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Critique of "Lineal" Boxing Championships

Daniel J. Castellano

(2005, rev. 2011)

1. The Heavyweight Lineage
2. Recent Light Heavyweight Lineage
3. Recent Middleweight Lineage

Out of frustration with boxing’s sanctioning bodies, which create multiple titleholders and wrongfully strip champions for refusing to fight unworthy mandatory challengers, many boxing enthusiasts have taken to creating “lineal” championship pedigrees, identifying the “real” champion as “the man who beat the man who beat the man.” While it is gratifying to have a single champion in each division at all times, strictly lineal championships are at odds with sporting reality, as the “lineal” or “linear” champion is frequently an inferior fighter who is not widely recognized as a champion by his contemporaries. It is not always the case that “the man who beat the man” deserves to be called the real champion.

There are some situations where it would be legitimate to strip a champion—even a lineal champion—of his title. For example, the champion could refuse to face any quality competition, prolonging his reign by fighting strictly mediocre opponents, or perhaps not fighting at all, while refusing to officially retire. Meanwhile, another fighter might defeat some top contenders, in which case he may deserve to be recognized as the real champion, since the paper champion is no longer actively fighting top contenders. A title that is not defended against legitimate contenders may be considered effectively vacant, so the vacancy is filled in the usual way, with a bout between two top contenders. Now, this kind of judgment requires us to make subjective assessments about who is a top contender, but the same problem would arise even in strictly lineal championships whenever a vacancy occurs. There is no getting around the fact that champions are not always crowned by mechanical rules of genealogy, but we sometimes have to make judgments about who is a top contender.

Who decides who is a championship contender? Historically, it has been the boxing public, especially journalists and other experts. Becoming the champion requires public recognition or acclaim. Similarly, to become a king, it is not enough to be the lawful heir, but one must be recognized by the nation as its ruler, or else he is a king only in name. The championship, of course, is not strictly a popularity contest, but it should be based on real achievements in the ring that demonstrate to most informed observers that a certain man is the best in his class.

When a champion is willing to take on all comers, the championship will be passed on linearly, except in case of retirement or changing weight class. When the title is abandoned, a new lineage is established by a fight between the top two fighters, or at least between the first and third best fighters. Again, this involves subjective judgements about who are the top ranked fighters, a problem that extends to vacancies in strictly lineal championships.

If a champion is not willing to fight all comers, he is not truly a world champion. For example, if he were only willing to fight Canadians, he could not be more than a Canadian champion. To claim a world title, one must be willing to receive challenges from anywhere in the world. In practice, of course, one can only make several defenses per year, so the champion is allowed some reasonable discretion in his choice of opponent.

If a lineal champion is not recognized by sanctioning bodies nor by the boxing public, he should not be recognized as a real champion. His anonymity as a champion prevents top contenders from seeking him out as an opponent. Instead they will pursue bouts with recognized titlists or top contenders, in the hopes of securing a recognized championship. In order to be the champion, people must know you are the champion.

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1. The Heavyweight Lineage

Let us see how these principles might be applied to the heavyweight lineage. First, when a champion retires, the vacant championship may be determined by a bout between top contenders. When Jim Jeffries’ retired in 1905, the former champion chose Marvin Hart and Jack Root as the top two contenders to succeed him, so when Hart won the bout, he was widely recognized as the legitimate champion. He was subsequently beaten by Tommy Burns, a true champion who would fight any opponent regardless of race or nationality.

After Gene Tunney retired as champion in 1928, an officially sanctioned championship bout between Max Schmeling, the top European heavyweight, and Jack Sharkey, the top American, determined the title in 1930. A sanctioning body—the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC)—effectively assumed the role of establishing a new line of succession, as Jeffries had done previously. Schmeling won the fight by disqualification, and was recognized as champion by the NYSAC, the National Boxing Association (NBA) and The Ring magazine.

The role of sanctioning bodies in establishing champions soon proved to be a double-edged sword, as the NYSAC stripped Schmeling for refusing to grant Sharkey a rematch, though others continued to recognize him as champion. A Schmeling-Sharkey rematch finally occurred in 1932,[1] and Sharkey won a highly controversial decision.[2] After Gene Tunney and the New York mayor Jimmy Walker criticized the decision, the NYSAC forbade anyone but boxing experts (journalists, referees, judges) from broadcasting descriptions of future bouts.

