Imagine a world where at least four athletes walk away from each event in the Olympic Games with shiny gold medals. Where on a Sunday evening every April at Augusta National, four or five different golfers pull out of Magnolia Lane and head for home with a winners’ cheque tucked into the breast pocket of their matching green jackets.
Is your imagination vivid enough to conjure up such a far-out, zany, make-believe land? Or are you simply picturing the reality of modern-day prize fighting?
In 1949, boxing had nine weight classes with a single champion ruling each of them. Today there are seventeen separate divisions and the potential for over 100 different men to wear world championship belts of varying standing and worth.
Put bluntly, rankings and titles in boxing have become trivialised beyond recognition. If you flood a market with a particular commodity, you must be prepared to watch the value of that stock plummet dramatically. In a sport where hard, cold, often dirty, cash has always been king, it certainly feels apt to draw an analogy from the financial world.
Yet even in global banking, that most dangerously under-regulated of industries, there are laws in place to combat such blatant interference in the marketplace. Not so in boxing where the governing bodies are neither willing nor able to prevent new titles materialising at a frequency greater than most of their champions enter the ring. In fact, with lucrative sanctioning fees up for grabs, they often appear to encourage the whole charade.
And it is not just the quantity of titles that is destroying the sport from within. The quality of fighter being propelled into contention via a flawed, malleable and opaque rankings system is equally to blame.
There are so many stories relating to the ineptitude, corruption and downright ridiculousness of boxing’s four main governing bodies that it has been difficult to settle on which one to use to illustrate why the revolution is necessary. But I believe I have chosen wisely.
As the new millennium approached, American super middleweight Darrin Morris was in the midst of a seventeen fight winning streak. He had only fought twice, for a grand total of two completed rounds, in 31 months but, regardless, victory in July 1999 was good enough to make the top ten of the WBO rankings.
Fast-forward through a year of complete inactivity and Morris had understandably slipped to 11th. Then, despite still not throwing a punch in anger, Morris began his ascent. He jumped two places to 9th in August before rising to 7th in October, 6th in December and an all-time high of 5th in January of 2001. The Mongoose from West Palm Beach was suddenly being touted as a potential opponent for WBO kingpin Joe Calzaghe and he appeared on the cusp of fame and fortune.
There was just one minor issue: Morris had sadly died of HIV-related meningitis on the 17th of October, 2000. Not once, but twice the WBO had moved a lifeless corpse up their super middleweight rankings.
Worse still, a week after Francisco Valcarcel, one of the three men charged with rating WBO fighters at the time, was informed of the macabre administrative error, his cohort, Gordon Volkman, still wasn’t aware that his organisation’s fifth-ranked super middleweight had been dead for almost four months. It’s a Greek-tragedy plotline that even the Weekend at Bernie’s writers would dismiss as being too far-fetched.
For those with the best interests of the sport at heart, things went from bad to worse in 2007 when Golden Boy Promotions purchased Ring Magazine and set about playing with rankings and tampering with the championship policy for awarding the coveted Ring title.
Since Jack Dempsey received the honour in 1922, but for a brief interlude at the end of the 20th century, The Ring champion was regarded as the definitive top dog, the man who beat the man. It was never perfect but it was the closest modern-day boxing had to a true champion.
Now, in allowing first and second-ranked contenders to face third, fourth or fifth-ranked contenders and claim a vacant championship, the award had become as tainted as all the other alphabet-soup belts in circulation.
This proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Winds of change that had been stirring for years were finally whipped into a storm and three prominent members of The Ring ratings advisory panel decided they had seen enough.
Springs Toledo, Cliff Rold and Tim Starks resigned in protest and penned independent articles panning The Ring’s selling of its soul and lamenting the general malaise that boxing had waded into and sank up to its neck. The three clarion calls can, and should, be read here: Occupy the Ring, The Ring Changes the Rules, Further Clouds Title Scene, The Horrible New Ring Magazine Championship Policy.
Toledo, Rold and Starks knew that action was needed to save the sport they love and, rather than just write about the problems, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Discussing this period of inception with Toledo, I wonder what the thought process was at this time; was his vision of what needed done and how to do it already clearly defined?
“The last thing I was thinking about in April 2012 was the institution of a new rankings system. It was only when the need for it became crystal clear that I moved in that direction. Before contacting Rold and Starks, I went on a long walk, talking to myself, looking for a reason not to pick up the reformer’s flag. As a student of history, I happen to know that most would-be reformers get hanged.”
Fortunately, the dark spectre of the gallows could not silence Toledo and on the 11th of October, 2012, the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (“TBRB” or “the Board”) laced up its gloves and began fighting the good fight.
It is currently made up of 42 members representing 16 countries and five continents around the world. The members are unpaid and free from compromising connections with sanctioning bodies, promoters, managers or fighters. Further criteria decrees that they be knowledgeable about modern boxing and bouts, as well as reputable, fair and objective. Those with agendas need not apply and Toledo and Rold are rightfully proud of the calibre of board member that have been recruited.
