The Good, And The Bad, Of Boxing’s Alphabet Belts

Welcome to the second and final installment of our examination of the alphabet title belt phenomenon.

Last time, we took a magnifying glass to the question of whether the alphabet belts offered by the WBC, IBF et al should be ignored altogether. (My answer: Yes. Well, at least, after this post.) This time, we take the magnifying glass to what good those belts are, and whether the sport — fans and boxers — would be better off without them. We’ll delve into the key arguments made by proponents of the alphabet gang: Do boxers make more money because of alphabet belts? Do good fights happen, and deserving fighters ascend, because of alphabet belts? And is there a place for alphabet belts even among their critics?

[It’s a good thing I did this today, rather than yesterday. Last night I hung out with TQBR teammates Alex McClintock and Gautham Nagesh, as well as friends of the site David P. Greisman and nazarioz. We had a nice debate about all this. (Additionally, I got good grist from comments on the last installment from people like ThePJ and our Scott Kraus.)]

Do Boxers Make More Money With Alphabet Belts?

I’m prepared to say the answer is, “Yes, sometimes,” and only in the short-term. But then there’s the rest of the time, and the long-term.

Let’s take three junior welterweights: Timothy Bradley, Devon Alexander and Kaizer Mabuza.

Bradley had been on Showtime a fair amount prior to his mandatory challenge for Junior Witter’s belt. But he was something of a revelation in that fight. Given Showtime’s backing, Bradley might have gotten a fight like that — with a big purse against a big opponent — eventually. But the mandatory process sped up his ascendancy. Alexander benefited in much the same way for the same belt against the same opponent. Installed as the mandatory to Bradley, he got a chance to fight for a vacant belt on Showtime — where he’d appeared before — against Witter after Bradley dropped the belt, and was something of a revelation, speeding up his own acquisition of bigger paychecks.

Mabuza represents a different path to alphabet belts paying a fighter more than he would’ve gotten otherwise. Once Mabuza got an alphabet title, he became a desirable opponent for a bigger-name fighter, Zab Judah, who didn’t have one. Without that belt, he probably doesn’t get a fight that big. And because Judah had a name, that meant a bigger payday for Mabuza. Whereas Bradley and Alexander were elite-level talents, Mabuza represents a kind of fighter more around the middle class of the sport who gets more opportunities because of an alphabet belt. (If you know anything about how the sanctioning gang works, these middle class fighters are often patsies to a larger plan. You’ll see an organization give a belt to a weak fighter in order to set him up as an opponent to a bigger-name, favored fighter who is without a belt at the moment. Still, more money for them than otherwise.)

The thing is, overall, other things matter much, much more to a fighters’ paycheck. Namely: getting on television and/or selling gobs of tickets.

What that ultimately means is that there are sometimes where going after an alphabet belt or trying to keep one means a fighter actually gets paid less. And here, we’ll select another three examples.

In the summer of 2007, Antonio Margarito was on track for a huge payday against Miguel Cotto in a pay-per-view. But around the same time, he owed a mandatory defense to his sanctioning organization, via Paul Williams. Faced with the choice of keeping his belt or fighting Cotto for more money, he took his belt. He promptly lost to Williams. It took a year to build himself back up to the point where he would again be in position for the big payday against Cotto. What if he had merely dropped the belt and fought Cotto instead of Williams, though? It would have meant more money immediately, and it might have meant more money over the course of his career.

This spring, middleweight Sergio Martinez had an alphabet belt. The sanctioning organization ordered up a highly questionable mandatory challenger, Sebastian Zbik, that HBO rejected because he was such a poor opponent. Martinez was faced with a choice: keep his belt, and not fight on HBO; or accept an opponent that HBO would embrace. Since HBO would pay him more to be on TV than Martinez could have gotten fighting Zbik off-TV, Martinez dropped his belt. He’s richer for the decision.

