In the simpler state of the world before television, there always was clear understanding that a boxing champion was one of eight living men who was, irrefutably, the best fighter of his class. He was the best heavyweight, or light heavy or middleweight, welter or any size champion down to those perky 112-pounders who fought as flyweights.
Those uncomplicated days are gone. Now cluttering the boxing scene are 27 identified champions of assorted weights and accreditations. A few of them are authentic. Most of them are synthetic, semichamps, and the titles assigned others are plain hoked-up and contrived for purposes of commerce, meaning bigger paydays via television.
Boxing has been feeding off the network wars and the big idea is to concoct a title to please the thirsty and competing TV people who are always ready to pay more for something that connotates something, like a title at stake. Heaven forbid that it's just an ordinary fight.
So, presto! A swarm of titleholders has sprung full blown from the creative brows of promoters and their stooges, the two world boxing bodies who operate out of Mexico and Panama.
Do the networks or closed circuit TV need a title fight? Not to worry, what weight would you like? They now come in half-sizes, junior and super. Pretty soon, perhaps, infants and toddlers.
Fifteen weight divisions now exist where only eight were deemed sufficient in the past. And with the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association loath to recognize each other's champions, 27 champions are now extant. Thirty is a maximum. It's a farce. They are titles of convenience.
It is boxing's version of gene-splicing, or cross-pollination or something, that has brought forth a champion for every need. Fooling with the weights has enabled the WBC and WBA to nearly quadruple the number of titles. It is titlehood in flower, and reminiscent of the late governor-senator Huey Long who won elections with his sloganeering of "Every man a king."
The WBC and WBA agree on only two things: that Marvin Hagler is the undisputed middleweight champ and that Sugar Ray Leonard's welterweight title is now vacant. Otherwise there could be parts of 30 titles floating around to please the networks.
The latest creation of the WBC and WBA--and naturally they have different champions again--is cruiserweight, a species formerly unknown to the trade. What is a cruiserweight? He can be loosely described as a nonheavyweight, although bigger than a light heavy. Get it?
With a fetish for disagreeing on almost everything, the WBC says a cruiserweight weighs 190 pounds. Not so, says the WBA, he weighs 195. Cruiserweight indeed. Jack Dempsey weighed 187 pounds when he won the title from Jess Willard and everybody agreed he was the heavyweight champion, nothing else.
Much was made a couple of weeks ago about Alexis Arguello trying for a fourth title when he fought Aaron Pryor for the junior welterweight crown. He already had the WBC featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight titles and now they were comparing Arguello to the old, distinguished Henry Armstrong, an undisputed three-weight champion.
Ah, but there was a whopping difference. Armstrong was a pure champion. He didn't bother with junior titles or super weights or such. He was the legitimate champion in the feather, lightweight and welterweight divisions. And let's remember Henry went directly from featherweight to welterweight champion when as a 133-pounder he beat the 147-pound defender Barney Ross and three months later Armstrong went back to collect the 135-pound lightweight title he had overlooked for the nonce.
Under the current weight scales so dear to the boxing people and their network friends, Armstrong conceivably could have had a valid claim to five titles, not three. Let some of the modern split-weight wonders tie that.
The WBA and WBC don't even agree on what is what after splitting the weights to get their in-between champions. In WBC lingo, the WBA junior welterweight (140 pounds) is called superlightweight. WBA may deal in juniors, but WBC sees them only as supers of a lower weight class.
There were previous attempts of boxing associations to split the weights, and in 1930 the New York Boxing Board, then the dominant body in boxing, abolished all junior divisions as unnecessary. All other states followed that rule, but gradually they have come creeping back, bringing with them more divisions.
That these split-weight champs are not held in high regard seems apparent. The late editor of Ring magazine, Nat Fleisher, in his all-time ranking of the 80 best boxers, never recognized a junior title holder. In the boxing Hall of Fame, where scores of fighters are honored, only one junior champ, Jackie (Kid) Berg is rated, and he is sometimes called a special case because of his many title frustrations.
The ludicrous aspects of the rankings are present. As its heavyweight champion, the WBC has the forever unbeaten Larry Holmes, who knocked out Mike Weaver in 12 rounds in 1979. So who does the WBC still recognize as heavyweight champ? Mike Weaver, naturally. The spite goes on, with the unbeaten Holmes even unable to make the WBA's top 10.
Pryor is the latest big name in boxing with his recent knockout of Arguello for the WBA title. The WBC in its latest ratings acts as if it never heard of Pryor and all his knockouts. Somebody named Leroy Haley is the WBC champ in that division, except that they call him superlightweight, not junior welter, although those weight limits are the same.
The spite between the two governing bodies also is evident in the lightweight division rankings. The WBC lists Arguello as its champ. The WBA prefers Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini as its champion, although he was knocked out by Arguello last year.
That the WBC is allied directly with the promoters was testimony of Bob Arum, heard in a lawsuit two years ago. Arum said he got preferential treatment from Jose Sulaiman, the WBC president, saying, "Whenever we wanted to get a fighter ranked in the top 10 we would talk to Sulaiman and invariably he would put the fighter in the ratings."
Arum added that in 1978 he replaced Don King as the favorite WBC promoter. But some say the rules since have changed, with Arum now the WBA's boy, and King restored to good standing in the WBC.
The WBC and WBA are both creative outfits. They create votes, they create champions and they create demichampions and semichampions. And complete confusion.