HBO Has The Power To Delegitimize The Sanctioning Organizations, Force Good Fights To Happen Instead

There’s a crucial quote in a piece today that illustrates something that’s pretty widely understood, but that rarely has been laid out so explicitly, about a fundamental issue that confronts boxing as a whole. That is: The root of ongoing power and influence exercised by sanctioning organizations like the WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF and their proliferation of meaningless “championship” belts is the degree to which other powerful entities in boxing treat them with any respect whatsoever.

The piece overall is about light heavyweight Glen Johnson’s quest for a well-deserved rematch against Chad Dawson, a fight that not only is among the most meaningful possible in the sport but that would be a do-over of one of the best bouts of 2008. Dawson and his promoter, Gary Shaw, have been trying to make the case that Johnson, in fact, does not deserve a rematch, and raised the point that Dawson, as IBF “champion,” has a mandatory challenge due.

“I’m having a meeting with HBO next week discussing opponents. The IBF has basically indicated that if we don’t fight Tavoris Cloud, they will strip Chad. So it’s premature to say who we’re going to fight. First we have to discuss with HBO to see how important the belts are to HBO and that will also play into the decision of who we fight.”

There you have it. It’s pretty simple. If HBO says no to Dawson-Cloud because it decides the belt doesn’t matter as much as Dawson-Johnson II, the fans get a much better and more meaningful bout. But allow me to expand on that a little.

As usual, I begin with some caveats, and some answers to those caveats. I’m not in any way saying Cloud is a bad fighter, or that Dawson-Cloud is a bad fight. Cloud, in fact, is quite an exciting fighter, with lots of potential, and he would pose a serious threat to Dawson, given his considerable power and Dawson’s difficulties against heavy hitters. It’s just that Dawson-Johnson II is way better, since Johnson is a far more accomplished fighter than Cloud; since Dawson and Johnson have unfinished business after a very close first fight; since if Dawson is to become the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet some think he can, he will have to answer questions about not only whether he can beat someone like Johnson cleanly, but whether he has the guts to take on the most difficult challenges; and since we know, based on the initial meeting, that Dawson and Johnson would produce fireworks in the ring.

Another caveat is that Shaw has been looking for every excuse he can to keep Dawson away from Johnson, because Johnson really almost upset the apple cart on his very promising young potential star, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Shaw is just looking to spread the blame around by dragging HBO into the path of the firing squad. Indeed, Johnson claims that HBO has already tried to pressure Dawson’s people into fighting Johnson again, but Dawson’s team has said no; whose version is true, we may never know, unless HBO goes on the record with its version of the story. But it’s not that Shaw doesn’t have some good points about a second Johnson fight. Johnson, to my dismay and the dismay of a lot of hardcore boxing fans, is not as potent a ticket-seller as he should be given how good he is and how exciting he is, so he doesn’t bring much money to the table as he does risk. But really, look around and tell me if you see one fight for Dawson that is anywhere near as likely to sell tickets as Dawson-Johnson II. Dawson himself isn’t much of a draw yet; bigger name potential Dawson opponents Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe are both not interested in Dawson, with Calzaghe being retired and Hopkins semi-retired; there is no one else at light heavyweight who offers Dawson remotely the cash Johnson does; and even if Dawson moves down a division, there’s not a single super middleweight who is as credible or exceeds Johnson as a draw in the United States — and even overseas, the options aren’t much better.

A third and final caveat is that if Dawson wants to make himself more marketable and enjoyable to fans, he might be better off at super middleweight, where he would have more punching power and be more likely to get a sensational knockout instead of an easy decision win. This is the best of the caveats, but it still isn’t good enough. Some percentage of the fan skepticism of Dawson is that he’s no knockout artist. But another sizable contingent is skeptical of him because of how much hell Johnson gave him in the first fight, and his credibility is on the line with a lot of people because of a perception that he’s ducking Johnson. Dawson can always go to super middleweight later. But if he doesn’t fight Johnson sooner rather than later, he will always carry around that stain on his reputation.

So let’s you and I play a funny little game, with those caveats out of the way. If you accept the premise that Dawson-Johnson II is a better fight than Dawson-Cloud, and I think an overwhelming majority of boxing fans would, which matters most to you: seeing Dawson defend his IBF belt, or seeing the better fight? I’m guessing almost everyone within the aforementioned majority is going to answer, “Seeing the better fight.”

Let’s take it one step further: Pretend you’re a television network that makes money directly in proportion to its number of subscribers. Given that at least a significant majority of fans are likely going to be more interested in seeing the better fight rather than an arbitrary title defense, why wouldn’t you show the better fight? There are a few potential answers for HBO here.

