Irish boxing: The sanctioning bodies’ latest battleground

When Martin Rogan pulled back the curtain to reveal his latest venture, quite a few eyebrows were raised when the logo of the World Boxing Union (WBU) appeared on the fight poster. For better or worse, the WBU and the International Boxing Organisation (IBO) were part of boxing fans’ weekend diet for a good few years before Sky TV decided to give them the shove and revert to only televising bouts that were being contested for the more traditional belts on offer – British, Commonwealth, European etc.

Much has been written, spoken and discussed about the merits of multiple titles in boxing over recent years and debate has reignited off the back of various title organisations filtering into Irish boxing. In particular, opinion has been fiercely polarised over the WBU heavyweight scrap scheduled for October. So perhaps it is only fair to investigate the facts and let the sanctioning bodies speak for themselves before we pass judgement on their actions.

On October 27, in Belfast’s Odyssey Arena, the World Boxing Union will be in business once again, in one form or another. But whether this latest incarnation is a direct descendant of the body that graced our shores at the start of the ‘noughties’ is a little more difficult to determine. It seems that the ‘alphabet boys’ are gaining a foothold once again, but this time Ireland is the fertile ground they wish to tread. Quite simply, the sanctioning bodies are back, but just when you thought that ‘world’ title belts could not become anymore diluted, the acronyms are starting to split themselves even further.

On December 10, 2010 in Tallaght’s National Basketball Arena, Dublin, Anthony Fitzgerald fought Kevin Hammond for the WBF Intercontinental middleweight title. Following on from that, in June of this year, Patrick Hyland beat Philippe Frenois over 12 rounds for the WBF featherweight title. Then Henry Coyle made it a trio of WBF belt holders on August 12 in Castlebar with his fifth round stoppage win over Elio Cotena. Sound about right? Well, sort of. The title Coyle won was actually the World Boxing Foundation belt, as opposed to the previous two who had claimed the World Boxing Federation titles.

While the WBF may have a double identity crisis, the WBU is also suffering from the same ailment. When I first explored the entertaining world of alphabet bodies in the Irish Boxing Review book I interviewed Don ‘Moose’ Lewis, then president of the International Boxing Union (IBU). Since then ‘Moose’ has moved up in the world and now claims ownership of the WBU.

Unfortunately for Lewis there is another WBU, based out of Germany, doing the rounds and sanctioning ‘world’ title fights under the same esteemed banner. Lewis claims that it is his body that traces itself back to George Foreman’s 1995 win over Axel Schulz in Las Vegas, the first recorded WBU heavyweight title fight. Corrie Sanders, Hasim Rahman and even Johnny Nelson later held that particular belt, which was last seen in action in 2005 when Matt Skelton removed Fabio Moli in six rounds. So, much to ‘Moose’s’ annoyance, the German-based body also claim to be the real WBU and list Gene Pukall as their champion, although there is no clear indication on Pukall’s record of when he actually won the title. The last recognised belt Gene won, back in 2006, was the ‘world’ heavyweight crown of the IBU – the administration that is also run by Lewis.

“No we are not linked to the Germans,” rages ‘Moose’. “They started the WBU version when I stripped Gene Pukall of the WAA ‘world’ title after he did not pay sanction fees. Yes, we claim the proper lineage since we resumed it after the last party who used it and then we published notice. We are sanctioning the Rogan fight conditionally on all paperwork being in order and all commissions and boards approving it – which is in the works. At this point the title is contracted for and we are not taking offers for it. I will be the representative coming to Belfast.”

So, Belfast fight fans will get the chance to meet Lewis in person on October 27. But hold on a minute…where did the WAA title come from? The World Athletic Association was in fact set up in 1981 by Pat O’Grady when his son Sean was effectively stripped of the WBA title. In 1996 a group based in Georgia, USA took control of the WAA. That group was the IBU, headed by, you guessed it, Don ‘Moose’ Lewis.

‘Moose’ also states on his WBU website: “I assure you that we are the original WBU and the titles will not only be filled again but faithfully defended with boxers from around the world having the opportunity to ‘grab the gold’ – where otherwise they are denied due to boxing politics. We recognize and embrace my predecessors as well as the history of the WBU before our management. We are thrilled to have the great championship lineage of those who came before us. We proudly add to the heritage.”

