You may have noticed that boxing has a number of championship belts. The sport has so many belts that it is likely you may watch a local bout contested by two no-name fighters for a strap. If you tune into a boxing match on ESPN, Sky, BT Sport, or any other major sports channel or streaming service, there is a good chance you may see a bout for a belt you did not know even existed. Keeping up with the number of championship boxing belts can be confusing.
There are an estimated 6,000 boxing championship belts in circulation around the globe. These various pieces of silverware are contested in fights around the world from small-time fight promotions to big organizations. One of the reasons that there are so many boxing belts is due to the small local and region fight companies that pop up and hold the occasional card. These shows want to offer fans the chance to see a championship-caliber fight. Putting a belt up for grabs gives the promotion the chance to market a title fight to the paying audience. The simple addition of a belt to the bout makes it a more prestigious fight.
Despite the number of fight organizations both big and small, boxing journalists, fans and pundits have all expressed their displeasure with the number of belts in circulation. For many people, the lack of an undisputed champion in each weight class leaves them wholly frustrated. It is doubtful that there will ever be one singular championship belt per weight class although the cries continue to get louder for one title holder per division.
Boxing belts and organizations
Modern boxing is ruled over by four major boxing organizations. The World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF), and World Boxing Organisation (WBO) are the four top-tier fight companies. Each organization sanctions the bouts and fighters that compete for their belts.
Due to there being four boxing organizations, there are four separate world champions at each weight division. It doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that each organization promotes 17 different weight classes. Therefore, the WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO have a combined 68 title belts. In fact, thanks to interim champions and super champions, there are more titles being fought for in boxing.
Along with the big four boxing organizations, The Ring magazine hands out a belt of its own. Over the years, The Ring championship belt has earned a reputation for being boxing’s most prestigious title. The magazine does something the boxing organizations cannot and that is to cut through the red tape. A boxing organization will only allow a boxer who competes on their sanctioned shows to fight for a championship. For example, the WBO Welterweight championship is fought between fighters who typically work for promoters that are connected to the WBO. The Ring magazine is free to award its belt to the fighter it chooses, which means there is only one champion per weight class. Therefore, there is an undisputed champion at each weight division.
So, if there are four organizations (plus The Ring) with 17 weight classes each, then how are there an estimated 6,000 boxing belts in circulation? The answer is simple. The belts handed out by the WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO are major fight titles. The number of minor championships is high with every small-time promoter seeking to add prestige to shows by putting a title up for grabs.
Champions, challengers, and vacating titles
The sanctioning bodies will typically decide that a boxing champion must fight a specific opponent. The opponent chosen by a boxing organization is labeled as the mandatory challenger. A champion can turn down the fight proposed by the boxing organization, but they do it at a cost. If a championship boxer refuses to take the fight proposed to them by the boxing organization, then they must vacate the championship belt.
Challengers for title fights are oftentimes chosen through eliminator fights. An eliminator bout simply pits one fighter that is highly ranked up against another boxer. If he/she wins the eliminator bout, then they will receive a mandatory championship title shot.
While championship boxers would love to battle journeymen fighters and other boxers handpicked by their management team, mandatory opponents make that nearly impossible. Mandatory challengers are handpicked by boxing organizations due to their rankings. As mandatory challengers are typically good boxers, it can be difficult for a reigning champion to hold onto their belt for a significant amount of time. In addition, a boxer seeking to unify belts from multiple organizations or weight classes can struggle to do so. Champions have to focus most of their energy on battling the next mandatory challenger rather than battling any of the other boxing champions.
Unwanted mandatory championship title bouts are not the only reasons a boxer will vacate his/her belt. Oftentimes, fighters choose to move up a weight class. When they do this, they often vacate their belts due to focusing on the new weight class and its championship. Moving up weight classes offers boxers the chance to fight for larger purses. Injuries can also prevent a title fight from occurring forcing matches to be postponed.
What is an interim boxing championship title?
Fans of boxing and other combat sports will be familiar with the term ‘interim champion’. Interim champions can be a difficult aspect to get your head around at first. However, it is a rather simple concept that in many ways just signifies that a boxer is a mandatory challenger. All four major boxing organizations award interim titles. Mixed martial arts, kickboxing, and other combat sports also award interim championships to their fighters.
So, why is the interim title award to fighters? A world champion may not be able to defend their title. There are a number of reasons for being unable to defend a boxing championship. Injury is the most common reason; however, boxers can also be suspended from competing. The boxing organization will select the two highest ranked fighters at that weight class to fight. The winner of the bout will be deemed the interim title holder, also known as the mandatory challenger.
The champion, once recovering from his/her injury or suspension, must fight the interim champion to declare an undisputed world champion at that specific weight class. The interim champion can be awarded the world championship without fighting the champion, if the title holder moves weight classes or refuses to fight.
One of the issues with interim titles is it can be an abused system. In 2005-06, Jorge Acre was awarded the interim flyweight championship making him next in line to fight flyweight title holder Pongsaklek Wonjongkam. However, Acre was allowed to fight on four occasions, defending the interim championship in each bout. He never fought Wonjongkam and moved up to the super flyweight division before the two could meet.
In addition to letting fighters defend interim championship, boxing organizations have been guilty of having too many interim title holders. The WBA is a good example of a boxing organization taking things too far with the interim tag and belts in general. Each of the WBA’s weight classes can have up to three champions at any one time. How is this possible? The WBA hands out a championship, super championship, and interim championship.
What are boxing’s weight classes?
Boxing’s four big organizations all have 17 different weight classes. Heavyweight is the top tier of the weights and typically, the most well-known fighters including Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Muhammad Ali, Anthony Joshua, and Tyson Fury all compete in this division. As a fighter moves up in weight class, the amount of money that can be earned from fight purses grows.
Box weight classes:
- Minimumweight/Mini Flyweight 105 pounds (48 kg)
- Light flyweight, 108 pounds (49 kg)
- Flyweight, 112 pounds (51 kg)
- Super flyweight, 115 pounds (52 kg)
- Bantamweight, 118 pounds (53.5 kg)
- Super bantamweight, 122 pounds (55 kg)
- Featherweight, 126 pounds (57 kg)
- Super featherweight, 130 pounds (59 kg)
- Lightweight, 135 pounds (61 kg)
- Super lightweight, 140 pounds (63.5 kg)
- Welterweight, 147 pounds (67 kg)
- Super welterweight, 154 pounds (70 kg)
- Middleweight, 160 pounds (72.5 kg)
- Super middleweight, 168 pounds (76 kg)
- Light heavyweight, 175 pounds (79 kg)
- Cruiserweight, 200 pounds (91 kg)
- Heavyweight, 200 pounds to unlimited weight
Why is there no undisputed boxing champion?
The answer to this is easy. There is more money available to boxing organizations, promoters, TV networks, and fighters if there are multiple belts and organizations. Of course, the amount of money could be astronomical if just one champion per weight class was declared, but it is unlikely to ever occur.
From the 1960s up to the 1980s, there were only two boxing organizations. The WBA and WBC were the first two organizations, but with the advent of the IBF and WBO, it has turned into a wild west of championship belts.
Making things more difficult these days for undisputed champions is television networks. The top boxers in the world have personal contracts with television networks meaning it is unlikely that big-name boxers will meet in title fights. Networks are thirsty for sports content making it likely that money will continue to talk in the world of boxing and keep fans from seeing a true undisputed fighter at each weight class.