The subject of how many belts there are in boxing can get very complicated, sometimes needlessly so. Boxing doesn’t just have one, universally recognised “championship” per division - there are numerous organisations that organise championships, and keeping track of them all can get extremely confusing. In addition to this there are localised titles, such as British and European championships, as well as championships awarded by organisations such as The Ring magazine.
In this article we’re going to break down the organisations that award these championships and how important they are, as well as all the different types of championships that can exist in a division. Be warned - this gets complex, but I have tried to break it down so that it’s as easy as possible to understand.
What do we mean by a “belt”?
Let’s get really basic here for a second. Boxing “belts” are how we refer to boxing champions, or title holders. When a boxer wins a championship fight, they are crowned the champion of that particular weight division, recognised by that particular sanctioning body. A boxing champion is sometimes also called a “title holder” - and championship fights are also sometimes called “title fights.”
The reason the word “belt” comes into this is because the boxer is awarded a belt to signify their achievement of becoming a champion. The belts are given out by the main sanctioning bodies, and you’ll often see champions parading their belts before and after a fight. When we use the term “belt” - we are referring to the championship or the title of that particular division - not necessarily the physical belt the boxer wears.
We’ve mentioned the term “sanctioning bodies” a few times, but it’s worth looking at exactly what this means, as to a newbie coming into the sport this can get really confusing. Boxing is not a sport where there is one, undisputed champion of each division. There can be undisputed champions - but we will discuss this later in the article. Instead, boxing is “sanctioned” by a number of organisations. The purpose of these organisations is to sanction and regulate championship boxing matches, and award championships.
Numerous sanctioning bodies have existed during the history of the sport, and without delving too much into the history of sanctioning bodies and how they came to be, you effectively now have four universally recognised sanctioning bodies:
- World Boxing Council (WBC)
- World Boxing Association (WBA)
- World Boxing Organisation (WBO)
- International Boxing Federation (IBF)
Each of these organisations curates their own list of rankings and awards their own championship belts. This creates the confusing situation where four boxers in the same weight division can each hold a belt, and each would have a legitimate and recognised claim to be the champion of that division, and if they wanted to unify the belts (or become the undisputed champion, as we explain below) they would have to fight three other times to be considered THE champion.
This wasn’t always the case, especially prior to the 1970s where only two organisations existed - the NBA (National Boxing Association) and the NYSAC (New York State Athletic Commission). Two belts did sometimes have the effect that two different champions in a division were recognised, but it was usually only a matter of time before one fighter defeated the other and the belts in that division were unified and an undisputed champion recognised.
Main belts and fringe belts
It’s worth mentioning that the four main sanctioning bodies are not the only sanctioning bodies. There are others that exist, and they are not always given the same kind of credence in the sport. There are the four main sanctioning bodies as we’ve discussed - the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO, and generally when we talk about an undisputed champion or lineal champion, it refers to a boxer who’s been able to win all four of these belts in a division.
However, there are a few sanctioning bodies that also award belts that aren’t necessarily given as much weight by the industry and by fans, and this includes organisations like the IBC (International Boxing Council), the WBU (World Boxing Union), the IBU (International Boxing Union), the WBF (World Boxing Federation) and others. All these organisations award belts and rank fighters, but it’s the four main belts that get the most attention, and in reality someone isn’t really considered a champion of their division by the fans and the media at large unless they’ve won one of the four main belts.
Further complicating things, there are also localised championships that exist based on region. These are again sanctioned by localised bodies based in the relevant countries. A good example of this is the British Boxing Board of Control, which sanctions professional fights in the United Kingdom, and awards both the British Championship and the Lonsdale Belt.
Further afield there are organisations such as the CBC (Commonwealth Boxing Council) that awards the commonwealth championship, the EBU (European Boxing Union) that awards the European title, and the PABA (Pan Asian Boxing Association) that awards titles in Central and East Asia and Oceania.
These championships aren’t necessarily given as much weight as world titles as the competition tends not to be at such a high level. You’ll often find fighters who are destined to fight for a world title winning these kind of championships relatively early on in their careers, even after only 10 - 15 fights - for example, current British, European and Commonwealth champ Joe Joyce won the commonwealth title in 2018 in only his fourth professional fight.
