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Boxing Champions vs. Titleholders

Differences Between Types of Titles & Championships in Boxing: Interim Champions, Lineal Champions & Paper Champions, Oh My!

It seems like just about every fighter out there in the sport of boxing today can lay claim to being a champion or holding one title or another. You can blame the myriad sanctioning bodies for that, first and foremost.

But some titles or championships are more important than others. Titles like unified champion, undisputed champion and lineal champion all hold real meaning, although each is different from the next. You might hold one of these titles or you could hold them all, and understanding how and why they are different is key to understanding the current state of the game.

Before getting started with unified, undisputed and lineal championships, first let’s take a minute to distinguish between some other boxing terminology relating to championship claims and titles.


Note: ProBoxing-Fans.com now follows our own unique ratings policies, and names our own champion in each division. Learn more about the reasoning behind the switch here. In this rest of this article, we’ll be discussing the concepts and views of the sanctioning bodies, the terminology and differences between certain designations, and the status quo of the sport.


A Word About Major Titles vs. Minor Titles

The four major recognized titles today are the WBC, WBA, IBF & WBO, and they are typically “ranked” in that order. However, from weight class to weight class and from year to year, the validity of any specific belt can vary drastically.

Each of those belts has minor and regional titles associated with it, such as the NABF (WBC), NABA (WBA), IBF (USBA) NABO (WBO), and fighters working their way up may have the opportunity to win youth, continental or other lesser titles. No fighter holding one of these belts can truly lay claim to being a real “champion” or even a “titleholder”.

Titleholders, Trinkets, Paper Champions & More

The abundance of minor titles and new sanctioning bodies has created an ever-growing surplus of trinkets and paper champions. One prominent recent example of this was when middleweight champion Sergio Martinez – the lineal champion (more on that below), and WBC titleholder – was stripped by the WBC, opening up his title to interim champion Sebastian Zbik, primarily for the purpose of having the full or “regular” title become available to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., a big name with a strong Mexican following.

Sanctioning bodies make maneuvers like this because they make their money from the purses of the fighters, to the tune of 3%. A big name like Chavez Jr., who can win a title from a relatively risk-free opponent like Zbik, can bring in substantial cash flow. Therefore, having big name fighters hold your belts is favorable to the organization’s bottom line.

Chavez Jr. became a titleholder, but the title itself was devoid of meaning, bestowing on him less favorable titles – like paper champion, trinket holder, or so forth.  The point is that winning a title, even one of the “major” belts listed above, might make you a titleholder, but does not a champion make… not anymore in this boxing landscape.

There is a plethora of titles and trinkets and few legit champions to strap them around their waists. In addition to the above, consider…

  • Interim Champions – Interim titles used to be given only when the actual titleholder was unavailable due to injury or a rare exception to face one or several other opponents beside the legit number 1 contender. Today, interim tags are given out right and left to the number 1 or 2 fighter seemingly without rhyme or reason.
  • Super Champions – The WBA has spearheaded the “super” champion, who is a fighter in the division who owns two or more of the major belts. This fighter than vacates their “regular” title, opening up the slot for the next highest ranked fighter to also become the “champion” of the division. This means the WBA often has three “champions” in one weight class – the Super, Regular and Interim. Whoopee.
  • Champion Emeritus: The WBC brings to the table their Champion Emeritus tag, which is given when the WBC titleholder of a division takes an extended break from the sport due to injury, and potentially even temporarily retires. Carrying this title allows the fighter to then automatically be in line to fight for the regular WBC belt when he resumes his career. For example, Vitali Klitschko was the WBC heavyweight champion emeritus in his four year break from the sport from 2004 to 2008 and Mikkel Kessler donned the tag recently at super middleweight when his eye injury forced a withdrawal from the Super Six.

Unified, Undisputed and Lineal Champions in Boxing

Moving above minor titles, paper champions and legitimate titleholders, there are three higher rungs  of championships in boxing. They are the unified, undisputed and lineal champions.

A unified champion is a fighter who has at least two of the major belts. He may have gathered those one at a time through a unification match with another titleholder, or he may have gotten two, three or more at once by defeating a fighter who held multiple straps.

The undisputed champion of a division typically holds all four of the major belts at one time, meaning he has unified all of the belts and there are no other titleholders who can stake their own claim to the throne. For example, after years of being a titleholder and then a unified champion, Bernard Hopkins eventually became the undisputed middleweight kingpin and held all four titles. It’s worth noting that a recognized champion who should rightfully hold all of the belts, or who has foregone holding the belts while still defeating all of the top competition, could potentially be the undisputed champ, even without the four sanctioning body titles.

The lineal champion is the classic “guy who beat the guy who beat the guy” crown. Using our example above, Hopkins was the undisputed champ at middleweight; he was the man. Jermain Taylor beat him, Kelly Pavlik beat him, and Sergio Martinez beat him, which is why Martinez was the real “man” in the division and the legit, lineal champion, regardless of owning the WBC belt or not.

The Ring Magazine championship carries its own rules and has been viewed by many over the years as the only “legitimate” championship of a division. The ideal is that all politics and corruption and other BS is put aside, and what you have is an unbiased and consistent viewpoint. Unfortunately The Ring is also now owned and operated by a promoter. That said, they’re certainly a truer source than any individual sanctioning body, and the concept of crowning your own champion and ranking your own contenders is why ProBoxing-Fans.com has our own champions and ratings as well.

The Final Word

If you’ve made it this far you likely have a mind-numbing headache by now… that’s normal, and that’s why sorting through the mess in each weight division in the sport is such a convoluted process. From minor straps to paper titles, from legit titlists to unified champions, and more, there are a lot of people claiming to be “champion” at any given time.

ProBoxing-Fans.com does our best to rank the top 10 fighters in our weight class rankings and our own champions using a combination of man-who-beat-the-man logic, total resume and body of work, and the “smell test”- you can be a titleholder and not be in our top 10 if you don’t belong there.

Living with the chaos and forming your own opinions is half of what it’s all about to be a boxing fan… it’s part of the fun, even if it’s the main cause of distress too. Hopefully now you know a little bit more about championships in boxing today, and how you can distinguish them all from one another.