Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Featherweight Puzzle


Over the last few weeks, the sport of Boxing at least in regard to the professional side of the sport has seen a focus of sorts on the 126lb. Featherweight division. Of course, readers here on The Boxing Truth®️ have seen the coverage that this observer has provided over the last two weeks of Matchroom Boxing’s second season of its Fight Camp series at the estate of promoter Eddie Hearn and the Hearn family known in Boxing circles as Matchroom Headquarters. Coincidentally, the first two weeks of the season have been headlined by two Featherweight bouts that may have an impact on the upper echelon of the division going forward. 


First, it was Leigh Wood, who scored a dominant twelfth round stoppage of top contender Xu Can on July 31st that earned him an interim/regular championship designation in the World Boxing Association’s (WBA) Featherweight ratings. This was followed by longtime contender Kid Galahad, who scored an eleventh round stoppage this past weekend (August 7th) in his rematch with James Dickens to win the International Boxing Federation (IBF) Featherweight world championship. On August 6th however, an additional Featherweight bout took place at Falls Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where undefeated contender Michael Conlan met former IBF Jr. Featherweight world champion TJ Doheny in a twelve round bout. A fight that took place before a crowd of over six thousand spectators in a purpose filled setting.


While it was not long ago in the days predating the ongoing global COVID-19 epidemic to see a loud and enthusiastic crowd of spectators attending fights on a regular basis, especially in the Boxing hotbed of the United Kingdom and Ireland, perhaps it was the circumstance that this was the first Boxing event to take place in Ireland with spectators in attendance that made the atmosphere special, though perhaps also a bit uneasy depending on one’s perspective given the circumstances of the ongoing crisis. As for the fight itself, it was a largely tactical bout that was in many was dictated by Conlan’s ability to control distance, pick his shots, defense due to outstanding upper body movement, ability to give angles, and finally attack in spurts.


The highlights of the fight came first in the closing seconds of round four when Conlan connected with a flush right hook that stunned Doheny to form him backward, in round five, Conlan followed up with an attack to Doheny’s body, which would force him to take a knee. From that point on, Conlan continued to mix his attack well and, despite Doheny being able to have success sporadically throughout the bout, it would be Conlan who would box his way to a convincing twelve round unanimous decision victory. Although this was an extremely technical performance by Conlan and one might argue that the potential for a stoppage victory was there for him if he had opted to be more aggressive during those periods where he let his hands go, it was nevertheless, a dominant performance for a fighter that is also rated number one in the world by the World Boxing Organization (WBO) in the 122lb. Jr. Featherweight division.


The victory for Conlan however, also adds his name to what is becoming an increasingly complicated puzzle in the 126lb. Featherweight division. Now, the reader might be asking “Just what makes the situation in the Featherweight division a complicated puzzle Beau?” I will do my best to explain and hopefully, do so in such a way that it does not give the reader a migraine headache.


First, there are five recognized world sanctioning organizations that on their own can create confusion simply because of the number of organizations that regulate and sanction world championship bouts in Boxing’s seventeen weight classes. For the purposes of the current Featherweight landscape, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) does not currently have a world champion in the Featherweight division. There remains the World Boxing Council (WBC) as well as the previously three mentioned organizations, the WBA, WBO, and IBF.


In regard to the WBA, the structure of their rankings process is one that I have criticized frequently over the years simply because there is one world champion that is deemed “Super” champion, followed by two fighters that each hold an interim or regular designation in the WBA ratings in a given weight class. While frankly I could pen a column or perhaps several on the fallacies of such a structure, as I have also pointed out frequently over the years in discussing the WBA, it is something that on the surface is well-intentioned as a way of ensuring contenders get an opportunity to fight for a world championship if in the event that due to injuries or other circumstances the world champion does not fulfill their obligations to defend their championship against mandatory challengers, which are annually mandated.


The current picture of the WBA Featherweight ratings sees Leo Santa Cruz recognize as world champion, while Leigh Wood holds one Interim/Regular champion designation. Until their meeting on August 6th, both Michael Conlan and TJ Doheny were rated number four and five respectively in the same ratings. Now, with Conlan earning the second Interim/Regular designation, the question becomes what’s next? In a perfect world, Leigh Wood would be next in line to challenge Leo Santa Cruz as the next mandatory challenger, which is essentially what an Interim/Regular championship designation is, is a mandatory challenger position.


For several reasons including, but not limited to different promoters having respective interests involved, competing television networks across both the traditional and streaming realms, the fact that those promoters and networks do not always see the benefit of working together both for their interests as well as the fighters involved, and finally the sanctioning organizations involved, the idea that a fighter that earns a mandatory title shot, getting that opportunity in a reasonable timeframe is never a certainty.


In this case, despite his status as the WBA world champion in the Featherweight division, Leo Santa Cruz has not defended the WBA Featherweight world championship in over two years. Instead, moving up to the 130lb. Jr. Lightweight division before meeting Gervonta Davis in October of last year in a fight where WBA designations in multiple weight classes, but only one world championship, Santa Cruz’ WBA Jr. Featherweight world championship was on the line, a championship he lost to Davis by knockout, was on the line.  As much as that is a reflection of the fallacy of the WBA’s ratings structure, and keeping in mind that a good portion of Santa Cruz’ inactivity at Featherweight may have been caused by the circumstances of COVID-19, the fact is, the WBA championship has been inactive at 126lbs. with the exception of of the top contenders that have been vying for interim/regular championship designations.


Of course, the WBA could mandate Santa Cruz to defend his Featherweight championship against Leigh Wood. The problem will then become whether or not the respective promoters involved, the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) group of promoters, where Santa Cruz has primarily fought and Matchroom Boxing, Woods’ promoter will be willing to sit down and make the fight. While this does not factor in the competing networks involved Showtime/Fox Sports, who primarily carry PBC events and DAZN, who is firmly alight with Matchroom Boxing , but has also shown a willingness to work with all promoters, that would likely each make offers for the potential fight to air on their respective platforms, the fact that rival promoters rarely see beyond their own interests often in of itself, leads to an impasse, which unfortunately means bouts of significant interest do not get made.


The other possibility is the WBA may strip Santa Cruz of their Featherweight world championship and then elevate Wood from holding an interim/regular champion designation to full WBA champion, thus eliminating the need to sanction a fight for a vacant world championship, if that were to happen, which in theory is why interim/regular designations exists beyond ensuring top contenders get their opportunity to fight for a world championship, the question will be whether the organization will then mandate Wood to face Michael Conlan in his first title defense.


Although the same conundrum exists in that scenario with Matchroom/DAZN on one end of the table, but different with promoter Bob Arum, his promotional entity Top Rank, Inc, and ESPN on the other side of the negotiating table representing Conlan, the good news is Matchroom and Top Rank have worked together in the past to make fights and the broadcasters involved here also showed a willingness to work together so there at least is a possibility of a Wood-Conlan bout for the WBA championship coming to fruition. Out of respect for the reader, I will not dwell into this possible unification scenarios that would involve the WBC, IBF, and WBO in addition to the WBA. 


The scenarios this observer has laid out though I have done my best to explain it simply, can be confusing enough in the context of one column. Although this “Featherweight Puzzle “ will not be solved in short order, The first step towards solving the puzzle and hopefully unification of the Featherweight division in the process will depend largely on whether there can be clarity in regard to the WBA’s end in the equation. I think yours truly is safe in saying the Boxing world hopes clarity comes sooner than later. At least we can hope.


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”


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