The Complexities of Unification
By Steven Weinberg | Contributing Writer and Photographer
Published: February 13, 2018
If you think that Errol Spence Jr.’s thorough dominance over Lamont Peterson will do anything to clarify who the top dog is in the welterweight division, you are wrong. The division is arguably packed with the most talent in the sport, but the business of boxing will make it extremely difficult to sort everything, if not anything, out. Despite there being near universal agreement that Keith Thurman, Errol Spence, Jr., Danny Garcia, Shawn Porter, and Terence Crawford are the best in the division, only Garcia and Crawford are ranked by 2 of the four sanctioning organizations. Confusingly, Konstantin Ponomarev and Qudratillo Abduqaxorov, two men unknown to the American public, are ranked by 3 of the four sanctioning bodies. What this practically means is that the best fighting the best will be tough to achieve because the sanctioning bodies may not allow for it. None of the fighters though can be blamed for the situation; they are, after all, playing by the of rules game.
Just how convoluted and confusing the rankings are can be seen in the table below, made shortly after the Spence v. Peterson fight.
The rankings are the result of the rules of the four major sanctioning bodies, the WBC, WBA, WBO, and IBF. While each of the organizations may operate under the guise of “creating standards” for the sport, in reality, they are businesses designed to turn a profit. The drive for profit helps explain how rankings and fights get made.
The WBC ranking committee is made up of at least ten people. The organization is honest enough to say that rankings are mostly subjective but also based on merit, evaluated record, activity, result and quality of performance in recent bouts, level of competition, significance of fights, experience in championship or elimination bouts, accomplishments and record in amateur boxing, competing home or aboard, decisiveness of victories, style, and losses in controversial decisions. The champions of the other organizations are not ranked. If any WBC ranked fighter commits to fight for another organization, he might lose his WBC ranking. WBC champions should “strive” to defend their titles three times per year, but the WBC may grant a written exception or extension. Defenses are to be against top ten contenders, or if approved by the WBC, a top 15 rated fighter or another elite fighter. WBC champions can have two voluntary defenses and one mandatory defense per year. The WBC will determine who the mandatory defense will be against, which is not necessarily reflected by the challenger’s ranking position. Under special circumstance, the WBC may order a unification bout. An elimination bout may also be ordered, but the winner may not become the mandatory challenger unless the WBC explicitly sanctions the bout as a “final elimination” bout.
Promoters are required to pay an annual registration fee of $7,000.00 to promote WBC events. In addition, promoters must pay $5,000.00 for world title and elimination bouts with combined purses of up to $150,000.00, and up to $25,000.00 for title bouts with combined purses of $1.5 million or greater. Boxers themselves must pay 3% of all gross purse funds for the privilege of competing for the iconic green belt. Promoters must provide five ringside seats for WBC officials at all WBC sanctioned bouts, as well as pay for the room and board of the officials. Additional fees a promoter must pay to the WBC are $5,000.00 when a new champion is crowned and $1,500.00 for boxers’ hospitalization and life insurance coverage. Referees and Judges are paid on a sliding scale based on purse amount. On the low end, with purses up to $100,000.00, referees and judges are paid $1,600.00 and $1,300.00 respectively. On the high end, in contests with purses over $10 million, referees and judges are paid $8,150.00 and $5,150.00 respectively. Promoters must also pay $1,000.00 for a WBC Supervisor’s incidental expenses. Fifteen days before a bout, the promoter must deposit 10% of the fighters’ purses, not to exceed $500,000.00, with the WBC.
The WBA’s rating committee is comprised of 3 to 5 people with additional advisors and consultants. The ratings are based on information sent by the regional boxing federations affiliated with WBA and information gathered independently. While the information itself can be subjective, the WBA has created a series of tables for determining the promotion or demotion of a ranked fighter based on a win or loss and the rank of the opponent. The result is as open, honest, and predictable as one can hope for in the subjectivity of judging talent. The committee, however, may remove a boxer from the ratings based on, but not limited to, ring performance, losses, inactivity, and other relevant factors. Title defenses are to occur within nine months of obtaining said title. An Interim Champion is not necessarily a mandatory challenger and may be ordered into an elimination bout. Additionally, an Interim Champion may not enter a unification bout. If there is a unified champion, he must still meet his mandatory WBA defense obligation.
