ONE champion in each division. It’s hardly a novel concept, yet at this point in history a single world champion in every division is an impossible dream. But one world champion in at least a few of them – that shouldn’t be too much to ask. When Terence Crawford unified the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO super-lightweight titles in 2017 it was a rare feat. He was then the first undisputed world champion seen in men’s boxing since 2005. It was a remarkable milestone, not only because of Crawford’s uncommon talent but also because of the sport’s at times infuriating politics. He only had 11 days with his IBF belt before he had to vacate it.
But there is cause for hope. In 2021 undisputed title fights are no longer such isolated incidents. On Saturday in Dallas Jessica McCaskill, after ending Cecilia Braekhus’ six-year reign as undisputed champion in 2020, will rematch the Norwegian for all four of the major titles at welterweight. On Friday of last week Claressa Shields won the first undisputed crown of 2021. In 2019 Shields had unified the WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF middleweight titles. Now against Marie Eve Dicairie she repeated the feat at 154lbs. It means the American becomes the first two-weight undisputed champion. No one has done that before. Women’s professional boxing is developing and increasing participation will eventually increase the strength in depth. But someone’s got to be first. Already a three-weight word champion, Shields has done a lot in 11 pro fights. As an amateur too she was twice an Olympic gold medallist and a two-time World championships gold medallist, a phenomenal track record. And she’s only 25.
If Shields is one of the most vocal proponents of her own greatness, she’s hardly the first boxer to sing their own praises with gusto. But great fighters do need great fights and great rivalries. Luckily for Shields she has Savannah Marshall, the only boxer to have beaten her amateur or pro. That loss was a long time ago, in the 2012 World championships when Shields was just a teenager. But it is a fascinating backstory to a potential fight and Marshall, with a WBO middleweight title and an impressive skill set, is undoubtedly a worthy opponent.
Katie Taylor, another Olympic gold medallist turned undisputed professional champion, defended her titles last year and will return in 2021. The men’s sport is also moving in just the right direction. On May 22 in Las Vegas Scotland’s Josh Taylor and the USA’s Jose Ramirez will box for all four super-lightweight world titles. It’s the perfect set up. Both are unbeaten champions, both are at the peak of their form. For Taylor it’s especially significant, as he describes in his column here, he knows he could become the UK’s first undisputed champion since the great Lennox Lewis and the first of the four-belt era. The significance of that is not lost on him. He knows he’s lucky too. To get in this position doesn’t just depend on his own ability, experience and results. He also needed the business of boxing on his side. He and Ramirez share a promoter in Top Rank which helps overcome some hurdles, and he needed the sanctioning bodies to resist any impulse to stick an inconvenient mandatory in the way. Luckily again, Jack Catterall, the mandatory challenger for the WBO belt, is willing to wait for the winner.
The most important lesson is that the sanctioning bodies must facilitate undisputed clashes and not obstruct them. That has not been the case nearly enough. Between Vasiliy Lomachenko winning the WBC lightweight title and fighting Teofimo Lopez for instance, the WBC left them with only three titles after installing Devin Haney as their champion. Creating ‘franchise’ champions is not going to help.
Anthony Joshua vs Tyson Fury, currently being negotiated, is an event so big it would ordain inarguably the best heavyweight in the world, as long as there is a clear winner. But it merits the added prestige of all four belts and so far, in yet another positive sign, they remain on the table.
Canelo Alvarez, a global star and for Boxing News the pound-for-pound leader, is setting the tone too. His bouts in 2021 are being guided by one narrative: his determination to become undisputed at 168lbs. That can only be welcomed. If the best are willing to fight the best, then we will get more undisputed champions and the sport will be the better for it. Long may it continue.