Even before Vasyl Lomachenko opted to join the pro ranks, he told the boxing world he wanted to achieve historic feats that will shatter all previously established limits. In fact, the reason Lomachenko eventually signed with Top Rank was that the Las Vegas-based promotional company promised to arrange for him a most unique opportunity: Capture a major title in the fewest number of fights.
When it was announced Lomachenko was to fight WBO featherweight titleholder Orlando Salido, a grizzled 33-year-old veteran who had fought professionally for more than half his life, fans, media and odds makers all but crowned the brilliant 26-year-old Ukrainian while overlooking the rugged Mexican. After all, two fights earlier “Siri” went down four times and looked shopworn in losing his belt to Mikey Garcia and based on that performance most experts felt Lomachenko’s youth, speed and power would vault him not only to a championship, but toward potential superstardom.
Salido, however, was unwilling to go along with the script. Because of that the two-time gold medalist with the sparkling 396-1 amateur record lost a split decision that upset the 9-to-2 odds in his favor.
But had Lomachenko prevailed the overarching question would have been this: Just how much history would he have achieved?
If one listened to Top Rank promoter Bob Arum as well as to several prominent boxing scribes, Lomachenko would have broken Saensak Muangsurin’s all-time record for the fewest pro fights en route to winning a major boxing championship – three. On July 15, 1975 at the Hua Mark Stadium in Bangkok, the Thai southpaw raised his record to 3-0 (3) after stopping WBC 140-pound king (and 47-fight veteran) Perico Fernandez in eight rounds. By listing Lomachenko’s record as 1-0 (1) entering last Saturday’s contest, Boxrec.com backed the contention that had Lomachenko won, he would have established a new, nearly unbeatable benchmark.
But if one preferred to side with Fight Fax, billed as the sport’s official record-keeper, Lomachenko’s ledger before the Salido fight was really 7-0 (1). That’s because Fight Fax declared his six World Series of Boxing fights between January and May 2013 as bona fide professional fights.
This conflict has forced the boxing community to choose between two realities, each of which has merit and each of which has a roster of respected adherents. After examining both sides, it became apparent that one of those realities presented a more compelling argument. But before revealing the final opinion, here’s a more detailed look at the various pros and cons:
Those who believe Lomachenko would have set a new record can say, accurately, that the Salido fight was the Ukrainian’s second fight within the established paradigm of fights scheduled for four, six, eight, 10 or 12 rounds. Conversely, World Series of Boxing bouts have a maximum of five rounds, ostensibly to prevent draws and to fit five fights within a two-and-a-half hour TV window. Moreover, Lomachenko said after his fight with Jose Ramirez last October (a four-round KO that was advertised as his professional debut) that there was a dramatic difference in the gloves used by the WSB and those utilized in the more conventional pro game. He said he couldn’t close the 10-ounce WSB gloves that he believed were designed to minimize the possibility of knockouts, while the eight-ounce gloves he wore against Ramirez, which he could close fully, showed off his true punching power.
Lomachenko has a point in regard to the scarcity of knockouts in WSB competition. Through last weekend, only 45 of the 267 WSB bouts staged since the start of the most recent season ended inside the distance, which translates to a paltry .169 knockout percentage. Additionally, in the 56 WSB cards held thus far, only twice has three knockouts occurred during the five-fight card while on 22 occasions not a single KO was scored. The extra padding on the gloves may well account for this.
While the larger mechanics of WSB fights mirror that of typical pro fights, there are differences beyond glove design that are seen nowhere else today, such as the concept of individual fights contributing to larger team goals. Other departures include the weight of the gloves used in competition (10 ounces for fights up to junior welterweight and 12 ounces from welterweight to super heavyweight as opposed to eight ounce and 10 ounce gloves used in non-WSB fights), using AIBA-approved judges instead of those offered by state commissions and world sanctioning bodies, and the differences in weight classes in terms of poundage as well as the presence of the super heavyweight division that has been a part of the amateur game for decades. In many minds, those modifications are enough to establish a clear – and disqualifying – separation in terms of record-keeping.
Other sports had struggled with the complications posed by multiple competitive universes. Two prime examples took place in basketball with the NBA versus the ABA and in football with the NFL versus the AFL. The two older leagues, the NFL and NBA, used rules that were developed and implemented over a number of years while the upstart AFL and ABA created regulatory and visual wrinkles that made their leagues more dynamic and fan-friendly. In the AFL’s case it was the two-point conversion and extremely wide-open offenses while in the ABA it was the three-point shot, free-wheeling playground-style attacks and the trademark red, white and blue basketball. Through these means, the upstarts managed to distinguish themselves from their more staid counterparts and, over time, they built up their brands to the point that merging the two leagues represented the most sensible solution.
In the end, the NBA and NFL adopted the younger leagues’ innovations and the result was a far better product. However, when it comes to record-keeping, the NFL chooses not to recognize feats achieved in the AFL or other outside entities such as the Canadian Football League, the All-American Football Conference, the short-lived World Football League or the USFL while the NBA ignores everything their ABA peers did while in that league. Similarly, Major League Baseball’s record books do not recognize feats achieved in leagues outside their purview and that chasm was best illustrated last season when Ichiro Suzuki stroked the 4,000th hit of his professional career. MLB purists said Suzuki’s 1,278 hits in the Japanese Pacific League shouldn’t count while others contended that professional hits are professional hits. Thus, there is precedent for Boxrec.com’s stance for excluding WSB fights.
