What is the Lineal Championship?
By Jake Chaney
In professional boxing, the Lineal Championship is considered to be the true World Championship. It is a continuation of the period in boxing when there was generally only one world champion per division, a time before the creation of sanctioning bodies and the popularity of trophy belts.
The adjective “Lineal” is in reference to the manner in which titles in prize fighting traditionally passed from one champion to the next via contests in the ring – commonly described as, “the man who beat the man.” In modern boxing, sanctioning bodies (also known as “Alphabet Soup” due to their confusing assortment of letters: IBO, WBA, IBF, WBO etc) frequently ignore this core championship tradition, and “strip” champions of their titles, often for ludicrous reasons.
Lineal Championship vacancies are filled via a box-off between the leading contenders (the #1 and #2 contenders, or in rare instances #1 Vs #3) in a weight division. Impartial, independent ranking organisations are referred to in order to determine who the top contenders are. The typically absurd ratings and comical decisions of sanctioning bodies are ignored.
A champion may lose his title in the following ways:
- If he is beaten in a contest within his weight class.
- If he formally retires.
- If he vacates his weight class.
In contrast to the Lineal Championship, Alphabet Soup organisations will often allow lower tier challengers to compete for their vacant titles. The various sanctioning bodies have introduced so many world title belts in each weight division that the term “world champion” has been diluted and tarnished, to the point that it is almost incomparable to pre-sanctioning body days.
Ultimately, the Lineal Championship is the traditional World Championship. The word “lineal” is used in order to differentiate it from the growing number of Alphabet Soup “world champions.”
For a more detailed account of the history of the Lineal Championship, please read on.
1. One champion
2. The emergence of the alphabet soup
3. Nathaniel Fleischer
4. The word “Lineal”
5. Ratings and crowning a new champion
6. Lineal Boxing Champion
7. Leaving a weight division
9. Unification – a common misconception
10. Sites that do not follow Lineal Championship principles
11. Mandatory defences
12. Final message
1. One Champion
Beginning with England’s James Figg, who in 1719 became boxing’s first recognised champion, the sport generally produced one champion at a time, allowing fans and historians to follow reasonably clear lineages . Contenders had to defeat the champion, to become the champion, or if no champion existed due to a retirement, other ring achievements were assessed.
In the 19th century, boxing record books such as Boxiana and Pugilistica (in Britain), and newspapers such as the Police Gazette (in America), documented the world champions and shaped public opinion as to who the leading contenders were .
The first Heavyweight Champions of the Gloved Era
Boston’s John L. Sullivan bridged the gap between the bare-knuckle and gloved eras. During this transitional period, some historians view Sullivan’s bare-knuckle victory over American Champion Paddy Ryan in 1882 as the moment he became the World Champion, and simultaneously see this accolade as justification for making him “the man to beat” when competing in later gloved contests . Others cite his gloved victory over Dominick McCaffrey, August 29, 1885 [1, 3, 4]. Either way, entering his 1892 contest with James J. Corbett, Sullivan is viewed to have been The Heavyweight World Champion.
Between 1885 to 1905, the title changed hands three times. James J. Corbett defeated Sullivan to win the Championship in 1892. Corbett lost it via 14th round KO to Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897, and Jim Jeffries beat Fitzsimmons for the title in 1899. Jeffries retired in 1905, ending the first Heavyweight lineage, a lineage which had descended from Sullivan.
In July 1905, retired champion, Jeffries, announced that a fight between top contenders, Marvin Hart and Jack Root would crown a new World Champion, leading to Hart being recognised by many as the first champion of this new lineage [5, 6]. The Heavyweight Title passed from Hart to Tommy Burns, to Jack Johnson, to Jess Willard, to Jack Dempsey in 1919 – all via ring battles. Champions were not stripped.
Corbett, Fitzsimmons, and Willard all had periods of inactivity of at least 2 years, but on their return to the ring, were still viewed as the defending World Champions [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].
The blue print for what became known as the Lineal Championship was simple:
- Vacant championships were filled via a box-off between the leading contenders.
- A contender had to then beat the champion, to become the champion.
- Champions were not “stripped” – not even for long stretches of inactivity.
- A formal retirement meant the championship became vacant.
2. The Emergence of the Alphabet Soup
Britain’s Lord Lonsdale helped establish the National Sporting Club in 1891, defining and standardising eight weight classes, and awarding Lonsdale belts to British Champions.
In America, the New York State Athletic Commission (1920) and NBA (1921) formed, standardizing and regulating the rules of the sport. The fledgling sanctioning bodies refused to join, which led two champions sometimes being crowned in each division. The reason for the lack of compliance between the two organisations? The NYSAC cited a prohibition in state law, but as The Boxing Register (2011), explained, “In reality, New York did not wish to share its power or potential revenue.”
