Over the weekend, Pongsaklek Wonjongkam beat Koki Kameda to claim the lineal Ring magazine championship of the world. It put him in rare company. In boxing’s 17 divisions, there are currently but five lineal champs — that is, the man in each division who beat the man who beat the man all the way back to the dawn of the division when one man was considered the champion. Beltholders — via the IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO and countless others — are so numerous that at times it feels like boxers are sent title straps mail order diploma mill-style, all for the cost of some sanctioning fees and subjecting themselves to the whims of those organizations. It’s harder to be the lineal champion, since there’s only one per division, which, after all, is what champion means… first place.
But should it be so hard? If boxing fans, promoters, writers and even boxers themselves put less value on winning an alphabet gang belt, and put more instead on winning the true lineal championship of the division, I bet you’d see fewer vacancies. If a boxer wanted to be recognized as the champion in a division where there’s a vacancy by Ring’s rules, he’d have to climb the rankings to #1 or #2 (or, in special circumstances, #3) and fight the other person ranked #1 or #2. And it’s in boxing fans’ interest to want to see that happen.
That brings me to the point of this exercise: What’s the lineal championship picture right now; what kind of quality fights would boxing fans get if more boxers put an emphasis on filling championship vacancies; and what are the prospects for change?
This is what it looked like last year. This is what it looks like now.
Champion: Wladimir Klitschko
Prospects: It’s hard to see anyone breaking Wlad’s stranglehold on the division for as long as he’s healthy, so I’m not even going to indulge any alternative scenarios. I give David Haye the outside chance, but no more. Wlad won’t be fighting big brother Vitali, the #2-ranked heavyweight. Maybe Wlad’s fight with then #3-ranked Ruslan Chagaev shouldn’t have been for the vacant heavyweight championship, since he and Vitali are the clear two best men in the division and supremacy between the two has never been firmly established. But all in all, it’s not that objectionable either.
#1: Steve Cunningham
#2: Krzysztof Wlodarczyk
#3: Zsolt Erdei
Prospects: Some of the best cruiserweights are fighting one another — Cunningham will fight #6 Troy Ross soon, Wlodarczyk will fight #5 Giacobbe Fragomeni — but it’s a division with a fair amount of parity and I can’t argue that it’s so terrible that Cunningham-Wlodarczyk isn’t happening tomorrow. But if Cunningham and Wlodarczyk both win their upcoming fights to solidify their #1 and #2 slots, there isn’t a better fight for either man. Erdei, by the way, is set to move back down to light heavyweight after one fight at cruiser, so expect Marco Huck, #4, to take his spot when that happens, unless Cunningham or Wlodarczyk are defeated by Ross or Fragomeni.
#1: Chad Dawson
#2: Glen Johnson
#3: Bernard Hopkins
Prospects: I think the Ring rankings are better than that of any other organization, but I think they screwed up at 175 a while back. The story: Last year, the #1-ranked Hopkins had been out of the ring for more than a year as of October, so he could have been dropped from the rankings for inactivity, and I don’t think he shouldn’t have been ranked #1 at the time anyway. Hopkins had only beaten one light heavyweight since 2006, Antonio Tarver, with his other two wins coming against opponents who had moved up two divisions to fight Hopkins. Meanwhile, Dawson had twice beaten Tarver, once beaten Johnson and also owned a win over Tomasz Adamek, all top-notch light heavyweights. By the time Dawson’s rematch with Johnson came around in November, Dawson should have been ranked #1, and Johnson ranked #2 or at worst #3. Therefore, the vacancy should have been ripe for filling. Instead, Ring kept Hopkins atop the division too long, and now the scenarios for filling the vacancy are: A. Dawson-Johnson III (no thanks — the second fight was pretty conclusive) and B. Dawson-Hopkins (which would do the trick for me from the standpoint of when #1 and #3 is good enough to fill the vacancy, as well as from the standpoint of a cerebral high-level fight between two top-10 pound-for-pound boxers, but Hopkins has zero interest in fighting Dawson, probably because he’s a young talent who’s a bad style match-up for him). In other words, count on this vacancy being around for a while.
