Top Rank: Getting To Know The Transnational Boxing Ranking Board

Boxing doesn't exactly need another ranking organization. But the newest, and cleanest, ranking organization wants to do things differently.
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No, it wasn't fun to watch, but Klitschko dominated this fight.

"Stag At Sharkey's" is a painting by George Bellows. We found the image here.

For all the problems that boxing has, a dearth of three-letter organizations with grandiose names handing out title belts is not one. Between the IBF, WBC, WBA and WBO, boxing's acronymic ranking boards currently identify an astonishing 74 title-holders for an even more astonishing 88 belts, in 17 divisions. (That's probably too many divisions, but it's a less astonishing number.) Many of these belt-holding fighters are deserving; some are there simply because the fervid, fetid politics and world-historically sketchy economic incentives of the sport allow it. A championship belt burnishes a fighter's cache and bumps up earning potential; a championship belt can also effectively be bought, in a division that can be created out of whole canvas; it's easy to see where this leads. Boxing fans are soaking in it.

Figuring out which champion is which type of champion, let alone who is champion or why, is more work than even most fans can handle, and the general impression of chaotic feudalism is not a good look for a sport with some serious and seriously deserved reputational issues. The 25 boxing journalists—from 13 countries, and venues as varied as ESPN, the Bangkok Post and SB Nation's Bad Left Hook—who co-founded the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board have a simple, if somewhat counterintuitive, solution to boxing's current glut of sketchy rankings boards. They're forming another one. Specifically, they launched, earlier this week, a non-profit, all-volunteer rankings organization that will do right what other ranking organizations do wrong, and determine champions more clearly and more cleanly than any of the other (decidedly for-profit) rankings organizations in the sport. You can read the TBR's inaugural press release/mission statement here.

That's the idea, at least. It's a good and necessary one at that, and the volunteers behind TBR have the advantage of being both as qualified and exponentially less compromised than their competition. But there are number of obvious (and less obvious) challenges inherent in trying to start something as ambitious as a new rankings board in a sport as ossified in its fucked-ness as boxing. We talked to Tim Starks, proprietor of the excellent boxing blog The Queensberry Rules and a TBR co-founder, about the challenges of starting a rankings organization from scratch, how messed up the present rankings scene is, and why he and his co-founders decided to get in the ring in the first place.

The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board's opening press release/mission statement makes the point that there are already way, way too many organizations handing out title belts—74 title holders of 88 belts in 17 divisions, which is really something to think about. For all that's clearly fucked about how those (so very many) belts get assigned, and all the ways in which that fucked-ness reverberates, what led you and the other TBR people to conclude that the way to solve this was to start ANOTHER ranking organization?

All of those other organizations are significantly compromised in some major way. The WBC, WBO, WBA, and IBF are all charging people sanctioning fees for the right to fight for their belts. So, go figure: They made up a whole bunch more belts. Right now one division can have a "super" champion, "regular" champion, "interim" champion, "champion" in recess, "diamond belt" champion—all from just one of those organizations, sometimes. They make new ones up all the time. All this had the effect of diluting fans' understanding of who really was the champion.

That brings us to Ring Magazine. For a long time, they were the acknowledged custodians of championship lineage, dating back to a more innocent time when there was just one guy as the champ, and you had to beat him to get his belt or, if he retired or left the division, the two best guys had to face each other to fill a vacancy. But today Ring is owned by one of the two biggest boxing promoters (Golden Boy bought Ring in 2007), and the new leadership at the magazine this year significantly liberalized its championship policy to allow not only #1 vs. #3 to box off for a vacant belt, but sometimes even a #2 vs. #5.

It made no sense to me and a few other members of their advisory panel, so we resigned in protest. How could you be the champion by leapfrogging the #1 contender? Ring still has a lot of  excellent writers, but their championship policy and rankings are now highly suspect, and a lot of people feel that way in the boxing fan base.

So then we resignees started talking to one another, because we thought it was important for historical reasons—Cliff Rold and Springs Toledo, my co-founders, have serious historical chops—that someone keep track of who the real champion was. We also know that, for some casual fans, being able to identify the real champ of a division is an essential gateway to being able to follow the sport. So we have this non-profit board, no one has any compromising associations and we have a very international group, all volunteer. And if we do become compromised—and I'll do everything in my power to make sure we don't —I would fully expect someone to come along and replace us, too.

It might be worth going over, briefly, just how these organizations work, or don't work. How does, say, the WBO do its rankings? And how and where did things get so botched and terrible?

