Boxing needs a single, unified world heavyweight champion
Sport’s long-term interest is clearly bound up in unity rather than continuing division
Anthony Joshua, who currently holds three belts, will defend his world heavyweight titles against Jarrell Miller at Madison Square Garden on June 1st. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA
The world heavyweight championship belt was sport’s most coveted title. It isn’t anymore. It still should be though. And it could be again if boxing wakes up to how its long term self-interest is bound up in unity rather than division.
Plenty people will have a problem with such a ‘should’. Many believe boxing to be barbaric. And yes, the concept of two people hurting each other for public entertainment can appear a long way from edifying sometimes.
Less brutal and more Olympian concepts of faster, higher, stronger are an easier sell in comparison, even with ample evidence of how unedifying much of their practical application has been. That’s without even going into team sports and the prestige of, for instance, a football World Cup.
At their best, such rarefied levels of skill, and the fortitude to execute it in the most pressurised of environments, represent a sort of moral courage that’s admirable and recognisable to anyone who cares about sporting competition.
There’s a reason why boxing and betting are near synonymous, while taste and decency are far too often strangers to the sport
Boxing’s lure is about more than that. It’s rooted in the physical courage required to climb into a 16 feet by 20 feet of ring and trade blows with someone else who wants to hurt you. Unfashionable as it may be sometimes, that’s the ingredient that always fascinates us.
It’s a deeply uncomfortable fascination. Sometimes it’s gruesome, occasionally even tragic. And it’s hard not to wonder about the fight game’s ethics a lot of the time. But only the most obdurate can ignore how it caters to a primal compulsion never far from the surface.
It’s why the heavyweight crown was the pinnacle for so long. If boxing was both sport’s rawest and purest competitive test, then it’s most powerful figures were the ultimate expression of that, singular men with not only skill but a level of bravery beyond the comprehension of most of us.
Everyone knew the world champion, even when it came to personality-free zones like Ingemar Johansson or Jersey Joe Walcott.
It’s why Muhammad Ali is the most iconic sports figure of the last century. Personality wise, Ali could have been himself to the power of 10 and no one would have paid attention if he was world badminton champion. Instead he was the greatest at being the greatest in the greatest test of all.
Ali’s sad fate inevitably gets pointed to as evidence of boxing’s dangers. It’s also used to point out the dangers of glamorising brutality, an important point since no one disputes the fight game’s appetite for overwrought prose about its own ‘Sweet Science’.
It is what it is. And what it is often is a long way from pretty. Sometimes it’s as ugly as it is brutal. There’s a reason why boxing and betting are near synonymous, while taste and decency are far too often strangers to the sport. But there’s a reason too why its appeal endures.
That’s because there has always remained something essentially honourable about two people, skilled and fit beyond compare, having the bravery to face each other in a regimented test vitally distinct from the ugly blood lust of MMA or UFC.
It’s why predictions of professional boxing’s demise are exaggerated, especially since such predictions aren’t new.
In the early 1980s, legendary promoter Bob Arum described the staid heavyweight landscape division as “waiting for the old fat bums to disappear”.
Tyson Fury’s personality makes him a more complicated proposition. But no one can argue his is a recognisable persona
Then in 1985 along came a young Mike Tyson. Boxing has a history of such new figures engaging the public, even if Tyson’s baleful presence personifies how complicated that engagement can be.
But such history is no excuse for complacency in the face of public indifference to who’s champion of the world right now.
At the last count there seems to be four claiming such an honour. Anthony Joshua holds the WBA, WBO and IBF versions. The American Deontay Wilder has the WBC belt. Then there’s Trevor Bryan, who’s the WBA’s ‘interim’ champion, and a Syrian called Manuel Charr, who’s their ‘regular’ title holder.
The heavyweight division is actually tidy compared to the clutter of most other weight categories. They feature an array of different champions from different sanctioning bodies with enough grandiose initials to make forgivable a weary attitude of WTF.
These organisations make a lot of money from making sure there’s a belt at stake no matter how obscure the fight. So determined are they to big-up that the outcome is widespread public indifference to diluted baubles.
It’s almost 20 years since Lennox Lewis was the last undisputed world heavyweight champion. Since then the division has been subdivided into obscurity when it comes to the attentions of large sections of the general public.
Lack of ‘personalities’ has been blamed. So has a decline in American heavyweight power. But much more practical perhaps is the lack of a single crown worn by one figure who can be acknowledged as champion.
Instead we get fighters dodging meaningful competition, cynically carving up a financial pie that pays now but costs the sport in longer term public engagement.
True, it can be argued the heavyweight game is currently on an upturn. Joshua is an exciting boxer who earned his fighting spurs against Wladimir Klitschko and enjoys public appeal in Britain.
Tyson Fury’s personality makes him a more complicated proposition. But no one can argue his is a recognisable persona, of dubious nature as it may seem sometimes. His drawn fight against Wilder in December was a memorable encounter that makes a lucrative rematch all but inevitable.
Joshua is already confirmed to fight New York's Jarell Miller in Madison Square Garden in June. Between them a lot of belts with various initials will be up for grabs - Joshua's IBF, WBA and WBO straps. And self interest means any ambitions to reduce them to one are probably naive.
But if there is a single priority boxing should have this year it is to try and encourage a situation by the end of 2019 where it has a single unified world heavyweight champion. Maybe then the title can start to regain its due status as the ultimate prize in sport.