IF everything was judged solely on longevity, the World Boxing Association [WBA] would, as boxing’s oldest sanctioning body, not only be revered but considered the gold standard.
However, because nothing can be judged in this way, we must accept that the WBA has, like some disgraced but once loved celebrity, during its 99 years done plenty to reduce the goodwill they would have received had they grown old gracefully.
Masters of reinvention, the WBA was born as the National Boxing Association [NBA] in 1921, in Rhode Island, and the first bout they recognised was the heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in New Jersey in 1921.
Formed by representatives from 13 American states, the idea behind the NBA was to challenge the influence of the New York State Athletic Commission [NYSAC] had on boxing at the time. But what happened as a result of the competition was that the NBA and the NYSAC were crowning different world champions in the same division, leading only to confusion. A sign of things to come, you could say.
By August 23, 1962, the NBA had become the WBA, that is, the World Boxing Association, and, by 1975, the organisation’s headquarters had moved from the US to Panama. They then spent the 1990s and early 2000s in Caracas, Venezuela before returning to Panama in January 2007.
In terms of recent rulership, Gilberto Mendoza was the President of the WBA from 1982 until his death in 2016, after which Gilberto Mendoza Jnr, his son and the current man in charge, took over.
There are too many world titles across the board in boxing. We understand that by now. But if there is one sanctioning body out in front, proudly opposing the less is more approach to boxing, it is the WBA.
At heavyweight, for example, there are three – yes, three – boxers currently in possession of WBA heavyweight titles. Anthony Joshua has the Super one, Manuel Charr has the Regular one, and Trevor Bryan has the Interim one. A similar thing is going on at middleweight, too, with Canelo Alvarez – also a Regular champion at super-middleweight, by the way – owning the Super title, Ryota Murata taking the Regular, and Chris Eubank Jnr holding the Interim version.
In all, across boxing’s 17 weight classes [male] there are 14 WBA Super champions and 15 WBA Regular champions, as well as the two aforementioned WBA Interim champions. Why? I have no idea. Save for making the WBA more money from sanctioning fees, all the free-for-all does is serve to confuse, making an already convoluted sport even more difficult to follow, and occasionally amuse.
Take what has happened at heavyweight, for instance. There, Manuel Charr, for a whole host of reasons, some related to injury, some related to performance-enhancing drug test issues, has yet to make a single defence of the WBA Regular heavyweight title he won against Alexander Ustinov back in November 2017. Not only that, Charr’s inactivity opened the door for Trevor Bryan to win the Interim belt in August 2018 – when beating a cruiserweight called BJ Flores inside four rounds – only for Bryan to then find himself struck down by the same ailment. (Bryan, the one meant to get things moving again, has not boxed since winning his belt.)
The joke gets funnier, too, if you were paying attention when the WBA announced Joe Joyce, a British prospect, as their Gold champion in 2019. Your guess is as good as mine.
Still, on a brighter note, an achievement of the WBA worth mentioning, according to their official website at least, is this: the decentralisation of boxing through the creation of regional organisations. What, in layman’s terms, this means is the creation of the following belts: Latin American Boxing Federation (FEDELATIN), the Pan Asian Boxing Association (PABA), the Bolivarian Boxing Federation (FEDEBOL) and the Central America Boxing Federation (FEDECENTRO), North America Boxing Association (NABA), World Boxing Association International (WBAI) and the Pan African Boxing Association (PFBA).
Of all the accusations levelled at them, you can’t accuse the WBA of leaving anyone out.
There’s an argument to be made that the WBA’s rankings should have been ignored the moment they placed Ali Raymi, a light-flyweight tragically killed during his service as a colonel in the Yemeni armed forces, at number 11 in a 2015 set of rankings. He had fallen from six to 11 but remained in contention for a WBA title despite passing away in May of that year.
If that wasn’t enough to encourage you to ignore the WBA’s rankings, how about the time in 2018 when they stuffed 34-year-old British nightclub owner Joe Fournier in at 11 in their light-heavyweight ratings? Seemingly their lucky number, by putting Fournier at 11 they allowed him to brag about being Britain’s highest ranked light-heavyweight and encouraged the rest of the light-heavyweight division to lick their lips like lions in the presence of a tabby cat.
Essentially, the WBA put Fournier, someone whose career was built on suspect fights in the Dominican Republic, in the cage and in danger. They ranked him alongside the likes of Dmitry Bivol (champion), Sullivan Barrera and Badou Jack, as well as Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Karo Murat and Joe Smith Jnr, and showed no duty of care.
After all, Fournier, despite his age, was a novice – a pro boxer still learning how to box. He was someone who, according to his social media profile, was best known as an international nightclub entrepreneur and star of the ‘hit TV show Million Pound Party People’. Yes, he was undefeated in eight fights, but being undefeated in boxing is indicative of talent in the same way record sales are indicative of an artist’s musicianship. Eight and zero are just numbers.
