Six weeks ago at the press conference announcing the highly anticipated July 29th welterweight title fight between Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford something remarkable happened. Errol Spence boldly called out the four sanctioning bodies (WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO) for the huge fees they charge to every boxer who fights for one of their title belts. “We got to know where this money is going to”, said Spence. “How is it helping the fighters out? What are they doing with it?”
Spence had good reason to ask. According to ESPN both he and Crawford are guaranteed a minimum of 10 million dollars apiece for their Showtime pay-per-view unification fight. Since all four organizations’ title belts will be on the line Spence and Crawford are supposed to give up 3 percent of their purse to each group as a “sanctioning fee”. That amounts to a total 12 per cent of 20 million dollars ($2,400,000) to be split four ways by the sanctioning groups. At the very least each boxer will have to pay $1,200,000 to these groups for the privilege of fighting for the belts. (If pay-per-view sales are strong the amount will be even higher).That is an obscene price to pay for the right to be recognized as champion by these self-appointed quasi-official ratings organizations.
By the early 2000s the Mexico City based World Boxing Council (WBC) had already collected over $20 million in sanctioning fees from boxers’ purses, with an estimated ninety per cent of the money generated in the Unites States. The main source of income for the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO (aka “the alphabet gangs”) are the aforementioned sanctioning fees. Each organization takes 3 per cent of the champion and challenger’s purse for every title fight they certify. The increase in the number of weight divisions in the 1980s from ten to 17 is directly tied to the desire of all four organizations wanting to collect additional fees while giving back to the sport nothing of value. It was a matter of simple economics– more weight divisions meant more title fights and thus more fees. But it still wasn’t enough for these greedy hustlers. Adding yet more weight divisions would be too hard a sell, so they decided on a clever innovation. The sanctioning organizations invented additional titles within each of the 17 weight categories with names like “International”, “Global”, “Interim”, “Super”, “Super, Super”, “Regular”, “Green”, “Diamond”, “Gold”, “Silver”, “Youth”, “Francophone”, “Champion in Recess”, “Franchise”. As a result, there are nearly 200 of these fabricated titles currently crowding professional boxing’s schizoid landscape. Most of these “champions” are unknown to even the most avid boxing fans. But that is of no concern to the alphabet gangs. What is important to them is that every boxing match broadcast by cable TV or a streaming internet service is for some kind of cockamamie title that requires both challenger and champion to cough up the 3 per cent sanctioning fee. With the rush to crown so many champions the fights often involve novice professionals with fewer than a dozen fights.
New titles pop up every year, so it’s safe to say the only people keeping track of all the belts (and fees) are the organizations’ bookkeepers. The WBA alone has 45 “champions” across 17 weight divisions. As soon as a title fight ends a representative of the sanctioning organization enters the ring to present the winner with an oversized leather and metal belt.
In his outstanding book, Boxing Confidential, author Jim Brady put the current title situation in historical perspective: “In the 1950s, there were approximately 5000 fighters worldwide. There were generally eight weight divisions, with one champion in each. That breaks down to one champ every 625 boxers. Today, with just the major sanctioning bodies and not counting the whackos, you have about one ‘world champion’ for every sixty-nine pros. It’s ridiculous.” No other major sport, with the exception of professional wrestling, would put up with the absurdity.
So, in the words of Errol Spence, “Where is the money going to? How is it helping the fighters out? What are they doing with it?” In his blog post of June 22nd, the Editor of England’s respected Boxing News, Matt Christie, wrote, “It clearly isn’t being used to pay honest and knowledgeable people to compile rankings, it’s not adding to a pension pot for boxers, it’s not being spent on the carrying out of background checks on the criminals they do business with, nor is a penny going to charities like Ringside Charitable Trust.”
With no one to rein them in the alphabet gangs find it easy to make up their own rules and then break them when it suits their purposes. They manipulate their ratings of contenders to accommodate the needs of a few powerful promoters ahead of the welfare of boxers and the sport. Even casual fans know their monthly ratings are not to be trusted. Champions recognized by one sanctioning organization are not even rated in the top ten contender lists of a rival group. Under the table payments and secret deals between promoters and sanctioning organizations can get a less than mediocre fighter rated among the top contenders in his weight division. In order to provide a popular alphabet champion with a safe title defense the boxer’s promoter can arrange to have an inferior opponent rated to justify the mismatch. If boxing had a national commissioner similar to other professional sports the sanctioning organizations would have been thrown out years ago.
A Rare Opportunity
Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford have a rare opportunity to actually do something that could help their sport and all fighters who are forced to give up a large chunk of their earnings to these thieves. All it would take is for Crawford and Spence to refuse to pay any sanctioning fees to the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO. There is no logical reason why they should have to pay. With or without the belts would any fight fight fan on the planet doubt that the winner of Spence vs. Crawford is the best welterweight in the world? The new champion, whoever it will be, does not need a belt to prove it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if their refusal to pay sanctioning fees encouraged other high profile boxers to do the same? Every boxer would benefit and so would the sport. It’s a long shot, but maybe this can be the start of a movement that will eventually drive the alphabet gangs out of the sport. Denying them fees would eliminate their raison d être and like rats deserting a sinking ship they would quickly disappear.
