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Boxing’s Chaotic Weight Divisions: Part Two of a Two-Part Story

Arne K. Lang

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In May of 1987, The Ring magazine, boxing’s premier publication, announced that it would be turning back the clock. In the future, the monthly top-10 ratings would be limited to the eight classic weight divisions. The champions of the “junior” divisions would be rolled into the next highest weight class.

“Our goal,” said The Ring editor Nigel Collins, “is to restore boxing to the way it used to be, when the champ really meant something. The thing is so watered down now that it has become a farce.”

The last straw for the self-styled Bible of boxing was the introduction of the 105-pound weight class earlier that year. The fledgling International Boxing Federation got the ball rolling and the two other relevant organizations, the WBC and WBA, were quick to embrace it. This latest addition to boxing’s taxonomy created a second weight division below the standard flyweight class. Only three measly pounds separated the 105-pound class from the class directly above it.

Making matters more confusing, the three organizations could not agree on what to call the new weight division. The IBF named it mini-flyweight, the WBC called it the strawweight, and the WBA named it the minimumweight division.

The addition of this new weight class was seen as a cash grab, a move to extract more money in sanctioning fees from the sport’s promoters. It was certainly that, but there was more to it. The honchos of the three organizations could see that the Orient was “under-served.” The best fighters in this region of the world, with few exceptions, were “mighty-mites.” When the IBF released its first mini-flyweight top-10 list, only four countries were represented: Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea.

Cruisers

The cruiserweight division was born before the bottom end of the weight spectrum was cluttered with sub-flyweight divisions. The WBC led the way, setting the limit at 190 pounds.

Marvin Camel, who was born on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, had the distinction of being the world’s first cruiserweight champion, but it took him two tries. In December of 1979, Camel’s 15-round fight with Mate Parlov in Yugoslavia ended in a draw. The do-over was held three months later in Las Vegas and Camel copped the vacant belt, winning a unanimous decision.

Camel became a two-time cruiserweight champion when he scored a 5th-round stoppage over Roddy McDonald on McDonald’s turf in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Dec. 13, 1983, in the first world cruiserweight title fight sanctioned by the infant IBF.

Prior to this, in February of the previous year, the first WBA cruiserweight title fight was held in South Africa. Ossie Ocasio claimed the vacant belt with a 15-round split decision over Robbie Williams. In point of fact, Ocasio actually won the WBA’s junior heavyweight title, but the name never caught on and the WBA eventually fell in line with its rivals and accepted the handle “cruiserweight.”

Super Middles

The idea for a 168-pound weight class had been kicking around for some time before the International Boxing Federation gave it the stamp of approval, taking it out of the hands of fly-by-night organizations.

The IBF, headquartered in New Jersey, was pressured to create the new weight class by the management of Garden State native Bobby Czyz who had outgrown the middleweight division, but the popular Czyz was a spectator when the IBF held its first super middleweight title fight, a match between Murray Sutherland and Ernie Singletary at Atlantic City on March 28, 1984. Sutherland, who was born in Scotland but fought out of Bay City, Michigan, won the vacant belt with a lopsided decision in a dull 15-round fight.

South Korea’s Chong Pal-Park, who dethroned Sutherland but left the IBF, won the first WBA super middleweight title fight with a second-round stoppage of Tijuana’s Jesus Gallardo on Dec. 6, 1987. In November of the following year, the first-ever WBO and WBC super middleweight title fights were staged three days apart in Las Vegas.

On the 4th, at the Hilton, Thomas Hearns became the first WBO 168-pound title-holder when he got off the deck to win a 12-round majority decision over James Kinchen. On the 7th, at Caesars Palace, Sugar Ray Leonard got off the deck to stop Donny Lalonde in the ninth frame. Leonard won two titles that night as Lalonde entered the ring sporting the WBC light heavyweight title, but Sugar Ray never had any intention of defending this belt.

That set up a unification fight between Hearns and Leonard, a rematch of their scintillating welterweight battle, but almost eight years had passed since that famous fight and Leonard-Hearns II, contested at Caesars Palace on June 12, 1989, was a pale imitation of the original even though it was a very close fight that ended in a draw.

All four governing bodies would eventually bump the cruiserweight class up to 200 pounds. The changeover was made in rapid succession, one of the few instances in which the rival organizations operated more or less in concert.

