Friday, June 5, 2009

A Minor Conundrum

With his story today on the proliferation of titles in modern boxing Carlos Acevedo makes his debut for The Boxing Bulletin writing team.

It has never been easier to be “accomplished” in boxing than it is today. When Juan Urango stepped into the ring last week to challenge WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto, he was already a veteran of eight title fights of one sort of another despite having only 23 bouts as a professional.

In one fight alone, against Francisco Campos in 2005, Urango, a two-time “world” champion at light welterweight, fought for three different titles simultaneously! He has now won six belts and has competed in a total of nine title bouts.

But Juan Urango is not the only fighter with a listing trophy case. Chris Henry, a light heavyweight powerpuncher from Houston, Texas, has won three belts in 25 fights. Not nearly as impressive as Urango, one might think, but included in this total is the IBA Intercontinental heavyweight championship--a title Henry somehow managed to win despite weighing less than 200 pounds! Nine of his 25 fights have been for some kind of gewgaw, a bewildering ratio of 1 title match for every 2.75 fights.

Urango and Henry, however, are completely outstripped by Australian lightweight contender Michael Katsidis: 13 of his 27 bouts have been for titles, including his pro debut. To date, Katsidis has won seven championships, and, at age 28, it seems likely that he will hit double digits by the time his career is over.

There is also a strange “Twilight Zone” logic to how these belts are contested and awarded. Brian Minto, for example, is the reigning FEDECENTRO heavyweight champion. The FEDECENTRO, a subsidiary, you might say, of the WBA, is overseen by the “Federacion Latino Americana De Comisiones De Boxeo Professional.” Yes, this title is theoretically meant to be contested by Latinos, but somehow, like a baby switched at birth, it has wound up in the hands of Brian Minto.

It is interesting to note that his manager, Pat Nelson, also guides the careers of Tommy Karpency, reigning FEDECENTRO light heavyweight champion, and Billy Lyell, who once fought for the WBC Caribbean Boxing Federation light middleweight title. At least this bout took place in the Cayman Islands and not Morgantown, West Virginia or Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. No doubt Lyell, from Youngstown, Ohio, enjoyed a little surf and sun while in the Caymans.

The watering down of world titles is often pointed to as Exhibit #1 in the decline of boxing. With good reason, too, since the figures are astounding. Until 1981, when Wilfred Benitez defeated Maurice Hope for the WBC light middleweight title, there were only four fighters in history (a span of about 90 years up to that point) to earn the title of “Triple Crown” champion: Bob Fitzsimmons, Tony Canzoneri, Barney Ross, and Henry Armstrong. Since then, there have been 27 names added to that list, among them unforgettable legends Duke McKenzie and Leo Gamez.

Dubious achievements go even further than that, however. There are now nine historically recognized “quadruple” champions and four “quintuple” champions. Since the mid-1980s, even fighters of modest ability have built up the gaudiest CVs. Certainly WBA favorite son Leo Gamez must hold some sort of record with this outlandish statistic: out of 48 professional fights, 26 of them were for some dodgy title or other, a ratio--54%--that equals his career knockout percentage. More preposterous still, Gamez won his four world championships across a span of only 10 ¼ pounds.

The explosion of divisions and “world” titles in the last thirty years has been well documented, but the corresponding growth of peripheral titles, a curious phenomenon to say the least, has had far less press.

Keeping track of minor titles is a task worthy of Sisyphus. A cross-eyed glance at only the most infamous organizations--the IBO, NABA, IBF, WBO, IBA, WBA, WBF, NABO, WBC, and the NABF--brings us to a relatively conservative guesstimate of 45 titles per division. Multiply that by 17 weight classes and you get a total of roughly 765 potential titleholders in boxing. This astonishing figure does not even include state championships or overseas regional organizations like the EBU or the OPBF. Adding them into the equation would bring the number of titles closer to 1,000, but who has time for that? Not even quantum physicists, armed with the Uncertainty Principle, could sort out the minor title conundrum. They would go mad like blindfolded chess players or alchemists who inhale too much mercury.

Historically, fly-by-night organizations, like UFOS over Roswell, have always popped up with some regularity--think of the comical WAA, whose founder, Pat O’Grady, stripped its heavyweight champion, his son-in-law (?) Monte Masters, for having the chutzpah to divorce his daughter--but they often had difficulty latching on. Today, that seems to have changed. Why does this embarrassment of title riches continue to flourish?

Fighters themselves cannot be blamed for their magpie inclinations; boxing is a bleak prospect for 90% of its participants, and fighters deserve every extra nickel they can get their hands on. Similarly, even a trinket handed out by the NABA can mean something to fighters who toil for years with little reward. For the prospect, winning the WBC International Youth title is a step forward in hopes of bigger paydays and high profile fights. For the struggling journeyman, wrapping the FECOMBOX belt around his waist can give him the hope that the hardest days are behind him.

No, it is the usual suspects--sanctioning bodies, promoters, and television networks--lurking behind the scenes like gothic villans hidden behind false panels. The sanctioning bodies, of course, come first. Not content with charging ludicrous sanctioning fees for innumerable world title matches, interim matches, emeritus matches, and elimination matches, the Alphabet Soup Groups also profit from their vast cabinet of curiosities filled with tin belts. And, like a good racketeer, they rarely turn away from easy money. This is probably as good a reason as any for the fact that Manuel Garnica fought for the “WBC Youth World” light welterweight championship in 2007 when he 32 years old and had been a pro since 1993.

For promoters, especially small-timers, minor titles represent a form of ballyhoo. In order to over-dramatize the importance of a routine bout and hopefully boost the gate, promoters dash out and obtain some obscure bauble on loan from a sanctioning pawnshop and label it a championship match. To them, the bottom line is ticket sales. When woefully out of shape Greg Page, at 42, suffered near-fatal injuries against Dale Crowe in a converted bingo hall in Kentucky, it was for the “Kentucky State Heavyweight Title,” a championship conjured up for the occasion.

Television is the final culprit. With televised boxing dominated by giant cable conglomerates like HBO and Showtime, smaller networks over the years have turned to bogus titles for advertising purposes the same way NBC, CBS, and ABC propped up the first wave of sanctioning bodies in the early 1980s. Rarely does Telemundo, for example, show a fight without a title at stake. Gone are the days when Jack Sharkey and Young Stribling drew 40,000 fans for a 10-rounder in 1929.

In addition to lining the pockets of the alphabet groups, making a mockery of achievement in the ring, and fostering the illusion of elite competition, minor titles carry another risk. “With so many loopy titles up for grabs,” writes Mike Silver in The Arc of Boxing, ”virtually every televised bout is now scheduled for 12 rounds. Defensively challenged boxers with only 12 to 20 bouts on their resumes are engaging in punishing 12-rounders when they should still be learning their trade and toughening their bodies in six or eight round preliminary matches. It is irresponsible for state boxing commissions to permit a novice boxer to participate in a 12-round bout.”

So, the next time you see two young fighters, one of Mexican descent and the other, shall we say, last of the fistic WASPS duking it out in Red Wing, Minnesota for the WBC Mediterranean Championship, keep in mind that minor titles can also be dangerous. In two recent ring fatalities--Masatate Tsuji and Yo Sam Choi--minor titles were at stake.

POSTSCRIPT: Brian Minto is scheduled to defend his FEDECENTRO heavyweight title on August 14th, in Butler, Pennsylvania, against 42-year old former WBA World Champion Bruce Seldon. Also on the line in this match is the interim WBO NABO heavyweight title.

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