By 1983, there were three internationally accepted sanctioning bodies (the NBA having changed its name to the WBA in 1962), each crowing their own world champions: the WBA, WBC and the latest on the scene, the IBF. More champions meant more sanctioning fees could be charged, and more money could be made – consequently, it came to no surprise that the sanctioning bodies began creating more and more weight classes . The WBO formed in 1989, and now in 2019, there are 17 divisions, featuring “Silver,” “Super,” “Diamond,” and “Interim” Champions, just to name a few. In 2015, in reference to the astonishing statistic that the WBA had 43 world champions listed on its website, Boxing Monthly  commented: “The WBA has sold its soul with a business model that puts cash ahead of credibility.”
With the IBO and WBF also crowning their own champions (amongst others), the term “world champion” in boxing, has been drastically diluted, and its value is a far cry from the highly prestigious accolade, it once was.
3. Nathaniel Fleischer
In the confusing state of having two world champions, as recognised by the NBA and NYSAC, the editor and founding member of The Ring Magazine, Nathaniel Fleischer helped bring a degree of clarity back to the sport, by identifying who the real World Champion in each division was, by issuing monthly rankings and awarding championship belts .
Throughout much of the 20th century, and even after Fleischer’s passing in 1972, The Ring continued to crown champions in a manner that echoed the bare-knuckle era and early Heavyweight gloved years.
Divisional vacancies were frequently filled by elimination tournaments that featured the leading contenders – eventually creating a box-off between the top two in the division [11, 16]. Champions declaring a move to a new weight class, or announcing their retirement, were generally the only circumstances in which a vacancy occurred.
The magazine stopped recognising divisional “Ring champions” in the 1990s.
From the mid-1990s onwards, boxing historians Mike DeLisa and Tracy Callis, compiled their own lists of “Lineal Champions” in professional boxing – and also identified the “Lineal Champions” from the beginning of the gloved era .
When The Ring reintroduced their Championship belts in 2002, it was done with no regard to their previous lineages, leading DeLisa to comment :
“The Ring has forfeited its credibility by pulling names out of its ass to name fighters as champions.”
The Ring’s 2002 policy still ensured champions were not stripped, but then in 2012, the policy significantly changed. The new policy specified several ways a Ring champion could be “stripped” of his belt, and allowed the #1 or #2 contenders, to potentially fight #3, #4 or even #5 contenders. Tim Starks, of The Queensbury Rules commented , “The Ring announced changes to its championship policy that, flatly, killed any claim the magazine can make to being custodians of an authentic championship lineage.”
This severing of their lineages in the 1990s followed by a policy change, that outlined several circumstances for “stripping” belt holders, meant The Ring had distanced itself from Nat Fleischer’s original championship ideology. Simultaneously, it had also weakened its close association with the Lineal Championship.
4. The word “Lineal”
The word “lineal,” means “of, involving, or derived from direct descent.” Lineal Champions are “descended from” the boxer who won the initial box-off which started a lineage. A champion leaving his division or retiring will end that particular lineage making the title vacant once again. Every lineage has to start somewhere – its length is unimportant.
As an example, when Bernard Hopkins defeated Felix Trinidad in 2001 at Middleweight, Hopkins became the new Lineal Champion – this victory started a new lineage. Hopkins lost to Jermain Taylor, and the lineage continued from Taylor, to Kelly Pavlik, to Sergio Martinez, to Miguel Cotto, to Canelo Alvarez. The word “lineal” refers to the direct descent in which the title passed from Hopkins, eventually to Canelo.
As explained earlier in this article, the Lineal Championship is simply the traditional World Championship. The adjective “lineal” in “Lineal World Champion” is only really used to differentiate it from the growing number of Alphabet Soup “world champions.”
5. Ratings and Crowning a new champion
A box-off between the top two contenders, crowns a new Lineal Champion in a division, but how are the top contenders identified? Various methods have been used, from a former champion deciding [5, 17], elimination tournaments , or individual independent ratings being used. Elimination tournaments are useful, but nevertheless, the appropriate top contenders must be selected in the first place, so a set of ratings is required.
After Sandy Saddler’s 1957 retirement, The Ring’s ratings were used to identify the leading Featherweights for an elimination tournament to crown a new champion in the division  – the #1, #2, #3 and #4 ranked fighters entered the tournament. Nathaniel Fleischer stated, “There is hardly any arguing that Harnia and Bassey, who’ll fight it out for the world championship, are the two best featherweights in the world today.”
