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Unification Fever Continues to Spread

Boxing fans who want to see the best fight the best don’t have as much to complain about as usual.

Sure, some corner of the boxing fandom will find something to complain about at any time. It’s a sport that breeds a certain cynicism. Still, even the grouchiest have to admit good things are happening.

Naoya Inoue’s devastating knockout of Nonito Donaire on Tuesday unified three alphabet belts and completely resolved the beginning of a new historical lineage in the class. Inoue still has one belt to go for some to confer the label of ‘undisputed’ on the “Monster” but there’s no doubt he’s the man.

There’s a lot of being the man going around these days. Last weekend, lightweight Devin Haney resolved the dispute over the rightful owner of WBC diadems and grabbed every other major primary belt in his class from him. Weeks ago, Jermell Charlo completed total unification of the Jr. middleweight division while Saul Alvarez did the same last year at super middleweight. Until recently, Josh Taylor was the owner of all four major straps and remains the king at Jr. welterweight now holding just three.

There is a growing expectation we will see a unification clash before the year is out between Errol Spence and Terence Crawford to add one more to a growing list of undisputed kings.

Shakur Stevenson has two straps at Jr. lightweight. Stephen Fulton and Murodjon Akhmadaliev both have a pair at Jr. featherweight. Juan Francisco Estrada sort of has two at Jr. bantamweight, depending on how one sees the WBC franchise mess.

Unification doesn’t always mean we’re seeing the two best fighters in a class on a given night, but it generally carries a certain seal of approval. It is at least two of the best and when we start getting three and four belts around one waist, that seal of approval grows stronger.

Media ratings that crown champions reflect the positives in the sport in 2022.

The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board now recognizes eleven legitimate world champions in the sport. One of those is a bit of a technicality unlikely to last much longer (Guillermo Rigondeaux at Jr. featherweight). Fulton is saying he wants to see Akhmadaliev so there is reason to think that spot will have a fresh face soon. All of them don’t hold every belt but it means there is a line to be drawn from previous fights between the top two ranked in class.

The best are fighting the best.

Of note, those eleven championship slots represent every division in boxing from Jr. lightweight to heavyweight with the exception of welterweight and middleweight. It’s where the most money is often made in boxing.

Ring Magazine recognizes nine world champions right now with a slightly looser standard than TBRB allowing for 1-3 fights to fill vacancies on some occasions. They disagree with TBRB at Jr. flyweight (Ring recognizes Hiroto Kyoguchi, TBRB does not), Jr. featherweight (Ring recognizes no one) and light heavyweight (Ring withdrew recognition of Adonis Stevenson during his reign; TBRB recognizes that championship lineage with Artur Beterbiev ). Still, nine of 17 is more than half of boxing.

It’s a strong sign of what has the appearance of one of the strongest top to bottom eras at boxing in a long time.

If the best strawweights in the world don’t fight, the net impact on boxing is pretty minimal.

It’s not the same higher up the scale. We’re not getting everything we want but we’re getting a whole hell of a lot of it.

Sports have fevers that break out on occasion. It may all be incidental but there is also an unmistakable competitiveness to it all. When fighters see their peers consolidating their domains, there has to be an itch to join in on the fun. It’s hard not to see it all as contagious.

Some of what may be yet to come will be a healthy byproduct of that contagion. We’re seeing multiple unified titlists in classes one away from each other and that is already fueling wonder about fights like Naoya Inoue-Stephen Fulton or a Spence-Crawford winner versus Jermell Charlo.

It’s one thing to see fighters with a belt in one class carefully enter a new weight class to win the most easily won strap while biding their time for tougher fare. Over the next few years, we could see the sort of clashes between champions in different classes that used to be the norm because there simply wasn’t as much jewelry to go around.

If boxing isn’t careful, it will start to look like a rationally functioning sport.

No, this won’t last forever. Yes, boxing can still do better.

There’s no reason not to embrace what we have…and tell a friend.

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at roldboxing@hotmail.com

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