/Sanctioning Bodies Under the Microscope: The World Boxing Association [WBA]

Sanctioning Bodies Under the Microscope: The World Boxing Association [WBA]

In the first of a series looking at boxing’s sanctioning bodies, Elliot Worsell assesses the pros and cons of the World Boxing Association [WBA]

HISTORY

IF everything was judged solely on longevity, the
World Boxing Association [WBA] would, as boxing’s oldest sanctioning body, not
only be revered but considered the gold standard.

However, because nothing can be judged in this way, we
must accept that the WBA has, like some disgraced but once loved celebrity,
during its 99 years done plenty to reduce the goodwill they would have received
had they grown old gracefully.

Masters of reinvention, the WBA was born as the
National Boxing Association [NBA] in 1921, in Rhode Island, and the first bout they
recognised was the heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges
Carpentier in New Jersey in 1921.

Formed by representatives from 13 American states, the
idea behind the NBA was to challenge the influence of the New York State
Athletic Commission [NYSAC] had on boxing at the time. But what happened as a
result of the competition was that the NBA and the NYSAC were crowning
different world champions in the same division, leading only to confusion. A
sign of things to come, you could say.

By August 23, 1962, the NBA had become the WBA, that
is, the World Boxing Association, and, by 1975, the organisation’s headquarters
had moved from the US to Panama. They then spent the 1990s and early 2000s in
Caracas, Venezuela before returning to Panama in January 2007.

In terms of recent rulership, Gilberto Mendoza was the President of the WBA from 1982 until his death in 2016, after which Gilberto Mendoza Jnr, his son and the current man in charge, took over.

The referee counts out Georges Carpentier after the knock-out blow from Jack Dempsey in the fourth round of their World Heavyweight title fight at Jersey City, USA. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

TITLES

There are too many world titles across the board in
boxing. We understand that by now. But if there is one sanctioning body out in
front, proudly opposing the less is more approach to boxing, it is the WBA.

At heavyweight, for example, there are three – yes, three
– boxers currently in possession of WBA heavyweight titles. Anthony Joshua has
the Super one, Manuel Charr has the Regular one, and Trevor Bryan has the Interim
one. A similar thing is going on at middleweight, too, with Canelo Alvarez –
also a Regular champion at super-middleweight, by the way – owning the Super title,
Ryota Murata taking the Regular, and Chris Eubank Jnr holding the Interim
version.

In all, across boxing’s 17 weight classes [male] there
are 14 WBA Super champions and 15 WBA Regular champions, as well as the two
aforementioned WBA Interim champions. Why? I have no idea. Save for making the
WBA more money from sanctioning fees, all the free-for-all does is serve to
confuse, making an already convoluted sport even more difficult to follow, and
occasionally amuse.

Take what has happened at heavyweight, for instance.
There, Manuel Charr, for a whole host of reasons, some related to injury, some
related to performance-enhancing drug test issues, has yet to make a single
defence of the WBA Regular heavyweight title he won against Alexander Ustinov
back in November 2017. Not only that, Charr’s inactivity opened the door for
Trevor Bryan to win the Interim belt in August 2018 – when beating a
cruiserweight called BJ Flores inside four rounds – only for Bryan to then find
himself struck down by the same ailment. (Bryan, the one meant to get things
moving again, has not boxed since winning his belt.)

The joke gets funnier, too, if you were paying
attention when the WBA announced Joe Joyce, a British prospect, as their Gold
champion in 2019. Your guess is as good as mine.

Still, on a brighter note, an achievement of the WBA worth
mentioning, according to their official website at least, is this: the
decentralisation of boxing through the creation of regional organisations. What,
in layman’s terms, this means is the creation of the following belts: Latin
American Boxing Federation (FEDELATIN), the Pan Asian Boxing Association
(PABA), the Bolivarian Boxing Federation (FEDEBOL) and the Central America
Boxing Federation (FEDECENTRO), North America Boxing Association (NABA), World
Boxing Association International (WBAI) and the Pan African Boxing Association
(PFBA).

Of all the accusations levelled at them, you can’t accuse the WBA of leaving anyone out.

Chris Eubank Jnr with his pointless WBA interim middleweight title (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

RANKINGS

There’s an argument to be made that the WBA’s rankings
should have been ignored the moment they placed Ali Raymi, a light-flyweight
tragically killed during his service as a colonel in the Yemeni armed forces,
at number 11 in a 2015 set of rankings. He had fallen from six to 11 but
remained in contention for a WBA title despite passing away in May of that
year.

If that wasn’t enough to encourage you to ignore the
WBA’s rankings, how about the time in 2018 when they stuffed 34-year-old British
nightclub owner Joe Fournier in at 11 in their light-heavyweight ratings?
Seemingly their lucky number, by putting Fournier at 11 they allowed him to
brag about being Britain’s highest ranked light-heavyweight and encouraged the
rest of the light-heavyweight division to lick their lips like lions in the
presence of a tabby cat.

Essentially, the WBA put Fournier, someone whose
career was built on suspect fights in the Dominican Republic, in the cage and
in danger. They ranked him alongside the likes of Dmitry Bivol (champion),
Sullivan Barrera and Badou Jack, as well as Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Karo Murat and
Joe Smith Jnr, and showed no duty of care.

After all, Fournier, despite his age, was a novice – a
pro boxer still learning how to box. He was someone who, according to his social
media profile, was best known as an international nightclub entrepreneur and
star of the ‘hit TV show Million Pound Party People’. Yes, he was undefeated in
eight fights, but being undefeated in boxing is indicative of talent in the
same way record sales are indicative of an artist’s musicianship. Eight and
zero are just numbers.