If both Spence and Crawford refuse to pay fees, the sanctioning organizations, according to their rules, will strip them of the belts and declare the titles vacant. If past history is any guide all four groups will then seek to crown their own welterweight champion and return to doing business as usual.
The People’s Champion
But what will we call the winner of the Spence vs. Crawford showdown if the new champion walks out of the ring without the four alphabet belts. Since he will no longer be a standard bearer for the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO, why not call him “The People’s Champion”. That title—“People’s Champion”—should only be reserved for the fighter who has proven to be the best in his weight class by beating the best. It would have nothing to do with holding 2, 3, 4 or more alphabet belts. The belts should be considered meaningless unless the fighter has earned the title of “People’s Champion” by meeting and defeating the best competition. The fans’ acknowledgement is all that is needed. That was the way it used to be from the early 1900s to the 1970s.
When Jack Dempsey knocked out Jess Willard to win the heavyweight championship in 1919 there were no sanctioning organizations and no belts or fees. In fact, of the hundreds of photos I have seen of the legendary “Manassa Mauler” I have yet to come across one showing him wearing a championship belt. The public recognized Dempsey as a legitimate world champion because he beat the man that beat the man. The approbation of a “sanctioning organization” was unnecessary, and it was the same for every heavyweight champion that followed him for the next 60 years. So, to paraphrase the famous “badges” line from the classic 1948 film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, both Spence and Crawford should tell the alphabet bandits—“We don’t need your stinkin’ belts!”
When the undefeated heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted into the army in 1967 he declared himself “The People’s Champion” and until defeated by Joe Frazier the people agreed with him. When great fighters such as Sonny Liston, Harold Johnson, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz and Eder Jofre won their respective titles in the early 1960s there was no WBC or WBA. The only sanctioning organization that existed in the U.S. was the old National Boxing Association which began in 1921 and eventually grew to represent a loose confederation of 43 member states. Over the next 40 plus years it was staffed by a small group of unpaid but knowledgeable volunteers that recognized champions and rated the top ten fighters for each of boxing’s eight traditional weight divisions. Some of the volunteers were employed by their state athletic commission; most of the others had full time jobs unrelated to boxing. What they all had in common was a love for the sport. They were not seeking to use boxing to line their pockets. The ratings of the NBA were considered reliable and they could not be bought. Unlike today’s sanctioning organizations, the NBA was independent of promoters and did not seek to influence who would referee or judge a title fight. Their only purpose was to add a measure of credibility and coherent structure to boxing, something that is sadly lacking today. Yes, there was a sanctioning fee imposed for NBA recognized title fights. It was a token one dollar. That’s right—one dollar! And it was paid by the promoter.
But, as noted earlier, things began to change in the late 1970s coinciding with renewed interest in televised boxing that took off a decade later. The National Boxing Association had since morphed into the World Boxing Association (WBA) and moved its headquarters from the U.S. to Panama where a new group took over. (Its current headquarters are in Venezuela). Executives at the CBS and ABC television networks, although satisfied with boxing’s high Nielsen ratings, were concerned about the sport’s less than stellar reputation and a recent scandal involving a corrupt Don King sponsored tournament. To defer blame for any future scandals they insisted on some type of official imprimatur when advertising title fights so they turned to the only “sanctioning organizations” available at the time—the WBA and a spinoff organization calling itself the World Boxing Council (WBC) with headquarters in Mexico. Don King and Bob Arum, the sports major promoters, each had contracts with most of the champions and contenders attractive to television. The competitors were quick to realize the importance TV was allocating to these mostly insignificant entities so they formed mutually beneficial partnerships with them (King with the WBC and Arum with the WBA). The rest is history. (For a complete explanation of how the alphabet gangs came to power see chapter 15 in Mike Silver’s book, “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008).
So I ask you, Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr., for the good of the sport you love and have devoted your life to, at this most important time in your respective boxing careers, toss your alphabet belts and refuse to pay the sanctioning fees. You will not only keep over two million dollars that no one should be entitled to take from you, but also strike the first significant blow that could mean the beginning of the end for the alphabet gangs. For too long they have robbed too many fighters while at the same time devaluing what it means to be a true “world champion”. Hopefully your action might encourage other high profile boxers to do the same. If some good comes out of it future generations of fighters will bless and honor you for your courage and commitment to doing what is right.
Mike Silver is a former inspector with the New York State Athletic Commission and author of three books on boxing: The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science; Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing; The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments From the World of Boxing. All are available on Amazon.com.