The boxing’s world title picture is a hot mess, especially for boxing betting fans new to the sport looking to better understand the different title systems.
There are 17 total weight classes in boxing, ranging from 105-pound strawweight fighters to behemoth heavyweights who weigh in without limit before their bouts. Yet there are way more than 17 fighters claiming to be world champions.
The messy part is that most of the fighters calling themselves world champions have a legitimate claim to the moniker. Nope, that doesn’t make very much sense, even to the people who religiously follow the sport, but that’s how boxing works.
The answer is complicated, but the short version is that there are many world champions in boxing today because of the existence and acceptance of the sport’s major sanctioning bodies. The four major sanctioning organizations in professional boxing are the International Boxing Federation (IBF), World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC) and World Boxing Organization (WBO).
Winning a world title sanctioned by any of these organizations is considered a major accomplishment in the sport and the honor is recognized by fans and media as legitimate. While there are also other sanctioning bodies in boxing, such as the IBO and WBF, the title bouts sanctioned by those groups are not considered major championships.
Those world titles are more on par with the secondary titles sanctioned by the four major alphabet groups. These include the intercontinental, national and regional titles but also the regular and interim championships sanctioned by the WBA. To that end, only the WBA super champion is considered the legitimate WBA world champ.
To sum it up, in each weight class there are four major world championships in boxing, the WBA Super, WBC, WBO and IBF titles. Boxrec.com is an excellent resource for tracking these champions.
Ironically, the alphabet organizations trace their lineage back to an attempt during the 1920s to clear up confusion in the sport about who were the legitimate world champions of the day. The oldest sanctioning body, the WBA, traces its roots back to the National Boxing Association (NBA), a group that organized in 1921 to help add clarity to a world title picture muddled by different commissions and other groups crowning different world champions.
The name change happened in 1962 as its reach and recognition grew beyond just national borders and by the following year the WBC had formed in Mexico City as a rival sanctioning group with more international appeal. The IBF and WBO came along during the 1980s as offshoots of the other groups basically hoping to carve out more representation for specific countries and regions.
Today, any fighter who wins a championship per the WBA, WBC, WBO or IBF is considered a legitimate world titleholder in the sport, so any fighter who holds two or more at one time is called a unified champion. Unifying championships is more precious and difficult to accomplish than winning single titles, so along with the unification comes higher prestige in the sport for the fighter who did it.
Winning all four versions of a title in a weight class gives the fighter a special moniker of being the undisputed champion, a true rarity in the sport. Since 2005, only Terence Crawford at junior welterweight in 2017 and Oleksandr Usyk at cruiserweight in 2018 have unified all four major title belts to become undisputed world champions.
As if all that wasn’t enough, three more entries into boxing’s overcomplicated world title picture have taken form over the years. For while the four major sanctioning bodies crown their champions as if they were the only games in town, boxing fans also recognize three other types of world championship honors. Many in the sport even consider these three--or at least the one they personally value the most-- to have greater historical value than their alphabet counterparts.
A lineal championship in boxing, commonly referred to as "the man who beat the man," is a conceptual honor created by fans and historians to help clarify the true world champion in each division. This has become increasingly important to some during today’s modern era of having many fighters labeled champions in each weight class.
A boxer can only win a lineal championship by defeating the previous lineal champion in the ring. If the lineal champ retires, moves to another division or otherwise leaves the sport, the lineal championship becomes vacant until there is a box-off between the No. 1 and No. 2 contenders or a fighter wins all four major sanctioning belts to become undisputed world champion.
For those who follow the notion that this fan-created concept is in fact reality, a lineal championship is considered the truest world champion of any given weight class. CyberBoxingZone.com is a good resource for those who wish to learn more about lineal boxing championships throughout history.
Ring Magazine (often referred to as The Ring) started awarding world boxing championships in 1922 when the first Ring Magazine title belt was given to heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey. Ring Magazine stopped the practice of awarding championships in 1990 but began to do it again in 2002. For many people in boxing, the Ring Magazine championship is the single most significant title a fighter can win in the sport.
While a Ring Magazine champion is not always the same as the lineal champion, the two designations have intertwined throughout history and often go hand-in-hand. Unlike the sanctioning bodies, Ring Magazine does not charge sanctioning fees of any kind for fighters to compete for their championship.
The costs for the belts awarded to fighters come out of the magazine’s operating expenses, and their rankings system and championships policy is concise and easy to understand. Vacant titles can only be filled by box-offs between No. 1 and No. 2 ranked contenders or between No. 1 vs. No. 3 at the discretion of the ratings panel.
Many people in boxing, perhaps even the majority of fight fans, consider Ring Magazine titleholders the true champions of each division.
The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (TBRB) was formed in 2012 as a response to a change by Ring Magazine whereby its vacant championship policy was greatly expanded from box-offs between the No. 1 and No. 2 or sometimes No. 3 ranked contenders to any contenders ranked between No. 1 and No. 5.
Bolstered by founding members who had resigned in protest from their Ring Magazine ratings panel posts, the TBRB quickly gained traction in the boxing community and has grown into a viable alternative to Ring Magazine championships due to its more strict championship policy as well as support from various boxing media outlets.
While those who recognize the TBRB as the premier boxing championship are fewer in number, those who do are considered purists in a sport. Boxing is beset by world title confusion, and supporters of the TBRB hope their support of strict title lineages move the needle away from the confusing mess of today to a more reasonable and sane future moving forward.