It used to be so simple in boxing: To be the man, you had to beat the man. There were eight weight classes, and if you beat the champ in a weight class, you became the new champ. A proliferation of weight classes and belt-bestowing regulatory bodies has since complicated the matter, making it almost impossible to determine who the real champ is, and who has won the most championships.
Nominally, the winner of the most championships is either Roy Jones, Jr., who won 12 belts in four different weight classes, or Manny Pacquiao, who has won 11 belts in seven different weight classes . Because the legitimacy of some of those belts remains in question, however, those totals don't tell the whole story, said Tim Starks, boxing journalist and author of the blog Queensberry-rules.com.
The thing about these belts is that almost anyone can win one. They practically give them out as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes, Starks told Life's Little Mysteries. I don't know the record for most belts won overall. Boxers win and lose belts all the time, and that makes it so you can say 'twelve-time world champion' or whatever. It's largely meaningless.
For the first part of the 20th century, there was only one sanctioning body, the National Boxing Association (later the World Boxing Association), and it had only eight weight classes, said Robert Rodriguez, an assistant professor of political science at Texas A & M, Commerce, and author of the book The Regulation of Boxing (McFarland & Company, 2009). Starting in the 1960s and continuing until today, the regulatory bodies expanded to the point where boxers can hold at least four belts in each class, and those regulatory agencies have split the weight classes from eight to 17.
It used to be a really big deal. Until the late 1980s, the most titles anyone had won was three, Rodriguez told Life's Little Mysteries. It's gotten so confusing; you practically need an encyclopedia to keep track of all these belts. It's pretty ridiculous and pathetic.
A number of fighters, such as Henry Armstrong and Roberto Duran, had won three championship belts before the 1980s. Then, in 1987, Thomas the Motor City Cobra Hearns became the first person to win a fourth belt. A year later, he won his fifth. After that, champions just kept on piling up more and more belts, Rodriguez said.
Most of the boxers who have won multiple titles have done so in the weight classes at or below middleweight, Starks said. The lower weights have smaller differences between classes, making it easier to move from one to another.
Such was the case with Manny Pacquiao, who began his career as a 112-pound flyweight, and will compete for the 150-pound super welterweight championship tomorrow night against Antonio Margarito. If he wins, he will become the first boxer in history to have won belts in eight different weight classes.
Belts don't make a man, Starks said. But in Pacquiao's case, they most certainly are a compelling part of his legacy.
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