To participate in the WBA’s system, a promoter must pay a licensing fee of $5000.00 per year, and a manager must pay $1,200.00. For championship bouts, promoters must pay the WBA from $6,000.00 in the minimum and light flyweight divisions to $25,000.00 for heavyweights and all divisions where the combined purse is over $1.5 million. In elimination contests, promoters must pay $3,600.00 if the combined purses are up to $250,000.00, and up to $18,000.00 if the combined purses are more than $10 million. The boxers must each pay 3% of their purses in order to fight for a WBA belt. When a championship changes hands, promoters must pay $2,500.00 for a new interim belt, $3,500.00 for regular/unified belt, and $5,000.00 for a super belt. WBA officials are paid $1,000.00 per fight, and referees and Judges are paid on a sliding scale based on purse amount. On the low end, with purses up to $100,000.00, referees and judges are paid $1,900.00 and $1,600.00 respectively. On the high end, in contests with purses over $10M, referees and judges are paid $3,900.00 and $3,500.00 respectively. If a fighter seeks an exception to a WBA rule, he must pay $12,000.00 in the lowest weight division and $25,000.00 in the heavyweight division.
WBO champions must defend their title at least every nine months against the mandatory challenger, who may be selected by the 5-person WBO Championship Committee. In the interim, the champion can defend against anyone ranked in the WBO top 15. The Championship committee determines the mandatory challenger based on accomplishment and achievement and is recognized as a world-class boxer, but does allow fighters to petition the organization for the position. The WBO allows for TV networks, such as HBO, Showtime, and Sky to approve or disapprove a mandatory challenger as well as contestants in elimination bouts. The WBO must sanction a unification bout, but unlike the other sanctioning bodies, explicitly encourages the pursuit of unification in its regulations.
Sanctioning fees for WBO championship fights are 3% of both the champion‘s and challenger’s purse, at a maximum of $200,000.00 per fighter. In unification bouts, the WBO champion, however, only needs to pay 2% of his purse, while the non-WBO champion must still pay 3% of his purse. In non-unification bouts, promoters’ fees are $3,000.00 for combined purses up to $500,000.00, plus $1,000.00 for the Welfare Fund, all the way to $7,000.00 in fights with combined purses over $5 million, plus $18,000.00 for the Welfare Fund. In unification bouts, promoters’ fees are $4,500.00 for combined purses up to $500,000.00, plus $1,000.00 for the Welfare Fund, all the way to $10,000.00 in fights with combined purses over $5 million, but the Welfare Fund contribution is lowered to $10,000.00. Annual promoter registration fees are only $1,000.00. Promoters must pay referees and judges $1,600.00 and $1,300.00, respectively, in contests with combined purses up to $250,000.00, and up to $5,000.00 and $3,500.00, respectively, in contests with combined purses up to $8,000,000.00. WBO officials are paid at the same rate as judges, along with airfare, room, and board.
The IBF, like the WBC, explicitly doesn’t rank the other organization's champions. Unlike the WBC, the IBF considers the others champion above their own ranked fighters for the purpose of unification. Paradoxically, boxers that contract to fight for other world titles shall be removed from the IBF ratings. Ratings are solely based on win/loss records, level of competition, amateur achievement, activity, and adherence to the IBF/USBA rules and regulations. For a boxer to be considered in the top ten, he must have had ten professional fights, two of which must have been ten rounders, or four eight rounders. Exceptions may be made for Olympic medalists with five professional fights. To be rated number 1 or 2, a boxer must first be in the top 5 and beat another top 5 boxer. If a boxer in the mandatory position accepts a step-aside, he will be lowered in the ratings and lose his mandatory position. All of the ratings criteria are subject to exception by the Rating’s Committee. Champions must defend their belt no less than every nine months against the leading available contender. Only in the interim are optional defenses against an IBF top 15 ranked fighters allowed, subject to the approval of the IBF. Importantly, the IBF must approve all unification bouts, and if approved, take priority over mandatory challengers. The IBF ranking system intentionally leaves the #1 and #2 positions vacant until 2 top 5 contenders face each other. If the #1 and #2 positions are vacant at the time a mandatory defense is to be scheduled, the champion must face the highest available contender. Only champions can request exceptions to the enforcement of any IBF rule, which will cost the fighter a non-refundable fee of $20,000.00. To appeal an IBF ruling will cost $10,000.00.
