Fury's lineal championship: To be the man, you have to beat the man

HEAVY: Fury v Schwarz trailer (1:00)

HEAVY: Fury v Schwarz, a film by Peter Berg that chronicles Tyson Fury's latest fight, airs Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN. (1:00)

One evening long ago, as I peered at my Algebra 2 textbook, completely flummoxed, my father said, "If you can name every heavyweight champion of the world, in order, from John L. Sullivan to Sonny Liston, you should be able to memorize these formulas."

Dad made sense, but I couldn't relate to numbers and formulas the way I did flesh-and-blood men who had won boxing's greatest prize.

As far as this 14-year-old kid was concerned, the heavyweight world champion was the toughest man on the planet. Comic book superheroes and movie cowboys were fun, but only make-believe. Boxing was, and is, as real as it gets. I understood that from a tender age.

The list I had memorized as a boy was composed of links in a chain of authentication, a lineage much like royalty, except boxers are not born to it -- they fight for it. Win and you're the man. It's that simple.

Today, however, boxing's various title-bestowing governing bodies are multiplying like phlegm in the spit bucket.

The incursion of the sanctioning bodies (World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council, the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization), and their proprietary organizational titles, reached new heights of cynical audacity when the WBC stripped Leon Spinks of its heavyweight championship for fighting a rematch with Muhammad Ali in September 1978.

The WBC wanted Spinks to defend against the organization's No. 1 contender, Ken Norton, and things have never been quite the same since.

When the alphabet groups first started to become more prominent, the boxing media, led by Bert Sugar, wrote scathing criticisms. They pointed out the various ranking atrocities, unfair stripping of titles from boxers who had won them in the ring, forcing mandatory defenses against unworthy challengers and various other self-serving attempts to increase power and make money.

It wasn't until Mike Tyson put all the pieces together that a universally recognized champion finally re-emerged. He outpointed Tony Tucker in August 1987 to unify all the alphabet titles, and knocked out Michael Spinks the following year to win the lineal championship.

Although they can coincide, the lineal champion is not the same as the unified champion. The lineal champion is the man who beat the man, while the unified champion is a boxer who holds more than one of a weight division's alphabet titles at the same time.

There is only one world and, therefore, there can be only one world champion. And, if everybody is a champion, then nobody is.

There hasn't been an undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis in 2003. Don't think for a second that's an accident or a coincidence. Every organization wants in on the title fight action.

These days, I would flunk heavyweight history as well as Algebra 2. I defy anyone short of a Rain Man-like savant to reel off the names of all the champions in every division in just one of the big four.

Alphabet titleholders are swept into a vortex of sanctioning fees, mandatory challengers, super champions, champions in recess, secondary titles, additional weight classes, step-aside money, fines and whatever else the organizations can come up with to enhance their bank balance. Yet beneath the hubris and huckstering, under many layers of dust, lies the lineal title.

From Sullivan to Ali, one could draw a fairly straight line of succession. There were a few detours along the way, but when a reigning champion retires, box-offs, tournaments and time often have a way of working things out.

When Lewis retired in 2004, Wladimir Klitschko won the lineal title in an unusual fashion. He was the No. 1 contender and brother Vitali was No. 2. However, Wladimir and Vitali had promised their mother they would never fight each other, which is understandable. Therefore, Wladimir was matched with No. 3 contender Ruslan Chagaev, and on June 20, 2009 he stopped Chagaev in the ninth round.

The realm of boxing and its titleholders is so overcrowded that the importance of having one true champion has begun to gain traction again. No system is perfect, but the lineal title is a much better way to determine who is the legitimate champion than drowning in alphabet soup.

Nobody has done more to market the lineal title's resurgence than Tyson Fury.

When Fury enters the ring for Saturday's match with Otto Wallin at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (11 p.m. ET on ESPN+), no major alphabet title will be on the line. Does it really matter?

Fury's profile is higher than ever, not just in his native Great Britain but even in the U.S., where his candid (often outrageous) interviews, cheeky charm and flashy attire have not gone unnoticed. Neither has his statement that he's still the lineal heavyweight champion.

Fury's self-imposed hiatus was not the longest taken between fights by a heavyweight champion. After knocking out Luis Angel Firpo in 1923, Jack Dempsey didn't fight again until three years later. He was instead suing his manager, appearing in motion pictures and hanging out in Hollywood with his actress wife, Estelle Taylor.

Nobody dared to strip Dempsey. Gene Tunney took care of it the proper way, beating the "Manassa Mauler" in the ring in his comeback fight.

Fury has been claiming the lineal championship since launching his own comeback in 2018 -- two and a half years since he took it from Klitschko.

But when Fury finally pulled himself together and started to train again, all of his alphabet belts were gone. All that was left was the man who beat the man, and his unbeaten record.

Today, there are many people, both fans and industry insiders, who have never known anything but the alphabet soup system. They figure things have always been the same. Some revel in it, claiming the more belts the merrier.

That sort of thinking apparently fails to consider two pertinent facts: There is only one world and, therefore, there can be only one world champion. And, if everybody is a champion, then nobody is.

Regardless of what side of the lineal quandary you're on, right now Fury is, at the least, closer to being the true world champion than anybody else. And that's far better than having another junk belt complicating the situation.

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