Olympic Boxing

The lords of professional boxing were too smart to tamper with the traditional eight weight classes. The weights have remained unchanged for more than 100 years. At the amateur level, however, there have been frequent shake-ups.

As noted in PART ONE, the 1920 Summer Games were an important development in putting the seal of approval on the eight traditional classes and standardizing the weight attached to each class. This template remained in place until 1948 when there were changes across the board resulting from the decision to express the weights in kilograms rather than pounds. Every weight class was impacted to some degree. To take just one example, the lightweight division went from 135 pounds to 62 kilograms, the rough equivalent of 136.7 pounds.

Four years later, at the 1952 Olympics, two new weight classes were introduced, boosting the number of divisions from “8” to “10.” The new divisions were called light welterweight and light middleweight and the divisions adjacent to them were adjusted so that they wouldn’t rub too close against them.

Another new weight class was introduced in 1968, the light flyweight class with a ceiling of 105.8 pounds (48 kilograms) and in 1984 the number of Olympic weight classes went from “11” to “12” with a super heavyweight class for boxers weighing more than 91 kilograms (200.6 pounds).

The light middleweight division was eliminated in 2004 and the featherweight division was expunged in 2012, bringing the number of Olympic weight classes back to “10.” As was true when a new weight class was added, the elimination of a weight class brought about some adjustments. And it now became necessary to qualify the number by noting that these were men’s classes. The women had crashed the party.

At the 2012 Games, the first for female boxing, and once again in 2016, the ladies were sorted into three divisions: flyweight, lightweight, and middleweight.

At the forthcoming Tokyo Olympiad — pushed back from 2020 by the pandemic — there will be five weight classes for women. A featherweight (125) and a welterweight (152) class has been added. Concordantly, the lightweight division has been redefined, going from 132 to 138 pounds.

As has happened in the realm of sports at America’s colleges and universities, as more opportunities have been provided for women, there’s been some contraction for men. To accommodate the ladies, AIBA, the international governing body of amateur boxing, is doing away with two men’s classes. The light flyweight and bantamweight divisions are biting the dust.

It seems odd that as amateur boxing is returning to eight weight classes (for males), the pro game is heading in the other direction. The addition of a bridgerweight class will swell the number to 18.

And by the way, The Ring magazine now rates boxers in 12 weight categories. The well-intentioned rollback to the original eight never did take hold.

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“One Night in Miami”: Film Review by Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser

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On February 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. defeated Charles “Sonny” Liston in Miami Beach over the course of six remarkable rounds to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. Late that night, the new champion found himself in a room at Hampton House (a black hotel in segregated Miami) with Malcolm X, several other followers of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and football great Jim Brown. Soul singer Sam Cooke (a friend of Clay’s) had been at the fight, but there’s no historical record of his being in the hotel room with the others at that time.

One Night in Miami is built around imagining what transpired in that room amongst Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Directed by Regina King from a screenplay by Kemp Powers, it’s available on Amazon Prime.

The film fits into the genre known as historical fiction. Dramatic license was taken. Viewers should understand that, at times, it’s allegorical rather than an accurate factual recounting. The larger question is whether the film is impressionistically honest. The answer is “yes.”

One Night in Miami begins with the 1963 fight between Clay and Henry Cooper in London. It then segues to Cooke being treated rudely by an all-white audience at the Copacabana, followed by Jim Brown (the greatest running back in National Football League history) being reminded by a patronizing southern gentleman that he’s just a “n—–.” Next, we see Malcolm as the Nation of Islam’s most charismatic spokesman, after which the scene shifts to Liston-Clay I.

Thirty-four minutes into the film, the drama moves to Hampton House.

Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were prominent in different ways. Each was young, black, and famous. But Malcolm was a social and religious figure of considerable intellect while the other three were known as entertainers.

The dialogue between the four men is light at first and then turns serious.

Malcolm is played by Kingsley Ben-Adir. On what should have been one of the greatest nights of his life, his world is slipping away. His deadly rupture with Elijah Muhammad is almost complete. Soon, Clay will abandon him. Ben-Adir comes across as a bit weaker and more tentative than one might expect, although Malcolm’s intellect is evident in his performance.

It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Cassius Clay well except the young Muhammad Ali. But Eli Goree bears a resemblance to Clay and is pretty good in the role.