Compare this, to the 2017-18 World Super Series 168lbs tournament, which, from the start, omitted the #1 and #2 Super Middleweights in the world, James DeGale [18 ] and Gilberto Ramirez [15, 19]. The Ring gave the winner the magazine’s belt, demonstrating a slip in standards from the days of its founder, Fleischer. LinealBoxingChampion.com did not recognise the tournament’s winner as the Lineal Champion.
Should one independent ratings organisation be allowed sole control in identifying who the leading contenders are? No. After all, if the top 2 selected by one organisation is vastly different to other sites, is it truly an accurate reflection of the boxing landscape? When the TBRB ranked Sergey Lipinets as the #2 contender for his fight against #1, Mikey Garcia, was Sergey really the second best in his division? Not according to The Ring and BoxRec, who had him down at #7 and #8 respectively . And likewise, when Jorge Linares fought Anthony Crolla in 2016, was Crolla really #3 as The Ring suggested? Not according to the TBRB, who had Crolla down at #5, and had Dejan Zlaticanin at #1, above Linares .
So whose rankings should be used?
6. Lineal Boxing Champion
At LinealBoxingChampion.com (LBC) we assess the independent ratings compiled by five leading boxing sites, and only consider two boxers to be eligible to fight for a vacant Lineal Title, when the ratings of the fighters concerned, meet the high standards outlined in our Championship Policy . We believe this method limits bias, and provides a fairer account of who the best contenders are (rather than just relying on one set of ratings), meaning the fans can be confident the right boxers have been identified.
Our site is a not-for-profit organisation that keeps an up-to-date record of who boxing’s current Lineal Champions are. Our “Champions/Contenders” page displays who the top 3 boxers are in each division, as per the leading independent sites, so the fans know which boxers must fight in order to fill a divisional vacancy. We are also gradually uploading the full lists of Lineal Champions in each of boxing’s 17 divisions.
7. Leaving a weight division
A Lineal Champion who leaves a weight division, with no intention of defending his crown in the previous weight class, results in the title becoming vacant.
Although determining this can be ambiguous in some instances, it should be noted that vacating an Alphabet Soup belt does not necessarily mean a boxer has also vacated his Lineal Title. In 2009, the IBF refused to allow Lineal Cruiserweight Champion, Tomasz Adamek, a chance to test the waters at Heavyweight, by fighting Andrew Golota – Adamek was given little option but to vacate the IBF title, but declared :
“I’m open to fighting the best Cruiserweights in the world if that is what the television networks and fans want me to do. Can you be the best Cruiserweight in the world and try to be the best Heavyweight? Why not?”
Clearly, Adamek still believed he was the true, reigning Cruiserweight Champion, despite having been forced to vacate his ABC belt.
When a Lineal Champion, formally, and publically announces his retirement, the division’s title becomes vacant – a good example of this, was when Rocky Marciano held a short press conference in 1956 , and announced to the world’s media: “Gentlemen, I would to announce my retirement from boxing.” Rocky then answered questions from the journalists in attendance. His announcement was emphatic, concise and sincere, paving the way for Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore to battle for the vacant crown.
In contrast, in 2016, reigning Heavyweight Champion, Tyson Fury, Tweeted , “I’m the greatest, and I’m also retired.” Three hours later he Tweeted, “I’m here to stay.”
Boxing Monthly and World Boxing News both acknowledge that Fury is still the Lineal Champion. The TBRB view it slightly differently, stating that abdicated his TBRB crown on the day that he vacated his Alphabet titles – however, it should be remembered that the sanctioning bodies were about to strip him, Fury was simply beating them to the punch. As with the Adamek example outlined above, there is a difference between essentially being forced to relinquish an Alphabet belt, and vacating the true Lineal Title.
Fury never vacated his Ring belt  – a sure sign, that he wasn’t vacating his Lineal Title. Prior to his June 2018 comeback fight, Fury explained :
“I’ve had all the alphabet titles. Titles are unimportant to me. I see myself as the Lineal World Heavyweight Champion and I don’t need any belts.”
Interestingly, Fury’s half hearted “retirement” was comparable to that of James J. Corbett’s in 1894. Despite Peter Maher claiming to be the new title holder after a retirement from Corbett, the public didn’t take it seriously and neither did leading contender, Bob Fitzsimmons . Fitzsimmons KO’d Maher in 1 round, and then challenged Corbett for his World Championship on March 17, 1897.
“Retirements” can be a grey area when tracking the Lineal Title, but it is evident, the decisions of sanctioning bodies should be ignored, and only formal retirements should be accepted.
