In 1909, the first of twenty-two belts were presented by the fifth Earl of Lonsdale to the winner of a British title fight held at the N.S.C. In 1929, the B.B.B.C. continued to award Lonsdale belts to any British boxer who won three title fights in the same weight division. The "title fight" has always been the focal point in professional boxing. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, there were title fights at each weight. Promoters who could stage profitable title fights became influential in the sport, as did boxers' managers. The best promoters and managers have been instrumental in bringing boxing to new audiences and provoking media and public interest. The most famous of all three-way partnership (fighter-manager-promoter) was that of Jack Dempsey (Heavyweight Champion, 1919-1926), his manager Jack Kearns, and the promoter Tex Rickard. Together they grossed US$ 8.4 million in only five fights between 1921 and 1927 and ushered in a "golden age" of popularity for professional boxing in the 1920s. They were also responsible for the first live radio broadcast of a title fight (Dempsey v. Georges Carpentier, in 1921). In the United Kingdom, Jack Solomons' success as a fight promoter helped re-establish professional boxing after the Second World War and made the UK a popular place for title fights in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the first part of the 20th century, the United States became the centre for professional boxing. It was generally accepted that the "world champions" were those listed by the Police Gazette. After 1920, the National Boxing Association (N.B.A.) began to sanction "title fights". Also during that time, Ring Magazine was founded, and it listed champions and awarded championship belts. The N.B.A. was renamed in 1962 and became the World Boxing Association (W.B.A.). The following year, a rival body, the World Boxing Council (W.B.C.), was formed. In 1983, another world body, the International Boxing Federation (I.B.F.) was formed. By the end of the 20th century, a boxer had to be recognized by the three separate bodies to be the "Undisputed World Champion". Regional sanctioning bodies such as the North American Boxing Federation, the North American Boxing Council and the United States Boxing Association also awarded championships. Ring Magazine also continued listing the World Champion of each weight division, and its rankings continue to be appreciated by fans.
In the 1920s, prizefighting was the pre-eminent sport in the United States, and no figure loomed larger than Jack Dempsey, who became world heavyweight champion after brutally defeating Jess Willard. Dempsey was one of the hardest punchers of all time and as Bert Randolph Sugar put it, "had a left hook from hell." He is remembered for his iconic fight with Luis Angel Firpo, which was followed by a lavish life of celebrity away from the ring. The enormously popular Dempsey would conclude his career with a memorable two bouts with Gene Tunney, breaking the $1 million gate threshold for the first time. Although Tunney dominated both fights, Dempsey retained the public's sympathy, especially after the controversy of a "long count" in their second fight. This fight introduced the new rule that the counting of a downed opponent would not begin until the standing opponent went into a neutral corner. At this time, rules were negotiated by parties, as there were no sanctioning bodies.
The New York State Athletic Commission took a more prominent role in organizing fights in the 1930s. Famous champions of that era included the German heavyweight Max Schmeling and the American Max Baer, who wielded a devastating right hand. Most famous of all was Joe Louis, who avenged an earlier defeat by demolishing Schmeling in the first round of their 1938 rematch, thus striking a symbolic blow against the racist ideology of Adolf Hitler. Louis was voted the best puncher of all time by Ring Magazine, and is widely considered to be the greatest heavyweight of all time. In 1938, Henry Armstrong became the first and only boxer to hold titles in three different weight classes at the same time (featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight). His attempt at winning the middleweight title would be thwarted in 1940.
Among the heavyweights, Joe Louis retained his title until his 1949 retirement, having held the championship for an unprecedented eleven years. Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott succeeded him as champion, but they were soon outshone by the remarkable Rocky Marciano, who compiled an astounding 49-0 record before retiring as world champion. Among his opponents was the ageless Archie Moore, who held the world light heavyweight title for ten years and scored more knockout victories than any other boxer in history.
After three years of inactivity, Ali returned to the sport, leading to his first epic clash with Joe Frazier in 1971, ushering in a "golden age" of heavyweight boxing. Ali, Frazier, Ken Norton, and heavy-hitting George Foreman were the top fighters in a division overloaded with talent. Among the middleweights, Argentine Carlos Monzon emerged as a dominant champion, reigning from 1970 to his retirement in 1977, after an unprecedented 14 title defenses.
