In professional boxing, the lineal championship of a weight class is a notional world championship title. It is initially held at some moment in time by a boxer universally acclaimed as the best in the class. Another boxer can win the lineal championship only by defeating the reigning lineal champion in the ring. The lineal champion is described as "the man who beat the man". There is no single canonical list of lineal champions at any weight class, because there is no agreed method of what to do when the current champion retires or moves to a different weight class.
The concept was developed by boxing fans dissatisfied by the tendency of each of the various sanctioning bodies (WBC, WBA, IBF, etc.) to recognize different champions, and in particular to strip a champion of his title for refusing to fight its top-ranked contender. Prior to the 1970s, this rarely happened; the National Boxing Association (NBA) and the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) sometimes recognized different champions, but there was usually only a short interval before one champion defeated the other. In this era, a title vacancy was generally filled by having a single-elimination tournament box-off between two or more top-ranked contenders.
The "lineal championship" is intended as a return to that era. Several top boxers have specified holding the lineal championship as a personal accomplishment (e.g. Lennox Lewis) or goal (e.g., Nate Campbell).
An issue in the implementation of a "lineal championship" is what to do if the lineal champion retires, dies, or moves to a different weight class. Different ways of resolving this vacancy mean the "lineal championship" may itself be subject to dispute. Since the modern lineal championship is merely a notional title tracked by fans, there is no money or organization to arrange a box-off to fill a vacant title, and there may not be consensus on who the top contenders are. One example given by Cliff Rold of BoxingScene is the light heavyweight title, considered vacant from the time Michael Spinks went up to heavyweight in 1985 until some time in the 1990s. While Rold considers Virgil Hill's defeat of Henry Maske as the beginning of the next line of succession, as does Cyber Boxing Zone, Ring magazine and HBO controversially trace the title through Roy Jones.
Another criticism of the lineal championship is that a fighter may defend it against inferior opponents. For example, George Foreman was considered lineal champion from 1994 until 1997, when Shannon Briggs beat him. After the WBA and IBF stripped him of their titles in 1995, Foreman fought only two, low-ranked opponents before Briggs. The lineal champion is not necessarily the boxer viewed as the best. Cyber Boxing Zone and BoxingScene considered Zsolt Erdei the lineal light-heavyweight champion from his 2004 defeat of Julio César González until 2009, when he vacated his title and moved up to cruiserweight; as he had not fought the highest-ranked opponents in the interim, Cliff Rold conceded, "while the concept of a champion needing to lose a title in the ring is solid, the practice is sometimes highly flawed".
The boxing magazine The Ring has its own lineal championship. The original sequence was from its first publication in the 1920s until its hiatus in 1989, continuing as late as 1992 in some divisions. When it started awarding titles again in 2001, it did not calculate retrospective lineages to fill in the gap years, instead nominating a new champion. CBZ commented in 2004, "The Ring has forfeited its credibility by pulling names out of its ass to name fighters as champions". In 2007, The Ring was acquired by the owners of fight promoter Golden Boy Promotions, which has publicized The Ring's world championship when this is at stake in fights it promotes (such as Joe Calzaghe vs. Roy Jones, Jr. in 2008). Since 2012, to reduce the number of vacant titles, The Ring allows fights between a #1 or #2 contender and a #3, #4, or #5 contender to fill a vacant title. This has prompted further doubts about its credibility. Sports Illustrated used The Ring lineages for galleries of lineal heavyweight and middleweight champions.
The Cyber Boxing Zone (CBZ) website maintains lists of lineal champions, with input from Tracy Callis of the International Boxing Research Organization. These were first published in 1994, and are retrospective to the introduction of Queensberry Rules in 1895. The historical lists have sometimes been updated when new information about old fights comes to light. If its lineal champion at one weight class moves to another class, CBZ does not automatically vacate his title.
BoxingScene.com disagrees with the lineages given by The Ring and by CBZ, especially in lower weight divisions with a higher rate of champions changing division. BoxingScene has traced its own most recent lineages, generally back to the 1990s.
- Muhammad Ali is the only heavyweight champion to hold the lineal championship three times, beating Sonny Liston (1964), George Foreman in a comeback from a three-and-a-half year forced retirement (1974), and Leon Spinks in an upset by unanimous decision (1978).
- Manny Pacquiao is the only boxer who is credited with lineal championships in four different weight classes (flyweight, featherweight, junior lightweight, and junior welterweight) by Cyber Boxing Zone and BoxingScene.com. This has been reported by ESPN, CNN Sports Illustrated, and The Ring. Additionally, Pacquiao has held three Ring titles in three different weight classes (featherweight, junior lightweight, and junior welterweight).
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- Rosenthal, Michael (2009-10-28). "Pacquiao seeking title in record seventh division". The Ring blog. Retrieved 2010-01-29. "Pacquiao has won titles as a flyweight (1998), junior featherweight (2001), featherweight (2003, THE RING), junior lightweight (2008), lightweight (2008) and junior welterweight (2009, THE RING), which equals Oscar De La Hoya’s six-division record. And boxing historian Cliff Rold pointed out that Pacquiao is the only fighter in history to win four lineal titles (112 pounds, 126, 130 and 140)"
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