When Joe Louis retired on March 1, 1949, Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott were clearly the best heavyweights, the latter having nearly beaten Louis.[3] When Charles beat Walcott, he was undisputedly the legitimate world champion. It is revisionist, therefore, for “man who beat the man” enthusiasts to claim that Louis remained champion through his retirement and comeback unitl losing to Charles. Had Louis never come out of retirement, no one would deny that Charles was the champion by virtue of beating Walcott, as no superior opponent was available. Louis had willingly abdicated his title and ceased to prove himself in the ring. The burden of proof was on Louis to show that he could come back and beat the proven champion Charles. Although popular sentiment caused many to regard the returning Louis as champion, this contradicted the fact of his voluntary retirement. Good feeling among the public is not enough to restore Louis as champion, since he failed to prove his championship caliber in the ring. Public acclaim is necessary but not sufficient to make someone a world champion. Ultimately, popular perception has to be backed up with an actual accomplishment in the ring.

The next vacancy was caused by Rocky Marciano’s retirement as undefeated champion in 1956. A new lineage was uncontroversially established with Floyd Patterson’s defeat of the great Archie Moore, who had given Marciano some difficulty.

In 1967, Muhammad Ali was infamously stripped of his title for reasons unrelated to boxing, so there is a compelling case to be made for recognizing Ali as champion even after 1967, since he was willing to fight but forbidden to do so. Alternatively, one could say the title was vacant, since the top heavyweight was prohibited from fighting. Ali formally relinquished the title on February 1, 1970, in order to grant legitimacy to the world championship bout between Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis. Thus Frazier was truly champion even before he defeated Ali, since he would have been regarded as such had Ali never made a comeback. The situation, in this regard, is similar to that of the return of Joe Louis. Ali could not regain his voluntarily abandoned title by virtue of public opinion alone, without a victory in the ring against the established champion.

After Ali’s retirement on September 6, 1979, there were two “world” sanctioning bodies, the WBA and the WBC, and two “world” heavyweight champions. Larry Holmes was the WBC champion by virtue of defeating Ken Norton, who received the title that was stripped from Leon Spinks in 1978 for fighting Ali instead of Norton. Spinks was well within reason to grant Ali a rematch after their split decision, so the WBC was wrong to strip him. Ali regained his WBA title from Spinks, and remained the true champion until his retirement. Holmes’ credibility as a champion was based on victories over Norton, Mike Weaver, and Earnie Shavers, only the last of which occurred after Ali retired. Ali’s abandoned WBA title was won by John Tate over Gerry Coetzee. There were now two conflicting lineages, with the more venerable title held by Tate, though he was a lesser fighter than Holmes. Through no fault of his own, Holmes was denied an opportunity to prove his superiority over the WBA titlists in the ring, and he did not fight an unambiguous top contender until Ali returned from retirement in October 1980. After this victory, Holmes was universally recognized as the true heavyweight champion.

In 1987, when Michael Spinks ducked undefeated Tony Tucker to fight Gerry Cooney,[4] who had fought only one round in the last two years, he opened the road to forfeiture of his championship. He was duly stripped by the IBF, and passed on an opportunity to enter the unification tournament promoted by Don King and HBO. Meanwhile, Mike Tyson convincingly won the championships of all three sanctioning bodies to make himself the undisputed champion. It is unrealistic to insist that Spinks continued to be the true champion after Tyson had won universal public acclaim and offical recognition as champion by defeating Tucker.[5] No knowledgeable boxing fan seriously believed Spinks was the peer of Tyson, who was considered invincible at the time. When the Tyson-Spinks “Superfight” finally happened in 1988, Spinks was a 6-1 underdog, which was better than he deserved, as it turned out. Had this fight never occurred, Tyson still would have been recognized as the undisputed champion by virtue of unifying the titles. Thus it is revisionist to say Spinks was the champion up until his defeat by Tyson in 1988. Spinks’ pitiful first-round knockout loss, contrasted with Tucker’s much more competitive performance against Tyson, strengthens the case that Tucker was superior to Spinks at the time. Accordingly, the Tyson-Tucker fight of 1987 may be considered a fight between the top two heavyweights in addition to being the final title unification bout, so there cannot be any serious dispute that Tyson emerged from that fight as the true world champion.

