One of the big complaints many people have about the current state of affairs in boxing is that there are just too many titles these days. Way back when, there was a champion, people knew who the champion was, and a fan could figure out who was in line to fight for that championship. Over the course of the last 50 years, and especially in the last 25, a collective of sanctioning bodies colloquially known as the alphabet soup has come into play. What was once a championship has turned into no less than four major titles, a number of fringe titles and at least two means of considering who might be the "real" champion. Each of these has their own convoluted sets of rules.
It's tough to get a straight story as to who does what, and hopefully this series of articles will help illuminate . This article might not be 100% accurate (especially if you're reading it long after it was written), but I'm hoping this is about as comprehensive of a series as there is out there on the various ABC titles and how a fighter can obtain them. I'm hoping this will lead off a new section where I discuss various aspects of the business of boxing. First, we'll start with the granddaddy of the ABC's, the WBA.
World Boxing Association (WBA)
The oldest of the sanctioning bodies, a look at how the WBA started gives us a small glimpse as to why these organizations even exist, and what their original intent was. In 1921, the WBA started as the NBA, an association of 14 boxing commissions around the United States. Before that time, the New York State Athletic Commission was developing somewhat of a stranglehold on prizefighting in the U.S., and for many decades, the New York champion was also considered to be the world champion, or at least a world champion.
At this point, the main purpose was to provide an orderly system for champions to fight contenders and to name new world champions, and for many years, the NBA did just that. In 1962, it changed its name to the WBA and started allowing in foreign boxing commissions. However, before long, other countries saw how unfair it was that each U.S. state would have a seat at the table while each other country would only get one seat. This eventually led to some internal strife, the splitting off of the WBC and later the IBF, and eventually the WBA getting dominated by Latin American interests, which continues to this day.
Despite having opportunities to completely rework its rules, the current WBA may do more to muddy the waters than any other organization, which is exactly the opposite of its original purpose. Rather than having only one championship, the WBA often claims to have as many as four:
- Super champion: The WBA claims, per its rules, that only a unified titlist or a person who makes five to ten defenses of their title can become super champion. However, it's added circumstances as it sees fit, and even the rule that it can elevate a champion after only five defenses is a new addition. If a WBA regular champion also becomes a WBC, IBF or WBO champion, then he's elevated to super champion. It's a win-win for the WBA - they give super champions longer times to make mandatory defenses, so they don't look bad for stripping fighters, and it also allows the WBA to make a grab for more cash by having twice as many "title" fights.
- Regular champion: You know, the guy who's actually the titlist. Except when there's a super champion. Then, the regular champion is something less than a champion. He can still strut around calling himself the man, but in reality, if there's a super champion, then the regular champion isn't even the champion for his own sanctioning body.
- Interim champion: Officially, under the WBA rules, the only way you can have an interim champion is if there's a champion in recess, e.g. the titlist can't defend because he's injured or there are some other extenuating circumstances. In reality, there are currently six interim titlists, and all of the real champs are perfectly able to fight. The WBA gets more sanctioning fees from having an interim title fight instead of a title eliminator, so as a way to steal more money, they have slowly been replacing title eliminators with fights for an interim title.
- Champion in Recess: According to the WBA rules, when an active champion is unable to defend his title within the prescribed time period for debilitating medical reasons, legal reasons or any other legitimate reason, the WBA can make him champion in recess and appoint an interim titlist. Good example: Ruslan Chagaev was unable to fight because of hepatitis, so he was made champion in recess. Not so good example: Felix Sturm is caught in a legal battle over his contract, so the WBA made him super champion instead of champion in recess.
A WBA titlist, like the other major titles, may only make defenses against someone ranked in the WBA's top 15, unless the WBA otherwise approves the fight. Rankings are determined by a committee of three to five members, all of whom are appointed by the President of the WBA. As is the case with most of the alphabet organizations, this leaves the rankings ripe for manipulation and, in some cases, straight up fraud. With as few as three people voting, there isn't necessarily the proper information to determine who are the 15 best fighters in a weight class worldwide. Also, like the other sanctioning bodies, they will not rank a champion for another sanctioning body. The committee can also name a mandatory contender, or set a fight to determine a mandatory contender. Once a mandatory is named, the titlist has a limited amount of time to defend against the mandatory before risking losing his belt.
Just to provide an example of the WBA's convoluted stupidity when it comes to its titles, look at the current WBA featherweight title situation. Way back in 2003, Chris John won the interim title by beating Oscar Leon. The real title was held by Derrick Gainer. However, when Gainer was beaten by Juan Manuel Marquez in a unification fight, Marquez was made the super champion, and the WBA elevated John to regular champion without so much as needing to fight. For almost three years, Marquez defends his title and John defends his. John's managers are screaming that they want their mandatory with Marquez, which is supposedly due in 18 months, but because Marquez is a little famous and John is not, the two don't actually fight until Marquez refuses a rematch with Manny Pacquiao because he felt lowballed.
Finally, in March 2006, Marquez fights John, who defeats Marquez. Even though Marquez was super champion, John just stays regular champion by beating Marquez, since Marquez was stripped by the IBF before he fought John. In April 2009, even though John was still healthy and fighting, the WBA decides that one titlist just isn't enough, and sanctions a fight between Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jose Rojas for the interim title. A few months later, the WBA elevates Chris John to super champion for little apparent reason, and elevates Gamboa from interim titlist to regular titlist without so much as needing to fight.
So now there are two healthy, active WBA champions, so what does the WBA decide to do? Sanction ANOTHER title. The battle between Celestino Caballero and Daud Yordan was supposed to be for the WBA interim title, but Caballero forgot to pay his fees, so now some other poor cads, probably nobody ranked in the WBA's top 5, will get a shot at becoming interim titlist. And all the while, there are two healthy, active "champions", and nobody seems to be in any hurry to get any of them to fight each other or the supposed WBA mandatory, Daniel Ponce de Leon. With sanctioning fees of up to $150,000 per fighter, depending on the size of the purse, that's a lot of coin that can end up in the WBA's pocket.