On reflection, Fournier’s best win occurred in the
Dominican Republic when he stopped Wilma Mejia, a man with a 22-10-3 record, in
two rounds. That was the result that convinced the WBA to catapult him up their
rankings, yet curiously never found its way on to Boxrec.com or, indeed,
Fournier’s official record.

It gets worse, too. For as bad as the run of hand-picked
opponents looks, Fournier’s primary transgression was a failed performance-enhancing
drug test for sibutramine following a fight against Mustapha Stini in June 2016
(one subsequently switched to a No Contest). This led to him being banned by
the National
Anti-Doping Organizations [NADO] until December 2020. Yet because this is
boxing, it hardly mattered. Undeterred, Fournier continued to compete in the
Dominican Republic, this boxing backwater, and continued to climb the rankings
of the WBA, this organisation based in Panama.

Thankfully, though, there was a happy ending to this
bizarre story: for the good of boxing and his own health, Joe Fournier was never
able to capitalise on his ranking with the WBA and has not boxed since December
2016.

DRUGS

It should be made clear from the outset that
performance-enhancing drugs have little to do with sanctioning bodies and that
the bans imposed on fighters caught using them are issued by doping and
governing agencies rather than the likes of the WBA, WBC [World Boxing Council],
IBF [International Boxing Federation] or WBO [World Boxing Organization].

That said, often the reaction of a sanctioning body to
a failed test, or to repeat offenders, speaks to how they view both the dangers
of the sport and the importance of sanctioning fees.

The best example of this was when Saul ‘Canelo’
Alvarez tested positive for clenbuterol in 2018, for which he served a measly
six-month ban, and an army of men in suits scrambled to vouch for him. His promotional
team, Golden Boy, were of course first in line, but, interestingly, not far
behind them were the heads of sanctioning bodies, all of whom, like Canelo’s
promoters, make more money when the Mexican is considered clean and able to box
than they do when he is stripped of titles and serving a ban.

As if to prove the point, Gilberto Mendoza Jnr, the President
of the WBA, told me this on March 29, 2018: “What really bothers me is that the
test was in February and I have at least three tests in my records where Canelo
was negative. So why are you going to stop the fight [against Gennady Golovkin
for the Super version of the WBA middleweight title] happening? Is it to do
with marketing the fight? I don’t understand it.

“I consulted specialists in that field and the
percentage of clenbuterol he had [in his system] gives you reason to doubt. I
just don’t see it. I stand by Canelo 100 per cent. This is a fighter who has
never had a negative [drug test] in the past.

“It’s like if something happened to Anthony [Joshua],”
Mendoza continued. “These guys carry the torch for the sport. They are the
reason we exist. Fans, sanctioning bodies and the rest of the fighters owe it
to them. If you look at their careers, they have been clean all the time. But
sometimes, at some point, I understand things can happen.”

It doesn’t need to be pointed out why a comment like
that, issued by somebody in a position of power within the sport, is
problematic. Yet, for greater context, and to understand why this came as no
surprise, it’s worth noting that Mendoza was in Cardiff, Wales that week to
oversee not only the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight title fight between Anthony
Joshua and Joseph Parker but a fight between Alexander Povetkin, the WBA’s
number one contender, and Liverpool’s David Price for a WBA Intercontinental
title.

Povetkin, of course, had failed not one but two
performance-enhancing drug tests in his career yet was still being championed
by the WBA. In fact, he would later that year use this WBA ranking to land a
money-spinning shot at world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.

“Performance-enhancing drugs is a very difficult and
complicated issue,” Mendoza said. “Sometimes you have a problem with local
jurisdictions. The UK, for example, has its own agency. You have to follow the
local jurisdictions. Secondly, there are a lot of positives [tests] in the
game. One of them is Povetkin [who failed tests for ostarine and meldonium in
2016]. He has since volunteered for testing and has been negative.

“But it is difficult to have a unified policy on this
matter. Local jurisdictions and sanctioning bodies, they all seem to do things
in a different way. For example, we banned Luis Ortiz, because it was his
second time failing a test, and the fight with Deontay Wilder still went ahead
for the WBC title. Our punishment was disregarded by the other sanctioning
bodies when it should have been backed up.”

In summary, the WBC forgave and let Ortiz back in, while
the WBA forgave and let Povetkin back in. Both were wrong to do so but Povetkin
was a special case, I learned, because, aside from the fact he was a former WBA
champion, the Russian was now a reformed man who had been bombarded with random
testing for two years. “Povetkin is in the voluntary testing pool with VADA
[Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency],” Mendoza said. “He has been tested [before the
Price fight]. In the last two years he has been regularly tested.”

Yet for his fight with Price we discovered the truth
was that Povetkin had never been tested by VADA and that he had been tested
just once in the build-up to the fight. That happened on the Wednesday of fight
week, the day he arrived in England, and was conducted by UK Anti-Doping [UKAD],
not VADA.

“I’m enrolled in the [VADA] Clean Boxing Program but, no, I wasn’t tested by VADA for this fight,” Povetkin revealed to Boxing News on the Thursday, managing to both contradict Mendoza’s earlier claim and leave us wondering if, rather than providing care and attention, or even a sliver of authority, the role of a sanctioning body is in fact this: the ability to turn a blind eye while in the process of keeping both hands open.

Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez is a superstar with a chequered past (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)