Even more recently, junior welterweight Lamont Peterson chose to go the sanctioning organization route toward a fight with Amir Khan. Peterson had previously been offered $300,000 to fight Khan, but he didn’t like other aspects of the contract terms. So he got in line for a title eliminator against Victor Cayo, which he won this weekend, and which conceivably will give him more leverage for negotiations with Khan when the mandatory challenge comes due. Problem is, that’s a very risky approach. Khan, by virtue of his popularity in the U.K., contract with Golden Boy Promotions and other factors, is going to get his opponents paid really well. And Khan is weighing a whole variety of other options for his next fight, besides Peterson. There is no guarantee Peterson will ever fight Khan. If he doesn’t, his decision to operate through the alphabet belt system will be a monumental mistake. For the Cayo fight, Peterson received $10,000. If Khan vacates his belt, Peterson will get it, and presumably get some decent paychecks defending it. But how long will it take him to make up the $300,000 he lost? He’s got another $290,000 to go to get there.

Another way that perhaps fighters can arguably make money off alphabet belts is when networks or promoters use it to hype fights. We’ll discuss that a little later.

But if the argument is that “boxers make more money with alphabet belts,” there is only a partial answer, in the short-term. Sometimes they make more, sometimes they make less — and that’s not counting the sanctioning fees they pay to these organizations. And even with the “sometimes,” alphabet belts are rarely the most important or biggest boost to a boxers’ paychecks. (Some veteran fighters, like Floyd Mayweather, consider the alphabet gang little more than a nuisance. These veterans don’t tie their level of achievement to some goofy strap offered up by someone with his hand out. Mayweather knew that beating Shane Mosley without paying for the honor of fighting for Mosley’s belt would do the same or better for his bottom line and reputation than paying for it, so he refused to pay the sanctioning fee.)

In the long-term, I think the answer to the overarching bold question — Do boxers make more money with alphabet belts? — is a “no.”

For many fans of sports, the very point is determining who’s the best. It’s why, for example, the occasional mid-season NBA game will do stellar ratings, but will ALWAYS be trumped by the ratings in the playoffs. That system of determining who’s best is a reliable, understandable process, with a clear champion always emerging.

Boxing has gone a different route. There’s nothing clear, with the alphabet belts, about who’s the best. There are four sanctioning organizations handing out belts for each division, and sometimes they’re handing out three or four per division.

If you fully embrace the alphabet belts, then I present a “slippery slope” question to you that friend of the site JasonTO once presented to me: “If more belts mean more opportunities for fighters to make money, why stop with the current lot? Why not flood the market with even more paper belts?”

Yeah! Shouldn’t we give, say, fully 50% of boxers a belt? I suspect you won’t see any alphabet advocates who will answer “yes” because at some point, they’d come to realize that more “champions” devalues the very notion of a champion, and devalues the whole act of winning a belt at all. Alphabet belt defenders just seem to be fine with the number we have right now, for some reason.

I’m not saying the proliferation of alphabet belts is single-handledly killing boxing. But I have zero doubt — zero — that it drives off some fans. And fewer fans equals less money in the pockets of boxers.

How do I know this the alphabet belts are driving off fans? Because they tell me so. When I tell people I’m a boxing writer, more than a handful respond, “I don’t watch boxing anymore.” When I ask them why, they give a variety of reasons. Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear. The fact that they don’t know anyone in the sport right now to care about and follow. And, more often than any other reason: “There are so many belts. I don’t know who’s the champion.”

You can assume that all of those people are lying to me, if you want. It’s half-crazy to make that assumption, but go ahead. No doubt, some of them are drawn back to the sport for big pay-per-view fights. And I’ve personally convinced some of them to overlook the alphabet belts. But the alphabets make it hard to follow boxing. That’s why I want to re-print this conversation that Scott said he anticipated having at a pay-per-view party because the WBC sanctioned Erik Morales to fight for a junior welterweight belt against Lucas Matthysse. It’s a conversation he anticipates having because it’s much like many, many conversations he’s had with casual fans watching a PPV, similar to one I’ve participated in many times myself:

“So the winner of this fight is the champion of this division?”

“No, it’s just for a belt.”

“So who’s the champ?”

“Well, there really isn’t a champ, but if you ask boxing people they’ll say that Tim Bradley and Amir Khan both have the most legitimate claims to the top of the division, by far.”

