Ranking the Most Coveted Titles in Boxing Today
In boxing, a title is only as prestigious as the fighter who holds it. With four alphabet-soup sanctioning bodies and "interim," "super," "regular," "diamond" and assorted other precious-metal champions thrown into the mix, you have to be a true, hardcore fan to really maintain a handle on which belts are actually legitimate world titles and which ones are just mere trinkets.
And a murky title picture creates a bad overall situation for the sport. More casual fans are turned off by the fact that it's so often difficult to truly assess the top fighter in a division.
Establishing undisputed champions at heavyweight, light heavyweight and middleweight would grow the sport's popularity. Unification fights at featherweight and welterweight would draw record numbers of fans.
Let's hope we see at least a small move in that direction during the year ahead.
8. The WBO Featherweight Belt
The featherweight division is currently stacked with some of boxing's most exciting young stars. WBC champion Gary Russell Jr. just might have the quickest hands in the sport. IBF belt holder Lee Selby claimed his title with an impressive technical-decision win over Evgeny Gradovich last May.
WBA champion Leo Santa Cruz turned in the performance of his career to claim his vacant title by defeating three-division champion Abner Mares last August.
But any true claim to greatness at 126 pounds must go through WBO champion Vasyl Lomachenko. A two-time Olympic champion with an astonishing amateur record of 396-1, Lomachenko brings prestige to any belt he holds.
The fact that he claimed the belt by defeating Russell gives it additional importance. As of right now, the WBO strap is the top belt in one of boxing's top divisions.
But we are way overdue for some unification bouts at 126 pounds.
7. The IBF Welterweight Belt
While the WBA, WBO and WBC welterweight titles have adorned the waists of such stars as Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley over the past six or seven years, the IBF version of the title has definitely been a lesser belt.
It's a championship that's been held by second-tier contenders like Isaac Hlatshwayo, Jan Zaveck and Randall Bailey.
But its prestige has risen significantly in recent years. Current champion Kell Brook is one of the sport's rising stars (35-0 with 24 KOs). He won the belt with an outstanding performance against Shawn Porter, another top fighter in the division.
Unfortunately, since winning the IBF belt, Brook has defended it against fringe contenders and will do so again in March against Kevin Bizier, a fighter who has lost twice to Ionut Dan Ion, whom Brook beat by stoppage in March of last year.
Brook probably isn't entirely to blame for this. Other welterweights aren't exactly tripping over each other in a hurry to face him. But for the IBF title to rise in status, it needs to be defended against another legitimate star.
6. The WBA Welterweight Belt
Keith Thurman's version of the WBA welterweight title isn't exactly the same as the title Floyd Mayweather vacated when he retired last year. After Mayweather claimed the WBA title from Marcos Maidana in May 2014, the sanctioning body named Mayweather a "super" world champion, a routine, if absurd, practice for the WBA.
Thurman was upgraded by the WBA from "interim" to "regular" world champion last year when he fought Robert Guerrero. But even if his version of the belt doesn't bear a direct connection to the former pound-for-pound king, the undefeated Thurman is at least an aspiring heir to Mayweather's status atop the division.
And since Thurman will be defending his belt in March against fellow young lion Shawn Porter, the winner will have a title that means something.
5. The WBO Welterweight Belt
In our era of multiple alphabet-soup claims on status as "the world champion," it's become a truism that fighters make belts. For that reason, the winner of the April 9 showdown between Timothy Bradley and Manny Pacquiao will have the best claim in the sport for top status at 147 pounds.
The WBO version of the welterweight crown has a fairly straightforward lineage as far as championship lineages go. Pacquiao won it from Miguel Cotto in November 2009. He dropped it to Bradley by contested split decision in June 2012, then won it back in their April 2014 rematch.
Floyd Mayweather took the WBO belt from Manny Pacquiao last May but almost immediately vacated it. Bradley won it for a second time in June, by virtue of defeating Jessie Vargas.
I'm not crazy about the Bradley-Pacquiao matchup. I'd rather see both of them face younger talent. But there's no doubt that every welterweight in the world will covet a shot at the winner.