9. Unification - a common misconception
Unification or being “undisputed,” is not needed to crown a new Lineal Champion. Sanctioning body belts are largely irrelevant in determining who the leading contenders are – Impartial, independent ratings are used. Boxing historian, Mike De Lisa, succinctly explained , "Lineal does not mean unification of the WBC, WBA and IBF titles."
Crowning a new Lineal Champion is about the best fighting the best. Conversely, Alphabet Soup vacancies are frequently decided via fights between relatively lowly ranked contenders, meaning that unification matches often do not involve the best fighters in a division [27, 28]. It’s also worth remembering that boxing crowned world champions long before sanctioning bodies and their various belts existed.
Notably, on the first occasion after the formation of the NYAC and NBA that the Heavyweight title was vacant (after Gene Tunney’s retirement), these sanctioning bodies did the sensible thing and allowed top contenders, Max Schmeling and Jack Sharkey to fight each other for the title . Schmeling and Sharkey were the top 2 ranked Heavyweights according to The Ring, the NYSAC and the NBA. Sharkey/Schmeling was not a unification match – The Ring, NYSAC and NBA simply acknowledged that the two best fighters were facing each other and put their vacant titles on the line.
Some recent memorable bouts (below) that were for a vacant Lineal Title. In brackets - the number of Alphabet Soup belts that were at stake.
- Froch Vs Ward (2)
- Mayweather Vs Alvarez (2)
- Pacquiao Vs Marquez 2 (1)
- Mayweather Vs Castillo 1 (1)
- Pascal Vs Dawson (1)
These fights were all between the leading contenders in the respective divisions, and crowned Lineal Champions. The idea that Andre Ward needed to fight relatively lowly ranked Robert Stieglitz, or that Floyd Mayweather needed to beat lightly regarded Carlos Molina, in order to become the legitimate champion (because they held sanctioning body belts), is absurd.
10. Sites that do not follow Lineal Championship principles
The Ring. As described earlier in this article, when The Ring opted to sever its lineages in the 1990s, and then permitted much easier circumstances to “strip” of champions as of 2012, it drifted from its founder’s original ideology, and terminated its close association with the Lineal Title.
The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. Similarly to The Ring, the TBRB also “strip” its champions for several reasons. In an interview for NYFights  on August 29, 2018, co-founder of the TBRB, Springs Toledo said: “The ‘Lineal’ champion doesn’t quite mean what many think means. It isn’t whomever The Ring tells you Is the champion, and it isn’t necessarily the champions identified by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board either.”
Another co-founder of the TBRB, Cliff Rold, who is editor of BoxingScene.com and has written in depth articles about the Lineal Championship for many years, also clearly views the TBRB Championship as being distinct from the Lineal Championship. Rold identifies Tyson Fury as the reigning Lineal Heavyweight Champion , where as the TBRB vacated their Heavyweight title in 2016. The TBRB also made their Middleweight title vacant in 2017  – Rold on the other hand, recognises Canelo Alvarez’s Lineal 160lbs title reign as being continuous from 2015 – present .
The Cyber Boxing Zone. In the mid-1990s, in the days before BoxRec, YouTube and most boxing websites had been developed, the experts who created and maintained the Cyber Boxing Zone website provided a valuable resource for the boxing community . With the help of respected historian, Tracy Callis, the CBZ, displayed a full list of Lineal Champions in professional boxing, past and present . However, by 2008 the CBZ’s online journal, “Wail!,” had stopped, and for the last 10 years updates on their list of Lineal Champions have been infrequent, and when they have occurred, have come with very little explanation, if any at all.
The CBZ’s recent edits (as of January 2019) and updates have become increasingly bizarre:
2017 – The same year that Canelo defended his Lineal Middleweight title against Gennady Golovkin, the CBZ states that Canelo vacated the title.
2016 - The CBZ states that Tyson Fury “retired,” making the Lineal title vacant – presumably on the basis of his “Tweet,” which was retracted, and explained as a joke 3 hours later . Fury made no formal retirement. While the CBZ identify the Lineal Heavyweight title as being vacant, the majority of the boxing world (Boxing Scene , The Ring , Boxing Monthly , ESPN , World Boxing News  ), recognise Fury as the reigning Champion.
2018-2019 - Mikey Garcia is listed as the CBZ’s reigning Lineal Junior Welterweight Champion, on the back of his 2018 victory over Sergey Lipinets - despite the fact Lipinets was seen as a relatively lowly ranked opponent at the time he fought Garcia (#7 with The Ring, #4 with Boxing Monthly and #8 with BoxRec). Only the TBRB had Lipinets in the top 3.
