The not-so-sweet science of unification bouts

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Terence Crawford will put his belts on the line when he takes on Julius Indongo on Saturday. 

Lennox Lewis gazed at The Ring magazine championship belt he held in his hands, looked up and said, “My dream was to win all the belts, take them to a goldsmith, and have him melt them all down into one belt.”

It was a naive dream (none of today’s belts are made of gold) but a powerful one nonetheless. It was the carrot on a stick that helped propel Lewis’ quest for greatness and eventually led him to become the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.

It took almost 10 years as a pro, but on Nov. 13, 1999 Lewis won a unanimous 12-round decision over Evander Holyfield to unify the WBC, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles. He was the first undisputed heavyweight champion since 1994, ending five years of counter claims and confusion.

The Ring belt wasn’t real gold either, but it was emblematic of the lineal title, which was about as close as Lewis would come to the belt he envisioned as a schoolboy boxer.

It’s significant that, from the start, Lewis wanted to be the real champion — not just a titleholder. Even in today’s boxing landscape, where darn near everybody and his Uncle Tom Cobley holds some sort of title, there’s a yearning for one true champion.

The concept is fundamental to competitive sports. Hence unification’s enduring popularity, even though the results are often transitory.

Although Lewis remained the legitimate heavyweight champion until he retired in 2003, the WBA stripped him of its belt before he could make the first defense of the whole kit and caboodle.

Nobody was surprised. It’s standard operating procedure.

Lewis could have kept everybody happy for a while by fighting Henry Akinwande or John Ruiz. But Michael Grant was the hot heavyweight and the guy TV wanted. Ruiz and Akinwande were spoilers. Grant would come to fight. It was a no-brainer. To hell with the WBA.

There’s another unification match of note on Saturday (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET) between junior welterweight titleholders Terence Crawford and Julius Indongo. Unless it ends in a draw, one of them will go home with the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO belts.

Still, regardless of who wins Saturday, sooner or later one or more of the alphabet organizations will strip him as surely as Sunday follows Saturday. It’s one of the cornerstones of their business model.

The formula is easy to understand: More titleholders mean more sanction fees. In the long run, unified titles are bad for business.

Think of Scrooge McDuck doing the backstroke in his swimming pool filled with gold coins, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the governing bodies’ actual agenda.

It seems that nobody is immune from this incessant meddling. British superstar Anthony Joshua is the WBA and IBF heavyweight titleholder, a fighter so popular in the U.K. that he sells out every venue in which he fights, including 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium. Even so, in the not too distant future he’s likely to be forced to relinquish an alphabet belt in order to steer his career in the direction he wants to take it.

There’s simply not enough of Joshua to go round. The IBF wants him to fight Kubrat Pulev, the WBA is pushing Luis Ortiz, and the WBO insists the Englishman should face the winner of the Joseph Parker-Hughie Fury match.

The organizations are very good at quoting chapter and verse from their rulebooks to justify their actions, especially when taking away, with a stroke of the pen, a title a fighter won in the ring.

The rules are tailored in a manner conducive to compelling fighters to do the organizations’ bidding. The enforcement mechanism is the mandatory challenger rule, which attempts to force champions and titleholders to defend against whomever the organization deems the No. 1 contender in the appropriate weight division.

There’s no way a unified champion can satisfy four alphabet organizations within the required timeframe. It’s a punch-drunk version of Catch-22, which creates a demand for unified titles and then takes actions to ensure the demand is seldom satisfied for long.

Defection from this alphabet merry-go-round is most common among elite fighters who have already established themselves. If there’s an offer for more money to defend against a more marketable challenger than the one an organization is endorsing, they generally go for the money.

It is true that there have been instances when becoming the No. 1 contender has helped a worthy fighter get a title shot of which he would have otherwise been deprived. But it’s nowhere as common as the opposite. The number of unqualified boxers getting a crack at a title is a much bigger problem.

The Crawford-Indongo match, however, is not the consequence of either man being forced to fight because he’s in a mandatory situation. Due to alphabet organizations’ byzantine practice of excluding other organizations’ titleholders from its rankings, neither Indongo nor Crawford is his counterpart’s No. 1 contender.

The WBC’s No. 1 junior welterweight is Amir Imam, while the WBO’s is Antonio Orozco. The WBA has Rances Barthelemy No. 1 and the IBF has Sergey Lipinets. Nonetheless, Crawford and Indongo will each pay $100,000 in sanctioning fees to placate all four organizations.

The Indongo fight is the next step in Top Rank’s plan to transform the multitalented Crawford into a crossover attraction. He’s doesn’t have a particularly charismatic personality or live a glitzy lifestyle or talk a lot of trash. The best way to raise his profile is to go the Marvin Hagler route: Beat so many accomplished fighters the world can’t help but sit up and take notice.

The undefeated Indongo shouldn’t be distracted by fighting in front of a packed house of Crawford fans in Lincoln, Nebraska. Indongo’s biggest wins have come on the road. The Namibian southpaw knocked out Russian Eduard Troyanovsky to annex the IBF title in Moscow and won a unanimous decision over Scotsman Ricky Burns in Glasgow to claim the WBA belt.

Hopefully it will be a good fight, and there’s a decent chance it will be, but there’s no guarantee. Either way, neither fighter was coerced into taking the match by a sanctioning body. Both wanted it, and that’s the way it should be.

If left to its own devices, boxing will naturally gravitate toward matches the public wants to see for one simple reason: It’s the best way to make the most money.

Unification bouts are not necessarily good or bad. That depends entirely on the quality of the fighters involved and how well they perform. It’s after unification that things get complicated.

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