Jim Brown was an intimidating physical presence. Aldis Hodge lacks this physicality but his performance is solid.

Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Sam Cooke, has star quality. He’s the only one of the four major actors who has the charisma and presence of the man he’s portraying. But as a result, Cooke has a stronger on-screen persona than Malcolm. That’s a problem as tensions between the two men boil over.

Toward the end of the film, Malcolm reveals that he intends to leave the Nation of Islam because of differences with Elijah Muhammad and will found a new organization.

“Who’s gonna be in this new organization?” Clay asks.

“I think lots of people will follow me over,” Malcolm answers. “Especially if you come with me.”

Clay, of course, didn’t follow Malcolm. He sided with Elijah Muhammad. One year later, he and Jim Brown were the only participants from the hotel room gathering as portrayed in the film who were still alive. Sam Cooke was shot to death in a California motel on December 11, 1964. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

One Night in Miami cautions us that our icons are flesh and blood human beings with strengths and flaws. In its best moments, the film is a powerful reminder that the issues of self-respect, black empowerment, and racial equality are timeless.

Pictured left to right: Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X) Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Cooke) Eli Goree (Cassius Clay)

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Crossover star Holly Holm Adds New Dimensions to Claressa Shields

Kelsey McCarson

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She laughs about it now, but back then it wasn’t all that funny.

Boxing champion Holly Holm was competing in her first professional MMA fight, and all her years of training inside the ropes as a world champion boxer had just taken over her entire body.

Holm had kicked her opponent down to the ground, so she did what any well-schooled boxer would do. She pivoted away from her fallen prey and headed over to the neutral corner.

All of that was wrong.

“What are you doing?” her coach yelled from cageside. “Finish her!”

It was Holm’s first big mistake in moving over from boxing to MMA, but she was lucky that night. It turned out that Holm’s opponent was finished whether she had run over there or not, so it was a lesson she could learn without much consequence.

But the instruction of that moment stands true today, so it’s just one of the many things Holm has shared with 25-year-old boxing champion Claressa Shields as the two-time Olympic gold medalist attempts to follow in her footsteps.

“I was thinking yeah, that will definitely happen to me!” Shields said.

After Shields signed a three-year promotional deal in December with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), the first thing Shields needed to do was look for the right gym.

Shields found that place at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the most famous MMA gyms in the country, and the one most recognized among the masses as the home gym of former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Holm and pound-for-pound king Jon Jones.

Holm remains the only fighter (male or female) to have won legit world championships in both boxing and MMA, and Shields said Holm welcomed her to Jackson Wink with open arms.

“She’s been super great and very nice to me. We both come from the same background…and she actually turned out to be a world champion [in MMA], actually turned out to be really good,” Shields said.

But Holm’s funny story about her first MMA fight is something that points to just how large a hill Shields has decided to climb.

Whereas pop culture has just recently started to realize the power of habits through the work of writers such as Charles Duhigg and James Clear, it’s something professional fighters have known for a long time now.

“Oh, you’re going to have a habit of this because you used to box.”

That’s something Holm tells Shields almost every time they work together, and there are just so many examples.

In fact, just watching the 25-year-old boxing champion trying to learn to do all these new things in a different way is exhausting.

That Shields practically lives inside the gym for weeks at a time so she can train four or five times a day for all the kinds of things she never had to worry about before as a professional boxer is a testament to her seriousness and her courage.

But perhaps the most amazing part of the entire story is that Shields still plans on boxing.

While Holm won world championships in both sports, she achieved those things separately. Meanwhile, Shields said she wants to do the same thing Holm did but at the same time.

So, while I’m standing there with her inside an MMA cage in New Mexico, Shields is plotting fights in both sports. On one hand, she’s talking to me about a title unification bout in boxing against Marie-Eve Dicaire. On the other, she’s talking about future superfights in MMA against the likes of UFC champ Amanda Nunes.

“I’m trying to separate the two,” Shields said specifically about her training that day but she might as well have been talking about her whole life right about now.

It’s arguably the most amazing storyline right now in combat sports.

Shields started boxing when she was just 11 years old. She earned her first gold medal at the Olympics at 17 and her second four years later.

Today, Shields is a three-division world champion, and she says she’s not nearly finished adding to her growing number of boxing belts.

But all those years and all those successes have built so many habits. Ducking and slipping is great for boxing, but both become considerable detriments to defense when you suddenly have to worry about things like knees and kicks.

