By Sean Crose
Should boxing fans care about titles anymore? Frankly, I don’t have the answer. The fact that it’s now a relevant and necessary question, however, tells us more about the state of boxing than many of us who love and follow the sport probably want to know.
Truth be told, boxing titles have always stood on shaky ethical grounds. Always. There was once a time, for instance, when you couldn’t fight for the heavyweight title if you were black. There was also a time, not so long ago, when prominent fighters were literally controlled by organized crime figures.
So no, boxing titles have never been without their tarnish. Still, the things used to mean something – really mean something. They still do, but not as much as before. Indeed, titles today signify marketing leverage, but often suggest little in the way of their owner’s skill and accomplishment.
When one actually thinks about it, that sort of thing makes it easy to understand why American society in general stubbornly refuses to allow boxing back in from the margins. The meteoric success of the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout last spring and of all things Ronda Rousey (pre Holly Holm beatdown) show that America is more than willing to turn its attention to combat sports. It’s just only going to do so in flashes, however.
Why? Because Americans take sports seriously and boxing, for all it’s danger and violence, is run in a less than serious manner. Even in the age of Kim Kardashian, Americans of every ilk venerate merit. That veneration is part of a sociological and psychological tradition begun by the dour Puritans and absorbed by each passing generation. Descendants from Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans have and continue to embrace the virtues of merit. That may sound corny, but it’s verifiably true.
It’s also rather easy to explain. Meritocracy is essentially fair and effective. And most Americans are at least descended from those who were not allowed to succeed on merit. Therefore, Americans have, and continue to, exist in a culture where hard work and skill are held in high esteem. Yet hard work and skill aren’t held in as high regard by contemporary boxing – hence, the marginalization.
Boxing is now run in an almost medieval fashion where ruling houses (the House of Haymon, The House of Arum, the House of De La Hoya) and institutions (the WBA, WBC, etc.) essentially keep down any potential threats to their territories. Sanctioning bodies change rules as if they were papal dispensations. Matches are kept from happening due to the interests of what are essentially barons and overlords. The whole thing is a mess.
And entirely un-American. There’s a reason this is still a land of immigrants. And that reason is at odds with the pre-enlightenment mindset of boxing’s overlords. Hence, a diminished fanbase and little relevance outside the cocoon. Consider the following:
· Adonis Stevenson can remain lineal light heavyweight champion without having to face a single legitimate challenge for the rest of his career. What’s more, the same goes for all lineal titleholders.
· Canelo Alvarez, like Miguel Cotto before him, may well change the weight one has to compete at in order to fight for the middleweight championship of the world.
· Recently, Floyd Mayweather still held onto title belts after he retired
Does any of this seem representative of a sport run with efficiency, maturity and in a spirit of true sportsmanship? Of course not. Boxing, a deadly serious endeavor, is being treated less than seriously by the entities who control it – hence, titles have now become less than serious things. Imagine for a moment, however, a world where boxing fans didn’t care about those titles.
For starters, the intrigue level and ridiculous drama that clouds the sport would largely clear up. Also, fighters could no longer use sanctioning bodies and abstract notions like lineal championships to build their reputations upon. When a fighter decided to avoid a particular opponent, there would be no title to fall back on, no “yeah but I’m the WBC, WBA, lineal, Cartoon Network catchweight champion of the world” nonsense to hide behind. There would only be merit and ambition with which one could be judged.
Of course, there would be a down side to the whole thing, as well. People, after all, LIKE titles, awards and the like. It’s why millions tune into ridiculous Oscar telecasts year after year. Being human, we’re simply attracted to the sparkle of trinkets and official accolades. We just are. It’s in our DNA. When those trinkets and accolades become more representative of a corrupt culture than they do real achievement, however, it might be time to start ignoring their allure entirely.
At least until the people behind them get their own houses in order.