When Good Boxing Writers Go Bad

Generally speaking, any article that attacks the title sanctioning bodies, I’m all for. But George Kimball — one of our finest boxing writers, and a nice guy — has put together a piece today that’s got all kinds of mistakes, by my accounting. Like, a ton.

My specific beef with the article is what he says about the Ring magazine belt policy. He makes some good points here and there, but mostly he’s way off, both factually and philosophically. I’ll go point by point.

It’s probably just a coincidence, but did you happen to notice that The Ring presently lists its welterweight title as “vacant?”   


It’s no coincidence. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vacated the belt by retiring, and it’s been vacant since. No one stands to gain from the current vacancy; ideally, it would be filled by two top-notch fighters fighting one another.

The makeup of the Ring panel is cloaked in anonymity, but the suspicion here is that the people who attach the most significance to the Ring belts are in many cases the very people who vote for them in the first place.

It’s not cloaked in anonymity at all. The members of Ring’s ratings panel are listed right on Ring magazine’s website. Here.

It’s easy [sic] critical of the ridiculous and often nonsensical methods of the recognized sanctioning bodies over. Their ratings are often arbitrary, and their excuses for stripping championships often indefensible and badly in need of reform. This has not escaped the attention of the authorities, by the way. A key provision in the new boxing reform bill introduced by Sen. John McCain this year would make the alphabet groups answerable, by law, for every seemingly precipitate action in this regard. 
But in the meantime, it should be obvious that the last thing the boxing needs to eradicate the confusion is a fifth sanctioning body, but that’s exactly what the Ring is trying to be, and people who should know better seem more than willing to encourage them.

No ratings are perfect, as they are not objective. But if you look at Ring’s ratings and the ratings of any of the other four sanctioning bodies with any common sense, you’ll find their rankings significantly more in keeping with reality. I do have cause to criticize Ring ratings from time to time, but only around the periphery. Their ratings and policies are the most consistent and reliable, and until someone comes up with something better, encouraging them is exactly what I’m going to do.

The conflict of interest inherent in a publication owned by a major promoter is so evident that it shouldn’t even require mention.

This is a perfectly valid point. It requires everyone in the boxing press to monitor Ring’s ratings closely, at least those who think such things are important. But so far — and I’ve been watching very closely because I’ve been concerned about it since day one — I’ve not seen one Golden Boy Promotions fighter benefit from the Ring magazine rankings beyond reason. In fact, there were a few people who thought Ring was too stingy about not making the Shane Mosley-Antonio Margarito fight for the welterweight championship. Mosley would have benefited from becoming the beltholder. if the ratings panel had decided to make the fight for the welterweight championship, but the panel narrowly voted against doing so.
With the boxing press (and all media these days, in fact), there are conflicts of interest everywhere. A lot of boxing writers pen pieces for HBO.com, one of the dominant forces in the sport and a network that needs to be held accountable by journalists that it sometimes pays; Greg Leon of Boxingtalk manages fighters; and so on and so on. It’s a persistent concern. But that’s a story for another day.

And beyond that, given the sordid history of corruption in earlier eras of that publication’s history provide good reason for the present administration’s reluctance to identify its voters, since to do so would on the surface appear an open invitation to bribery. But we know who’s on the ratings committees of the WBC and the WBA and the IBF and the WBO. If Ring is reluctant to publicly disclose its panel, it does strike me that at the very least a scribe who insists on labeling the magazine’s ratings “the best,” or “the most honest,” or “the most accurate” should also disclose “Oh, and by the way, I have a vote in these rankings.”

The “sordid history of corruption” — really, just one incident — is one reason to hold the Ring ratings up to scrutiny, but as Kimball acknowledges, he once served on the ratings board of the very magazine guilty of “sordid history of corruption,” so I don’t understand when this history became problematic for him; the scandal was in the late 70s, and he served on the board afterward. And, as mentioned above, Ring DOES identify its voters. Still, if I was on the Ring board, I’d mention I was on it every time I wrote an article or made a speech in public where I mentioned the magazine. Some writers (like Cliff Rold of BoxingScene) include it at the end of everything they write, period.

The Ring will try to tell you that they’re honoring a time-honored philosophy and recognizing “lineal” champions, but that isn’t always true, either. Sometimes they wind up, as they did a few years ago, declaring Vitali Klitschko the heavyweight champion of the whole world at a time when it seemed clear to most that he wasn’t even the best heavyweight in the Ukraine.