“So why are these guys fighting for a belt? What does it even mean?”

“Well, Morales is Mexican and popular. The organization that sanctions the belt is based in Mexico and favors Mexican fighters. And they’ll make money off him winning the belt, despite apparently claiming to be a non-profit organization, which is kind of like a junkie who robs people to feed his habit saying he doesn’t make a profit. So it means that this guy [WBC boss] Jose Sulaiman can say that Morales is his champ, and Morales can say he’s done something no Mexican has ever done before by winning titles in four different divisions.”

“Are these two at least the next two best guys after Bradley and Khan?”

“Not really, they’re both coming off losses at this weight class. But it should be a good fight.”

“So the belt means nothing?”

“Well, it means something to Morales. And it means money for a turd in Mexico named Sulaiman. But boxing-wise, it’s utterly meaningless.”

“Why is this belt even vacant and available?”

“They stripped it from Bradley, who won it legit, so they could set this whole thing up for Morales.”

“I don’t know how you follow this stuff.”

“Just don’t think about it. Should be a good fight, that’s all that matters.”

If you’re the kind of boxing fan who can take Scott’s advice, good for you. But you don’t necessarily think like the average, casual sports fan. And it’s the proliferation of casual sports fans who become boxing fans and buy tickets (that pay boxers), watch Friday Night Fights to boost advertising rates (that allows FNF to pay fighters better), subscribe to HBO so they can watch boxing (and boxers can get paid more because HBO has more subscribers) and buy pay-per-views (proceeds of which go directly into boxers’ pockets).

That’s a trade-off I’m more than willing to make, in the long-term. If boxing had one divisional champion — and Ring Magazine’s lineal belt policy requiring that you beat the current champion to become champion, or, in the event of a vacancy, the two top contenders fighting one another to obtain the championship — it would be better for the fighters, overall.

Do Good Fights Happen, And Deserving Fighters Ascend, Because Of Alphabet Belts?

One of the best arguments for the alphabet gang lis thus: When there was just one belt and no mandatory challenger system, deserving fighters often got frozen out by champions who avoided those who were most dangerous to them and brought little financial muscle.

It would be great if it worked out that way that the alphabet gang gave meritorious fighters who brought little to the table financially a chance to become “champion.” But in reality, that doesn’t happen.

That’s because of the way the alphabet gang is set up. They take percentages of fighters’ purses. That means, naturally, that they give high rankings to people who are going to make the biggest purses, either because they sell a lot of tickets or have the backing of television networks. And that doesn’t account for biases like the one where Morales gets to fight for a WBC belt because he’s a Mexican.

Take our boys Bradley and Alexander. Did they get their title shots because they earned them? Perhaps. But isn’t it just as likely — I’d say more likely — that they got their title shots because the sanctioning organization noticed that they had Showtime’s backing, which equals money that the sanctioning gang can slurp up, and could one day fight for bigger purses still on HBO?

Check out the weight class rankings, and who has the titles in each division, and you’ll get a sense of this. There are fighters who definitely are the cream of the crop who have belts. But with there being so many belts, at this point you can throw a rock at a division and by accident, you’d end up with some good fighters getting alphabet titles. Yet there are also plenty of fighters with belts or due to fight for belts who have no logical, coherent argument for belonging there on a merit-based system.

I want you to think long and hard about this, because I have spent some brainpower on it and I’ve come up empty. Which current titlist had been frozen out of meaningful fights that he deserved on the merits alone (not what he brought to the table financially), and used his title shot to burst through this logjam? Can you even remember the last such soul? Winky Wright, maybe? Let’s say you find several. My inability to think of a significant number of them is either damning of my knowledge of the sport, or it means there aren’t very many. If it’s the latter, doesn’t that mean that the alphabet gangs aren’t doing what they are supposed to, in theory?

And let’s say you discover an avalanche of such souls that show I simply don’t know my recent boxing history. How does it compare to the avalanche of undeserving boxers, merit-wise, who hold titles or have fought for them? Is it the same amount, or a smaller amount? The phrase “mismandatory” comes to mind. We use it — or the concept — to describe a lot of alphabet nonsense.