“Some of the best minds in boxing are members.” Toledo tells me. “Take a look at the brief biographies on the website; there are archivists, authors, bloggers, editors, historians, print-media journalists, trainers, and good old-fashioned boxing writers.”
Rold describes the Board as “a great cross section of young and established boxing writers who take the time to follow the sport” and, as he puts it, you can’t ask for much more than that.
Updated rankings are published weekly following input from TBRB members in accordance with guidelines that can be found in the TBRB Charter, and an official monthly rankings list also appears in archive form.
While Rold admits that the nature of boxing ensures there will always be idiosyncrasies to adapt to, he is confident that the TBRB system is well-placed to make the adjustments fairly on the back of quality input from its members.
An additional key tenet states that vacant championships can only be claimed by the first and second-ranked contenders meeting in the ring. Finally, there is a Robbery Clause that allows for dodgy judges’ decisions in non-title bouts to be effectively ignored should more than 75% of the Board decree the outcome egregious.
All this combines to define the Board’s raison d’etre: to provide boxing with authoritative top-ten rankings, identify the singular world champion of every division based on strict reasoning and common sense, and to insist on the sport’s reform.
Toledo explains why rankings and a definitive champion per weight class are at the heart of the TBRB mission and so important to anyone who appreciates the sport’s connection with its championship past.
“Each of the eight major divisions have a succession of two-fisted kings stretching back to the nineteenth century. The details of those successions, what some call lineages, are debatable, but it’s an unmitigated mess today. Even the concepts are a mess. A fighter wins a belt and some thoughtfully designate him a titlist but he is inevitably called a world champion by writers and commentators.”
“Me? I see a contender. In the end, that’s just semantics but most know very well that there can be only one true divisional champion and their number cannot exceed the number of divisions. Anything else is dishonest. The first question for many fans, former fans, and potential fans is, who are the true champions? We can answer that.”
Rold concurs in stating that, while boxing is a business, it should first and foremost be a sport. At the core of all sports is the desire to know who is the best, who is the champion, and, of course, there should be only one.
“The most important thing to me is that those who want it have a place to look that holds the term Champion to a high standard. If the best we do is prove ourselves a reliable marker for those who feel history’s champions merit respect and proper place, I’m happy.”
The TBRB initiative is now two years old and has received recognition and praise from a range of boxing-specific websites that are only too happy to adopt a non-partisan, objective ranking list. Acknowledgment from some mainstream media outlets has since followed and a 2013 endorsement from respected ESPN broadcaster Teddy Atlas was a major boon. Indeed, the influential Atlas continues to be a regular and vocal on-air advocate of the cause and provides just the type of support Toledo is looking for.
“We’ve earned mentions in a recent online article for The New Yorker as well as WSJ.com, The Classical, and news outlets from the Ukraine to Las Vegas,” says Toledo. “We’ve lost count of how many non-Board sports writers have quoted our rankings. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we never expected such progress in so short a span. I think we hit the right nerve and filled a void that discerning fans sensed need filling.”
The focus now is to build on those gains, garner widespread support from the boxing press and fans, and leverage TBRB into a vehicle capable of driving far-reaching reforms of a boxing system that has been corrupted to such an extent that its only truly undisputed champion today is the pursuit of financial gain.
As Toledo says, “Our specific goal was to provide good rankings without the baggage and without the nonsense. That’s been accomplished already. This is a grass-roots effort aimed at boxing fans first. The hope is that it will catch on; that fans will spread the word and that sports writers and networks see the value in what we are doing on behalf of boxing. The Transnational Rankings is not a revolution. It’s a grandfatherly tap on the shoulder; a new glove pointing to the future.”
In the fight game, however, nobody can ever be sure what is around the corner and Rold highlights the uncertainty surrounding the Al Haymon-inspired Premier Boxing Champions series due to kick off in March as an example of the many unknown factors in the equation.
“If PBC emerges as a boxing UFC, as some think it will, there might be better centralisation in the States but boxing is global. How will the PBC series treat championships? Will it do business with all of the best fighters or keep it in-house? This could make it easier, or harder, to know who the champions are. We’ll do our best to cut through.”
It is axiomatic that Toledo, Rold and the rest of the TBRB are acting with the best interests of boxing at heart and that is much more than can be said for vast swathes of the sport’s governing classes. Toledo may be keen to downplay any revolutionary analogies but if certain regime changes are expedited as a consequence of TBRB jabs, few tears will be shed.
I’d urge all boxing fans to do their bit, get behind the TBRB, and help spread the good word. After all, what’s not to like about a movement seeking to bring transparency, accountability and, with it, credibility back to the sweet science?
(For full disclosure, The Balls of Wrath responded to the TBRB’s grandfatherly tap and I am proud to have a seat on the Board)