Explaining Away the Titles
Martin Theobald

There are four major governing bodies in boxing; World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF), World Boxing Organisation (WBO) and the World Boxing Association (WBA).  Quite why there are four and where they stem from are bones to pick at another day, requiring an article all on their own.  For now, we are going to take a look at the issue of championships.  This is ignoring the domestic belts for now and focussing purely on those issued by the governing bodies.  Should be easy, right?  Of course not. 

Governing bodies belts are a minefield.  Each body has their own belts that they issue - each of them signifying different levels of achievement.  Being that each body has their own way of organising, there is no common nomenclature between them - meaning that telling what each one means is difficult.  Here we aim to explain it away.  But firstly, why are there so many belts?

Money.  The root of all evil.  Also the way that any boxing governing body runs itself.  Each of these is a professional outfit, employing up to hundreds of staff on a grand scale.  They have bills to pay, organisation to run.  Their staff are the ones who not only sanction and organise fighters and national bodies, but also have to turn up to fights and ensure they are run to their strict guidelines on a global basis.  Therefore, when a boxer is fighting for one of their belts they charge them a 'sanctioning fee' - an amount that is deducted from a fighters purse in return for the prestige of fighting for their belts.  What amounts are we talking?  These aren't always particularly transparent or published, but there are some high profile examples.  For instance, in 1999 Lennox Lewis defeated Evander Holyfield to become undisputed heavyweight title (held the belts from all bodies).  But the IBF refused to give Lewis their belt when he didn't pay their fees.  His amount owed for the bout was $300,000 of the $15 million he earned.  It is said that their standard fee is around 3% of a boxer's purse.  A more recent example of this is Floyd Mayweather giving up his WBO title won in the super-fight with Manny Pacquaio.  The fee owed on this occasion was $200,000 from the estimated $200 million that he earned for the fight (1%).  When he didn't wish to pay it, the WBO stripped him of the title and handed it to Timothy Bradley.  But with money to be earned, they don't just issue a single belt.  No, no, no, no, no......let's look in to it further:

Before starting though, it's worth noting that not all bodies use all titles - this is more to breed familiarity in case you hear the terms! 

An easy one, this is given at the highest level.  This is the signifier that the fighter is THE champion for the governing body.  This is where a governing body only recognises the single champion of a weight division.


OK, so it starts to get messy.  The silver belt is given at the next level down to the Championship. This is, in theory, fought between those that are looking to get in line for a shot at the champion - holding the belt pushes you up their rankings.


When a fighter 'retires' holding the belt they can be handed the title of 'Champion Emeritus'.  A prime example being Vitali Klitschko, who retired with the WBC Heavyweight Championship in his ownership.  Should Vitali decide to return to the sport he would automatically go in to the number one contendership position to fight the champion due to holding the title.


A champion may suffer an injury while holding a belt.  Dependant on the likely length of time out of the ring, the governing body may decide that they wish to appoint an 'interim' champion.  That means that their full title holder can hold their belt while injured, but two of the highest contenders fight it out for an interim belt.  Bonus for them, they reap their sanctioning fees!  When the champion returns, they can organise a fight between interim and legitimate champion to decide the holder.  If the holder is likely to be out for a prolonged period of time, they can hand the full title over to the interim holder.  Richard Abril was the WBA lightweight title holder when due to fight Anthony Crolla.  Crolla pulled out and Derry Matthews was put in his place.  Abril then pulled out injured himself, and an interim holder was appointed, Darleys Perez.  Abril again had to pull out of a second fight with Matthews, prompting the WBA to promote Perez to champion - Abril was then appoint champion 'In Recess' (see below).

However it's not always as cut and dry as that.  For instance, the WBA in the middleweight division have three 'world title' holders - super & regular (see below) as well as an 'Interim' - in this case, Britain's own Chris Eubank Jr.  Why?  Well, it's not entirely clear.  As Billy Joe Saunders put it when Eubank refused to give up the belt to organise a rematch between the two, he described it as a "bullshit belt".  Harsh, but probably true.  It is the third ranked belt in the division, meaning that although shiny, it is relatively worthless.