Lineal and undisputed championships
You will often hear these terms thrown around and wonder what they actually mean. They are different, and we’ll explain what they mean below.
The lineal champion of a division is considered to be the fighter who was the last universally recognised champion who did not lose those belts in the ring. Put simply, it’s “the man who beat the man” - in that if a fighter defeated a previous lineal champion and then did not lose those belts in the ring (but perhaps lost them by other means) they are considered to be the lineal champion.
A very famous, recent example of this is Tyson Fury. Tyson beat Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 to take the WBO, IBF, WBA and Ring Magazine belts (not the WBC belt as this was held by Deontay Wilder at the time, having previously been held by Vitali Klitschko until he retired - and seeing as the Klitschko brothers were never going to fight each other, the belts were never unified.)
Wladimir Klitschko had effectively cleaned out the division in the ten years he had been champion, and there was nobody else left to fight - but seeing as Fury beat Klitschko, Fury became the new lineal heavyweight champion. Fury was stripped of the IBF belt shortly after this fight, and went into a hiatus shortly after during which the titles became vacant. This is how that, even though Fury does not hold all the belts in the division, he is still seen to be the lineal champion, as he did not lose any of these belts in a fight.
There are a number of other examples of this in the sport - Lennox Lewis from 2001 to 2004, George Foreman from 1994 to 1997 and Muhammad Ali from 1964 to 1970 (famously as Ali was stripped of his titles for refusing to fight in Vietnam, but never actually lost his championship in the ring.)
This one is slightly easier to understand, as it’s the boxer who currently holds the WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF and Ring Magazine championship belts. Undisputed refers to the fact that all of the major sanctioning bodies recognise the boxer as the champion of that division.
Recent famous undisputed champions include Oleksander Usyk at cruiserweight from 2018 - 2019 (lost the undisputed championship when he stepped up to heavyweight), Lennox Lewis at heavyweight from 1999 - 2000, Roy Jones Jr at light-heavyweight from 1999 - 2003 and Canelo Alvarez at super-middleweight after 2021.
Other types of championship
There are other types of championship belts that are awarded that aren’t necessarily the same as the belts awarded by the main sanctioning bodies. One good example of this is The Ring Championship - The Ring is a US boxing magazine that awards a belt to the fighter they see as the lineal champion of the division - again, determined by the “man who beat the man.” Another famous example is the Lonsdale Belt, awarded by the British Boxing Board of Control, which is awarded to fighters that win four championship contests in a particular division. Rather than this being a championship which can be won or lost, it’s more of a recognition of achievement in the sport, and belts can be awarded more than once.
Worth a mention here is a relatively recent, volunteer organisation called the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (TBRB). This is not an official sanctioning body and does not give out belts or sanction fights. What they do is attempt to curate an authoritative list of rankings for each weight division, as well as identify a singular champion for each division. Their champions are determined when the top two fighters in the division fight each other. This is a really interesting initiative, as it aims to reform and simplify the sport from the confusion that exists today. If you’re at all interested in how boxers are ranked and how champions are chosen, I’d encourage you to read up a little more on the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
So who is the actual champion?
Reading this may have left you wondering - how exactly do you work out who the champion is in a particular division, when you could potentially have different people holding the WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF, British, European, Pan Asian, South American, Commonwealth titles and many more besides. I think that there are some in the sport who recognise that this has become a problem, because with so many titles on offer it adds huge complexity to what was, 50 or 60 years ago, effectively a non-issue.
The way I would suggest you approach this is to look at the lineal champion. This is the easiest way, and in my opinion the only correct way to determine a champion - as they are the boxer that defeated the last champion. For example - if you were to look at who the heavyweight champion is at the time of writing, it’s Tyson Fury - even though Oleksandr Usyk is an excellent fighter and is A champion, you might not consider him to be THE champion - as it was Fury who beat the last lineal champion, Wladimir Klitschko.
Hopefully in the coming years we see some reform to what has become needlessly complicated - but in the meantime, if you liked this article, leave a comment below to let me know and feel free to ask any questions you might have about boxing championships and the way they’re awarded. You may also want to check out some of the following articles: