To Ignore, Or Not To Ignore, The Alphabet Title Gang In Boxing

Occasioned by the WBC’s contemptible decision to strip Timothy Bradley of his junior welterweight belt and award it to the winner of Erik Morales and Jorge Barrios (who isn’t ranked anywhere by the WBC in any division), this week began with any number of writers weighing in on whether the alphabet title gang ought to be ignored, by whom and why.

I come down on the “ignore them as often as possible” side of the debate, as a big supporter of the lineal championship policy of Ring Magazine, whereby champions are decided by beating the man who owns the belt or a vacancy is filled by a box-off between the #1 and #2 boxer in the division. Because of that, we haven’t much discussed the belts and the various philosophies surrounding them around these parts lately. But this debate about ignoring them vs. not ignoring them is a bit of a new spin on the whole mess, so we might as well jump back into it for that reason. Some of the debate’s sub-questions — Do title belts help make boxers better off? Do title belts produce better fights? — boil down in their answers to those who accept the world for what it is vs. those who campaign for what they think it ought to be; to short-term vs. long-term thinking; to what tradeoffs one is willing to accept.

But even those “vs.”s have in them elements of nuance. For instance, I think the “accept the world for what it is” camp sometimes isn’t looking at current conditions correctly. And that’s not me putting down the other camp. There are intelligent proponents of the belts. These people weren’t (necessarily) dropped on their heads as children. I just really, really disagree with them, and I think some of the facts are on my team’s side, not just the pie in the sky, starry-eyed idealist stuff.

The fact that Morales-Barrios no longer is going to happen, reportedly because of visa issues for Barrios, doesn’t much change the fundamentals of the discussion, either.

Because this could all take up a lot of words to explore in depth, we’ll start today with a simple discussion of the WBC’s decision and the debate over whether “to ignore or to not ignore.” Then in a subsequent post or posts, we’ll move into some of the other debates about the belts, like how good or bad they are for boxing, whether boxers make more money with them than without them and how responsible they are for good fights happening.

The WBC Decision

There isn’t a soul on either side that finds what the WBC did to be anything other than transparent awfulness. Let’s say you can get behind the idea of Bradley — who just won the belt six months ago — being made “champion in recess,” owing to his anticipated long layoff due to a lawsuit over his promotional situation. Can you get behind the WBC ordering up a title eliminator between Ajose Olusegun Ali Chebah only to immediately subvert that decision the second the political winds blow in a way that just happen to favor a Mexican fighter, Erik Morales, when the WBC’s bias in favor of Mexican fighters is well-known and not a point of dispute anywhere?

And “subvert” is kind of a mild word for this occasion. Morales would have fought Barrios to decide the winner of Bradley’s belt. Barrios isn’t ranked anywhere in the WBC’s rankings. Not at lightweight, where he has fought before. Certainly not at junior welterweight, where he has never fought before. This was an attempt to give Morales the chance to argue that he is the first Mexican boxer to win titles in four weight classes, pure and simple, and against an opponent who has no right to challenge him for that title under any internal WBC system of rankings or common sense. You can find a lot of ludicrous things going on in the rankings of the various alphabet gangs — and I recently undertook to examine those rankings, so I know in painstaking detail — and this one ranks pretty far up there, although it is not really that uncommonly bad a decision by alphabet gang standards.

It is possible to argue in favor of title belts for various reasons while disagreeing with this decision. I like Ring Magazine’s ratings but occasionally disagree with them. Thing is, I only ever disagree with Ring’s decisions around the margins, like, say, whether Antonio Margarito-Shane Mosley should have decided the lineal welterweight championship, since Margarito was #1, Miguel Cotto was #2 and Mosley was #3, with Cotto having previously defeated Mosley and Margarito having previously defeated Cotto. When you associate yourself with the alphabet gangs as a positive force in the world, you have to be willing to live with organizations that can — and will — make decisions frequently like “let’s strip our titlist who just won the belt and ignore the title eliminator we just ordered so that we can give a fighter from our country a chance to win that title against someone who’s never fought in the division and isn’t ranked by us at all.” This is the starting point; these are the organizations that are being endorsed. It’s worth noting, too, that the WBC is often considered the “best” of the sanctioning organizations, and they’re the one that made the decision on Bradley, Morales and Barrios.