#1: Lucian Bute
#2: Andre Ward
#3: Carl Froch
Prospects: If only Showtime had included Bute in its Super Six tournament. Then we’d be virtually assured of that tournament crowning a true divisional champ by the end of the tournament if not sooner. Instead, the men in the Super Six inhabit six of the division’s top eight spots, and crowning a champion is contingent to some degree on a Bute loss or Bute running out of opponents to beat who can help him keep his #1 ranking. If nothing else, though, the winner of the tournament — late in 2011, it’s looking like, at the most optimistic — can fight Bute for the honor. However it works out, you have to like the winner of the Super Six vs. Bute, if things remain static. That’s a tremendous fight.
Champion: Kelly Pavlik
Prospects: Pavlik fights Sergio Martinez in April, and my only concern that is that if Martinez wins, he won’t stay at 160. Pavlik, too, could evacuate the division fairly soon, too. Either way, who’s left behind is depressing, and I can’t get too excited about the idea of Felix Sturm vs. Sebastian Sylvester for the middleweight championship of the world.
#1: Sergio Martinez
#2: Cory Spinks
#3: Kermit Cintron
Prospects: Another gripe with the Ring ratings — I know Paul Williams had two consecutive fights at 160, but I wish he’d remained ranked at 154, where he’d be #1 or #2, which would set up a Williams-Martinez rematch of their TQBR Fight of the Year for the junior middleweight championship of the world. That said, Williams will be back in the division officially in May against Cintron, and whoever wins that will likely be ranked #2 at 154. If it seems like I’m trying to cut Spinks out of the equation, I kind of am, but it’s less about him (he’s been in a couple good fights lately) and more about the idea of Martinez-Williams II. Martinez-Cintron II wouldn’t be so bad, should Cintron upset Williams, but Martinez-Williams II for the junior middleweight championship is a fight that’s both as exciting and meaningful as nearly any in the sport.
#1: Manny Pacquiao
#2: Shane Mosley
#3: Floyd Mayweather
Prospects: Whoever wins Mayweather-Mosley in May is automatically #1 or #2 in the division, and Pacquiao vs. the winner of that fight is bar none the most important fight in the sport, period. And if Pacquiao won it, it would be his fifth — FIFTH — lineal championship in boxing. In the history of the sport, prior to Pacquiao, no one had won more than three lineal championships in three divisions. Will it ever happen? I’m skeptical of Mayweather and Pacquiao being able to strike a deal, and Mosley might have to beat Mayweather twice because of a rematch clause. I don’t like the odds too much.
Champion: Manny Pacquiao
Prospects: One of the good things about Ring’s championship policy is that you can’t be stripped willy-nilly like you can by the alphabet gang. One of the bad things about Ring’s championship policy is that a boxer can hold the championship belt hostage, which is nearly what Pacquiao is doing. Ring might do some gymnastics to allow itself to declare the belt vacant soon. In the event he “relinquishes” it against his will or voluntarily gives it up, which he might, that leaves #1 Timothy Bradley and #2 Devon Alexander to duke it out for the vacancy, and that is a battle between two of the finest young talents in all of boxing. And there’s talk of it happening for late 2011.
Champion: Juan Manuel Marquez
Prospects: It looks as though Marquez is determined to move up to 140, but it’s not clear if his potential summer fight with Juan Diaz is at 135 or 140. Either way, he’s probably not going to make a home at 135 for long, so this one could be vacant soon too. In that event, #1 Edwin Valero is also moving up to 140, so that would leave #2 Michael Katsidis (if he beats Kevin Mitchell next) and #3 Ali Funeka to duke it out for the vacant belt. You think HBO wouldn’t pay both men really nicely for that fight? I’d therefore give it intensely good odds of happening, and were it to take place, there’d be a ton of leather flying.
#1: Robert Guerrero
#2: Mzonke Fana
#3: Roman Martinez
Prospects: This one’s very unclear. Is Guerrero going to lightweight, or was he just going to do it for the Katsidis fight? Either way, I can’t figure this one out and won’t try. Fana-Martinez — sure. But it doesn’t do much for me. Then again, it’s not like any other fight in the division screams “must” without Guerrero.
