Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What's With All Those Freaking Belts, Anyway? The Case Of The Sanctioning Organizations And Diaz V. Ring Magazine And Casamayor

A quick primer for the uninitiated, before the court gets to the case of Casamayor v. Diaz et al:

"Alphabet soup" is delicious, save when it comes to boxing. One of the sport's most debilitating diseases is the advent of an almost endless number of title belts in each weight division awarded by the likes of the sanctioning organizations named things like "WBA" and "WBC." The end result of this alphabet soup is that there are often four "champions" per weight class, not to mention the various befuddling "super champion" and "champion in recess" titles that these sanctioning organizations award. The cynical among us suspect that a great many of these bizarre designations are intended only to squeeze sanctioning fees out of the boxers who fight for them, and that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unfathomable alphabet soup politics. For instance, terrible, undeserving fighters often end up becoming the "mandatory" challenger for a belt-holder, something that arouses suspicion of incompetence or worse, and sometimes belt-holders are stripped of their titles for what seem to be no reason whatsoever.

Into the confusing breach of the IBF, WBO et al championship belts came Ring Magazine in 2002, with the invention of something like a people-powered champ. It was, and remains, a highly commendable effort. The Ring Magazine started awarding belts in each of the weight divisions to people who were in essence the "linear" champs, a policy that meant the only way to get the belt was to beat the man who had the belt. In the event someone abandons it by retiring or changing weight classes, the belt becomes vacant. When there are vacancies, the top two fighters usually have to fight one another to become Ring champion.

If you follow boxing closely, you know all this already. If you don't, the Ring belts are probably sounding like a grand idea right about now, since one of the reasons boxing turns a lot of people off is that it's too hard to understand who the "real" champ is and who's a phony.

But for the last few weeks, ever since lightweight (135 lbs.) Juan Diaz defeated Julio Diaz to obtain three of the four available alphabet soup belts, a long-simmering debate in the boxing world over the Ring belt has picked up a little extra fire. And when the Ring's lightweight champ, Joel Casamayor, ended a 13-month layoff and looked terrible against a borderline top-10 lightweight named Jose Armando Santa Cruz Saturday -- then to make matters worse, when the judges awarded him a decision victory that people like myself consider the worst they've ever seen -- the fire built to an inferno. Critics of the magazine's belt policy have pounced. Everyone who knows boxing knows Juan Diaz is the best, most accomplished fighter at lightweight. He's beaten more high-caliber fighters in recent years. After Saturday's stinkfest by Casamayor, which, had he not won, would have placed a guy who's a borderline top-10 fighter in Santa Cruz as the "real" champ of the division, no one doubts that Diaz would stomp Casamayor. (Unless, of course, the same good fortune that lifted him to a decision victory of Santa Cruz again raised a historic wind beneath Casamayor's wings.) So how, they ask, can Casamayor be the "real" champ?

No matter how vociferously the Ring's defenders are maintaining that Casamayor's the real champ, what we have on our hands here is a mighty big loophole. (A caveat: I've always been better at identifying problems than fixing them. That's not a cop-out, I promise. I'm going to give it a try.)

There is, as HBO broadcaster Emmanuel Steward laid it out, a case to be made for the sanctioning organization belts. When no one's the mandatory challenger, the champ can strut around in his belt and take on chumps and still pretend he's a real champion. Without a system for establishing a mandatory challenger, really amazing fighters who pose horrific style match-ups or the promise of inflicting tremendous pain with little potential reward -- say, a southpaw who has a reputation for boringly but efficiently grinding his opponents into pulp -- will spend their entire careers being avoided.

It is my opinion that the Ring system is a better reflection in most cases of the "real" champ than some random sanctioning organization. But one can see the potential for abuse in both directions: the WBC's ability to strip belt-holders willy-nilly and force its champs into fights against undeserving contenders leads to all kinds of unfairness; and Ring's rejection of that practice permits its champions to be champions in perpetuity, regardless of whether they take on anyone who can fight a lick.

So how about this as a compromise? Ring already rates the top 10 fighters in each division. Why not give the Ring champ some kind of very loose mandate to fight a #1 contender within, say, two years from the last time he fought a #1 contender? That's not too crazy, is it? And, of course, create an exception for injury or other unintentional delay. I realize it's not that far away from what the sanctioning organizations do, but it's not so close, either. Look, if you can't make a fight with a #1 contender in two years, you're either an insufferable jerk who's impossible to negotiate with (like Casamayor) or you're a coward who doesn't want to risk losing the title. Either way, you don't deserve it after two years of avoiding the next best fighter in your division.

Because right now, I look at Casamayor, and I don't see a champion. Once, sure, in his younger days. Maybe even before the Santa Cruz debacle. But if he hasn't fought Juan Diaz or whoever Ring's #1 contender is by seven months from now, I sure as hell won't see him as a champion then. And if Diaz doesn't want to fight Casamayor anymore after he looked terrible against Santa Cruz and had spent the last year badmouthing Diaz, well, Casamayor dug that hole, didn't he? The remedy for that affliction is for Casamayor to get back into the ring for cheap and beat somebody who's dangerous convincingly and entertainingly, and then, maybe, Diaz would want win the Ring belt fair and square because he might make a little money doing it. If Casamayor can't muster that? After Saturday, I'd rather see Juan Diaz fight, say, the Ring's #2 ranked lightweight David Diaz for the vacant Ring belt anyway. The winner of that fight is a champion I can endorse without question.

And yet, loopholes beget loopholes. Under this idea, maybe after a difficult fighter becomes Ring champion -- our aforementioned boring-but-scary southpaw -- nobody wants to fight the Ring champ, and we're back to square one, and even worse, the whole Ring belt is completely devalued.

The only solution I can think of for that one is, and here's where things get circular: Make the Ring belt so unquestionably THE belt by stripping the policy of loopholes that it's the only belt boxing writers and broadcasters even bother to mention. Because right now, it's difficult to shame reasonable people into touting Casamayor as the "real" champion.

(I'm torn on whether to keep one of the sanctioning organizations around, just in case Ring Magazine gets chippy and decides to take payoffs for its rankings again. Ring's only done it once, while the sanctioning organizations have a longer history of it, but then, none of the sanctioning organizations are officially owned by a boxing promoter. I'll defer judgment on this idea for now.)

An alternative proposal is just to not give a toss about any of these belts anyway and just hope the best end up fighting the best in a way that gives fans what they deserve so that everyone can see with their own eyes who's the top dog, and the rest of 'em can scrap it out for our affection and hard-earned dollar. This happens every now and then -- who cared that there was no belt on the line when Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward gave us one of the all time best boxing trilogies? -- but I don't want to get too utopian on anyone.

In other belt-related matters, I'm pretty sure I have an uncle who would've worn this belt buckle.


Jake said...

Wow. Really well done piece. If you're looking for a reason why boxing's popularity has dwindled in recent years, you can start with the clusterf*ck of champions.

Even those who follow the sport with regularity struggle to navigate through the sea of bodies, belts, and bullshit that you described here, so how can we expect someone who is new to the sport to educate themselves on the intricacies of determining champion status when they are conditioned to the process of the mainstream sports (NFL, MLB etc.) where every year there is a definitive "undisputed" champion?

Just when you think The Ring titles may have provided a solution, along comes Casamayor-gate. Ya gotta love it.

Again, really well done piece.

Tim -- said...

Thanks sir, and a good name for this: Casamayor-gate.