Last September, following a unanimous decision defeat to super middleweight kingpin Canelo Alvarez, Gennadiy Golovkin cheerfully insisted the loss would not be the end of him. “Remember I have three belts [at middleweight],” Golovkin said.
To some, the answer may have been puzzling; before the fight, Golovkin had been formally recognized as a two-belt champion. The third belonged to the International Boxing Organization (IBO), a title Golovkin held for 12 years before voluntarily relinquishing it in June.
In boxing there are four widely recognized sanctioning bodies: The World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF) and World Boxing Organization (WBO). Each is responsible for generating titles for boxing’s 17 weight classes (the WBC, which recently created the bridgerweight division, has 18). They produce rankings, order matchups and supervise events.
For decades, the IBO has been operating on the fringes. “Think of us as the AAA team,” says IBO president Ed Levine. A longtime boxing judge, Levine bought controlling interest in the IBO in 1999. “I wanted to establish what I considered the most fundamentally sound business model for a sanctioning body I possibly could,” says Levine. “I wanted to have a sanctioning body that didn't have all the negatives that were floating around at that time about sanctioning bodies.”
Indeed, among boxing’s bigger issues is the greedy, and occasionally outright corrupt, behavior of its governing bodies. The WBC sparked chaos when it created the franchise championship and happily takes fees from fighters willing to campaign at bridgerweight, a division planted between cruiserweight and heavyweight. Until recently the WBA had as many as three “champions” in many weight classes. In 1999, Robert W. Lee Sr., the then-head of the IBF, was indicted for accepting bribes for favorable rankings.
The IBO, says Levine, runs a cleaner operation. Beginning with its rankings. In theory, rankings should be merit-based. In practice, fighters can advance in them based on the relationships promoters and managers have with the sanctioning bodies. Top Rank is known to work closely with the WBO. Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) does a significant amount of business with the WBA. The results can be both bizarre—rankings for each weight division routinely look wildly different—to inexplicable. In December 2000, Darrin Morris was ranked sixth in the WBO super middleweight rankings. In January, he advanced to fifth. The problem? Morris died in October.
The IBO’s rankings are computerized. Powered by Boxrec, one of boxing’s recognized record keepers, rankings are created using an algorithm that updates instantly when results are entered. Fighters that don’t fight for more than a year are categorized as inactive. It’s far from a flawless system: the computer can’t recognize a controversial loss, for example, or less-than-impressive wins. Still, the system, says Levine, “lets everyone know our rankings are straight."
“The top ten should not look as different [among the sanctioning bodies] as it does,” says Tom Loeffler, who promoted two longstanding IBO titleholders in Golovkin and Wladimir Klitschko. “The system the IBO uses, they can make an argument for transparency.”
Strengthening the IBO’s case for legitimacy is its presence at many significant fights. Golovkin and Klitschko held the IBO title for more than a decade. Roy Jones Jr. fought for an IBO championship eight times. Lennox Lewis, seven. Antonio Tarver and Erislandy Lara were among the recognized titleholders who regularly defended an IBO belt. When Alycia Baumgardner faced Mikaela Mayer in a high profile 130-pound unification fight last fall, Baumgardner participated in press events with the IBO title on her shoulder.
The IBO sells itself as being fighter friendly. It does not enforce mandatory challenges; if its titleholder is actively involved in “quality fights,” says Levine, they will keep their title. It works to ensure the officials assigned to work IBO-sanctioned fights are the best available. “And we’re involved in a lot of those assignments,” says Levine. While the IBO charges sanctioning fees for its fights Levine claims they are “substantially lower” than what the other governing bodies are charging. “They are not greedy,” says Eddie Hearn, who promotes several current and former IBO titleholders. “That’s probably because of their position [in boxing] but they are very easy to work with.”
Still, elbowing into the recognized title picture has been challenging. “I won't allow myself to publicly say, ‘[the IBO titleholder] is world champion,’” says Hearn. There is little appetite for a fifth major title; among fans and media, four is often considered too many. Some in boxing argue that by not ordering mandatory challenges—often the only way unheralded fighters get world title opportunities—the IBO loses credibility. While the IBO has gained some traction in Europe, U.S. promoters rarely acknowledge it. On Saturday, Maxi Hughes, the IBO’s lightweight champion, will defend his title against George Kambosos Jr. The IBO’s presence has not been part of the pre-fight promotion; Top Rank, which promotes Kambosos, is billing the fight as an IBF world title eliminator.
What the IBO needs, says Hearn, is a major event where the IBO title is the only one on the line. Levine agrees. Kambosos-Hughes—which will be televised on ESPN and feature Kambosos, a former unified 135-pound champion—is one of the most visible IBO-only matchups in recent years; it's not the headline grabbing showdown that could push the IBO into a mainstream conversation.
Until then, Levine says, the IBO will push on, operating as transparently as possible while offering fighters seeking world titles a friendly home.
“We're not promoters,” says Levine. “We're not matchmakers. You are in this business to provide what the networks and platforms want to show and what that the fans want to see. We're not going to, because of our close associations with certain promoters, put fighters in mandatory positions or high in the ratings. We're just going to be there for them. And if somebody vacates their title for reasons that we would not consider, they should know that’s not going to happen with us.”