Watered-down belts and clueless sanctioning bodies: The case against mandatory title defenses

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

High on the list of complaints about boxing is that there are too many champions. With 17 weight classes and four major sanctioning bodies that award world title belts, there is the potential for 68 separate championships.

That’s far too many.

And yet, it’s also true that boxers undeniably make more money when they hold one of the watered-down belts, primarily because television networks want championship matches.

The problem isn’t simply that there are too many title belts; it’s who gets the opportunity to fight for a title. The sanctioning bodies — the IBF, the WBA, the WBC and the WBO — are primarily responsible for that. Each of them designates someone as a mandatory challenger, and the champion in each weight class has to make one mandatory defense a year or be stripped.

How many times has there been a potential anticipated unification bout you wanted to see that was interrupted because one (or both) of the champions had to make less interesting and less lucrative mandatory title defenses?

Clearly, there has to be some system to force champions to defend their belts against theoretically the top challengers, or some of them will simply sit on it and/or feast on lesser opposition. 

But the mandatory system in boxing is flawed, and should be done away with. When the global coronavirus pandemic ends and boxing resumes, the problem with mandatories is easily solved.

We have to start with the rankings. We need each of the sanctioning bodies to rank all of the fighters in a given weight class, including the champions and mandatory challengers in the other bodies, which isn’t done now. Tyson Fury holds the WBC championship, but he’s not among those rated in the IBF, WBA or WBO, where Anthony Joshua holds the belts.

The ratings are crucial because in order to guarantee the best championship fights, the fighters have to be ranked fairly and accurately. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t think Tyson Fury is one of the 15 best heavyweights in the world? But as of now, he’s not ranked by three of the four major organizations.

It won’t take a complete overhaul of the rules to fix this, fortunately.

Each champion should be required to defend against a top-five challenger every nine months and against a top-two challenger every 15 months. 

Take a look at welterweight for an example of what that would do. There, Errol Spence Jr. has the IBF-WBC belts, Terrence Crawford has the WBO belt and Manny Pacquiao has the WBA title. All three are ranked among the Yahoo Sports Pound-for-Pound Top 10, and are on nearly every significant pound-for-pound list.

If we add Pacquiao and Crawford to the WBC ratings at Nos. 1-2 right now and push Nos. 1-2-3 down to Nos. 3-4-5, that would mean that Spence would need to defend once in nine months against either Crawford, Pacquiao, No. 3 Shawn Porter, No. 4 Danny Garcia and No. 5 Yordenis Ugas.

And then he’d be forced to fight one of the top two within six months after that.

Gennady Golovkin is awarded victory in his IBF middleweight title bout against Sergiy Derevyanchenko at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 5, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

The benefit of that is obvious: You’re going to have far more deserving title challengers competing for the belts and you’ll have more unified champions. That will reduce the volume of title-holders considerably and increase the number of major fights.

One of the problems with the current system is that mandatory challengers aren’t always that worthy. That’s the case in the IBF, where middleweight champion Gennadiy Golovkin was mandated to fight No. 3 Kamil Szeremeta of Poland. Szeremeta is 21-0 with five knockouts, and has exactly zero notable victories.

But in that case, if all the bodies ranked all the fighters, Szeremeta wouldn’t be No. 3. In addition, Szeremeta would be able to fight other elite opponents, which could help him build his résumé and make himself into a deserving challenger.

But I’d rather have a middleweight division where the guys in line for title shots were Golovkin, Canelo Alvarez, Jermall Charlo, Demetrious Andrade and Jaime Munguia rather than the likes of Szeremeta, Alantez Fox and Luke Keeler.

Such a system would force the contenders to fight each other in a bid to improve their rankings and get themselves into position for a title fight; it shouldn’t be because they have the right political connections within the business.

Fights would have more meaning within this kind of a system, both title and non-title bouts alike. Fights with more meaning and more significance would be more financially lucrative in most cases.

On top of that, if lapsed fans became convinced that they would regularly see fights that had stakes, they’d slowly start to come back to the sport.

The WBA is the most egregiously bad of all the sanctioning bodies and it has a list of crimes longer than those committed by La Cosa Nostra

But a healthy sport would benefit all involved.

Making these small changers would make for far better fights and a much healthier sport.

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