Do we even care about belts now? Most die hard purists would say yes of course we do, but increasingly the fight game is becoming about sporadic spectacles rather than consistent competition. Boxing has notoriously suffered this problem for years now. With belts from the IBO, WBO, WBC, IBA, the list goes on and on, with infinite combinations of these letters. The result is a diluted sense of competition because when you have multiple champions in different weight classes it becomes impossible to decide who is the real number one in the world.
Indeed, Golovkin’s recent highly anticipated fight against Canelo Alvarez was heavily marketed on the basis of unifying the main belts. Between the pair, five belts were on display. Golovkin holds the WBA, WBC, IBF, and IBA belts, while Alvarez is the Ring magazine middleweight champion. That still leaves the UK’s Billy Joe Saunders with the WBO title. His hope was to face the winner of Golovkin/Alvarez, but thanks to a certain Adelaide Bird, a rematch between the Kazakh and the Mexican looks inevitable.
This absolute muddle, combined with corruption that is rife throughout the organisation is the core reason why casual fans are turning away from the sport. Canelo v Alvarez was supposed to heal that, with a genuine world-class bout between two future hall of famers. The fight itself was excellent, however the end cemented a bitter taste in many people’s mouths.
When Spectacle Works
This leads us to the exhibition between Messrs Mayweather and McGregor, a clash of styles and personalities, fighting shamelessly for the “Money Belt”. Most boxing pundits united in stating that it was terrible for boxing, when in fact the reality was ironically different. By mobilizing two bonafide super stars from different sports in the one ring, viewers had a genuine sense of excitement because McGregor was an unknown quantity. In this case, the sense of exhibition worked very well. The belt didn’t matter, it was the sense of competition and the question of which is better: Boxing or MMA? Instead we found out that a boxer is better at boxing. Who knew. But the entertainment value was high, and the result was indisputable and ended the right way.
So the question still stands: do belts really matter in 2017? The short answer is yes because of the sense that a fighter’s future is on the line, the idea of a rivalry between a champion and a rising contender is a timeless feature of combat sports. This is what made the second Jon Jones v Daniel Cormier fight so compelling for UFC fans. These two men have a genuine and sincere dislike for each other. Up until the point of Jones testing positive for a banned substance, there was always the idea that Cormier could never be considered the true champion until he defeated his nemesis, having already been defeated by him in 2015. Of course, Jones won again, but now Cormier is reinstated as champion, citing that from a financial perspective it made sense, even though he was morally against it.
Interim Belts Galore
Ironically this is one of the times that it would have made sense for Cormier to have been given the title of interim champion. This is a relatively recent trend by the UFC, supposedly to make sure that divisions are not held up when their champion is inactive. Once again this can be related back to the Notorious one. When Jose Aldo pulled out of bout in UFC 189, Chad Mendes was called in as a replacement with an interim title on the line. This was one of the UFC’s greatest nights, with a ludicrous battle between Rory MacDonald and Robbie Lawlor and live music for the walk outs of the main event. In balance the interim title made sense from a financial perspective for the UFC, considering the amount of money that they invested promoting this fight, and that McGregor had a reputation for never letting down his Irish fans, many of whom had already made the expensive trek to Vegas. They were then able to sell the card for UFC 194 with McGregor going on to unite the belts after a 13 second knockout of the Brazilian, Aldo. He would of course later go on to win the lightweight title, without defending the featherweight strap first.
This is all well and good, and to be entirely fair to the UFC it made sense to keep the momentum of their rising star going. But they’ve gone down the boxing route of muddying the waters by throwing out interim titles left, right and centre. When Daniel Cormier pulled out of the main event of UFC 206, the company panicked, stripping McGregor of his featherweight belt and creating an interim title between Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis, while giving Jose Aldo back his title. This extremely messy turn of affairs was derided by fans, who recognised it for what it was: an attempt to stir interest under the assumption that a belt would do the trick.
Then, only three months after McGregor won the lightweight championship, the decision was made to have an interim title fight between the two top contenders, Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagoemadov. Fans condemned this, questioning the need for another title considering that McGregor had only relatively recently won his title. A number one contender bout would have served, and very likely reduced the damage that occurred when Khabib pulled out of the fight due to a poor weight cut.
Weary Fans and Fighters
When Ferguson finally won the interim title against Kevin Lee, he proceeded to declare that his was the real belt. Fight fans are clamoring for McGregor and Lee to once and for all settle the division and clear up the mess the UFC have created for themselves. However there remains the chance that McGregor could have another money fight against Nate Diaz, which would entirely throw matters into disarray. As a private company the UFC can take control of its affairs in a way that the boxing world cannot.
The short answer is that fans do care about belts between a recognized champion and a number one contender. Increasingly they’re becoming weary of the quantity of belts on offer, as the prize becomes diluted. Money fights are fine. They’re often exciting and a great way to stir casuals to watch combat sports. Spectacle is driven by its own momentum. And the fighters themselves do care because of the opportunities that it creates in cementing a legacy and often more importantly, the economic benefits through sponsorship and being recognized as the face of an organisation. It’s just all so messy.