“This is a question where there is no right answer and the Boxrec editors are definitely not at unanimity on it,” said Boxrec.com founder John Sheppard via e-mail. His web site’s position has many facets, but the overriding principle is rooted in the concept of “majority rules.”
“WSB bouts are regarded as amateur bouts by just about all countries in the world,” said Sheppard, this year’s winner of the BWAA’s James A. Farley award for Honesty and Integrity in Boxing. “Sean Turner, who is listed as having lost to Matteo Modugno in Reno last March, has, according to the Boxing Union of Ireland, not yet boxed professionally. Modugno was himself beaten by a fourth-round stoppage by Joe Joyce in a WSB bout in Newport in Wales last November, however this isn’t on his record as WSB bouts are not recognized as pro outside of the USA.”
By taking this stance Sheppard has taken a path of lesser complication, which, as the site’s founder, he has the right to make. But there is another side to the story, one that, as RingTV.com’s “resident historian,” is more persuasive.
The traditionalist side initially resisted when first confronted with Fight Fax’s policy regarding inclusion of WSB fights in fighters’ records. But after some digging – and more thinking – a change of opinion occurred. Here’s why:
* WSB fights have the look and feel of a conventional professional fight, and this was done by design. For a couple of sporting generations amateur boxing was so different from the pro game in terms of appearance and practice that it looked like a completely different sport. Participants wore headgear and team shirts, decisions were rendered by a convoluted computerized scoring system and, at one point, fights consisted of four two-minute rounds.
But in recent years, AIBA’s leadership experienced a profound change of heart that prompted them to conform more closely to pro standards. Those reforms were applied to all bouts conducted under their jurisdiction, including the WSB. No more headgear. No more team shirts. Fights returned to three three-minute rounds and were scored on the 10-point must system that has been universally used in the pro game for the last several decades. If fights are stopped, they are recorded as “KOs” or “TKOs” instead of the amateur abbreviation “RSC” (referee stops contest). Finally, WSB bouts are conducted under the auspices of professional boxing commissions.
* Although the WSB is billed as a semi-pro league that allows participants to retain their Olympic eligibility, logic says an athlete can’t be semi-pro any more than a woman can’t be semi-pregnant.
One dictionary definition of the word “professional” includes the following: “Engaged in an occupation as a paid job rather than as a hobby.” Another is “following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain.” Fighters who join the WSB sign a contract that initially lasts three years and according to AIBA’s web site “the boxers will be contracted and paid (emphasis mine) on an annual basis and so will be available for training and development for the off season, in additional to being available for promotional activities and other purposes.”
There’s no getting around it: If an organizational entity pays money to an athlete for his services, that athlete is a professional. And every time that athlete engages in the activity for which he is paid, that activity should be officially recorded. That’s where Fight Fax comes in.
In the United States, because of the Ali Act enacted in May 2000, the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) is the lead organization that governs boxing throughout the country. The ABC, in turn, commissioned Fight Fax as the entity most qualified to determine what constitutes a professional fight. Because of the reasons detailed earlier, Fight Fax chose to include WSB bouts in their records. Although Fight Fax’s authority is specifically tied to the United States, its reach and respectability is global.
Additionally, there is inconsistency regarding Boxrec.com’s policy. Although it excludes WSB fights they do list bouts that were conducted under unconventional rules, such as the Prizefighter tournaments staged in the U.K., the Stroh’s tournament fights staged at the Forum during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ESPN tournament bouts in the 1980s, the Boxcino bouts held both in the 1990s and today, and fights that took place under the “Contender” umbrella in the 2000s. While not every tournament contest carries a specific denotation, they are still there.
Despite the clear-cut argument in favor of including WSB fights into a boxer’s official record, fans, writers and networks continue to be divided. Although HBO presented both sides of the issue before Lomachenko’s fights with Ramirez and Salido, the graphic depicting the fighter’s pro record didn’t include the WSB fights. On the other hand, recent Fox Sports 1 and Showtime telecasts involving WSB alums showed graphics that included their WSB results – including losses in some cases.
“We can’t choose to recognize Fight Fax only when it fits into a pre-determined storyline,” said Showtime analyst Steve Farhood, who called WSB grad Chris Pearson’s split decision win over Lanardo Tyner on ShoBox last weekend. “Promoters, publicists and journalists who decided that the Salido fight was Lomachenko’s second pro bout do not have the authority to do so. Nor should they. Just like Rau’shee Warren, Chris Pearson, Jo Jo Diaz and several other young pros, Lomachenko fought as a professional in the WSB and his fights should be documented as such.”
Finally, the NFL/AFL and NBA/ABA dynamics don’t apply to professional boxing because the sport isn’t governed by an all-powerful central authority. As we all know, boxing is a tangled web that includes sanctioning bodies, promoters, managers, TV networks and commissions that all have conflicting priorities. Consensus is nearly impossible to achieve on a large scale but on the smaller items – such as how to record contests conducted under the WSB umbrella – agreement should be easily reached.
As for your humble scribe, the stance regarding this issue can be boiled down to one sentence: If it looks like a pro fight, if it’s conducted like a pro fight and if the fighters are paid like pro fighters, then WSB fights are pro fights – period.
Photos / Scott Heavey-Getty Images, Naoki Fukuda
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.