As for whether good fights happen because of the sanctioning organizations… we know that a significant number of fights happen because of orders from the alphabet gang. That makes them relevant, and I understand why a straight news reporter would acknowledge their existence in a story explaining how a fight came about. But how many of those fights are good or important that can be attributed directly to the alphabet gang’s orders?

I think one of the best things the sanctioning organizations do is order rematches of fights that had controversial outcomes. It did so just this week with Celestino Caballero-Johnathan Barros II. I like it when this happens. But sometimes rematches happen because of market forces, where the public is outraged by a controversial decision, insists on a rematch and makes a rematch worthwhile financially. Paulie Malignaggi-Juan Diaz II comes to mind; there was no belt at stake there at all. And sometimes the alphabet gang orders rematches nobody wanted. Can anyone explain to me why Takalani Ndlovu fought in three title eliminators for the right to face Steve Molitor, making for two rematches no boxing fans clamored for?

I can think of a few fights that were good and important that came about because of alphabet gang orders. Most recently, Amir Khan-Marcos Maidana would count as just that. It’s hard to imagine that fight happening unless the belt gang exists; I don’t think any market pressures would have convinced Khan and his team that Maidana was a good opponent for them, unless maybe Khan just eventually got tired of fans criticizing him for having a bad chin and avoiding big punchers and him setting out to prove against a big puncher like Maidana that this was untrue.

But really, that’s the best example I can come up with anytime recently. All the best and most important fights I can think of happen for some other reason than because a sanctioning organization ordered it or a belt was involved, usually, the same ones that provide a fighter with his biggest paychecks: It’ll sell a lot of tickets, or one of the networks wants it.

The answer to the above two bold questions, then, is a joint “Not really.” Compared to the current alphabet system, better and more important fights would happen if the Ring championship belt was on the line when A. the current champion fought his top challengers; and B. the two top challengers fought for a vacant belt. This is an extreme example, but pick any division and you can play this game: The next alphabet welterweight title defense is Vyacheslav Senchenko vs. Marco Antonio Avendano. The fight that would decide the Ring Magazine championship is Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. I can tell you a statistically valid figure of people who would prefer Mayweather-Pacquiao of those two fights is 100 percent. (Of note: Some great fights can happen when no belt is on the line at all. We’ll touch on that momentarily.)

Sometimes, with a lone belt, you’d see champions avoid certain challenges, although hopefully they could be forced by market pressures into fighting top competition. But that’s a trade-off I’m more than willing to make, because I think we get better fights under that system than because of sanctioning organization decisions.

Is There A Place For Alphabet Belts?

Let’s say we could have some kind of hybrid world where the alphabets co-exist with the lineal championship. Some have proposed this. The sanctioning belts could be like NBA conferences and divisions. The person who wins them all is the champ.

I don’t think this works. I actually don’t have a problem with regional belts administered by states and countries; that’s a bit more parallel. I call those “championship belts” because they are, by definition, “first place” within that territory.

They are much more like the Eastern Conference and Western Conference than the sanctioning organizations ever could be. I recently spent some time reading up on the history of basketball. At the beginning, there was only a loose structure, with guys bouncing back and forth between teams, and it took a stronger foundation before anyone ever got around to implementing leagues for which a championship game could reasonably be played. That’s the situation with the alphabet gang: People bounce around the rankings contingent on the whims of the sanctioning organization, sometimes being the #1 man in one ranking system and not ranked at all in another. There’s nothing like a structure whereby someone out-competes everyone in the division and becomes champion only to face all the other sanctioning organization’s champions, because there’s no logical reason they ascend the rankings and they can be stripped of a belt at a moment’s notice. And besides, each sanctioning organization wants its own belt so they can keep foisting mandatories at that person. Few beltholders these days would fight four times a year against four mandatories. It inevitably leads to someone who holds more than one belt being stripped, and only rarely does it lead to someone unifying four belts.

