Costly tributes behind Boxer Rebellion


Some of us can remember when the boxing world consisted of eight weight classes, and every schoolboy could name the world champion in each. Over the past few decades, the fistic kingdom was divided, like Gaul, into three fiefdoms presided over by the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the International Boxing Federation (IBF), to the point that there are now 48 "world" titles, and that only includes the generally-recognised ones.

Throw in the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) and the number swells to 64; add to that a whole host of others, like the WBU, the IBA, the IBO, the WBF, ad nauseum, and there are literally hundreds of pretenders.

Only two boxers extant - heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis and light-heavyweight Roy Jones Jr - currently possess "undisputed" titles, and Vitaly Klitschko and Dariusz Michelzcewski, the WBO claimants, would dispute those.

Oscar De La Hoya, who holds no title (unless one counts the welterweight championship belt the IBA conferred upon him for beating Derrell Coley at Madison Square Garden last Saturday night), would seem an unlikely candidate to be leading a Boxer Rebellion against this nonsense, but the commendable stand taken by the Golden Boy last week could well set an example for his brethren pugilists.

Officially, De La Hoya's fight against Coley, the WBC's number one-rated welterweight, was an eliminator for that organisation's title, currently held by Puerto Rican Felix Trinidad, who beat De La Hoya last September in a fight for both the WBC and IBF titles.

Trinidad, however, is challenging for David Reid's WBA light middleweight title tomorrow night, and should he win, as he is favoured to do, the WBC had announced that the 147 lb championship would revert to the De La Hoya-Coley winner.

That's what they had ruled, anyway, until De La Hoya said he didn't want it. A few days before the fight in New York last week, De La Hoya vowed that he would not pay the exorbitant WBC sanctioning fee, and said he didn't need the belt, either.

"What for? I don't need it," said De La Hoya. "I actually don't care about a title anymore. WBC, IBF, WBA, I don't care. Fighters make the organisations. I don't think organisations make fighters."

Now, it should be noted that the Golden Boy may have been acting more out of economic interest than out of principle. Last September he forked over $450,000 to the WBC for sanctioning a fight in which he lost his title, and would have had to pay a like amount to the IBF had he not simply refused to cough up. Which brings us to the dilemma faced by Lewis and Jones. Not only are they regularly required to pay tribute to all three organisations, but as triple belt-holders they find themselves under continuous siege to face dubiously-qualified "mandatory" challengers.

Court records in the federal proceeding against the IBF have demonstrated that over the past two decades a number of challengers reached this status by, literally, bribing their way into contention.

A day after De La Hoya announced his defiance, HBO sports president Seth Abraham, whose network has both Lewis and Jones under contract, suggested that the two undisputed champions might be willing to follow suit.

HBO has been almost as embarrassed by showing Jones versus a couple of "mandatory" challengers as Jones was in fighting them. And Lewis, already facing a court challenge to fight David Tua, the IBF's number one, is also in peril of being stripped of recognition by the WBA, which is threatening to confer its title on the winner of the May 20th John Ruiz v Evander Holyfield bout.

"That would be a big mistake on their part," said Lewis, who has taken to describing the entire onerous process with a term of his own coinage - "politricks".

Last Sunday morning in New York, we breakfasted with Lewis and his American representatives, Kathy Duva of Main Events and attorney Milt Chwasky, who had some interesting observations on the subject - including De La Hoya's announced refusal to pay tribute to the sanctioning bodies.

"Looking at what they charge for sanctioning fees, they've got to give us better belts," joked Lewis, who will defend all three of them against American Michael Grant in New York on April 29th.

At the same time, Lewis said, being recognised as the undisputed champion "is everything I thought it would be".

"When I came into boxing," added Lewis, "I had goals that I wanted to achieve, and the undisputed title was definitely one of them. I certainly want to retire undisputed, and there are a couple of fights out there for me."

And being in possession of all three titles remains, if nothing else, a valuable negotiating tool.

"Here's the problem," explained Duva. "If Lennox were to do what everyone would love him to do, which is say `I don't need the belts. We're just going to fight whoever we want', practically speaking, here's what would happen: six guys would fight for three vacant belts.

"Now they're all heavyweight champions, too, and now we've got to tangle with those people. This is a business, and when we go to the table, right now we have the hammer.

"So right now you pay the fees, and they are exorbitant," said Duva. "It would be nice if there was one sanctioning body that everyone understood and accepted. But you know what will happen. If Lewis gives up one of these titles, you know who will fight for it within about 15 minutes - and then Mike Tyson and Lennox are going to have a very different negotiation. For that reason, our job is to try and keep those three belts."

"Remember, too," cautioned Chwasky, "it isn't in the interest of any of these sanctioning organisations to have a unified champion - and it isn't just the IBF. These other people have some explaining to do, too. "I'm not suggesting that Lennox is bigger than the belts, but he is the undisputed champion. The only thing these organisations can do is bring discredit to themselves."

It might be well to remember here that Lewis is boxing's first undisputed heavyweight champion in eight years. The last man to hold all three titles, Riddick Bowe, in 1992, relinquished the WBC title and dumped the organisation's belt into a London dustbin rather than face its number one challenger - a fellow named Lennox Lewis.