Anyone with even a passing interest in boxing can recognize the need for an alternative to the alphabet sanctioning bodies, which over the past half-century have proliferated like gremlins, been indicted for corruption, ranked dead men, and tried to convince the public that Nicholas Walters (who?) versus Daulis Prescott (who?) is a fight that crowns a world champion.
But what do you do when you need an alternative to the alternative?
That's a question three boxing journalists asked themselves last spring, when each lost faith in what had been the fans' primary alternative to the alphabet absurdity, The Ring magazine. Within days of each other, Tim Starks, who authors the Queensberry-Rules.com blog, Cliff Rold of BoxingScene.com, and Springs Toledo, a writer for TheSweetScience.com -- all three members of The Ring Ratings Advisory Panel -- penned pieces disdaining key changes in the magazine's championship policy. All three, independently, announced their resignations from the panel in their respective articles.
(Full disclosure: I was an editor at The Ring from 1997-2005 and a freelance contributor from 2005-2011. I haven't written for the publication or its website since.)
Ring championships date back to the days of Jack Dempsey, and it was in 2001 that then-editor-in-chief (and current ESPN boxing contributor) Nigel Collins resurrected them from a 12-year period of dormancy with a new championship policy. After Collins' dismissal a decade later, a series of championship decisions in the new editors' first nine months in power -- detailed in the Starks, Rold and Toledo columns mentioned above -- raised eyebrows and ire. The most significant was the announcement in May 2012 of new, looser standards for filling title vacancies. Where once the objective of The Ring titles had been to separate the real champions from the countless alphabet titlists, now the stated goal was to crown as many champs as possible. In a sense, The Ring stopped being an alternative to the alphabet madness and instead itself became one more alphabet group.
Not wanting to be associated with the Ring ratings any longer, Starks, Rold and Toledo all stepped down -- and soon Toledo pitched the others on the idea outlined in his aforementioned article, to form "an objective rankings panel ... that is internationally represented, knowledgeable, and independent." After several months of planning, recruiting and website construction by British boxing observer Stewart Howe, the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (TBRB) launched in October 2012, not only with top-10 rankings in each division, but with a strict championship policy in place.
"The void The Ring left really had to be filled," Toledo said. "A rankings body had to be created for future researchers looking backward, for fans looking for information they can trust, and for all of us who want to see the day when boxing makes sense again."
"Right now, the sanctioning outfits that award championship belts aren't credible -- there are four current middleweight champions according to the WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF, which is like having four Super Bowl champions," Starks said. "Somebody without a financial stake in handing out tons of belts needed to cut through the clutter so that people who value the notion of world champions could identify who the real champs are in each division. The lineal championship should be the standard. And crowning lineal champions requires sensible rankings and strict standards that we used to have but that went away with Ring's policy changes."
The cornerstones of the TBRB charter are: Only a meeting between the top two fighters in a division can fill a championship vacancy, and the ratings are compiled with the input of a board of at least 25 members. The board currently consists of 30 members (full disclosure, Part 2: I am one of them), hailing from 14 different countries.
The weekly process is straightforward: Every Sunday, the three founders put their heads together and update the rankings to reflect the past week's results; the updates are posted on a message board accessible only to members; the TBRB board members weigh in with disagreements and suggestions; the founders take the suggestions into account and finalize the ratings.
The result is a set of rankings compiled by a relative consensus of 30 informed opinions, with no financial motive beyond the theoretical generality that what's good for boxing is good for boxing journalists.
"We set it up to be beholden to nothing but boxing in the abstract and are deriving no profit from it," Toledo said.
Even if the intention is pure and admirable, that doesn't ensure anything in terms of acceptance and relevance. I know from my experience at The Ring what an uphill battle it can be to convince more powerful entities with louder voices to support your cause. Our reach was limited because the higher-ups at HBO and Showtime wouldn't get on board. Admittedly, for all of our efforts, The Ring made only a small dent in the championship culture during my time there.
"Branding is the big issue," Rold said. "Until TBRB becomes a go-to for boxing fans, one that everyone is aware of and accepts as a fair arbiter, it will struggle for recognition."
So far, TBRB's rankings have been adopted by eight boxing-specific websites, but in terms of mainstream exposure, there has been little beyond a mention on The Wall Street Journal's website. ESPN broadcaster Teddy Atlas recently endorsed TBRB, an enormous step in terms of publicity, but there will still be a long way to go before TBRB is truly a player on the global boxing landscape.
Few sports have proved to be more consistently resistant to change than boxing. For now, TBRB is simply an alternative for fed-up fight fans to turn to. If that's all that it ever becomes, the founders are OK with that and will continue forward.
But the hope is that it can become more than that -- not just an available alternative, but an active solution.