When champion George Foreman fought Axel Schulz in 1995, he was awarded a decision victory in a bout that virtually all observers felt he lost.[6] Advocates of strictly lineal championships disregard the corrupt decisions of sanctioning bodies to strip titlists, yet for some reason they feel obligated to accept grossly corrupt or inept judging decisions when constructing lineages. George Foreman did not deserve to retain the title after denying a rematch to a man who had clearly beaten him, and so he was rightfully stripped and left with no recognized titles. Foreman continued to fight mediocre opposition, and finally “lost” to Shannon Briggs in 1997 in an equally outrageous decision.[7] Thus the lineal boxing historians are forced to insist absurdly that Shannon Briggs, by virtue of two horrendous judging fiascos, was the real champion at the time that Evander Holyfield was beating Mike Tyson and Michael Moorer.

Foreman had lost every round against Moorer before landing a one-punch knockout for the title in 1994. He was not officially defeated for the next three years only because he avoided the likes of Holyfield, Lewis, Tyson, Moorer, and even Schulz. It is absurd to insist that Foreman was champion for these three years, when no top contender even recognized his “linear” title, choosing instead to fight real competition for publicly recognized titles. You cannot be the champion if no one knows you are the champion. No boxing expert considered Foreman to be in the class of Lewis and Holyfield after the Schulz debacle, and Foreman did nothing to prove otherwise in the ring since then. The title would remain effectively vacant until some sort of unification took place.

Mike Tyson’s comeback attempt to unify the titles was derailed by his two losses in 1996-97 to Evander Holyfield, who was suddenly restored as a legitimate titlist. Holyfield’s convincing victory in the November 1997 WBA-IBF unification bout with Moorer solidified his claim to the heavyweight title, a claim that was more widely recognized at the time than that of Lennox Lewis.[8] Thus Holyfield may be considered the heavyweight champion until his first bout with Lennox Lewis, which was officially a draw but really a clear loss.[9] Ordinarily, it is not the role of an amateur historian, or even a professional for that matter, to override a judge’s decision, since only the judge has the expertise and, more importantly, the official authority to judge a bout. While an official judge deserves every benefit of discretion, there are times when decisions blatantly contradict common sense as perceived by practically everyone. In these cases alone, near unanimous popular opinion may take precedence, since the majority are competent to judge matters of common sense. To uphold travesties like the Holyfield-Lewis I official decision would be to deny the reality of what occurred in the ring. If we want to know who is really the champion, our judgments should be based in reality, even if that means occasionally disregarding egregiously corrupt or inept decisions. Lennox Lewis was already considered the world champion by practically all boxing experts even prior to the rematch with Holyfield later that year.

Lennox Lewis’ final bout against Vitali Klitschko in 2003 was surprisingly competitive until Klitschko was stopped by a deep cut.[10] Despite clamors for a rematch, Lewis did not defend his title again, and he waited a year before announcing his retirement. Klitschko’s performance against Lewis, and the latter’s reluctance to grant a rematch, proved the Ukrainian’s legitimacy as the top contender. His brother Wladimir had also been considered a serious contender until his loss to Corrie Sanders for the WBO crown. The powerful Sanders could then join the top three along with Vitali Klitschko and Chris Byrd. Therefore Vitali Klitschko’s bout with Corrie Sanders for Lewis’ abandoned WBC title may be considered the true heavyweight championship, and it was regarded as such by Ring Magazine, whose rankings have gained much public credibility in recent years.

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2. Recent Light Heavyweight Lineage

We can apply similar principles to the light heavyweight division. In 1996, Virgil Hill became the unified WBA-IBF champion by defeating the German champion Henry Maske. Hill in turn was dethroned by Poland’s Dariusz Michalczewski in 1997. Shortly after defeating Hill, Michalczewski was wrongfully stripped of all but his WBO title.[11] From 1997 to 1999, Roy Jones, Jr. convincingly defeated top-flight competition to win all three major titles (WBA/WBC/IBF). Both Jones and Michalczewski share blame for failing to make a bout between them occur. It defies reality to insist that Michalczewski’s “linear” claim made him the sole champion, denying Jones the title despite his having held as many as six sanctioned titles at once, and being widely considered one of the pound-for-pound all-time greats.