For two decades the CBZ cited Muhammad Ali’s 1970 retirement as the reason for the end of his first reign as champion, which fitted in line with Nat Flesicher’s (The Ring’s founder) stance on the matter , and the CBZ’s rationale, “ludicrous decisions of the sanctioning bodies are ignored.” Yet, strangely, in January 2019, the CBZ edited their Lineal Champions page, and now state that Ali’s reign ended due to being “suspended” in 1967 – which aligns with the year a sanctioning body (the WBA) stripped Ali .
The inconsistent updates, and decisions to effectively strip Lineal Champions, past and present, mean that the CBZ have forfeited their credibility as record keepers of boxing’s Lineal Champions.
11. Mandatory Defences
Perhaps the most frequent criticism of the Lineal Championship is that there is no regulatory body in place that can force a champion to make defences of his title against deserving opposition. A champion could, in theory, remain inactive for long periods, and/or perpetually fight mediocre, unworthy opponents. A champion behaving in such a way, would probably not be perceived to be the best fighter in his division.
To prevent a situation whereby a title is frozen by an inactive champion, potentially for decades, Lineal Boxing Champion has an “abandonment” policy. If a champion has not retired, and has also refused to defend his title for more than 3 years 3 months (which would be longer than any Heavyweight Champion in history), it could be considered that the champion has abandoned their title. In these highly unlikely circumstances the leading contenders may be eligible to fight for the abandoned crown.
It is true that while sanctioning body mandatory defences can sometimes encourage good match-ups to made, but they can also be a hindrance. Deontay Wilder’s first 6 defences of his WBC Heavyweight belt were against men who were not rated in any independent Heavyweight top 5 – in fact, the TBRB didn’t have any of these opponents inside the top 10 . Ironically, the highest calibre opponent on Wilder’s record is now “Tyson Fury,” and yet Fury was merely a “voluntary” defence of the WBC belt for Wilder – not a mandatory. The quick, straightforward negotiations during which Wilder/Fury was arranged, was likely made easier by the fact that Fury (the Lineal Champion), wasn’t tied up in sanctioning body red tape, as he wasn’t in possession of an Alphabet Soup title at the time.
At 168lbs, during the late 1990s/early 2000s, Sven Ottke was a leading fighter in the division. Ottke held at least one sanctioning body title for the last 6 years of his career, and fulfilled his mandatory obligations, yet never fought his most dangerous, long-term rival, unbeaten ABC title holder, Joe Calzaghe.
The person fans and journalists “believe” to be “the best” in a division is highly subjective, and may change on a regular basis, even without the boxers concerned fighting each other. When Nat Fleischer published The Ring’s End of Year Rankings in the 1936 edition of the magazine, the World Champion, James Braddock was rated at No.3, while contender Max Schmeling was No.1, and Joe Louis, was No.2. Regardless though, The Ring and the rest of the boxing fraternity did not stop calling Braddock the World Heavyweight Champion .
World titles should be won and lost in the ring.
12. Final Message
In the 1800s and early 1900s, it was the print press who traced the course of world championships, and effectively governed world title fights . Belts and sanctioning bodies were not required. The Lineal Championship in professional boxing is a continuation of this era. It is the traditional World Championship.
The suggestion that a fight must now be “sanctioned” by an ABC organization - with a glittery belt on the line - in order to be for a world championship, is propaganda, perpetuated by promoters and sanctioning bodies, who rely on each other to remain relevant. When Jack Johnson defeated Tommy Burns, he received no belt. Neither did Jack Dempsey when he savaged Jess Willard for the title in 1919. No sanctioning bodies were needed.
Divisional ratings produced by the ABC organizations seldom reflect the accuracy of those compiled by knowledgeable, impartial observers, meaning it’s very unlikely the contenders fighting for a vacant belt are ever the best in their weight class. Consequently, ABC championships are often flawed from day one. The growing number of Super, International, Interim and Regular “world” champions etc, in each division, have dragged the words “world champion” through the mud.
Sanctioning body belts are very useful for selling tickets and boosting Pay-Per-Views, but there needs to be a way for boxing fans to differentiate the Lineal World Champion of a division from a sanctioning body belt holder.
LinealBoxingChampion.com is a not-for-profit organization and has no links to any promotional companies or broadcasters. We refer to boxing's leading independent ranking organisations and only consider two contenders to be eligible for fighting for a vacant divisional world title, if they meet the high quality criteria outlined in our Championship Policy.
Our aim is simple: to provide an honest, fair account of past and present Lineal Champions in professional boxing. LinealBoxingChampion.com is the record keeper of boxing’s Lineal Champions.
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