And what about wrestling and jiu-jitsu?

But all that stuff together is exactly what makes Shields’ epic decision to dare to be great at both sports at the same time so amazing in the first place.

Look, Shields might never accomplish the same amazing feat Holm did when she shocked Ronda Rousey in 2015 for the UFC women’s bantamweight championship.

But she’s aiming to eclipse that incredible mark anyway, and with Holm and many others offering Shields ideas about what she needs to think about as she climbs up the steepest hill she can find, she’ll definitely have her best chance at doing it.

Kelsey McCarson covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and Heavy.

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Boxers Fighting the Best and Doing It Again for the First Time: Part One

Ted Sares

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Britain’s Martin Murray has fought the very best and has now closed out a heartbreaking if not admirable and old school career.

Others are just beginning to hit their stride and suddenly the possibilities are mouthwatering.

The buzz is back on. The heat is coming. No excuses. No badly injured shoulders. No running. This is macho explosive. This is the best fighting the best like it used to be done. Cherry picking is not allowed.

Back in the day, warriors like Ernie Durando, Kid Gavilan, Joey Giardello, Tony DeMarco, Bobby Dykes, Paul Pender, Joey Maxim, Holly Mims, Bobo Olson, and way too many others to list here would fight other top-notch boxers. It was the norm; not the exception. Tony DeMarco beat Kid Gavilan in 1956 and then fought Gaspar Ortega three times in a row in a relatively short period of time.

In the process of compiling a 95-25-1 record, Ezzard Charles engaged in an eye-popping 27 fights against men who would go on to be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and/or the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

The List

Rocky Marciano (twice) – IBHF/WBHF

Joe Louis – IBHF/WBHF

Jersey Joe Walcott (four times) IBHF/WBHF

Archie Moore (thrice) IBHF/WBHF

Joey Maxim (five times) IBHF/WBHF

Jimmy Bivins (five times) IBHF/WBHF

Charley Burley (twice) IBHF/WBHF

Harold Johnson IBHF/WBHF

Lloyd Marshall (thrice) WBHF

Gus Lesnevich WBHF

In addition, Charles had three fights with Rex Layne, two with Ken Overlin, two with Elmer Ray, and one with Bob Satterfield

“Some day, maybe, the public is going to abandon comparisons with Joe Louis and accept Ezzard Charles for what he was—the best fist fighter of his particular time”  –Red Smith

Beau Jack, Aldo Minelli, Yama Bahama, Johnny Cesario, Fighting Harada, Eder “Golden Bantam” Jofre, Vicente Saldivar, Jose “El Huitlacoche” Medal, and then later Juan LaPorte and Livingstone “The Pit Bull” Bramble did not know what easy opponents meant. They were willing to fight anyone anywhere and were seldom stopped.

Vito Antuofermo, Ralph Dupas, Willie Pastrano, Curtis Parker, Bennie Briscoe, Kassim Ouma, Emanuel Augustus, Scott LeDoux, Ben Tackie, Ray Oliveira, Renaldo Snipes, Freddie Pendleton, John Scully, Charles Murray, Ted Muller, Anthony Ivory, and Alfredo “Freddy” Cuevas were also representative of those who would fight anyone anywhere. Picking made-to-order opponents was not what they were about.

Ali, Norton, Young, Quarry, fought one another. So did Duran, Leonard, Hagler, and Hearns. Across the pond, Watson, Benn, and Eubank did the same. Frazier, Holyfield, Mugabi, Tszyu, Cotto, and Chacon never ever backed away, nor did Mexican notables Castillo, Marquez (JMM), Morales and Barrera.

No one will accuse Floyd “Money” Mayweather of not fighting the best but they might point out that Floyd sometimes used long time intervals between bouts to his advantage. “Money” was not a particularly active fighter. The phrase “cherry picking” gained traction during this time.

Still, Andre Ward cleaned out an entire division. Cotto fought Pacquiao and Canelo, De La Hoya met Pacquiao, Klitschko faced Fury and then Joshua. Fury — after beating Klitschko — fought Wilder twice. Chisora will fight anyone they put in front of him. Heck, GGG fought 24 brutal rounds with Canelo and if that wasn’t the best fighting the best, what was?

“…great fights lead to other great fights.”—Max Kellerman

To be continued……

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel 

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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