Breaking Down The WBA Heavyweight Tournament
Martin Theobald

What is it?

This week the head of the WBA (World Boxing Association), Gilberto Mendoza, announced that his governing body will be holding a tournament to crown its heavyweight champion. The WBA have come under both criticism and scrutiny from boxing fans of late for their propensity to have multiple champions within each weight division. As if having different governing bodies (WBA, IBF, WBO, WBA) wasn't confusing enough for boxing fans, the WBA have historically (recently) had their own tiers of champions within each weight division. At present there are three recognised heavyweight champions by the WBA; Tyson Fury (Super Champion), Luis Ortiz (Interim Champion) and Ruslan Chagaev (Regular Champion). Of these, Fury is recognised as the legitimate belt holder, while the other two are of a lesser reckoning. 

The idea of the tournament will be to create a stand alone champion. Arguably Tyson Fury already holds that title as Super Champion, but the concept of the tournament is to take away the confusion. So does this mean that once the tournament is over, the Regular and Interim titles will be a thing of the past? Logic would say yes, although this has yet to be confirmed. 

So why has this step change come about from an organisation that has, presumably, taken in plenty of sanctioning fees from promoters in the past who are willing to offer up their money in exchange for the ability to promote varying levels of titles? Well, Mendoza has only recently taken over the reins at the WBA, a role that was previously held by his father. It would appear that Mendoza is listening to the boxing fans who are demanding a more lineal set of titles where proper belt holders can be identified without the need to have a Degree in governing body title hierachies. 

One possibility within this is that if one fighter doesn't wish to take the fight (such as, say Tyson Fury after fighting and hypothetically beating Wladimir Klitschko) looks outside the WBA and wishes to unify with the WBC champion Deontay Wilder. When this was put to Mendoza on Twitter, his answer is "The hypothetical contender to withdraw will lose his rights. I would be more concerned on a draw". So in other words, if Fury beats Klitschko and then wishes to fight Deontay Wilder, he will be stripped of his title and withdrawn from the tournament. 

There are numerous questions that remain unanswered within this setup. What if a certain fighter pulls out of the tournament or decides to take another route (e.g. not the fight that the WBA wish for, but to go and challenge for a different belt)? Why is it that the current Super champion, Tyson Fury, has to get through three fights to become......the WBA champion? Mendoza has taken to Twitter to clarify some of the unanswered questions, but unfortunately these remain outstanding. So let's take a look at the details where undoubtedly more questions will come up...... 

What is the format?

Well it's a fairly simple one. Each fighter is paired off against another, and the winner of each fight progresses until there are only two left. These two will battle it out for the WBA heavyweight title. Simple, right?

Who is in it?

Firstly, the names and first round match ups: 

Tyson Fury vs Wladimir Klitschko

Luis Ortiz vs Alexander Ustinov 

Ruslan Chagaev vs Lucas Browne

 Fres Oquendo

So, it's not quite that simple.. The first obvious oddity of this tournament is that there are only seven participants, meaning that one will receive an immediate bye to the semi finals. Well if that's going to happen, surely the bye goes to the Super champion Tyson Fury? No, not that simple. Fury has a rematch clause from his win over Wladimir Klitschko, which means the Morecambe heavyweight must fight the former Ukranian champion early this year. No, the bye in this tournament goes to.....Fres Oquendo. The man from Puerto Rico (37-8-0) apparently has a court order from the United States to say that he is next in line to face the winner of Lucas Browne (23-0-0) vs Ruslan Chagaev (34-2-1). Therefore he is exempt from any fight in the first round and instead will start his tournament in the semi finals. Lucky him eh? The critics would say that the WBA, based out of Panama, are looking to make it an easy ride for their neighbour from nearby Puerto Rico. But this is boxing, such corruption wouldn't happen, right? 

Looking at the top fight in the draw, Fury (25-0-0) vs Klitschko (64-4-0) is a fight that has to happen for legal reasons. It just seems a shame that, based on form and history, the best two fighters in the tournament meet in the first round. The winner will go on to take on the victor from Luis Ortiz (24-0-0) and Alexander Ustinov (33-1-0). 

