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The Ring provides integrity for boxing

MIKE HOUSER
Appeal Sports Writer

Times change and unfortunately not always for the better.

You wonder if – back in the days when there were only eight weight divisions and, hence, eight world champions in boxing – anybody could’ve envisioned what today’s boxing landscape would look like.

With 17 weight divisions, four recognized (but not respected) sanctioning bodies, and including (but not limited to) “regular” champions, “super champions, and interim champions, the panorama of boxing has become more like a theater of the absurd.

But if boxing in all its madness can be looked upon as a surrealistic Dali painting, its essence – its remaining structure and linear quality – can still be portrayed and displayed in its beauty by The Ring magazine.

Founded by Nat Fleischer, the first issue of The Ring was printed in February 1922. And since its inception, the magazine has always been a source where boxing’s politics – racial issues (back when black fighters were kept out of the title picture), promoters’ spin doctors, clueless television coverage, etc. – have been excised and the real story has been printed.

But even though the times have changed, The Ring magazine has stayed the same. If you are of the mind that there is only one world and that there should be only one world champion per division; if you can’t quite cut through the layers of propaganda the networks, newspapers and Web sites lay on you, go grab a copy of The Ring or its sister publications – KO, World Boxing and Boxing 2006.

What you won’t find within its pages are world champions according to the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO. What you will find is order rendered from chaos. You will see whom The Ring recognizes as world champions and the Top 10 contenders to each throne.

There is a carefully explained Ratings Analysis and an explanation on how The Ring compiles its ratings – a refreshing alternative to the arbitrary rankings proffered by the various sanctioning bodies.

“The Ring pioneered the concept of boxing rankings (as far back as the 1950s),” said editor-in-chief Nigel Collins from The Ring’s office in Blue Bell, Pa. “Our championship policy that we started in April 2002 was in response to the need to return integrity to championship boxing. The alphabet organizations have three or four champions per division and they also have super and interim champions. Piling up so many (champions) for so many years has done so much damage to the sport.”

Collins said the magazine has nearly 30 correspondents worldwide and relies on its vast network of boxing insiders – not promoters or sanctioning bodies – to determine its rankings for each division.

Unlike instances where some boxers are handed world titles without ever having fought for the championship – as with Ken Norton, to whom the WBC bestowed its belt in 1978 without him fighting champion Leon Spinks – The Ring believes in the simple concept to be the champion, you have to beat the champion.

“Championships are won or lost in the ring,” Collins said. “(WBC heavyweight titlist) Hasim Rahman got the belt this time like Norton – they just gave him the belt.”

To be The Ring’s world champion, a boxer must either fight The Ring’s established world champion, or the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked boxers in the respective division must meet.

An exception is when a No. 1 meets a deserving No. 3 – such as when super middleweight Joe Calzaghe (who was ranked No. 1 by The Ring) recently met Jeff Lacy (ranked No. 3).

Collins said there wasn’t a large gap between No. 2 Mikkel Kessler and Lacy — whom many boxing pundits had felt was the best in the 168-pound division – so the exception was granted.

The Ring doesn’t care if the WBO and IBF recognize Calzaghe as their champion, as the organizations are subject to strip him of his belt or force him to meet a “mandatory” challenger, whose merit could be questionable at best.

The Ring doesn’t strip its champions (to whom it awards a championship belt of its own). The only way the belt changes hands is if the fighter is beaten in the ring, retires (as did heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko) or moves up in weight and vacates the belt.

Collins said the biggest supporters of The Ring and its policy has come from ESPN (and broadcasters Max Kellerman and Brian Kenny, in particular) and on occasion, even HBO, which showed The Ring ratings before its recent Rahman-James Toney fight.

Although HBO pulled a gaffe when it didn’t mention that Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson said they were proud to fighting for the “real” light heavyweight championship belt – The Ring’s belt – the network has warmed many boxing fans to The Ring’s sane policy in an insane boxing world.

The 59-year-old Collins, who was born in Bristol, England, and emigrated to the United States when he was 12, said what the boxing world needs is a for the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act – which protects boxers from the malign practices of promoters and managers – to “get some teeth.” Right now, the Ali Act has no enforcement provision.

Collins, who boxed in the U.S. Army before becoming a boxing correspondent for The Ring in the early 1970s, said he’s not thrilled with the idea of a national commission headed by politicians who know little or nothing of the sport.

“I think boxing needs to clean up its own house,” said Collins, whose father boxed as a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. “I’m not enamored with politicians in the first place. I don’t put much faith in them. The federal government has trouble getting a letter across the street in a week. They have no experience running a sports franchise. And it’s likely a politician would be put in charge.”

Collins has made it clear The Ring has no ax to grind and only wants to see the sport thrive as it once did when daily newspapers covered it as one of their major sports like football and baseball.

But as with the rest of the world, the only constant is change. Boxing has been replaced in popularity by golf and NASCAR. And newspapers are no longer the main source for information.

“Life changes. Web sites are taking over the job that used to belong to the daily newspapers,” said Collins, whose career took off when Atlantic City began to become a major fight mecca. “Like newspapers, some (Web sites) are trash, some are doing a good job. But I don’t think daily newspapers will ever go back to covering boxing (like they used to).”

Collins said in evaluating respective boxing Web sites, one must separate the wheat from the chaff. Some sites exist only so the “writers” can get a press pass and thump their chests, while others do the sport a service.

But regardless of the function of the various Web sites, it’s unlikely any will ever be able to follow in the footsteps of The Ring, whose complete lineage of editors-in-chief can be traced all the back to Fleischer in 1922 – sort of the way you used to be able to trace the lineage of the heavyweight champions.

Nat Loubet succeeded Fleischer upon his death in 1972. Hall of Fame boxing historian and prolific author Bert Sugar took over from there, followed by Randy Gordon, Collins, (Showtime boxing commentator) Steve Farhood and Collins once again.

“(Promoter) J. Russell Peltz jokes with me that I’m the only (Ring) editor to regain the title,” Collins said.

And perhaps that’s how it should be.

From Philadelphia boxing correspondent, to getting on staff at The Ring, to becoming its editor, Collins brings integrity, credibility and knowledge to a sport steeped in history by its nature.

“I remember when my grandad would put me up on his knee (in England) and tell me about how Bob Fitzsimmons took the title from Jim Corbett,” Collins recalled. “He told me how Fitzsimmons’ wife was ringside and yelling for him to hit Corbett to the body – which he did and won the fight (in Carson City, on March 17, 1897). He also told me the best fighter back then was Peter Jackson, but that they would never let him get a title shot because he was black.”

Collins cited three important lessons he learned on his grandfather’s knee: “One, go to the body, two, there’s racial prejudice, and three, always listen to your wife. I’m twice divorced, so I don’t know about that last one.”

But just as Muhammad Ali proved against Joe Frazier, two out of three isn’t bad.

Perhaps it’s the boxer in Collins, perhaps it’s the British optimism in him – the kind shown by the RAF in World War II and the kind shown by England’s plucky citizens after the recent terrorist bombings in London – but either way, Collins is in boxing’s corner for the long run.

And so is The Ring magazine, perhaps the only place a true boxing fan can turn when the rest of the world is awry and full of change.