheslav Glazkov. The result of this was that Glazkov ended up facing Charles Martin, rated fourth by the IBF, for the vacant belt in a low-key matchup. Glazkov would go on to be ruled out by an early injury in a disappointing contest, leaving Martin as the winner by default. Martin is regarded by some as the worst world heavyweight champion in history.

The likes of Marvin Hagler, Winky Wright, Jermain Taylor and O’Neil Bell are all examples of undisputed or unified titlists who had their IBF belts taken away due to a failure to comply with the organisation’s regulations concerning mandatory defences. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the federation is willing to make exceptions when there is an opportunity for one of its champions to compete in a unification clash. As its official rules state: “For the purpose of unification of titles, the pre-eminent champions of the WBA, WBC and WBO may be designated as ‘elite contenders’ and may be permitted to fight for the unified title. Any unification bout, if approved by the Championships Committee, will take priority over the mandatory.”

RANKINGS

FROM the mid-’90s until the early 2000s, the IBF ratings were the centre point of a serious scandal that sullied the organisation’s name during this period. Following a federal probe initiated in 1996, the IBF’s founder and president, Robert Lee Snr, was indicted in November 1999 on charges of accepting bribes from promoters and managers to manipulate rankings. The prosecutor, assistant US attorney Robert Cleary, strongly condemned Lee by saying: “A culture of corruption has festered in the IBF virtually since its inception. The IBF ratings were not earned – they were bought. The crimes have bastardised the ratings in most of the weight classes.”

Although Lee was acquitted of most of the major bribery and racketeering charges, in August 2000 he was found guilty of money laundering and tax evasion. Six months later, he was sentenced to 22 months in prison. To compound matters for the under-fire sanctioning body, 1999 also saw the outfit become the subject of an investigation by New York law enforcement agencies. This was a consequence of the highly controversial outcome in the unification bout between heavyweights Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis in March of that year. The Madison Square Garden matchup was declared a draw, despite Lewis looking like an obvious victor. The only one of the three judges who had Holyfield winning the fight was appointed by the IBF.

In the two decades since Lee’s departure, the IBF has worked hard to revamp its reputation. It has predominantly succeeded in doing so, in part due to the fact that it has not contributed to the proliferation of ‘world’ titles by producing needless Super or Franchise belts. Furthermore, in regards to weighing in, it has put the safety of fighters at the forefront by implementing a second-day weigh-in policy.

The official ruling expresses that “there shall be a second weigh-in between 8am and 10am on the morning of the event, unless otherwise approved by the IBF. At this weigh-in, boxers cannot weigh more than 10 pounds over the weight limit.” In theory, this blocks fighters from putting on an unhealthy amount of weight in a short space of time, as well as preventing dangerously substantial weight differences between competing boxers on fight night.

In the IBF’s latest ratings at the time of writing (March 2020), an interesting observation is that positions one and two are empty in eight of the 17 divisions. In a further seven weight categories, the number-two spot is unoccupied. The rationale behind this, according to its rules, is as follows: “To ensure that the champion in each weight class defends mandatorily against the pre-eminent contender, the number-one and number-two positions in each weight division will be left vacant until two top-five leading available contenders, approved by the Championships Chairman and the President, vie for the vacancy by process of elimination. In order to qualify for the number-one and number-two positions, boxers must engage in a 12-round elimination bout.”

DRUGS

THE IBF’s regulations set out that “each boxer is required to take an anti-doping test immediately following the bout, unless the local commission requires they be taken immediately prior to the bout.” Of course, drug testing is welcomed at any time, but it is obviously always preferable to catch a drug cheat before they have been able to engage in combat, as opposed to afterwards. That is why a lack of drug testing during training camps and outside of competition is always a concern. In this sense, there is significant room for improvement for the IBF in its drug-testing processes.

In terms of punishments for drug offenders, the IBF’s current rules are clear on this matter: “If a boxer is suspended by a local commission or national federation for an anti-doping violation, whether in or out of competition, the boxer will be removed from the ratings for one year and will be removed permanently for a second anti-doping violation.”

Though the organisation has undoubtedly boosted its image since the dark days of Robert Lee Snr’s indictment, it has not been immune from controversy, including in relation to drugs. Notable instances of this can be found in the fights between Roy Jones Jnr and Richard Hall (May 2000), Amir Khan and Lamont Peterson (December 2011), and Azinga Fuzile and Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov (September 2019). The Khan-Peterson bout, which was contentious for more than one reason, particularly put the IBF under an unwanted spotlight.

While the sanctioning body has had to deal with the occasional case of negative press regarding drugs, it has also received praise for its Special Assistance to Retired Boxers (SARB) fund. The money raised towards this charitable endeavour is also distributed to “anti-drug programs throughout the world,” among other worthy causes.

Read our analysis of the WBA HERE

Read our analysis of the WBC HERE

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