The late 1970s witnessed the end of universally recognized champions, as the WBC and WBA began to recognize different champions and top contenders, ushering in the era of multiple champions, unworthy mandatory challengers, and general corruption that came to be associated with sanctioning bodies in later decades. The end of this decade also saw the sport begin to become more oriented toward the casino industry, and public broadcasts would be replaced by closed-circuit, and ultimately pay-per-view, broadcasts, as the boxing audience shrank in numbers.
The prestigious middleweight division was dominated by "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, who engaged in one of the greatest fights of all time when he faced Thomas Hearns at Caesar's Palace on April 15, 1985. The fight was billed as "The War" and it lived up to its billing. As soon as the bell rang, both fighters ran towards the center of the ring and began trading hooks and uppercuts nonstop. The pace continued into round three when Hagler overwhelmed Hearns and knocked him out in brutal fashion. This fight made Hagler a household name and propelled him to superstardom. Hagler was able to lure Ray Leonard out of retirement in 1987, but he lost in a highly controversial decision. Hagler would retire from boxing immediately after that fight.
The spotlight would return to the heavyweight division in the latter half of the decade, when a young knockout artist with phenomenal punching power named Mike Tyson emerged as a serious contender. Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Tyson became world heavyweight champion at the age of 20 and the first undisputed champion in a decade. Tyson soon became the most widely known boxer since Ali, though his mystique was built around an aura of unrestrained ferocity, such as that exuded by Jack Dempsey or Sonny Liston.
Much like the tragic Liston, Tyson's career soon devolved into controversy and self-destruction. He was accused of domestic violence against his wife Robin Givens, whom he soon divorced. Meanwhile, he stunningly lost his title to 42-1 underdog James Douglas. His progress toward another title shot was derailed by allegations of rape made by Desiree Washington, a beauty pageant queen. In 1991, Tyson was imprisoned for rape, and he was released three years later. With Tyson removed from the heavyweight picture, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe emerged as top heavyweights in the early nineties, facing each other in three epic bouts.
Meanwhile, at light welterweight, Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez compiled a fantastic record of 89-0 before fighting to a draw in 1993 with Pernell Whitaker, who would become a great in his own right. In the late 1990s, Chavez would be superseded by Olympic gold medalist Oscar de la Hoya, who became the most popular pay-per-view draw of his era. De la Hoya would win championships in six weight classes, competing with other great fighters like Chavez, Whitaker, and Felix Trinidad.
The late 1990s witnessed a comeback by Mike Tyson, which took an unexpected turn when he was defeated by heavy underdog Evander Holyfield in 1996. In their 1997 rematch, Tyson infamously bit a chunk from Holyfield's ear, resulting in his disqualification. Tyson's boxing license was revoked by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for one year and fined $3 million. The resurgent Holyfield unified two of the three title belts, but lost a final unification match in 1999 with WBC champion Lennox Lewis, who became undisputed champion.
The light heavyweight division was dominated in the early decaded by Roy Jones, Jr., a former middleweight champion, and the Polish-German Darius Michalczewski. Michalczewski held the WBO title, which increased in prestige in recent years, while Jones held the WBC, WBA, and IBF titles, two of which had been relinquished by Michalczewski. The two fighters never met, due to a dispute over whether the fight would be held in the U.S. or in Germany. This sort of dispute would be repeated among other top fighters, as Germany emerged as a top venue for world class boxing.
The most famous German-based boxers were the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, both of whom won versions of the heavyweight title. The Klitschkos are often depicted as representing a new generation of fighters from ex-Soviet republics, possessing great size, yet considerable skill and stamina, developed by years of amateur experience. Most versions of the heavyweight title are held by fighters from the former Soviet Union.