Another way of creating multiple titles in a single division is to give them hyperbolic names.  Don't believe me?  Let's re-visit our friends the WBA.  In the light middleweight division they have 3 champions; Interim (see above), Regular (see below) and Super.  In this case, Floyd Mayweather holds the Super belt.  The reason for this?  Well, Mayweather rarely fights at light middleweight, meaning that his belt is rarely defended (remember those sanctioning fees???).  The WBA don't want to miss out on their money, so instead of waiting for Mayweather to fight at the weight, they just give him the title of 'Super'.  Therefore they can still issue out a belt under the title of World Champion, and nobody needs to know any better! For what it's worth, Erislandy Lara holds their 'Regular' title.


OK, so we are seeing a pattern here.  Fancy a guess at who issues a 'Unified' title?  The WBA of course.  'Unified' as a name suggests that the owner has won the belts for all divisions.  Not the case here, more that the WBA fancy getting some more money out of their belt holders.  What better way than another title?  Let's look at the Super Bantamweight division here.  Britain's Scott Quigg is fighting this weekend for the WBA world title against Kiko Martinez.  Impressive, world title, Sky can advertise that they have a world title fight on TV.  However, the WBA have a 'Unified' title holder in the same division, the much feared and avoided Guillermo Rigondeaux.  He's undefeated, he's an amateur boxing legend, and more importantly - he sits at the top of the tree for the WBA in the super bantamweight division.  Scott Quigg may be advertised as a world champion, but it is Rigondeaux who is recognised by fans as one.


As referenced above, a 'Regular' champion is often referred to as a world champion - it's just unfortunate that it's misleading.  Scott Quigg - regular champion, but with Rigondeaux one level above. 

A prime example here - when Carl Froch retired he had recently given up two world championships - the IBF (won by James DeGale) and the.....yep, WBA.  But, the WBA title was their 'Regular' - their 'Super Champion' in the same division was Froch's conqueror Andre Ward.  See, in this example, the WBA had tried to unify their own belts by mandating Froch to fight Ward (as he had held the regular title a certain period of time).  The fight was never made, and Froch had no intention of doing so.  Still, good of the WBA to try eh?!  On that basis, Scott Quigg should soon be due to take on Rigondeaux to unify the super bantamweight titles.  However while they have two recognised world champions the WBA will be getting two lots of sanctioning fees - winners all round!!

In recess

Going back to the example given in the 'Interim' title of Richard Abril, the man who had three world title fights fall through (twice due to his own injuries).  The sanctioning body stripped him of his title, and handed it to their 'interim' holder.  For Abril, they made him their champion 'in recess'.  When Abril returns from the injuries that have plagued him of late, he will step straight in to the number one contenders spot and fight for the world title he was stripped of.


This is used as another second tier title, similar to Silver.  Seen as a stepping stone to get a fighter higher up the ranking, it will usually be used in America - where they have a sufficiently large enough country to warrant having their own title holder within a sanctioning body.  Manny Pacquaio, prior to winning the WBC title, held their International title and fought with it in America for years.


Similar to the above but more likely to be utilised within a continent (we see this one a lot in Europe).  Again, a stepping stone that helps boost a fighters rankings and a governing bodies bank balance.


This is the one that doesn't carry a belt, but the most prestigious of title.  This holds lineage.  Essentially, when the Marquess of Queensberry first had organised boxing matches, there weren't multiple world governing bodies and a mish-mash of titles.  It all started with a single title per division.  It is only over time that money has influenced the creation of different bodies.  A 'lineal' title holder is the one that can have their belt tracked back to the very beginning - the one whose belt was initially handed out for that division.  Of course this is a hard one to identify and different bodies will argue their points around who is the lineal champion.  That first ever holder only had a single body to fight under - their successors had to make a choice and it all becomes unclear. 

One division where this can be tracked back is the middleweight title.  Miguel Cotto is the holder of the WBC title and this is internationally recognised as being lineal.  The irony here is that Cotto has made a habit of making defences of the belt at under the middleweight limit, almost making a mockery of the title.  So while many may see Gennady Golovkin as being the best and most dangerous middleweight in the division, it is Cotto that holds the place as lineal champion. 


Clear as mud, as I am sure you can tell.  Most bodies will try and stick with a single champion, although all are guilty at some point of having multiple champions in a single division (some enforced by injury, fair enough).  The WBA are particularly awful in their handing out of 'world title' belts - the other organisations typically will utilise the other titles such as silver, intercontinental or international. 

The biggest downside to all of this of course is that as fans, there is very little clarity over who holds what.  And while there are big bucks

associated with holding the straps, don't expect that to go away.

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