Boxing nerds have told us for ages that the ultimate objective in boxing should be “one champion per division.” Doing this, they say, is the key to getting the sport back to mainstream prominence.
Of course, anyone with even a somewhat reasonable understanding of boxing in this real world of 2023 knows that the lament over “too many world champs” is pure silliness. Boxing has long since passed the point where championship clarity matters.
Case in point is Devin Haney.
There’s no questioning Haney’s status as the fully unified 4-belt lightweight champ. He’s got all four belts. No doubt. Admittedly, he didn’t take the most competitively glorious path to full unification. Winning the interim WBC title against Zaur Abdullaev, being elevated to full champ status by the WBC, and then winning the three remaining belts– against a tough, but clearly limited George Kambosos Jr.– was not exactly a “Four Kings” legend run. But that shouldn’t matter, right? By sporting standards, Haney is THE champion.
But boxing doesn’t work like a real sport. And, while sporting logic dictates that the 24-year-old Las Vegas resident be ranked no. 1 atop a stacked 135 lb. class, he’s not THE lightweight. He’s not the guy who drives the division narrative, he’s not the guy who inspires fans to argue about future challenges on social media.
That guy at 135 is Gervonta “Tank” Davis.
In the face of a dismissive, frequently hostile media slamming his “bogus” world titles and level of opposition, Davis is the man. Despite the hyper-focus on Davis’ outside the ring dramas, Davis is the biggest star in the division, with eight consecutive arena sell-outs in seven different venues to prove it. Tank’s top dog status is a reminder of just how insignificant the deeply compromised/incompetent media has made itself. Fight fans have long ago stopped paying attention to their agenda-driven media.
Davis is clearly aware of this new world order and his place in it.
“They gave Devin a belt. He didn’t fight for his belt,” Davis told Brian Custer on “The Last Stand” podcast prior to last Saturday’s stoppage of Hector Luis Garcia. “When he became undisputed, he waited for Kambosos to win the [WBO, WBA, and IBF] belts. When Teofimo [Lopez Jr.] had the belts, they didn’t fight. As quickly as he fought with Kambosos, he could have fought with Teofimo…
“Of course, he has all these belts [now] and people still don’t know him. He can’t fight in his own hometown. He can’t sell it out…He knows who the real champ is. You know what I mean?”
This brings into question what being the REAL champ even means anymore.
In this present tense, celebrity matters. The ability to put asses in seats and bring eyeballs to the screen matters. Bankability matters.
It’s always been like this, really. It’s just that, in the old days, fighters became stars as they fought their way to the top of their division. They then achieved next-level stardom as they defended their spot at the very top.
Unfortunately, these days, the best don’t usually face the best on their way up the ranks. Big, legacy-defining fights are rare as boxing business and boxing politics conspire to keep the biggest and best separate from one another. Top fighters play the role of house brand within their own proprietary pocket dimension. Neither Haney nor Davis, for example, have fought a fellow elite in their weight class. Lomachenko has, arguably, fought one– and lost.
So, without the ability to fight one’s way to stardom, personality and marketability play an even greater role when it comes to a fighter becoming THE man. And this is the reason why Haney has all the belts, but is significantly less of a big deal than a Ryan Garcia, who has, maybe, two fights of world stage relevance.
Haney may be unified champ, but he lacks the ring style and charisma to be THE man in the lightweight division. In boxing, it’s not enough to just win anymore.
Belts do matter, but not in the way the boxing nerds and “purists” like to think they do. Belts have become marketing tools and points of personal pride for the fighters and, to be honest, even their importance in those regards is being phased out.
There are four fully unified 4-belt champions in boxing at the moment. Four other divisions are just one fight away from having a fully unified 4-belt champion. In this modern era, boxing has never been closer to “one champion per division.” And, yet, it hasn’t really mattered all that much to the sport’s bottom line or its level of appeal to the mainstream sporting world. Fans aren’t flocking to the sport because they know who the “real” champs are, just as they’re not rushing to make Devin Haney a star because of his unified champ status.
The young fighter with all the gold still has a lot of work to do before he gets as big as his talents suggest he could be. A win over Vasiliy Lomachenko would earn him loads of credit among media who have ultra-valued Lomachenko for years. Beating Tank Davis and/or Ryan Garcia would add market value to his persona. Actually, just sharing the main stage with either would do that. No matter what, there also has to be an effort to put on a better show when he fights. Jab-and-grab may win bouts, but it doesn’t win hearts.
Haney has shown frustration in the past over not getting his just due as a unified champ. It’s hard to argue that he shouldn’t feel slighted. But this is a new world in boxing. Now, more so than at any other time in the sport’s history, a fighter better entertain while he wins. Champs are no longer the stars. STARS are the stars.