Having true champions in boxing has never been the cure for what ails the sport; there are so many tumors on pro boxing, no one cure can solve everything. But every couple weeks, I have a conversation that goes like this: Me: “Yeah, I write about boxing.” Them: “Oh. I don’t follow that sport.” Me: “Why not?” One of the most common answers: “I dunno, there are so many belts, I can’t keep track of who the champion is.”
Since 2002, the closest thing boxing has had to a true champion is the owner of the Ring magazine belt in any given division. As of Thursday, that is no longer true. The Ring announced changes to its championship policy that, flatly, killed any claim the magazine can make to being custodians of an authentic championship lineage.
For those unfamiliar with the previous policy, the only way one could become the champion of a division was to beat the existing champion, or, in the event of a vacancy (for instance, if the champion retires or otherwise relinquishes his belt), for The Ring’s #1 contender to face off with the #2 contender; occasionally, a #1 vs. #3 contender would be accepted.
The new policy vastly expands the eligible contenders who can win a vacant belt. Under some scenarios, a #2 could face a #5 contender. The reasoning for this change is that there were too many vacancies. And it’s not as if that’s not a valid problem; our own Scott Kraus analyzed the nature of that problem here, and came up with a proposal that the new Ring policy largely mirrors. What is terrible about The Ring’s solution to that problem, though, is that it is a solution to one peripheral problem that fundamentally hollows out the very purpose of Ring belts. Here’s how.
1. For many boxing fans, and for many sports fans, one of the main purposes of sports is to find out the answer to that age-old question: “Who’s the best?” You can find out who’s the best in a division if the #1 and #2 man fight one another. You absolutely cannot find out who’s the best if the #2 contender faces the #5 contender. By way of example: There is broad consensus right now, and for perfectly defensible reasons, that Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are the top two welterweights in the world. Ring has Pacquiao at #1 and Mayweather at #2. If one of them faced #5 Kell Brook, then Ring might allow that person to become champion at welterweight. There is no valid argument for Pacquiao-Brook or Mayweather-Brook as the true champion at welterweight, and no reasonable boxing fan would endorse it. Check out all the other divisions, and you’ll find similarly ludicrous pathways to the championship. (Note: Occasionally the champion of a division will lose the belt to someone who isn’t considered the best in his division. These champions are usually extremely short-lived: See the welterweight championship reign of Carlos Baldomir, for instance. In other words, in rare cases the champion isn’t the best, but if he beat the champion, he earned the championship and deserves it. More on “earning” in a moment.)
2. One thing that is important about a lineal championship is to tie the current champions to those who came before; the heritage of the championship is part of its appeal. It is highly unlikely that anyone will now consider a belt acquired when a vacancy was filled by a box-off between #2 and #5 to be the “lineal” belt. If anyone does consider that lineal, they shouldn’t. To anyone who has an interest in tracing championship lineage, Ring’s new policy creates a void.
3. Far from a motivation for “the best to fight the best,” this new policy is, if anything, likely to incentivize the opposite. I don’t know what percentage of fighters care about the Ring belt; some of them do, like Andre Ward, who, upon winning the Ring super middleweight championship, displayed that belt as his post-fight press conference above all others. But now, if a fighter does care about acquiring the belt, the #1 fighter can come up with an excuse why a dangerous #2 fighter won’t face him and hope that Ring sanctions him against someone far weaker. In the minds of the Ring editors, perhaps a top-rated boxer’s chance of being passed up for a chance at the Ring belt will light a fire under him to face the top man. Best of luck on that.
