We are sandwiched between weekends of two true divisional champions: light heavyweight king Adonis Stevenson last weekend, junior welterweight champ Danny Garcia next. It’s the kind of thing to make one take note of the caliber of the class of the current champion corps.
There’s a lot of weakness there — guys not really defending their championships, champions meekly defending their thrones if they do, champions on their way out. One way to look at that is as an indictment of the idea of true/lineal champs. Another way to take it is that things are working exactly as intended.
As a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, I tend to favor the latter. That doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed. But I’m also not of the school that boxing having a credible championship structure is a cure-all. It is, instead, one of many fixes the sport needs, and a system that, like any system, has its flaws.
Before we go any further, let’s look at who the champs are that I’m talking about. Stevenson is the 175-pound king and hasn’t fought his obvious #1 challenger. It’s unclear if he ever will; instead, he’s fought guys who are at the bottom of the division, or worse, like Sakio Bika. Garcia spent all of 2014 avoiding top challengers, and in his fight this weekend isn’t even contending at the weight where he is champ.
Super middleweight Andre Ward hasn’t fought since November of 2013. Middleweight champion Miguel Cotto is showing no interest in his top challenger. Junior middleweight champion Floyd Mayweather hasn’t fought there in a while, and might not ever again. Terence Crawford is set to abandon his lightweight crown for junior welterweight, so he never has had a chance to back up his claim and probably never will.
One of the ideas behind having a single champion in each division is that it gives everyone something to aim at, a person to hold accountable. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and all that. Throughout history, when there was one champ, we have had boxers who don’t act like champs. Being the champ, or being a worthy champ, are two different things. (And let’s not act like the titleholders of the various sanctioning bodies always behave as such. Some of them ditch belts rather than face the mandatory challenger.)
But having one target means that a true champ either needs to act like it, or face endless criticism. It’s how Jack Johnson eventually got a shot at the heavyweight championship, and how we got Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson, for example. It’s still the kind of sport where nobody has to do anything they don’t want to. But oh, how the concentrated criticism of all fans can shame a true champion into behaving like one more than anything else.
There are still three champs spending more time acting the part than not. And we’re about to have another true champion crowned at welterweight when Floyd Mayweather faces off against Manny Pacquiao. The winner of that fight deserves to be called champion, without question.
What that person does next, though, still matters.
(BROOKLYN — Danny Garcia [brown/gold trunks] knocks down Rod Salka [black/gold trunks] during their fight at the Barclays Center on Aug. 9. [Ed Mulholland/Getty Images])