So with the seven names in place, these are the seven best heavyweights if not in the world, then at least as ranked by the WBA, right? WRONG! No, out of the top seven in their latest rankings (December 2015) they have Shannon Briggs ranked at number 4 (6, if you include the two champions of Fury & Chagaev). It seems that for whatever reason, Briggs has been given the bump in place of the legally bound Oquendo. By what means he was picked to drop out it isn't entirely clear yet.

So are these the best seven heavyweights in the world? Clearly that is a subjective answer, so the best place to look for independent rankings is ofter Boxrec. So, listed below are the fighters taking part and their respective Boxrec rankings:

Tyson Fury (1 in the world)

Wladimir Klitschko (2 in the world)

Luis Ortiz (6 in the world)

Alexander Ustinov (34 in the world)

Ruslan Chagaev (18 in the world)

Lucas Browne (21 in the world)

Fres Oquendo (not currently ranked)

So, ignoring Oquendo (we will give that one a legal pass) the rankings go from number one in the world to number 34. Only 3 of the seven are widely considered to be in the top ten of the current heavyweight fighters on the planet.

Has it been done before?

Yes, there are various precedents around this. The most reason and famous was the Super Six in the middleweight division. This was slightly different, in that there were champions of varying governing bodies involved and also that the tournament format was laid out as a group table and then a knockout stage. The format slightly different, but the concept being the same.

Will it happen?

Well, the aforementioned Super Six eventually came to a conclusion with Andre Ward and Carl Froch fighting it out in the final. It wasn't without its difficulties though. TV deals hampered fights, original members of the Super Six dropped out through injury or other issues, replacement fighters were drafted in. It all became a bit messy. The group table certainly didn't help proceedings, but ultimately the two most worthwhile contenders took their place in the final. 

So will that happen this time around? Well, for starters promotional deals and TV contracts appear to be less of an issue. There are no major headaches that stand out from this group, each able to be relatively flexible in terms of where and who they fight and on which channel. That can only be a good thing. However there does appear to be one major issue (as alluded to at the start)......

Right, if I am Tyson Fury and the current Super Champion, why would I want to go through potentially three fights (Klitschko, probably then Luis Ortiz and then the winner of the other half of the draw) to claim a belt that I already own? On top of that, Fury is beholdent to the other fighters organising their bouts to fit around his calendar. If his ambition is to unify the division (take back his IBF title from Charles Martin and defeat Deontay Wilder for the WBC) he would have to put those plans on ice while he fucks about getting through a tournament to claim a belt that he already owns. Realistically, this whole process could take 18 months to 2 years. Where is the incentive to do that if you already own the belt? Well, I suppose the incentive is that if you DON'T go ahead with it, then as Mendoza has already stated, you will be stripped of the title and taken out of the tournament. 

So for Fury, hypothetically if he gets past Klitschko, he then has the choice of dedicating himself to the WBA tournament or moving on and looking at other routes. As his coach and uncle Peter Fury made clear when stripped of the IBF title, they aren't one to bow to the authorities. They recognise themselves as champions for beating Klitschko, the belts aren't what validates Tyson Fury as champion, the results are. It is entirely realistic that Team Fury could tell the WBA to stick it and keep their title, thus crowning another new world champion (after Charles Martin was somewhat gifted the IBF version). 

The Outcome:

The intention from the WBA seems to be good; clear up the mess of a division with three champions and unify them into a single one, thus clearing up the confusion over the 'champion'. However, in practice what has been created is a gauntlet to be run by either Tyson Fury or Wladimir Klitschko to enable them to keep hold of a belt that they will already own. A gauntlet which could take anywhere up to two years. 

It appears from the outside looking in that a far more logical approach would have been to create the tournament with 8 contenders and let them fight it out for the right to face the Super champion. Don't involve them in the preliminaries, give them the benefit of fighting the winner. In the meantime, they could take on a mandatory picked by the WBA in that period (perhaps a fighter not involved, or one outside of the top eight) and be able to persue the other title interests. Instead, they are tied down to fighting for a single belt that they are already in possession of.

Unfortunately, I can only see one outcome from this, and that is more fragmentation of the heavyweight division. Already the IBF stripped Fury because of legal rematch clauses and now the WBA appear to be contriving a way to stop their Super champion being just that - the champion. Instead they are being brought down to the level of the contenders, those aiming to be at the top. The intention is all good, the execution appears horribly flawed. Time will tell. 

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