Not all of Lewis’s endeavours are restricted to the world of professional boxing. In 2010 he branched out into basketball by attempting to form the All-American Basketball Alliance (AABA). This would be a venture with a difference – an all-white basketball league, with players reportedly required to be “natural-born United States citizens”, and whose parents must both be “of the Caucasian race”.

Meanwhile, the German-based WBU of course dispute ‘Moose’s’ statements and question whether he even owns the lineage of the WBU at all.

“I have been in boxing for 10 years and I am working closely with the big federations like K2 and Universum,” spits back Torsten Knille, president of the alternative group.

“We are very serious and work for the good of the sport. Mr. Lewis said to some managers and promoters that he is with us in the WBU and that we will do unification fights but that is untrue; I never spoke with him and I don’t want too.

“We have many champions and I think in this year we will have more fights than the IBO…I hope. We want to be the number five next year [fifth highly rated of the ‘world’ titles] and we have very low sanction fees to work with small promoters without TV, but we have our rules and regulations.”

Some of those fees are as low as £1,000 for overseeing a title fight under their banner. Knille also claims that since July 2010 he has held the only WBU registration. Torsten later went on to throw another ‘world’ title organisation called the World Boxing Board (WBB) into the mix. Maybe we should leave that one alone, however, before we get buried in a pit of belts, but apparently Herbie Hide fought for the WBB once, back in the early 1990s in Norwich.

With Northern Ireland preparing to welcome ‘Moose’ Lewis’s brand of the WBU, could a second body soon be hot on his heels and looking to peddle their wares across the Emerald Isle?

“Certainly, in fact we have a title contest planned for Ireland in December,” Torsten Knille verifies, “with Michael Sweeney fighting at light-heavyweight.”

The WBU are serious in their endeavours and are actively seeking a UK and Ireland representative. After I politely declined a chance to get involved I duly contacted Sweeney, busy preparing for an eight round assignment in England, to see what his thoughts were on this surprise title shot.

“The plan is to fight in October and hopefully again in November then fight for the German WBU title in January so it is too early to say anything about their title shot until after my next fights. It’s a great chance though – the only way forward.”

It is extremely easy to poke fun at the multiple organisations and their whacky ways but sometimes they can stoke up a bit of positive debate. Take the aforementioned Henry Coyle fight for example. I wasn’t down in Castlebar myself on that particular occasion but by all accounts a buoyant crowd were suitably enthused when Coyle’s victory was confirmed. Irish-language broadcaster TG4 televised the main event, and some of the undercard, giving boxers’ valuable exposure from a new angle and via a broadcaster that had not previously shown any great deal of interest in the fight game. Did the presence of the WBF title play any part in persuading the channel to show the Castlebar show on a prime time Saturday slot?

“Absolutely, the bigger the fight then the more attractive it is in terms of broadcasting it,” confirms TG4’s Ronan O’Coisdealbha. “There was a great atmosphere and attendance in Mayo; it was on Henry’s home soil and it all added to the occasion.

“The Coyle show was our first ‘world’ title fight and the second time we’ve had live boxing on. We broadcast the European Amateur Boxing Championships live from Liverpool in 2008 and we’ve produced and broadcast our own boxing documentaries. We were very pleased with the Castlebar bill, we got very good viewing figures and we were happy with the feedback that we received from viewers all over Ireland.”

So, a positive reaction from the broadcaster and the WBF belt was a factor in the fight being shown live across Ireland. Would O’Coisdealbha and his team consider televising another boxing event?

“We would be interested in running live boxing again,” he says, “but it depends on who’s fighting and if there is space on the TV schedule. We are always on the lookout for different things and we broadcast a lot of live sport on our station – like Rugby or Gaelic Games- so if it was right for us then we would certainly look at boxing again.”

As we mentioned earlier, the WBF brand also has a conflict in its ranks. The World Boxing Federation trace their roots back to 1988 and were formed in Tennessee, USA by the late Larry Carrier. According to the Federation’s version of events, Ron Scalf held presidency from 1999-2003 before a disagreement and subsequent breakaway saw Scalf form the World Boxing Foundation alongside Australian Mick Croucher. The Federation’s spokesman Clive Bam unequivocally separates the two companies.