On reflection, Fournier’s best win occurred in the Dominican Republic when he stopped Wilma Mejia, a man with a 22-10-3 record, in two rounds. That was the result that convinced the WBA to catapult him up their rankings, yet curiously never found its way on to Boxrec.com or, indeed, Fournier’s official record.
It gets worse, too. For as bad as the run of hand-picked opponents looks, Fournier’s primary transgression was a failed performance-enhancing drug test for sibutramine following a fight against Mustapha Stini in June 2016 (one subsequently switched to a No Contest). This led to him being banned by the National Anti-Doping Organizations [NADO] until December 2020. Yet because this is boxing, it hardly mattered. Undeterred, Fournier continued to compete in the Dominican Republic, this boxing backwater, and continued to climb the rankings of the WBA, this organisation based in Panama.
Thankfully, though, there was a happy ending to this bizarre story: for the good of boxing and his own health, Joe Fournier was never able to capitalise on his ranking with the WBA and has not boxed since December 2016.
It should be made clear from the outset that performance-enhancing drugs have little to do with sanctioning bodies and that the bans imposed on fighters caught using them are issued by doping and governing agencies rather than the likes of the WBA, WBC [World Boxing Council], IBF [International Boxing Federation] or WBO [World Boxing Organization].
That said, often the reaction of a sanctioning body to a failed test, or to repeat offenders, speaks to how they view both the dangers of the sport and the importance of sanctioning fees.
The best example of this was when Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez tested positive for clenbuterol in 2018, for which he served a measly six-month ban, and an army of men in suits scrambled to vouch for him. His promotional team, Golden Boy, were of course first in line, but, interestingly, not far behind them were the heads of sanctioning bodies, all of whom, like Canelo’s promoters, make more money when the Mexican is considered clean and able to box than they do when he is stripped of titles and serving a ban.
As if to prove the point, Gilberto Mendoza Jnr, the President of the WBA, told me this on March 29, 2018: “What really bothers me is that the test was in February and I have at least three tests in my records where Canelo was negative. So why are you going to stop the fight [against Gennady Golovkin for the Super version of the WBA middleweight title] happening? Is it to do with marketing the fight? I don’t understand it.
“I consulted specialists in that field and the percentage of clenbuterol he had [in his system] gives you reason to doubt. I just don’t see it. I stand by Canelo 100 per cent. This is a fighter who has never had a negative [drug test] in the past.
“It’s like if something happened to Anthony [Joshua],” Mendoza continued. “These guys carry the torch for the sport. They are the reason we exist. Fans, sanctioning bodies and the rest of the fighters owe it to them. If you look at their careers, they have been clean all the time. But sometimes, at some point, I understand things can happen.”
It doesn’t need to be pointed out why a comment like that, issued by somebody in a position of power within the sport, is problematic. Yet, for greater context, and to understand why this came as no surprise, it’s worth noting that Mendoza was in Cardiff, Wales that week to oversee not only the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker but a fight between Alexander Povetkin, the WBA’s number one contender, and Liverpool’s David Price for a WBA Intercontinental title.
Povetkin, of course, had failed not one but two performance-enhancing drug tests in his career yet was still being championed by the WBA. In fact, he would later that year use this WBA ranking to land a money-spinning shot at world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.
“Performance-enhancing drugs is a very difficult and complicated issue,” Mendoza said. “Sometimes you have a problem with local jurisdictions. The UK, for example, has its own agency. You have to follow the local jurisdictions. Secondly, there are a lot of positives [tests] in the game. One of them is Povetkin [who failed tests for ostarine and meldonium in 2016]. He has since volunteered for testing and has been negative.
“But it is difficult to have a unified policy on this matter. Local jurisdictions and sanctioning bodies, they all seem to do things in a different way. For example, we banned Luis Ortiz, because it was his second time failing a test, and the fight with Deontay Wilder still went ahead for the WBC title. Our punishment was disregarded by the other sanctioning bodies when it should have been backed up.”
In summary, the WBC forgave and let Ortiz back in, while the WBA forgave and let Povetkin back in. Both were wrong to do so but Povetkin was a special case, I learned, because, aside from the fact he was a former WBA champion, the Russian was now a reformed man who had been bombarded with random testing for two years. “Povetkin is in the voluntary testing pool with VADA [Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency],” Mendoza said. “He has been tested [before the Price fight]. In the last two years he has been regularly tested.”
Yet for his fight with Price we discovered the truth was that Povetkin had never been tested by VADA and that he had been tested just once in the build-up to the fight. That happened on the Wednesday of fight week, the day he arrived in England, and was conducted by UK Anti-Doping [UKAD], not VADA.
“I’m enrolled in the [VADA] Clean Boxing Program but, no, I wasn’t tested by VADA for this fight,” Povetkin revealed to Boxing News on the Thursday, managing to both contradict Mendoza’s earlier claim and leave us wondering if, rather than providing care and attention, or even a sliver of authority, the role of a sanctioning body is in fact this: the ability to turn a blind eye while in the process of keeping both hands open.