Since the retirement of Lennox Lewis in 2004, the heavyweight division has been criticized as lacking talent or depth, especially among American fighters. This has resulted in a higher profile for fighters in lower weight classes, including the age-defying middleweight and light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins, and the undefeated multiple weight division champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who won a 2007 split decision over Oscar de la Hoya in a record-breaking pay-per-view event. Perhaps unfairly billed as the "fight to save boxing", the success of this event nonetheless shows that American boxing still retains a considerable core audience when its product is of descent from the American continent.
Other notable fighters in even lower weight classes are experiencing unprecedented popularity today. In the last five years junior lightweights Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales have fought numerous times on pay-per-view. Light welterweight Ricky Hatton has enjoyed tremendous popularity in Britain, especially after his defeat of long-time champion Kostya Tszyu. Lightweights Jose Luis Castillo and Joel Casamayor share the spotlight with Filipino sensation Manny Pacquiao. These small fighters often display tremendous punching power for their size, producing exciting fights such as the incredible 2005 bout between Castillo and the late Diego Corrales.
For decades, from the 1920s to the 1980s, world championship matches in professional boxing were scheduled for fifteen rounds, but that changed after a November 13, 1982 WBA Lightweight title bout ended with the death of boxer Duk Koo Kim in a fight against Ray Mancini in the 14th round of a nationally televised championship fight on CBS. Exactly three months after the fatal fight, the WBC reduced the number of their championship fights to 12 rounds. The WBA even stripped a fighter of his championship in 1983 because the fight had been a 15-round bout, shortly after the rule was changed to 12 rounds. By 1988, to the displeasure of some boxing purists, all fights had been reduced to a maximum of 12 rounds only, partially for safety, and partially for television, as a 12-round bout could be broadcast within an hour, while a 15-round bout could require up to 90 minutes to broadcast.
At the end of the fight, the judges add their scores for all rounds, and each judge thereby determines a winner. If all three judges choose the same fighter as the winner, that fighter wins by unanimous decision. If two judges have one boxer winning the fight and the third judge scores it a draw, the boxer wins by majority decision. If two judges have one boxer winning the fight and the third judge has the other boxer winning, the first boxer wins by split decision. If one judge chooses one boxer as the winner, the second judge chooses the other boxer, and the third judge calls it a draw, then the bout is ruled a draw. The bout is also ruled a draw if at least two out of three judges score the fight a draw, regardless of the third score. In the United Kingdom, the bout is only scored by the referee, except when a title is at stake, in which case it is scored by three judges.
The most widely used scoring system since the mid-twentieth century is the "10-point must system", so named because a judge "must" award ten points to at least one fighter each round (before deductions for fouls). Most rounds are scored 10-9, with 10 points for the fighter who won the round, and 9 points for the fighter the judge believes lost the round. If a round is judged to be even, it is scored 10-10.
For each knockdown in a round, the judge deducts an additional point from the fighter knocked down, resulting in a 10-8 score if there is one knockdown or a 10-7 score if there are two knockdowns. If the referee instructs the judges to deduct a point for a foul, this deduction is applied after the preliminary computation. So, if a fighter wins a round, but is penalized for a foul, the score changes from 10-9 to 9-9. If that same fighter scored a knockdown in the round, the score would change from 10-8 in his favor to 9-8.
Other scoring systems have also been used in various locations, including the five-point must system (in which the winning fighter is awarded five points, the loser four or less), the one-point system (in which the winning fighter is awarded one or more points, and the losing fighter is awarded zero), and the rounds system which simply awards the round to the winning fighter. In the rounds system, the bout is won by the fighter determined to have won more rounds. This system often used a supplemental points system (generally the ten-point must) in the case of even rounds.
If a fight is stopped due to a cut from an unintentional headbutt, the fight goes to the scorecards only if a specified number of rounds (usually three, sometimes four) have been completed. Whoever is ahead on the scorecards wins by a technical decision. If the required number of rounds has not been completed, the fight is declared a technical draw or a no contest.
If a fight is stopped due to a cut resulting from a legal punch, the other participant is awarded a technical knockout win. For this reason, fighters often employ cutmen, whose job is to treat cuts between rounds so that the boxer is able to continue despite the cut.