If anyone knows how the sanctioning outfits decide their rankings, they aren't telling. There are some absurd things in them. Just coasting through the WBO rankings at welterweight, we have Mike Jones listed as the #7 contender. Mike Jones just lost to Randall Bailey. Where's Bailey in the WBO's welterweight rankings? Not to be found.

That's for starters. Some organizations almost seem like cheerleaders for their own countries; the WBC, for instance, tends to rank anyone with a drop of Mexican blood super-high whether he deserves it or not. For a while, various promoters would seemingly have extra pull with one sanctioning organization or the other, and their fighters would get ranked suspiciously high. The promoters use the belts to hype fights, sometimes even if they know the belts mean nothing. You'll see a lot of promoters say in commercials, "WBC champion so-and-so takes on top challenger thus-and-such..." and it'll turn out he's the Midwest Youth "champion" or something absurd.

Short-term, it offers the promoters a chance to emphasize the importance of a particular fight, but long-term, it makes people wonder what the point is of a championship if it's obtained as easily as toys in a Happy Meal. And some of these organizations have a sordid history of bribery scandals and other generalized corruption. It usually seems like they're making up the rules as they go along.

Given that it's been this way for decades—decades that, maybe not coincidentally, seem to coincide with the sport's decline into this weirdly feudal-corporate zombie state— making sense of boxing's alphabet-soup organizations and figuring out who really IS a champion in a given division, can seem Sisyphusean, futile. What are the things that TBR will do differently, and better, than the organizations currently out there? And how can you get people to listen?

It might be futile; I guess we'll find out. But we didn't think it was a good idea not to try, and a variety of other journalists clearly also saw some value in giving it a go. And I think we are doing it differently—strictly 1 vs. 2, non-profit, etc. Inherently, the way we're structured makes it more likely that we'll do it better, because we're beholden to no one but ourselves and our interest in the betterment of the sport.

We are very, very interested in the input of the board, and I think if you asked them whether we were responsive to many of their concerns with our initial draft rankings, they would tell you we were. But we also have put in a structure where there are just a handful of people leading the overall effort, so the buck kind of stops with us.

As for whether anyone will listen to us—we've just gone "live" but so far I've seen a lot of positive response. Maybe it's because I associate with like-minded people. But we really do have to depend on word-of-mouth, grassroots support that builds to a critical mass. For a while, anyone who was a hardcore boxing fan who was asked, "Who is the true champion at any given time?" would be able to answer, "Ring champions." Right now, fewer can or want to say that. So, hopefully, when they're asked that next time, they can say, "The TRB champions."

Then, if that happens, there will be a reverse effect where the powers that be in the sport (boxers, networks, everyone) are more interested in becoming a true lineal champ than chasing one of four or five other belts in their division, and all of the alphabet organizations wither away from being ignored. That's the idealized version, anyway.

There are a ton of great fighters fighting at the moment, it seems like, in most of the divisions that people care about, and fans are paying for pay-per-views. And yet there's this pervasive sense that boxing is dying, or at least very ill and probably beyond saving. Obviously you don't think that—you've expressed this in your writing, and TBR is clearly an attempt to make some pro-active change in the sport. What's the best case scenario, do you think, for boxing over the next few years? How much better than this, given the people currently holding the purse-strings and the broader issues in the sport, do you think it can get? 

As important as it is to have authentic, recognizable champions, it's really one part of a bigger solution. Boxing does a million things wrong. Fighters don't fight often enough, they aren't promoted so as to gain regional followings because of Vegas/casino money, promoters feud with one another and refuse to let their boxers fight other top boxers because of it, boxing has consigned itself, on the highest levels, to premium networks and pay-per-views that limit fan access, and on and on and on.

Despite all that, boxing is on more solid footing right now than it was even four or five years ago in the United States. Boxers are shattering past pay-per-view buy records, television ratings are coming up slightly, we've seen some interesting partnerships between Showtime and CBS to re-introduce boxing on network television, and more.

And in many other countries, the "boxing is dead" thing doesn't even register. One night in Mexico in September, there were two competing boxing cards on television, and according to one report, together, they drew about 71 percent of the total television-watching audience. But domestically, given the current structure of boxing and who's in positions of authority, it's going to be capped in how much bigger it can get, I suspect.

What we're trying to do is take on that structure. If you remove barriers to fans wanting to invest in the sport—and it's a trying sport at times, on the politics and comprehensibility end—then the sport has a better chance of growing beyond its current devoted audience. And then, once people see a fight like Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo from really just a few years ago, for example, it's hard for me personally to imagine them not getting hooked. No offense to football, it's a fine sport, but a few years ago, a New York Jets coach played Castillo-Corrales to fire up his team. The sport, at its best, does plenty to help itself. It's just not at its best often enough, and maybe this is one way of helping fix that.


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