4. The Lineal Flyweight Title
In most eras, the flyweight title ranks low on the list of glamorous titles. Unfairly or not, at least in the United States, the smallest fighters just don't generate the same interest as larger men.
But this isn't most eras. Lineal and WBC flyweight champion Roman Gonzalez is among the sport's hottest fighters and biggest stars, regardless of stature. Since the retirement of Floyd Mayweather Jr., he's emerged as the consensus pound-for-pound king. ESPN.com, the Ring and the Transnational Boxing Rankings all place him at No. 1.
So for a challenger who faces Gonzalez, there is a lot more to be gained than the title of a single division.
I do suspect that another move up in weight is in the future for the three-division champion. But in the meantime, it would be nice to see him defend his title in a rematch with WBO and WBA flyweight champion Juan Francisco Estrada.
3. The Undisputed Light Heavyweight Title
I consider light heavyweight the most exciting division in the sport. The 175-pound class hasn't been so loaded with talent since the early 1980s, when Michael Spinks emerged from wars with the likes of Marvin Johnson, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Yaqui Lopez and Dwight Muhammad Qawi to become the undisputed king.
Right now, Sergey Kovalev is the top dog in the division and the holder of three of the four belts. He should face former super middleweight king Andre Ward, one of the best pound-for-pound talents of this generation, later in the year.
If lineal and WBC champion Adonis Stevenson doesn't find a way to make a fight with the winner of Kovalev-Ward, he's unworthy of his belts.
Beyond the Big Three of Kovalev, Ward and Stevenson, a cadre of talented, exciting fighters fill out the rankings. Andrzej Fonfara already proved his mettle in a tough, hard-fought loss to Stevenson and with decisive wins over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and former champion Nathan Cleverly.
Ukrainian Vyacheslav Shabranskyy is another rising star in the division, as is Kovalev's former amateur rival, Artur Beterbiev. Undefeated Cuban Sullivan Barrera will get his own shot to burst onto the scene against Ward in March.
If anyone can emerge as the undisputed champion of this murderer's row, he will punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
2. The Undisputed Middleweight Title
If we do not see a true, undisputed middleweight champion by the end of 2016, I'll be a very disappointed fan. And I won't be alone. For boxing fans, no current matchup is more eagerly anticipated than Gennady Golovkin vs. Saul Alvarez.
Golovkin is the hottest fighter in the sport and holds the WBA and IBF belts at 160 pounds. Canelo has the WBC and lineal versions of the title, despite never actually fighting above a catchweight of 155 pounds.
Golden Boy has already opted to delay Canelo's date with destiny by chosing to fight Amir Khan in May, again at a catchweight of 155 pounds.
The perfect fight for GGG in the meantime would be WBO champion Billy Joe Saunders, who won his belt last December by majority decision over the tough Andy Lee. Saunders is a rising star and told World Boxing News (via International Business Times) last month that he'd be open to a fight with Golovkin but wants it to happen in his native England.
That would be a great move for Golovkin's development into an international star. It would even present historical echoes of Marvin Hagler's trip to England to take the title from Alan Minter in 1980.
I would definitely expect Golovkin to win that fight, but even if Saunders scores a major upset, the only honorable next step for Canelo would be clear. Anything other than facing the winner next fall would justify any fan who cursed him for ducking.
1. The Undisputed Heavyweight Crown
I'll concede that this one might be a reflection of my generation. I came of age as a sports fan in an era when the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World was still the most prestigious title in all of sports.
In recent years, the big men have been largely forgotten. Instead, casual boxing fans have been captivated by smaller fighters such as Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
But Tyson Fury's upset win over Wladimir Klitschko last November and Luis Ortiz's dominant KO of Bryant Jennings in December have brought a new sense of excitement to the heavyweight division.
The IBF's absurd decision to strip Fury of its share of the crown, so that it could be contested for by Vyacheslav Glazkov and Charles Martin, has created at least a momentary slip toward further Balkanization.
But none of the division's rising stars will be able to establish the legacy they want without pushing to re-unify those belts.