Based on his skill level and accomplishments demonstrated in the ring, often against top opponents who fought Michalczewski more successfully,[12] Jones demonstrated his superiority as best he could without actually fighting Dariusz. Jones was widely recognized as the undisputed champion[13], not only in his home country but in most of the world, based on his demonstrated skill level and accomplishments. His final unification bout with Reggie Johnson in 1999 had solidified his claim, and put the burden on Dariusz to seek out a fight with Roy Jones rather than the other way around. Fittingly, this was the same year that Ring Magazine recognized Jones as their champion.

In December 2004, Glengoffe Johnson defeated undisputed light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver in a split decision, yet the major sanctioning bodies refused to recognize Johnson as champion, because he granted Tarver a rematch instead of facing their mandatory challengers. Johnson insisted he was the real champion even without a belt, and he had the backing of Ring Magazine and many boxing experts, so we had an unusual case where a fighter was able to retain wide public acclaim as champion even without the recognition of a major sanctioning body. When Tarver won the rematch, he was unquestionably considered the top light heavyweight in the world. Lineal championship enthusiasts were forced by their own logic to accept the unremarkable Zsolt Erdei[14] as champion at this time.

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3. Recent Middleweight Lineage

Advocates of strictly lineal championships are not the only ones guilty of revisionist history that ignores how fighters were perceived at the time. Even mainstream experts are susceptible to such revisionism, as when they praise Bernard Hopkins’ record as a middleweight champion. Hopkins defended the IBF version of the title twenty consecutive times, for which he was credited to have broken Carlos Monzon’s record of fourteen defenses.[15] This cheapens the record, for Monzon was the undisputed champion for his entire reign, while Hopkins was only one of several sanctioned champions for years until he won the unified title in 2001 with an impressive surprise victory over favored Felix Trinidad. Once Hopkins became the undisputed champion, many experts retroactively recognized him as the real champion since 1995, when he won the vacant IBF title from Segundo Mercado.

In reality, Hopkins was not generally considered the greatest middleweight during the mid-nineties. In 1993, he lost handily to Roy Jones, Jr., who dominated the division. After Jones moved up in weight class the following year, the first bout between top contenders was between the Argentine Jorge Fernando Castro and Reggie Johnson. Castro defeated Johnson and made four title defenses before losing to Shinji Takehara in Yokohama, Japan. William Joppy beat Takehara and defended his title against competition comparable to that of Hopkins, if not superior.[16] A car accident derailed Joppy’s career in January 1999, though he came back to win his vacant title eight months later. In May 2001, Joppy was soundly defeated by Trinidad in a unification tournament, convincing most experts that the Trinidad’s power (40-0, 33 KOs) should make him the favorite over Hopkins.[17] Hopkins’ victory over the undefeated Trinidad in September was considered a major upset,[18] which undermines the revisionist view that Hopkins was the dominant middleweight in the late nineties.

Most lineal boxing historians view the middleweight title as vacant at least since Jones left in 1994, but I recognize the championship lineage that runs through Castro and Joppy. While there was no undisputed champion in this period, the WBA champions fought more big names,[19] and thus had at least as strong if not a stronger claim than Hopkins. Secondly, the Castro-Johnson fight was a respectable basis for establishing a lineage, while Hopkins-Mercado was not, as Mercado was not a top-three middleweight. The burden was on Hopkins to clearly establish himself as the greater champion, which he did not do until the Trinidad fight. Thus I regard Joppy as the champion until January 1999. He vacated the title, but no lineage was established by his comeback fight with Julio Cesar Green, since Green was not a top-three middleweight and Joppy had not proved he was his former self after breaking his neck, so he was not champion by default. The title thus remained vacant until the Trinidad-Hopkins fight.

Obviously, there is room for disagreement in these analyses, but I hope that the above discussion shows how a strictly lineal “man who beat the man” championship would lead to some absurd results. This is why it is necessary to take into account situations where a champion might be duly stripped of his title, as well as considering how fighters were perceived at the time. Boxing historians, amateur or professional, should not presume to confer titles on boxers retroactively, but should be respectful of the expert opinion of that time, as well as the actual accomplishments by each fighter in the ring.

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See also: Boxing Championship Lineages | Steroid-Free Baseball Records


[1] Sharkey said in Peter Heller’s “In this Corner” that the New York Boxing Commission would not let Schmeling ever fight again in New York if the rematch did not happen.