“We are clearly distancing ourselves from the World Boxing Foundation,” enforces Baum, “which in fact is nothing but a private company with the only purpose to earn its owner money on the pretense to be a legitimate boxing organization. The World Boxing Federation, in contrast, is a non-profit entity properly registered as a sports organisation in the state of Luxembourg.”

Baum sees little credence in Henry Coyle’s Foundation title and feels that their own upcoming title bout in Spain will determine the true WBF light-middleweight king.

“Our world super-welterweight [light-middleweight] championship is scheduled for Spain on October 8 between Saul Roman and our Intercontinental champion Sebastien Madani – with all respect to Mr. Coyle, but this fight is much more deserving of its tag,” scoffs Baum. “On the whole, if you simply compare the quality of our fights and our champions to those of the “Foundation”, you will understand. Nothing more needs to be said.”

OK, that’s that then. But is there really room for two WBF sanctioning bodies operating in Ireland at the same time?

“As for Ireland, we would be happy to get more active there and I think with our world featherweight champion, unbeaten Patrick Hyland, as well as our Intercontinental middleweight champion Anthony Fitzgerald, we are off to a great and very promising start,” adds the Federation spokesman. “Our president Howard Goldberg also enjoys a very cooperative and friendly relationship with BUI president Mel Christle.”

In the spirit of our search, it is only fair that World Boxing Foundation supremo Mick Croucher gets his chance to pitch the organization to Irish fight fans. Here is what Mick has to say in response: “I don’t wish to make any comment on the Federation issue and our lawyers have it in hand,” he responds.

“As we are working worldwide at present, we have many bouts planned worldwide and, just as always, being President of the World Boxing Foundation I want to make sure everyone is enjoying working with our foundation as an ethical sanctioning body.”

A fairly ambiguous reply but it seems that the World Boxing Foundation are certainly not finding work hard to come by.

“We have bouts planned in Ireland, UK, Australia and USA as well as four bouts in Europe,” boasts Croucher.

Fans who witnessed Henry Coyle’s homecoming win were certainly not fussed over the main event’s World Boxing Foundation title status. They figuratively raised the roof of the Royal Theatre that night.

“It was a great show and the atmosphere was unreal, you’d swear that he had just knocked out Floyd Mayweather in there,” said Irish boxing journalist Jonny Stapleton shortly after the fight.

The people who are caught up in the middle of all this are the fighters. If spurious titles put bums on seats and result in a more successful promotion, and subsequently more cash in the boxer’s pocket at the end of the night, then who’s complaining? Dublin middleweight Anthony Fitzgerald has won WBF Intercontinental and EBA titles during his short career and the latter victory has seen him ranked more highly with the EBA’s creator organization, the World Boxing Association (WBA).

“Of course they’re good to win, because this is what everyone is in boxing for – to win belts,” says Fitzgerald. “The EBA is a good belt because it put it me at number 10 in the WBA rankings so what’s not good about that? The WBF it’s not a great belt but it’s a belt nonetheless. I’m not too sure about the WBU but Eamonn Magee had it and Micky Ward had it so I wouldn’t mind having it myself. There are many more good fighters that have held it too.”

Fitzgerald’s former opponent Lee Murtagh is well informed on the sanctioning bodies and thinks that Martin Rogan has pulled off a smart move: “On the scale of things the WBU is higher up than the WBF & I think there’s two WBF’s anyway, the Federation and the Foundation,” Lee correctly surmises.

“I applaud Rogie’s lateral move after Hennessy Sports tried making him look a mug by announcing the King’s Hall and Tyson Fury then making everyone in Belfast believe that Rogie was the opponent. Also, when Ricky Hatton was WBU champion not one person questioned its validity and he was always called a world champion. I think once the title is won Rogan can bring some top class heavyweights to Belfast. I’d love to be on the bill and I’ve already sent Rogie a message wishing him luck and offering him any help with the matchmaking as I hear he’s involved with the promotional side.”

So, we have delved into the world of the sanctioning bodies and hopefully a fairer opinion has been formed. Are the multiple organisations good for boxing, or a hindrance to matters, and more specifically should domestic boxing fans be prepared to embrace them? Well, boxing always divides opinion and the answer to those questions will no doubt be different depending on who you ask. Whether you like them or not, the sanctioning bodies evolve, revolve and consistently reinvent themselves to retain their relevance in the sport.

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