Promoters must pay $4,000 to the IBF as an annual registration fee, and an additional $3,500.00 per title and eliminator fight. Champions and challengers must pay 3% of their purses to the IBF. However, in eliminator bouts, fighters only pay 2% of their purse. Referees and Judges are paid on a sliding scale based on purse amount. On the low end, with purses up to $250,000.00, referees and judges are paid $1,600.00 and $1,300.00 respectively. On the high end, in contests with purses over $10M, referees and judges are paid $5,000.00 and $3,500.00 respectively.
Errol Spence has announced his desire to unify the division by fighting Keith Thurman. However, as the rules show, that is going to be harder than it looks. Just days after defeating Peterson, Spence was ordered by the IBF to face Carlos Ocampo, or lose his title. Thurman announced that due to coming back from an injury, that he has no intention of facing Spence in 2018. Likewise, the choice may not be Thurman’s to make. He has to face his WBC mandatory, which may or may not be a rematch with Shawn Porter, and under the WBA rules, face Lucas Matthysee, the winner of his elimination bout with Tewa Kiram. Meanwhile, Danny Garcia is still waiting in the wings looking for a rematch after his split decision loss to Thurman. Because Garcia is ranked so highly by the WBC and WBA, a Thurman v. Garcia rematch can easily be ordered. While Thurman is defending his two belts, Spence may target the WBO champion. It is widely believed that by the time that occurs, Terrence Crawford will hold that belt. However, Crawford will have his own mandatory defense to make, and any voluntary bout with Spence will also have to be approved by ESPN, with whom Crawford’s promoter, Top Rank, has a relationship. Unfortunately, the effect is as if multiple chess games are being played with all the same pieces and the fighters are all pawns.
All of the above scenarios cost money. The promoters for each fighter are going to have to pay the multiple registration fees and bout sanctioning fees before any purse payouts. To top it off, of the current champions, Thurman has drawn by far the biggest TV audience in the biggest venues. The promoters simply may not want to finance a fight between many of the players if they do not think it is going to draw a large enough paying audience to cover the expenses and the purses. In short, the fights are going to have to make economic sense before they make “sporting” sense.
Further, because the rules and rates for judges and referees differ for each organization, who is available and chosen for each role can be a point of contention during contract negotiations and must be worked out. The fighters themselves will have to come to terms with paying anywhere from 3% to 12% of their purses so that they can fight for the chance to own a belt whose meaning is arguably watered down because there are four. Moreover, if the purse is not what a fighter thinks he is worth, then paying 3% -12% will not be worth it. After all, there is a long list of champions that have turned down fights or relinquished their belts for monetary reasons.
Finally, there is also an unknown and unspoken element to the matchmaking. Nobody knows why Errol Spence was never ranked by anyone but the IBF before he won its belt. Terrence Crawford is 1 of 3 men ever to hold all four belts in a division. Yet as a former champion of the WBC and IBF, those organizations currently ignore him. Shawn Porter, a former IBF champion, and WBA title challenger is not ranked by either organization. How did Konstantin Ponomarev and Qudratillo Abduqaxorov get ranked by 3 of the organizations and put themselves in the position to fight for titles? We simply don’t know if there is some institutional bias within the organizations against certain fighters and in favor of others that will keep the fights that fans want to see from getting made.
Boxing is a dirty sport. Not for what goes on in the ring, where the honesty of two men and their fists are on display, but for what goes on outside of the ring when sport turns to prize fighting. Moreover, because a prize is involved, everything, if not anything, about who the best is, in any division, not just amongst welterweights, is rarely sorted out.
(Feature Photo: Amanda Westcott/Showtime)