During the past week we've seen quite a lot of talk about mandatory title defenses, in part due to Josh Warrington vacating the IBF Featherweight title, rather than defend against his mandatory challenger Kid Galahad.
It led to a lot of different discussions about mandatory title fights. Such as whether Warrington had ducked Galahad, and why mandatory title defenses in recent years have often been awful mismatches. With those conversations in mind we’ve decide to share our views on mandatory title fights, what they should be, the problem with them, and the problems with unwilling champions.
Firstly, what is a mandatory title defense?
We suspect you all already know this one, but it’s really important to understand what they are before going any further.
A mandatory title fight is a defense ordered by the world title body, making the champion face a top challenger. This is typically the world title body’s #1 ranked contender, though some exceptions apply, and usually to get that ranking a fighter will need to win one, or more, eliminators. A champion is mandated to make regular mandatory defenses, typically every 9 months though there's some leeway, and if they fail to do so they are often stripped or forced to vacate.
That’s the general gist, though there is more nuance to it than that, and exemptions can apply, step aside money can be paid and unification bouts can come before mandatory title defenses. Where there is a unified champion typically the world title bodies will agree to some form of order of defenses, though that doesn’t always apply.
TL;DR version - “A title fight the body orders”
So who is the mandatory challenger?
As mentioned they are typically the #1 ranked challenger or someone who wins an eliminator. So in theory they should be good fighters and they should have proven themselves as a solid and viable contender. Or at the very least better than other contenders.
This should work in the favour of a lesser known, awkward fighter that champions want to avoid due to them being high risk-low reward. It should also work as a quality control system, only allowing good fighters to get into a place to be a mandatory challenger.
In principle it should reward fighters who take risks, who beat good competition, and who earn a shot. Getting into the position where a champion is forced to defend his title against a dangerous, valid challenger, rather than padding his record with easy voluntary defenses.
So mandatory challengers should be good, right?
Right! They SHOULD be good. In recent years however that hasn’t proven to be the case and often the top contenders have gotten elevated through the rankings on things other than merit. They aren’t really climbing the ladder to a world title fight but instead sliding up the rankings, often on some form of political bias, or unmerited rise through the ranks thanks to a minor title.
As a result we’ve seen fighters like Kamil Szeremeta, Apinun Khongsong, Ryuichi Funai and Guillaume Frenois all getting world title fights in recent years.
Sadly when we look at the current rankings there are some really odd fighters ranked in the #1 place with various title bodies. A couple of examples of these are:
Sirichai Thaiyen (58-4, 39), aka Yodmongkol CP Freshmart, who is somehow the WBA's #1 ranked Super Flyweight, despite his last 8 wins come against no one resembling a test and his last notable bout being a loss, as a mandatory in a WBA world title fight.
Joseph Agebko (38-5, 28), who the WBO rank at #1 in the Bantamweight division. That’s despite the fact the 43 year old Agbeko hasn’t scored a win of note or over another contender in years. Don’t get us wrong, Agbeko was a fantastic fighter in his prime, but that was almost a decade ago!
With this in mind it’s fair to say that a number of top contenders, and potential mandatory challengers, really aren’t as qualified as they should be. They aren’t there from beating top contenders, and earning it, even in the cases where a fighter is very, very talented.
So mandatory title fights are...bad?
No! Not at all, mandatory title defenses are, quite often, very, very good, in fact some of the best fights of recent years have been mandatory title fights.
These include the brilliant 2020 bout between Danny Roman and Murodjon Akhmadliev, Roman Gonzalez Vs Srisaket Sor Rungvisai I, and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai Vs Juan Francisco Estrada I and II, and most recently Kazuto Ioka Vs Kosei Tanaka.
The problem isn’t that they are bad. It’s that they are inconsistent. Becoming a mandatory in a 4 title era, where talent in some division’s is already spread thin, means almost nothing. Where the champions are so much above the contenders no one really wants to see mandatory title fights getting in the way of bigger and better fights. And the IBF, who are a stickler for their rules, often end up giving us some terrible mandatory title fights as a result.
The challengers themselves can range from elite level contenders, like Akhmadlaiev, Srisaket, Estrada and Tanaka, to terrible fighters with padded records, such as Szeremeta, to the downright confusing, such as when Ryo Miyazaki got a mandatory title shot in 2016.
Fighters can get a shot less on what they are doing, and more on what the division is doing. And also, perhaps worst of all, some fighters never seem to end up facing a mandatory challenger anyway, with the rules seemingly ignored during their reigns. This can be particularly bad when the mandatory challenger is a dangerous one, and for whatever reason keeps getting their shot delayed, and delayed.
The issue with mandatory title fights isn’t that they exist. They should exist. There are, however, a lot of problems with them. These include the fact that we have 4 world title bodies, with each having fighters and promoters they are closer to, and each giving a fighter an alternative route to a title.
Another is that a mandatory position isn’t based on merit and achievement but instead political game and is based on paying fees for minor title fights. This has seen the WBO being closely associated with Puerto Rican fighters, along with fighters promoted by Bob Arum and Frank Warren, the WBA getting associated with PBC fighters in recent years along with Latin American fighters and the WBC traditionally favouring Mexican fighters.
And another is that the rules are very, very inconsistent and sometimes if a fighter doesn’t want to face a mandatory challenger the challenger never gets a shot, whilst the title body bends over backwards to keep everyone happy and collect more sanctioning fees. Things like the WBC “Franchise” title, along with the WBA “regular” and “interim” further muddy the water.
So what can be done to improve mandatory title fights?
At their heart mandatory title fights are a good idea. A great idea in fact. But they need to have several changes done to really work in the way they were supposed to. Sadly those things don’t tend to match up with how boxing works.
Firstly we need mandatory challengers to actually “earn” their number #1 ranking, and mandatory title shot. The IBF do have something to try and do this, but their rankings are still inconsistent and they often recycle contenders, which lead to the same challengers getting title fights and eliminators.
Secondly we need world title bodies to actually be consistent with their rules. If a big name doesn’t want to defend against a mandatory they need to be stripped, not have a special title made for them to muddy the water. We need the divisions to remain active and busy and for fighters world titles are important, the challengers shouldn’t be finding themselves frozen out because a bigger name can make more money without the belt.
We also need the world title bodies to do their damn job and have legitimate rankings. They need to stop playing political games and affiliating strongly with promoters whilst trying to put money first. By doing this they have all devalued themselves, making world titles become meaningless trinkets, and taking away a lot of the prestige of being a champion. They have made the sport a confusing mess for fans, and it seems that this will continue.
So, is avoiding a mandatory challenger a duck?
Yes. No. Sort of. Can be. There really isn't a one size fit all answer here, though the optics of not facing a mandatory challenger, and instead binning off the title, is certainly not a great look. There are reasons why a fighter might do it, such as moving up in weight, but on the whole it's not a good look, and it can mean that the champion that follows struggles to legitimise their reign, as we've seen with Devin Haney.
It's rarely and out and out duck, but it certainly doesn't look great for the fighter or the title body.
Thinking Out East
With this site being pretty successful so far we've decided to open up about our own views and start what could be considered effectively an editorial style opinion column dubbed "Thinking Out East" (T.O.E).