On the surface, boxing seems like a simple sport. Two men use their fists to try and knock the other guy out senselessly. Behind this simplicity lies an extremely deep technical and tactical game that fascinates people and makes them lifelong fans of boxing. But there is also another layer of complexity to the sport which is sadly not that entertaining and that is politics.
Unlike sports where the World champion is the one and only World champion. In boxing, things are a bit more complicated. With many different sanctioning bodies awarding their own champions, you can be excused if you find it hard to recognize who exactly is the “real” champion. This is where terms like unified and undisputed champion come into play.
In this article, I will clear this up a bit and help you understand what is an undisputed champion and why it’s such a big deal, especially in this day and age.
What does undisputed champion mean?
Currently, there are 4 major boxing-sanctioning bodies. These are the IBF, WBA, WBC, and WBO. Each awards its own world champion for each weight class. A unified champion is a boxer who holds at least two of the titles in a weight class simultaneously. The most prestigious and elusive recognition is the undisputed championship which is achieved only by holding all 4 major belts in the division.
This is a rare and difficult feat to achieve not only because the boxer has to be the best in the division but also navigating the treacherous waters of boxing politics. Unification matches are difficult to negotiate and organize and sometimes take years to materialize. This fact is usually perceived as bad for the sport because way too often the best do not fight the best, but on the other hand, when it finally happens it creates an event of great magnitude and significance.
History Of The Undisputed Champion
The current four-belt era is a relatively new thing as it began in 2007 with the addition of the World Boxing Organization (the WBC began recognizing the WBO in 2004 and some consider this the start of the four-belt era). But things were much simpler in the past. In the early days of boxing, there was one boxing champion per weight class and that was it. Once the consensus champion was awarded the title, it can be won only by beating him, thus establishing the lineal championship.
The steady rise of boxing popularity saw the emergence of more boxing organizations and from 1922 until 1963 the undisputed champion had to hold the belts of the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) and the National Boxing Association (now the WBA) simultaneously.
Still, during this time most boxing champions were considered undisputed. In the 1960s the World Boxing Council was created and the two important widely recognized belts became WBA and WBC.
Further fragmentation of the belts was created in 1983 with the establishment of the International Boxing Federation (IBF). The latest (and hopefully the last) major sanctioning body, the WBO, was created in 1988, but it took almost 20 years before in 2007 all the other organizations started giving the same recognition to WBO champions.
Boxers that have become the undisputed champion
It’s easy to see why it’s becoming more and more difficult to be recognized as the undisputed champion. With 4 belts on the line, it’s a tough job to organize, let alone win all 4 of them and not be stripped of a belt because of a refused mandatory title defense ordered by one of the sanctioning bodies. This is why only nine men have succeeded in winning the highest honors in boxing from 2004 until today. Here is a list of men below.
- Bernard Hopkins (middleweight)
- Jermain Taylor (middleweight)
- Terence Crawford (junior welterweight)
- Oleksandr Usyk (cruiserweight)
- Josh Taylor (junior welterweight)
- Canelo Alvarez (super middleweight)
- Jermell Charlo (junior middleweight)
- Devin Haney (lightweight)
- Naoya Inoue (Bantamweight)
The latest fighter to manage this elusive feat was Mexican superstar Saul Canelo Alvarez in devastating fashion against IBF titleholder Caleb Plant in November of 2021 to become the undisputed king of the 168 lbs division. The other was Jermell Charlo who recently became the undisputed king at 154 lbs after winning a rematch against Castano to win all the belts. While Inoue recently dominated the whole Bantamweight division.
Many legendary boxers held the unified crown. The absolute record holder for unified title defenses is none other than “Dr. Steelhammer” Wladimir Klitschko who successfully defended his heavyweight titles 15 times. Although he was recognized as the lineal champion of the world, he didn’t have the WBC belt and is not considered the undisputed champion.
The last official heavyweight undisputed ruler was Lennox Lewis back in 1999. We are yet to witness a heavyweight undisputed champion in the 4 belt era, but there is a chance that Tyson Fury, Olexander Usyk, or Anthony Joshua may grasp the “holy grail” of boxing in the next couple of years.
In the more distant past, Muhammad Ali managed to defend his undisputed crown 10 consecutive times- a record that remained unbroken for 38 years.
The Ring Magazine Title
Another championship belt worth mentioning is The Ring magazine title. Although not officially recognized by the other sanctioning bodies, The Ring title is a very coveted price in boxing. As the nearly 100-year-old magazine became an institution in boxing it also started awarding a title to the best boxer in this division.
And when the fragmentation of organizations deepened, the Ring title was still awarded only to the lineal champion – meaning the man who beat the man. This makes the Ring belt one of the most prestigious because fans know that it can be won only in a fight between the number 1 and number 2 in the division.
Make sure to check out more similar related articles below or sign up for my boxing newsletter and get 5 Free discounts!
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