At first I agreed with Kimball on this point, and said so in an e-mail to him. But upon further examination, Vitali Klitschko obtained the lineal title when Lennox Lewis vacated it and Vitali was ranked #1 and Corrie Sanders was ranked #3 by the magazine. Under its rules, the magazine’s expressly stated policy is to sometimes award a vacant title to the winner of a 1/3 match-up. Unless I’m missing something here, that’s well within the parameters of awarding a vacant belt. And at the time of Vitali’s defeat of Sanders, his brother Wladimir Klitschko was no longer considered the best heavyweight in the Ukraine by much of anyone, since he’d suffered a number of defeats that raised serious questions about his chin and heart.

Sometimes they wind up following the linear breadcrumb trail up a blind alley, and recognizing a Joel Casamayor while ignoring a guy who has three belts hanging in his trophy room.

Having three belts doesn’t make anyone a linear champion. Beating the linear champion makes someone the linear champion, just from the standpoint of the definition of the phrase.

And sometimes i
f a championship isn’t readily available, they’ll go out and create their own, which is what happened when Bernard Hopkins fought Winky Wright for what Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer proclaimed “the Ring Magazine 170-pound championship.”

If Schaefer called it that, and it appears he wasn’t the only one, that’s on him. But it’s my recall that Ring magazine ruled that the fight was for Hopkins’ light heavyweight championship. Since the fight was above 168 (super middleweight) and below 175 (light heavyweight) then that would be the correct ruling, as the 170-pound fight was technically a light heavyweight fight. And, for what it’s worth, in this news release — which I believe is from Golden Boy — the fight was deemed as being for Hopkins’ Ring light heavyweight championship, not some mythical 170-pound belt.

One more bit of full disclosure here. I have no idea how it operates now, but two decades ago I used to vote on the Ring panel. This would have predated P4P lists and unilaterally-awarded championship belts, and the process was conducted by mail, with paper ballots. Sometimes I’d find myself on the road and miss a deadline. A few other times I just plain forgot to fill it out on time. And on each occasion, when the pertinent issue came out a few months later, I could see exactly how much one missing ballot had skewed the rankings, which if nothing else suggests that this was a pretty small sampling of worldwide experts at work.

If this happens frequently, then Ring magazine should ensure it has panelists who regularly fill out their ballots, not people who forget about them. By my count, there are 38 panelists. If everyone regularly fills out their ballots, then the occasional slip-up shouldn’t have a major impact on the ratings.

The Ring people will try to tell you that their titles can only be lost and won between the ropes. To win a Ring belt a man must supposedly either beat a reigning champion, or win a box-off between the No. 1 and 2 rated fighters to fill a vacant title. And their titles, they will try to tell you, are vacated only when a boxer (a) retires, (b) loses in the ring, or (c) moves up in weight. That would all sound reasonable were it remotely true, but in practice it has not been the case. Depending on the promoter or the network showing an attractive fight these guys will hand out a belt faster than you can pin the tail on the donkey. In some instances they’ve been quicker to strip a champion than any alphabet you can name. In others they’ve allowed their belt to languish around a fighter’s waist long beyond any common sense would dictate – sometimes, it would appear, for no reason other than to thumb their noses at the recognized sanctioning bodies.

Kimball misstates the Ring policy. A vacancy can sometimes be filled between a #1 and #3 rated fighter, although it is rarely done. The policy is displayed prominently on the Ring website.

Just a few instances, keeping the aforementioned criteria in mind: When Lennox Lewis, who beat Vitali Klitschko in his final fight, retired, the Ring awarded its belt to Vitali. Five years later it’s unclear whether that was for beating Kirk Johnson or Corrie Sanders or Danny Williams, none of whom could remotely have been described as the second-best heavyweight.

As mentioned before, at the time Vitali beat Sanders, he was ranked #1 and Sanders #3. Press accounts from around that time specify that he was awarded the belt for beating Sanders.

The Ring decided Joe Calzaghe was no longer a super-middleweight even before Joe did, vacating the title when he moved up to fight B-Hop – even though Calzaghe had formally petitioned two sanctioning bodies to remain their 168-pound champion.

This is an error. Calzaghe held the Ring super middleweight and light heavyweight championship at the same time for a stretch. I’ve been unable to turn up evidence of this, but it is my recall that he no longer was considered super middleweight champion by Ring magazine only when he made it clear publicly and to Ring magazine that he would no longer fight at super middleweight.

And if moving up in weight is supposed to disqualify a champion, how did Ricky Hatton, who did it twice – to fight first Luis Collazo and then Mayweather  – keep the 140-pound title all those years? And hasn’t Kelly Pavlik fought as many times at super-middle as he has at middleweight over the past 16 months? Depends on who you are, I guess.

