Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti will meet on Saturday night in Atlantic City for the second time, each receiving the biggest payday of a long career in a welterweight boxing match that has no belt at stake and little in the way of championship implications -- but is one of the most anticipated bouts of the year.
It is the second marquee fight this month without a title on the line, marking a growing separation between the championship bouts sanctioned by boxing's three major governing bodies and the fights the television networks want to air.
HBO and Showtime, the cable giants that bankroll nearly all major fights, have signed many of the world's top boxers to lucrative long-term contracts, giving them clout over whom their fighters fight. The sanctioning bodies that hand out world titles, however, require champions to fight mandatory challengers based on rankings. The conflict occurs when the networks and sanctioning bodies disagree on whom a champion should fight.
That leaves the boxers caught in the middle, torn between the symbolic value of the belt, which is stripped away when they don't make mandatory defenses, and the larger purses that can come from fighting big-name opponents on cable.
"The belt represents the fighter's success, his climb to the top," said Vernon Forrest, the WBC welterweight champ. "I've got seven belts in my trophy cabinet, and I'm still trying to collect more. I'm proud of each one."
The three major sanctioning bodies -- the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council -- argue that the networks are attempting to bully them, using their control over their fighters to create matches based on the ratings the broadcast might generate instead of the rankings.
"Simply because someone does not have name recognition does not automatically discount them as the top opponent," said Daryl Peoples, ratings chairman for the IBF. "Our goal is to give these guys title shots. [The number one ranking] is not an arbitrary decision, made by one person."
The networks, in turn, say the title fights have lost significance.
"The belts don't mean as much as they used to, unless you are in a situation where someone is trying to unify all three," said Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, which will air the second Ward-Gatti fight, a rematch of last May's bout, which was won by Ward in a close decision that turned into one of the most captivating ring dramas in years.
If a fighter such as Forrest is to reach the top of his weight class and "unify" the division -- that is, hold all three major titles -- he assuredly will develop a collection of belts because boxing is the lone sport to recognize three major championships. Sometimes called the "alphabet soup," the IBF, WBA and WBC, plus the second-tier World Boxing Organization, offer more than two dozen titles in 17 weight classes, ranging from 105 pounds to heavyweight.
"You have a total of 29 sanctioning bodies," said York Van Nixon of the WBA. "They'll never all see eye-to-eye."
The organizations have come under scrutiny in recent years for their ratings and sanctioning fees. The IBF, whose chairman was found to have accepted bribes from promoters in an FBI investigation more than two years ago, has had three high-profile champions give up their belts within the past year.
The most recent came two weeks ago, when heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis agreed to step aside from his mandatory defense in exchange for $1 million and a Range Rover from promoter Don King so King could promote a Chris Byrd-Evander Holyfield match for the vacated title.
"That shows you how much that belt means to Lennox," said Jay Larkin, Showtime's boxing chief. Larkin hopes that his network's unwillingness to pay for lopsided title defenses will spur changes in the ratings.
"I'll give you an example: recently [unified 140-pound champion] Kostya Tszyu had a mandatory due against Gianluca Branco," Larkin said. "[Branco] is ranked number one, for some reason, in the WBC. I have never heard of him. He may be a wonderful fighter. I have no idea. . . . We are not going to approve that. It is not a significant fight to our viewers. . . .
"The sanctioning bodies will be forced to have more meaningful titles, more meaningful rankings, because if their mandatories are not compelling, we won't back them."
Tszyu wound up taking a fight against the more well-known Jesse James Leija for January and Showtime will televise.
Last month, the IBF stripped Johnny Tapia of his 126-pound belt for taking a lucrative fight with Marco Antonio Barrera, generally regarded as the best in the division, rather than its top challenger. Barrera, who had won the WBC title during a June victory over Erik Morales, declined the belt because of a long-standing feud with WBC President Jose Sulaiman.
HBO aired the fight with no title on the line, a unanimous-decision victory by Barrera, on Nov. 2.
"At the time we got Barrera-Tapia, it was a title fight," Greenburg said. "Then Tapia was stripped. That did not factor into our decision to televise the fight. We bought Barrera-Tapia. That was what went up on the billboards. That's what we wanted."
Forrest gave up his IBF title last December, opting to fight WBC champion Shane Mosley rather than Michele Piccirillo, the IBF's top-rated contender. "But I wouldn't have done that if Shane hadn't had the WBC belt," Forrest said.
Forrest is one of an elite group of boxers, subsidized by lucrative long-term deals from HBO or Showtime, who can afford to forego belts for more lucrative fights. Most are former champions, such as Barrera, whose reputations are intact, or fighters such as Ward and Gatti, whose willingness to trade punches and provide an entertaining show establishes them as a draw.
But for younger fighters, the belt is their coronation. Without it, there is little money to be made.
"It's not the money, it's the belt," said the District's DeMarcus Corley, who holds the WBO 140-pound title. "It means a whole lot to me. It's everything you've been trying to accomplish."
Forrest is just one of a growing number of high-profile fighters -- along with Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones -- calling for change.
"If you want these titles to mean something, [the sanctioning bodies] need to stop this foolishness -- the unnecessary, insane fees, stripping guys when they're fighting the best [opponents]," Forrest said. "It's self-serving on the part of the networks, too. Television executives have no concern about the athletes as individuals. They are only concerned about ratings for the networks.
"I want to be considered a world champion, not an HBO champion. I'm a people's champion. I don't fight for ratings. I fight for belts."