So, yeah, the pro-alphabet team can surely protest these kind of decisions. They should feel free to do so. But we’re talking about an institutional behavior here, decades of it, with no signs of relenting and indeed, many signs that it’s actually getting worse. Some organizations, broadly, can be reformed by pressure, and the alphabets can occasionaly be swayed around the edges. It’s my view that the existence of the sanctioning organizations is predicated on a financial structure that will always lead to bad decisions. They are not reformable in any significant way that I can discern, absent a sudden transformation into not-for-profit organizations. That’s why I advocate a kind of reform where they simply don’t exist.

This is all separate from whether I was interested in Morales-Barrios. I actually was. I thought it would be a masterpiece of the brawling genre featuring two somewhat faded warriors; Morales-Lucas Matthysse, the replacement, will also be a nice brawl and is a bit more defensible as a title fight (although I worry a bit that Matthysse is a good deal younger and fresher — and a much better than the man Morales nearly beat, Marcos Maidana, to revive his career). Of course, that interest in Morales-Barrios despite the tarnish it would have carried kind of leads into some of the other points of discussion that we’ll discuss over the span of these posts.

Should The Sanctioning Organizations Be Ignored?

Obviously, I’m not ignoring the alphabet gang right this second. But TQBR’s policy is usually to avoid mentioning sanctioning organizations by name when there’s a title offered by these organizations at stake. Often, I will avoid mentioning that any alphabet belt is at stake in a fight at all. Occasionally, an organization will do something so ridiculous that the organization should be mentioned by name, in my view. Different writers at TQBR feel differently about this subject. Anybody who writes for TQBR can make a reference to the WBO titlist if they want. I’m not trying to censor thought on that level. My only limitation there is in who is allowed to be called “champion.” “Champion” is a word with a precise meaning: It means “first place.” (More on this a little later, too.) I do always mention who the Ring champion is, often referring to that person flatly as “champion,” because the Ring champion is the best measure of who’s actually in first place in a weight class at any given time.

I’m hardly alone in ignoring the belts in this way. But some other critics of the belts, like Dan Rafael, go another route and routinely savage them.

Before I explain my reasoning, let’s talk about those who maintain that the belts must be recognized.

My good friend David P. Greisman had a piece on BoxingScene Monday that is intelligently argued about why the belts must not be ignored:

The sanctioning bodies still cannot be ignored. The fighters want and need their belts. The titles symbolize their accomplishments and bring them more recognition from fans and from promoters, networks and other fighters than they’d otherwise receive. That means they get paid more…

The promoters want and need the belts. Title fights draw interest. They can add more market value to a fighter otherwise lacking attention. Promoters have symbiotic relationships with the sanctioning bodies. They lobby for their fighters to get ranked and to get shots at the belts. The sanctioning bodies, in turn, have a regular customer, a reliable stream of income. The fighters and promoters won’t ignore the sanctioning bodies. And the fans and journalists can’t ignore them. The sanctioning bodies are the reason why some fights happen and why some fights don’t. Us ignoring these organizations won’t change that.

Steve Kim is another advocate of the alphabet gang belts who talked about the belts in his Monday column. And he quoted Golden Boy Promotions boss Richard Schaefer on those belts, too.

Say what you want; while some insist the belts are either “meaningless” or “worthless,” they are anything but. The bottom line is that boxers strive for them. They make more money once they have them and networks – no matter what HBO, Max Kellerman and the like try to claim- absolutely want them on their airwaves. There’s a reason why an overwhelming majority (almost all of them except those who can lean on network deals) never, ever vacate them. While these belts may come from corrupt federations, they certainly hold value within the business. You may not like it but as RUN-DMC once famously said, it’s like that and that’s the way it is.


“What we realized is that the belts are going to be here. They have been here and they’re going to be here,” stated Schaefer, “and you can look at The Ring archives from 100 years ago going back and you see guys with belts and I tell you what; 100 years from now, you can look and there’s still gonna be guys with belts.”

So that’s the argument on that side.

Here’s Eric Raskin, making the argument for our side:

Guess what happened last week? Some sanctioning body stripped some guy of his belt for no reason and now two undeserving guys will fight for the vacant belt. And that’s all I’ll say about that, because if fans, journalists, broadcast networks, and everyone else would just stop citing these for-profit organizations’ rankings or telling us who their beltholders are—in either positive or negative terms—maybe someday a generation of fighters will come up that isn’t interested in paying for their belts.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

One side is saying, “It’s a reality, often an ugly one and sometimes a positive one, that we have to live with whether we like it or not.” The other side is saying, “It’s an ugly reality and we’re trying to wipe it out of existence.”