The sanctioning belts can sometimes be a signifier that someone is, if not truly “first place” in his division, then some kind of quality fighter. But that is so unreliable a measurement as to be useless. This past weekend, two men fought for a strawweight alphabet belt and weren’t even ranked in the top 10 of Ring’s ratings, which, whatever someone doesn’t like about them, are indisputably more defensible than the rankings of any given sanctioning organization. This was in a division that has significantly fewer fighters than most divisions because it’s hard to find full-grown adults who weigh 105 pounds, and few fighters that stand out as even being all that good. Yes these two non-top-10s were fighting for the so-called “championship.” This kind of thing happens pretty regularly. It happens so often that the belts are more meaningless than not.

One thing people say when defending the alphabet belts is that they don’t seem to be killing the sport in other countries where boxing is doing well. True. I don’t think they’re killing the sport here, either. But I don’t think they’re helping the sport overall, anywhere. They are only hurting, if anything. In the United States, there’s been a long decline in the sport that roughly coincides with the proliferation of the alphabet belts, but in Europe boxing has been on the rise despite the proliferation of belts. I don’t know how strict a correlation there is between the alphabet belts’ existence and boxing rising in Europe, however. I think in the United States, the proliferation of those belts has been a contributing factor to boxing fans leaving the sport — many of whom went on to become fans of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts, many of them citing the fact that “I know who the champions are” as a reason. But periodic spikes in U.S. boxing pay-per-view sales, as well as the success of boxing overseas, suggests to me that the alphabet belts’ negative effects can be overcome.

Networks and promoters do have a habit of hyping up “championship fights,” whether they meet the definition of the word or not. But there are two kinds of people who watch boxing. One kind is a hardcore fan. He or she knows whether there’s some idiotic belt is on the line in any so-called “championship fight,” or if it’s an actual meaningful fight. And I never have heard any hardcore fan say the following sentence to me: “I can’t wait for this weekend’s WBC championship fight!” If the belts mean anything to most hardcore fans, I don’t know those people. Maybe they exist. But I’ve talked to a lot of hardcore fans over the years, and read a million message board messages, and I’ve never heard a sentence like that. The other kind of person is a neophyte or casual fan who doesn’t know any better. The second they find out that some championship fight they watched BECAUSE it was hyped as a “championship fight” is for one of four to 16 belts in the division, I’d hazard a guess that they walk away a bit disenchanted. IF such a thing happens very often.

(It’s been argued by some that HBO or Showtime has sought a particular fight BECAUSE a belt is involved. I don’t know how to prove or disprove that, unless the networks declare that’s why they bought a fight. Any fight between two boxers of any talent is probably going to have a belt involved, because of their sheer number of belts out there. Hell, even any variety of fights between two boxers of no talent is going to have a belt involved. HBO and Showtime don’t televise every fight where a belt changes hands. They broadcast a good many where no belts change hands; our friend Timothy Bradley got his HBO debut in a non-title welterweight fight, even. Sometimes, HBO or Showtime will buy a fight where no title is on the line merely because it figures as a great action fight and they think that will provide viewers.)

One of things I’m getting at here is this: Is there any evidence that any hardcore boxing fans are truly swayed to watch a fight because a belt is on the line? If so, what percentage of them are? Is that percentage higher overseas, and how do we know? How many casual fans are seduced to watch a fight because a title’s on the line, in the United States or elsewhere? Do people in Germany watch Felix Sturm fight BECAUSE he has a belt, or out of nationalistic pride that they seem to have for any boxer of any merit?

The hard evidence is scant. But the anecdotal evidence, to me, points to many fans either not caring about the alphabet belts at all, and most of the the rest being turned off by them. And every fan who is turned off by the alphabet belts and uses it as an excuse not to watch boxing is one more person who isn’t helping the sport grow.

Given that the fighters themselves only benefit occasionally from the belts in the short-term and are sometime disadvantaged by them, and by contrast are hurt by them in the long-run; given that more bad fights than good ones are the result of sanctioning organizations’ decisions; given that few if any fighters benefit from one of the main arguments for sanctioning organizations’ existence, i.e., that beleaguered deserving fighters ascend the ranks and challenge for belts in a way they wouldn’t otherwise; and given that the alphabet belts are of neutral to negative impact on boxing fans…

…I say we ignore the bastards out of existence.

Or at least try.

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.