[2] Out of fifteen boxing critics questioned by the United Press, ten said Schmeling won, three favored Sharkey, and two called it a draw. Kansas City Journal-Post, June 22, 1932.

[3] Louis himself admitted he should have lost the decision in the first Walcott fight.

[4] Peter Heller, Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story, p. 166.

[5] Phil Berger, “Tyson Undisputed and Unanimous Titlist,” New York Times, August 2, 1987.

[6] Tim Kawakami, “Foreman Lucks Out in Las Vegas,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1995.

[7] Timothy W. Smith, “Briggs Wins, Crowd Boos, and Foreman Says He Likely Won’t Fight Again,” New York Times, November 23, 1997. Also: Joe Bruno, “Foreman/Briggs Report,” The Cyber Boxing Zone.

[8] Holyfield was by far the bigger draw, and Lewis was perceived as the challenger. Steve Springer, “Holyfield-Lewis Fight is Fit for a King,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1997.

[9] The judging was so unbelievably bad that a New York state Senate investigation was conducted to determine if any judge had been bribed. Most notoriously, Eugenia Williams gave the fifth round to Holyfield, a round in which he was nearly knocked down. She later claimed her view was blocked for much of the round, though television replay does not bear this out. The British judge Larry O’Connell, apparently challenged by arithmetic, was shocked that his scoring amounted to a draw, as he thought that Lewis had won. See: “Real Deal Real LuckyCNN-SI (AP), March 13, 1999; “New York Investigates Holyfield-Lewis Decision,” Los Angeles TImes, March 17, 1999; “Holyfield-Lewis Judge Says View Sometimes Blocked,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1999.

[10] Klitschko led 58-56 on all scorecards at the time of the TKO stoppage due to cuts.

[11] The IBF was forced by a federal judge to strip Michalczewski or face a fine if he did not fight their mandatory challenger William Guthrie, a Don King fighter, within 90 days. The WBA forbade its champion from holding the WBO belt simultaneously.

[12] Notably, Jones knocked out Virgil Hill in the fourth round in April 1998, while Michalczewski was only able to win by decision (June 1997). Julio Cesar Gonzalez, who would defeat Michalczewski in October 2003, lost every round to Roy Jones in a lopsided July 2001 bout (scored 119-106, 118-107, 119-106).

[13] Timothy W. Smith, “Roy Jones Becomes Undisputed Champion,” New York Times, June 6, 1999. Also: “Jones Hints at Holyfield Clash,” BBC Sport, 30 August 2000.

[14] Erdei won a decision over Gonzalez, who was completely dominated by Jones.

[15]Hopkins Stops Daniels in 10th, KO Sets Up Match with Jones,NY Daily News, February 3, 2002.

[16] Joppy’s opponents at this time included Julio Cesar Green (won 2 out of 3) and a 37-year old Roberto Duran (TKO-3). While Joppy was hardly a world-beater, Hopkins’s challengers were no better. His only significant opponents were Glen Johnson and John David Jackson (both in 1997).

[17] Much of the pre-fight coverage was focused not on whether the 4-1 favorite Trinidad would win, but whether he could establish himself as an all-time great. Thomas Hearns said, “I don’t think Trinidad will have any big problems. Bernard Hopkins is a good fighter. But Trinidad is a great fighter. I don’t think Trinidad will have a hard time.” (See also: Sanjeev Shetty, “Tito targets the final mission,” BBC Sport, 9 September 2001.) The BBC, giving credit to Hopkins’ solid chin, predicted a decision victory for Trinidad. (Kevin Asseo, “Trinidad faces toughest test,” BBC Sport, 27 September 2001.) A survey of expert predictions by The Cyber Boxing Zone showed Trinidad favored over Hopkins by more than 2-1, with the Trinidad backers predicting a more emphatic victory than those who supported Hopkins.

[18]Hopkins stuns Trinidad,” BBC Sport, 30 September 2001. Michael Hirsley, “Hopkins batters Trinidad to pull upset,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 30, 2001.

[19] See note 16 for Joppy’s early opponents. Additionally, Takehara fought Jorge Fernando Castro, who defeated Reggie Johnson (twice) and John David Jackson. Hopkins’ career was hampered by his refusal to do business with Don King prior to the unification tournament.

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© 2005, 2011 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org