Now, it’s my view that some of the sanctioning belt defenders are picking and choosing when they accept ugly realities and when they campaign against them. Kim, for instance, is often saying what HBO should be doing, and while I often disagree with him on what he says, I can think of no reason he shouldn’t be saying those things. He doesn’t embrace the ugly reality of HBO’s bad programming decisions because “that’s the way it is.” He campaigns against them.

If you accept the notion that someone who wants to change something should have the right to try to change it, the question becomes: How does one who opposes the alphabet belts go about trying to rid boxing of them? The answer lies within the very defenses offered by those who stick up for the alphabet belts.

See, the alphabet belts DO have status. Fighters want them for that reason, and promoters tout them for that reason. Fighters also might want them because of a perception that they’ll bring money. We’ll address that a little later. But let’s focus on just the status part.

Opponents of the sanctioning organizations aren’t trying to reform them. We’re trying to obliterate them. So we attack at the root causes of why they exist, one of which is that boxers want them because they bring status. But who conveys status? What MAKES status? Networks. Fans. Writers. Peer boxers.

What if everyone in boxing who conveyed status — or at least a big percentage of them — delegitimized the belts? What if no one acknowledged a boxer holding a trinket belt as “champion?” What if those boxers were suddenly treated as just another fighter, just another contender, not anyone who deserves the title “champion?” What status would there be? None.

So that’s the rationale I use when ignoring the sanctioning organizations. I usually pair it with advocating for the Ring lineal belts, because I think the sport would better off if there was one recognized champion in each division, and if that person obtained the belt from the previous owner or when it’s vacant, in a box-off with the other top contender. I’m fine with anyone campaigning in alternative ways to get rid of them, by, say, badmouthing them constantly a la Rafael. But ignoring them serves a second goal; I think these organizations do damage to the sport with the general public, so constantly harping on them only emphasizes the lunacy of some of boxing’s most powerful forces far and wide, multiplying the damage they do.

Maybe you’re of the view that the sanctioning organizations simply cannot be defeated. It’s a bit fatalistic, although I get where you’re coming from, sure. But no kind of reform ever got implemented by people who showed no commitment to that reform. Maybe it can’t happen, but I’m generally in favor of trying anyway. I’m guessing there were a lot of people in the ’50s who thought boxing was hopelessly corrupted by the mafia — a massively powerful organization, compared to today’s sanctioning organizations — but today the mafia’s role in boxing is diminished the point of non-existence. And I would say to Mr. Schaefer: Yeah, belts of some kind have been around for a long time. But there used to not be so many sanctioning organizations; there was really, mainly, just one lineal title. What makes you so sure that 100 years from now that we’ll still have the same number of sanctioning organizations? What if, maybe, just maybe, things could be better? And what if you were one of the reasons why, because you didn’t play ball with the sanctioning organizations?

Incidentally, I expect promoters to be the last people to embrace any kind of “ignore the belts” philosophy because promoters — after fans, writers, networks, even boxers — are the ones who tend to be the most reactionary and focused on the short-term and carnival barker-ish. Boxers, often those at the top of the sport like Floyd Mayweather, will periodically ignore the belts. Fans and writers do it plenty. Networks, and HBO is much better about this than Showtime, will sometimes downplay them on air or in advertisements. Promoters are probably going to be the last to go, which is too bad, because they’re basically the marketing arm of the sport. The last time a big promoter badmouthed the sanctioning organizations, he rather quickly retracted his remarks, and that promoter was big, bold Bob Arum.

Vis-a-vis this decision about Morales-Barrios, Golden Boy caught a lot of flack for playing nice with the WBC. It was said in many quarters to be “hypocritical” of Golden Boy, since they own Ring Magazine and talked at their formation about doing things a different way. But I’ve searched, and I have found no reference to Golden Boy promising they wouldn’t play ball with the alphabet gang; they have played ball with the alphabets for as long as I’ve been following them, anyway. Mostly, they talked when they founded the company about empowering the fighters and being more creative on the business end. Nor did I find any reference in the announcement of Golden Boy’s purchase of Ring that they would hype the Ring belts. It would be nice if they would. But I don’t think this is a case of hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean I like it, of course.

When I get a free moment next, I’ll weigh in on the good and bad of the belts as they stand today, and in the long-term…

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.