Prior to the 1960s, most champions were "undisputed", although the term was rarely used; it does not appear in one 1970 Boxing Dictionary. Early boxing champions at various weight divisions were established by acclamation between 1880 and 1920. Once a consensus champion had been awarded the title, the championship could usually be taken only by beating the reigning holder, establishing a lineal championship.
The New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) recognized champions from its foundation in 1920. The National Boxing Association (NBA) was founded by other U.S. state bodies in 1921, and began recognising champions in 1927. Until the 1960s, both usually recognised the same lineal champion. However, disputes could arise if the champion retired or moved to a different weight class. Occasionally, the International Boxing Union (renamed the European Boxing Union in 1946) recognised a different champion. The disputes were usually short-lived as a lucrative fight would be organised between the rival champions. The longest split was ten years, of the middleweight title, between Mickey Walker's move up to heavyweight in 1931 and NBA champion Tony Zale's defeat of NYSAC contender Georgie Abrams in 1941. An early use of "undisputed" appears in a New York Times preview of the 1941 fight.
The NBA renamed itself the World Boxing Association in 1962 (later based in Panama), and in 1963 the NYSAC, EBU and other countries formed the rival World Boxing Council, based in Mexico. The number of disputed champions increased in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s. Both bodies established separate official rankings and required champions to face their top-ranked contenders or forfeit their titles. Some of the most highly regarded and lucrative fights were unification bouts between rival champions to create an "undisputed champion".
The International Boxing Federation (IBF) was founded as the USBA-I in 1976 and by 1984 had enough credibility to be considered major. The fragmentation of titles was thus increased. After some negotiations, the heavyweight title was unified in a series of co-ordinated bouts in 1985–87, with Mike Tyson emerging as the first undisputed champion (WBC, WBA & IBF) since Leon Spinks in 1978. The title was split again in 1992 when Riddick Bowe forfeited the WBC title.
The World Boxing Organization (WBO), established in Puerto Rico in 1988, took longer to acquire credibility. By 2001, the WBA was giving the same recognition to WBO champions as to WBA, WBC and IBF champions. In 2004 the WBC began naming WBO champions on its ranking listings. The IBF did not recognise the WBO in May 2006, but was doing so by February 2007. Conversely, the WBO explicitly recognises the other three sanctioning bodies.
Some sources consider the WBO title necessary for an undisputed champion. Others continue to consider it sufficient to hold the WBA, WBC, and IBF titles. Other bodies such as the IBO, IBU, and World Boxing Foundation are disregarded.
Disputed undisputed champions
If a fighter wins all the titles but is stripped by one organization of its title, he may continue to be considered the undisputed champion.
Roy Jones Jr. was promoted as the undisputed light heavyweight champion by HBO after unifying the WBA, WBC and IBF titles in June 1999, for which he was also awarded The Ring championship title in 2002. However, two of those belts (WBA and IBF) had been stripped from Dariusz Michalczewski, who had unified them with his WBO title by beating the Lineal champion Virgil Hill in June 1997, and subsequently remained unbeaten, defending his remaining belt until 2004. Speaking of Jones' claim to being undisputed champion, one writer opined that the distinction "could just as easily belong to current WBO titlist Dariusz Michalczewski."
Five months after Lennox Lewis unified the WBC, IBF and WBA belts to become the undisputed heavyweight champion, a U.S. Federal Judge ruled that Lewis would be stripped by the WBA of their world championship belt for fighting Michael Grant instead of the association's #1 contender, John Ruiz. The fight took place on April 29, 2000. Lewis remained a unified world champion until April 22, 2001, when he was defeated by Hasim Rahman. He regained the WBC and IBF belts following victory over Rahman seven months later in a rematch. His reign as a unified world champion ended in September 2002, when he rejected the chance to fight the IBF's #1 contender, Chris Byrd, and was therefore stripped by the organisation of their belt. He retained his WBC belt until his retirement in February 2004.
Jermain Taylor won all four middleweight belts from Bernard Hopkins in July 2005, but was stripped of the IBF title for agreeing to a rematch rather than fighting Sam Soliman. Nevertheless, he was still described as "undisputed champion" by some reports.
After Joe Calzaghe's super middleweight victory over Mikkel Kessler in November 2007, he was frequently described as "undisputed champion". Others disputed this, because although he held the WBA, WBC, and WBO belts, he vacated his IBF title in November 2006 rather than face a mandatory challenger.
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- "Boxing". Encarta. p. 5 "Professional Boxing". Retrieved 2008-11-14. "If one fighter manages to capture the titles of all the major organizations at once, this is known as “unifying” the title and the boxer is the “undisputed” champion."[dead link]
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- "IBF Ratings". IBF. February 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-02-02. Retrieved 2008-11-15.
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- Gonzalez, Frank, Jr. (November 3, 2007). "Sharkie’s Machine: Joe Calzaghe Too Slick For Mikkel Kessler". eastsideboxing.com. Retrieved 2008-11-10. "Joe Calzaghe, who is now the closest to being the undisputed Super Middleweight Champion of the World. (There’s still the IBF Title if he’s to have all four of the most recognized belts.)"
- "Klitschko wants undisputed status". BBC News. 12 November 2006. Retrieved 2008-11-14. ""It doesn't matter with whom - (WBA champion Nikolai) Valuev, (WBO title holder) Shannon Briggs or (WBC champion Oleg) Maskaev," Klitschko said."
- Borges, Ron (October 12, 2007). "Holyfield never lost hope in retiring 'undisputed'". ESPN. Retrieved 2008-11-14. "one of the four belts he needs to fulfill his final fistic dream"
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- Shields, Ronnie; Robert Jones. "Interview with Evander Holyfield's Trainer Ronnie Shields". fightnightnews.com. Archived from the original on May 26, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-14. "He wants to be undisputed, so that means he's got three belts out there that he wants. WBA, WBC, and IBF, those are the titles he wants."
- Daniels, Eddie (February 1, 2008). "Campbell Ready To Put On Show". Tampa Tribune. Retrieved 2008-11-14. "Antonio Tarver has made his quest to add to his IBO light heavyweight title a playoff-like system. / "Right now, my goal is three fights, three belts, undisputed by the end of the year," Tarver said. / Round 1 begins April 12 against Clinton Woods at the St. Pete Times Forum. According to Tarver, he'll take Woods' IBF lightweight title, then he's going after Danny Green's WBA light heavyweight belt. After that, he'll take on the winner of the Chad Dawson-Glen Johnson fight, which on the undercard of his bout with Woods, for the WBC belt."
- Cox, Jesse K. (January 19, 2006). "Waiting for Zab Judah". thesweetscience.com. Retrieved 2008-11-14. "the undisputed welterweight champion of the world – owner of the IBF, WBC and WBA belts"
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- "Calzaghe the king in Cardiff Welshman wows his home crowd with points win over great Dane". Sky Sports. 4 November 2007. Retrieved 2008-11-10.
- Kimball, George (November 11, 2007). "Calzaghe’s plans quickly Executed". Boston Herald. Retrieved 2008-11-10. "Lucien Bute, whose claim to the International Boxing Federation title is all that stands between the Welshman and undisputed world champion status"
- Swann, Michael (3 November 2008). "Darchinyan keeps promise, silences critics". 15rounds.com. Retrieved 2008-11-14. "Since when has holding the three major belts not been considered worthy of “undisputed?”"