Muddled Junior Welterweight Division

By Francis Walker
Updated: August 29, 2005

New York, NY –Kostya Tszyu is recognized as the world junior welterweight champion. But Arturo Gatti became the WBC junior welterweight champion in Atlantic City on Saturday. Sounds confusing? It gets better, last year Zab Judah won the WBO junior welterweight title, while Vivian Harris is the WBA junior welterweight champion. Still confused?

Gatti won his first world title belt in more than six years when he won a 12-round unanimous decision over Gianlunca Branco for the vacant WBC 140-pound title. The title became vacant when Tszyu was unable to defend the title against the WBC’s No-1 ranked challenger.

More important than the fight is the circumstances surrounding Gatti’s “title” bid.

At first Gatti-Branco was billed as a WBC eliminator with the winner to become the WBC’s mandated opponent fort Tszyu, who recently suffered an ankle injury while preparing for a Feb. 7 rematch with former WBA champ, Sharmba Mitchell in Russia.

When a fighter is injured or is unable to meet an organizations No-1 ranked challenger, that champion maybe stripped of their title belt. Tszyu-Branco could not be arranged. Branco instead fought Gatti, while Tszyu was given a “champion emeritus” status.

There is no sense in unifying all the titles in a weight class. Tszyu already accomplished that feat when he had the WBC version in 2000. As the WBC champion, Tszyu took the WBA title from Mitchell in Feb. 2000 before knocking out Zab Judah for the IBF title in Nov. 2000.

One of the problems with unifying titles in a weight class is that for every title belt there is a No. 1-contender. With Tszyu holding on to the WBC, WBA, and IBF versions, he has to fight a No. 1-ranked challenger. Meaning Tszyu had three No. 1-ranked contenders he had to face within a span of a year.

That was until the WBA elevated Tszyu’s status as “super champion.” As “super champion,” Tszyu is mandated to fight a mandatory challenger every two years. Here is the best part; a mandatory challenger to any of the WBA’s “super champions” is the fighter that holds the WBA championship in that weight class.

For example, Tszyu is the WBA “super champion, but Harris is the WBA “champion.” If Harris is still “champion” after a two-year period, then he must face Tszyu for the undisputed WBA “super championship.”

Tszyu’s being stripped means that Gatti, along with Harris and Judah, is a titleholder at 140 pounds.

Tszyu, however, is still recognized as the undisputed world champion because Tszyu unified the recognized 140-pound belts without having lost a fight in nearly seven years.

Tszyu vs. Gatti: It’s not as if Tszyu can go straight after Gatti when his injury heals. Tszyu, who is still the WBA/IBF champion, must continue to concern himself with the other mandatory opponents.

Even if Tszyu wanted to go straight after Gatti, championship belts mean so much to fighters. They will fight the worst contenders available in order to retain their belts. Fighters will either vacate or risk getting stripped only when a big money-fight opportunity conflicts with a mandatory fight.

Gatti’s title victory is good for HBO, the network Gatti has fought on frequently since 1996. HBO can advertise Gatti’s future fights as world championship bouts and can begin a campaign for a Tszyu-Gatti fight.

Tszyu’s solid skills and two-fisted power matched against Gatti’s power, speed, and resiliency easily makes Tszyu-Gatti the biggest match at 140 pounds.