In the cases of both Hatton and Pavlik, each fighter insisted that the move to another division was not permanent. Each fighter subsequently lived up to his word and moved back down in weight. I’d like to think that if a fighter was trying to just hold on to a championship in a division in which he was no longer fighting and had no intention of returning to, that Ring would catch on and bust up his little charade. So far, I’m not aware of anything like that happening. Most fighters have been pretty honorable about relinquishing their Ring championships.

The Ring recognized Casamayor, who had beaten Diego Corrales in an over-the-weight match to win the lightweight title, for almost three years, an era in which Nate Campbell owned three belts, Pacquiao, the pound-for-pound champion owned the other, and the Ring “champion” none.

Every organization that gives out belts refuses to punish a fighter who makes weight for a title fight when his opponent does not. I’m not sure what Ring magazine would have done had Corrales won that fight, but Casamayor made weight and Corrales didn’t, so it strikes me as fair that Casamayor should get the championship belt. And, as mentioned before, owning another organization’s title belt doesn’t make one a linear champion.

Flying in the face of all logic, even after Casamayor, in one of his rare outings, had been utterly exposed by Jose Armando Santa Cruz, he was still recognized by Ring.

Everyone with eyes thought Santa Cruz deserved to win that fight. But why should Ring overrule the three judges’ decision? The judges decided Casamayor won the fight. Absent a state athletic commission overturning the decision, Ring magazine SHOULDN’T have taken away Casamayor’s championship belt. No sanctioning organizations do this when there’s a controversial decision — I can only think of one exception — although they have been known to order rematches when there’s a dispute.

Then when Campbell lost his titles on the scale last February, the Ring sanctioned a match between Marquez, who had lost to Pacquiao, and Juan Diaz, who had lost to Campbell.

Marquez won the Ring belt by beating Casamayor. Therefore, he deserved it. And while it’s not relevant to the debate, when Marquez beat Diaz,
he was legitimately thought to be the #1 challenger to Marquez in the division.

Marquez picked up two vacant titles in the bargain, but neither those nor the Ring belt will be on the line when he faces Mayweather, another defrocked Ring champion, in July.

The Ring lightweight belt isn’t on the line when Marquez fights Mayweather because it’s a welterweight fight. Why should the lightweight belt be on the line for a welterweight fight? No one has a policy like this, and if they did, it wouldn’t make sense. And Mayweather wasn’t “defrocked,” if I remember correctly. He voluntarily surrendered the belt.

The Ring didn’t wait three weeks after David Haye had his first heavyweight fight to strip him and award its cruiserweight title to the Thomasz [sic] Adamek-Steve Cunningham winner, yet they continue to recognize Israel Vazquez as their 122-pound champion even though he hasn’t fought anybody in the past fifteen months.

According to Wikipedia, Haye voluntarily relinquished his cruiserweight championship, which fits my recall; he had said he would never fight at cruiserweight again, which strikes me as a good moment to let someone else fight for his vacant belt. He’d gotten rid of at least one of his cruiserweight sanctioning organization belts in May of last year, and by June, he was no longer listed as the Ring champ, which was a long time before the Adamek-Cunningham fight in December. Another point not relevant to the debate — Haye had fought at heavyweight prior to the occasion of which Kimball speaks.

Vazquez has been injured, but his prolonged inactivity got him stripped by the WBC. We mention this not to suggest that the Ring should have stripped him too, but merely to point out how inconsistent the magazine is in applying even its own standards. Maybe the Ring ought to designate him its “champion in recess.”

Vazquez said publicly in recent days that he would fight at featherweight from now on. Ring magazine’s website now lists the junior featherweight championship as vacant. I’ve been dismayed at times when Ring switches rankings around inconsistently based on activity, but to my knowledge they’ve not taken a championship belt away from someone who had been inactive and hadn’t retired or indicated a permanent switch of divisions. That “champion in recess” junk isn’t the kind of thing anyone should do, by the way.

But suppose Congress passes the new boxing bill and decides that if the Ring, if it’s going to go around handing out belts on television, should be held accountable by the same standards as any other sanctioning body. You don’t think these people are going to have some ‘splainin to do?

Interesting question. I don’t have an answer.

Vasquez is only one of two current Ring champions who doesn’t own a bona fide belt. The other, curiously, is Pacquiao, who was fighting as a 140-pounder for the first time the night he slaughtered Hatton, and hence came away with only the IBO version to show for it.

There are no other bona fide belts.
(P.S. There are fair things you can criticize about Ring magazine’s belt policies and practices, like how it broke the lineage at light heavyweight when it reinstituted its policy, but Kimball never raises those.)

About Tim Starks

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