4. Under the old Ring policy, you really had to EARN a belt; no longer. That is in part due to the new rules — someone sneaking into the top five could manage to contend for a belt, rather than having to climb all the way to the very top of the rankings. But it is also due to how Ring has been rating fighters of late. You can view all my past criticisms of this over the months, because I will not violate any internal discussions I’ve had as a member of the Ring Ratings Panel. But increasingly, fighters are ranked highly not because they’ve beaten fighters in their division, but because Ring has simply perceived someone as worthy of a high ranking. Last week, for instance, Roman Gonzalez was appointed the #1 junior flyweight over Ulises Solis because, as the ratings update explained it, Gonzalez was “obviously the class of the division.” Gonzalez is a nice little fighter, and might one day deseve that ranking, but he has not “obviously” proven himself the class of a division where Solis has a long, long resume. These days, you don’t even have to fight anyone in your division to be ranked in it by Ring. Abner Mares was recently promoted to #7 in the junior bantamweight rankings after being #5 bantamweight Eric Morel at a 120-pound catchweight; i.e., even though Mares has not ever fought an actual junior bantamweight. Ring’s ratings are increasingly about fantasy boxing match-ups (totally unreliable; let’s see if one of these guys imagined to be better than the rest doesn’t lose to the person he was promoted above sooner rather than later) rather than results (more reliable). That means to get to a #5 ranking in a division, you don’t have to even earn that in the ring — you simply have to capture the imagination of a couple editors at the magazine. Under the old leadership at the magazine, although I’d guess there are a few exceptions, the explicitly stated philosophy of recently deposed editor Nigel Collins was: “Divisional ratings are, as much as humanly possible, strictly objective and based on results within the divisions.”
5. Ring shouldn’t have champions just to have them, and in so pursuing that goal, Ring’s editors have whittled away one of the few mechanisms whereby boxers can be persuaded to chase them. It would be great if Ring’s vacancies were filled organically. This way? Opposite of great. This has already done massive damage to the belts’ status, and that status is conveyed by boxing writers and fans who have adhered to the Ring belt as the gold standard. Look at the comments section on Ring’s announcement of its policy change; that policy, with just a couple exceptions, is getting ripped to pieces. ESPN’s Dan Rafael abandoned the belts in light of this new policy change. The operator of the biggest boxing blog, Bad Left Hook’s Scott Christ, has revoked his endorsement of them. I also have decided to break my own ties with the Ring belt. I resigned from the Ratings Panel Thursday, and will shortly redo this site to remove the bar to the left. And I suspect this is only the beginning of the backlash. If the Ring belt has no power with the fans or media, what motive is there for boxers to attain that status symbol? What public pressure, however limited it was before, will any of us exert on fighters to convince them the Ring belt is THE belt? The answer, in both cases, is none.
It’s important to state what I am not saying. This is not me decrying Ring Magazine as a whole. As it happens, I think after a rocky start that needlessly featured the departure of several excellent staffers, editor Michael Rosenthal has acquired a lot of excellent talent over there; it’s hard to argue with Bart Barry or Gary Andrew Poole and the like as quality writers. Rosenthal’s own writing gets dinged a fair amount, but I happen to like it. And Dougie Fischer has, similarly, led a good team to deliver a good product at the website. However, the stewardship of the Ring championship and policy under the current had already been pretty awful — see the sketchy way they handled the Bernard Hopkins/Chad Dawson situation, and how they arbirtarily created a cruiserweight championship fight (and you would’ve thought they would’ve learned from how badly that backfired in the court of public opinion) — and this new policy is irredemable. And I didn’t even touch on what’s problematic about their policy changes on stripping these “champions.”
I wonder what the future holds. I don’t think this makes the Ring belt “the same” as the alphabet gang; even with my criticism of their rankings of late and how champions will be selected going forward, I strongly suspect that Ring’s ratings and champions will be more realistic than the WBCs and IBFs of the world, however bastardized they are now becoming. But this does feel like a strong step toward Ring becoming more like a sanctioning outfit. Will they soon request money? Will this open the door to favoritism of Golden Boy-promoted fighters, as GBP owns Ring? Will anyone step forward to fill the void of tracing lineage? (I didn’t even touch on what’s problematic about their policy on stripping “champions.”) Will Ring recognize what a monumental misstep they’ve made and revoke their policy? These are some of the questions floating around, and I have no answers. All I know is that there’s nothing good about this.