#1: Chris John
#2: Juan Manuel Lopez
#3: Cristobal Cruz
Prospects: Everyone wants to see Lopez-Yuriorkis Gamboa (#6) at featherweight, and by the time it happens, it might be for the featherweight championship, what with Top Rank looking to build that fight indefinitely. But I can see John-Lopez happening in 2011, if HBO can lure John back from Indonesia, and it’d probably be the second-best fight among fighters currently in the division. In January, John said he wanted to fight Gamboa and Lopez, so it’s feasible.
#1: Celestino Caballero
#2: Poonsawat Kratingaenggym
#3: Toshiaki Nishioka
Prospects: Caballero’s moving up to featherweight, so he’s out of the picture, which is too bad because Caballero-Poonsawat is a strange-looking but potentially awesome match-up between a 5’11” and 5’4″ guy. Anyhow, after that there’s a steep drop-off in interesting fights in the division. Kratingaenggym-Nishioka — why not? The Thailand-Japan fights don’t seem terribly difficult to make, what with two major ones happening this past weekend. And, again, isn’t Kratingaenggym-Nishioka arguably the best fight in the division post-Caballero? I think it’d be a good ‘un.
#1: Hozumi Hasegawa
#2: Anselmo Moreno
#3: Wladimir Sidorenko
Prospects: This is the rare division where a match-up between the top three fighters isn’t nearly as interesting as other potential match-ups. Nothing against Moreno or Sidorenko, but I want to see Yonnhy Perez (#4) vs. Abner Mares (#8) in May, and I want to see Joseph Agbeko (#5) in some fights, and the same for Fernando Montiel (#9) and Hasegawa. That said, Hasegawa-Moreno isn’t a bad fight at all. Better if the winner of Perez-Mares leapfrogs Moreno and Sidorenko in the rankings, Hozumi fights Montiel this summer as expected and we’re set up with the Hozumi-Montiel winner vs. the Perez-Mares winner for the vacant belt.
#1: Vic Darchinyan
#2: Nobua Nashiro
#3: Simphiwe Nongqayi
Prospects: All right, so we’re on a streak. A rematch of Darchinyan-Nonito Donaire (#7) is the most desirable fight in the division, not Darchinyan-Nashiro. Darchinyan-Donaire II is in talks for this summer. After that, filling the vacancy still will be hard as long as Nashiro’s involved, because fights between Eastern and Western fighters in these lower divisions can be hard to make.
Champion: Pongsaklek Wonjongkam
Prospects: I’ve never heard Wonjongkam, 32, talk about moving up in weight, nor about retirement, so either I’m ill-informed or the belt will stay in his hands or he’ll lose it in the ring for the foreseeable future. If he does vacate, the vacancy could be filled by a rematch between Kameda and Daisuke Naito, and given the money that would be involved and what a good fight the first one was, wouldn’t be too troublesome to sign.
Champion: Ivan Calderon
Prospects: Calderon’s killed any noise about moving up to flyweight, and he’s looked only at opponents in this division lately. Calderon’s next opponent might take the championship from him, Johnriel Casimero, and I don’t know what his long-term plans are. In the event that the belt ends up vacant, the current #1 (Giovanni Segura) and #2 (Rodel Mayol) would make for a helluva good fight.
#1: Roman Gonzalez
#2: Oleydong Sithsamerchai
#3: Nkosinathi Joyi
Prospects: Gonzalez and Oleydong have hovered around the top three together for a long time and I’m not aware of any talks for them to fight one another. This is another case where all I can say is, “What really is better?”
So, to review the best of the excellent and meaningful fights that could soon fill a Ring magazine championship vacancy: Cunningham-Wlodarczyk Dawson-Hopkins; the Super Six championship bout, or the Super Six winner vs. Bute; Martinez-Williams II; Pacquiao vs. the winner of Mayweather-Mosley; Bradley-Alexander; Katsidis-Funeka; John-Lopez; the winner of Hasegawa-Montiel vs. the winner of Perez-Mares. In all of those cases, and several others, a fight for a vacant belt is either the first or second-best fight in the division.
And remember, boxers: There is no stupid sanctioning fee for fighting for Ring’s championship. And you’ll be universally recognized as the true champ. What are you waiting for?