–“Dawson-Cloud is a cheaper fight on our budgets.” I concede the likelihood of this. But how much cheaper, really? Johnson has been taking less money than he deserves for his WHOLE CAREER, in almost every single fight. He does it because he has little choice if he wants to get the best money fights, and most important fights, he can. You’re telling me that if Johnson was offered relatively little money to fight Dawson again, he’d turn it down? The man wants that rematch BADLY. Look at what he told Maxboxing’s Steve Kim: “I will fight him in his house, his living room. It doesn’t matter,” he said, explaining that he’ll accept the fight on Dawson’s terms. The man is giving up all kinds of negotiating leverage. And given how much better a fight Dawson-Johnson II is than Dawson-Cloud, if there’s only a marginally higher fee for the former, HBO should realize that it’s worth it in terms of the increased number of eyes that will be on the program.

–“Sanctioning organizations titles may not matter to the hardcore fans, but they mean something to the casual fans.” Up to a point, this is also true. I’m sure the occasional casual fan has seen an advertisement for an upcoming bout and has been suckered into thinking, “Oh, there’s a light heavyweight championship fight on television tonight? Well, I can’t wait to see the champion take on his number one challenger.” Except, odds are good that a few weeks later, they’d see an advertisement for ANOTHER light heavyweight “championship” fight, featuring different people than in the OTHER light heavyweight “championship” fight, and get a little confused, thinking, logically, that “champion” means there can be only one. Championship belts only matter when they clarify rather than confuse. There’s a reason I have the Ring magazine champions — which hearken back to the days when there was only one champion, and to the days where the only way to become the champion was to beat the champion or, in the event of a vacancy, have the two best guys fight each other — listed in the upper left hand column. There’s a reason that one of the main things I list in my “boxing basics tutorial” section is an explanation of how sanctioning organizations and their many “championships” work: because the single biggest turnoff about boxing to virtually every casual or non-fan I meet is that they no longer understand who the champions are. There are too many belts, and they’ve lost credibility, and that has been a suck on the credibility of the entire sport. The sanctioning organization belts don’t bring in new fans. They actually turn fans away. (Secondarily: Plenty of fights where belts aren’t on the line have done just FINE, mind you. I seem to recall Manny Pacquiao-Oscar De La Hoya, for which no sanctioning organization trinkets were on the line, generating more than a million pay-per-view buys, and HBO being quite happy with that. Good fights do good business, with or without belts. Period.)

–Here’s the answer I like best: “You’re right. There’s no reason for us to pay homage to the IBF when we could give our subscribers a better fight without it.”

Think about what a blow that last answer would be to the sanctioning organizations. It would be huge. HBO, arguably the most powerful entity in the entire sport, would go a long way toward delegitimizing one of the sanctioning organizations, and, by extension, the sanctioning organization system in general. It would be saying, “The IBF doesn’t matter as much as a good fight does.” If it became a trend, it would have huge potential to have a ripple effect from the top to the bottom of boxing.

make no mistake about it: The sanctioning organizations that are something of a disease on the sport are validated by HBO and the other networks when their names are mentioned on television. Boxers, the least culpable parties in all this, want to be called, out loud, “the champion.” I can’t blame them for that. But if HBO doesn’t call a sanctioning organization a “championship” belt out loud, and just ignores it, then boxers would have no choice but to try for the only real championship that matters, the Ring belt. Or if HBO tells sanctioning organizations to shove off, boxers will realize that they’ll get the esteem of fans when they fight and beat the best, not when they pick up and maintain one of the four available sanctioning organization belts available per division. (Actually, when you count all the “super champion,” “interim champion,” “regular champion,” “champion in recess” crap, maybe it goes up to as many as 16 “champions” per division, just from the four main organizations; somehow, sinking even lower, Showtime called super middleweight Andre Ward “the champion” because he had an NABF belt over the weekend. You’re kidding, right?)

We would still have to pry promoters away from mentioning as “champions” any of the fighters in their stable who held a sanctioning organization belt, which would be hard, granted. And we’d have to get every boxing writer to go along with this — I routinely ignore the sanctioning organization belts in my write-up of “title” fights — which also would be difficult.

And I recognize that I’m kind of talking about two things at once here. There’s a difference between HBO rejecting the IBF over Dawson-Cloud in favor of Dawson-Johnson II and HBO just ignoring the IBF altogether when it comes to advertising upcoming fights where the IBF is involved. And I know that at times, boxers have given up sanctioning organization belts in order to fight in bigger money bouts on television, it’s just that this is a pretty high-profile case where HBO explicitly can weigh in on the issue.

Ultimately, though, it’s part of the same phenomenon: The more HBO treats the sanctioning organizations like they don’t matter, the more they don’t matter. And the more HBO focuses on giving fans good fights, the better for the sport. The network has done a pretty good job this year on the “good fights” count. But it has an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone with Dawson-Johnson II.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.