The Curious Case of Boxing’s Weight Classes

Recurring readers, or realistically, anyone with functioning eyeballs, will have undoubtedly noticed my recent Game Film articles about the professional boxing career of Mike Tyson. Assuredly, most of you already knew who Mike Tyson was and may have seen his boxing matches; some of you may be boxing fans or a combat sports fan in general, but how many knew there are 17, 18 in the WBC, weight classes in men’s professional boxing? I only ask in jest since anyone can quickly Google the answer, but it is worth pausing for a moment to visualize.

For those unwilling to paint a mental picture, I’ve constructed one for you with the table above. For those wondering how these weight classes contrast against mixed martial arts organizations like the UFC, I’ve provided another table below for comparison’s sake. What you’ll quickly notice, however, is that even with the inclusion of the UFC’s current women-only strawweight division, the UFC has half the weight classes the WBC does and nearly half the weight classes of the other three sanctioning bodies of professional boxing. The WBC created the briderweight division in 2020 with a weight limit stretching from 200 to 224 pounds, but I haven’t included it in my table due to it not being a legitimate weight class no matter what the WBC does to insist it is. However, this table also doesn’t include the current women-only atomweight division in professional boxing and other MMA leagues worldwide. Regardless, the table quickly demonstrates the different approaches to weight classes by boxing’s four sanctioning bodies and the largest MMA organization in the world.

Much like the UFC’s early simplistic weight classes, heavyweight and middleweight, boxing also had two weight classes once Broughton’s Rules in 1743 established the heavyweight and lightweight divisions. This article isn’t necessarily a detailed recounting of how weight divisions came to be in combat sports, so I’ll truncate the exhaustive history. Weight divisions were added and continually refined throughout the 19th century as boxing went through rule revisions such as the London Prize Ring Rules in 1838, later revised in 1853, and the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in 1867. With boxing struggling to maintain legality in England and the United States, bare-knuckle boxing began falling out of favor for its modern gloved counterpart by the 1880s. Conveniently, this was the same decade John L. Sullivan became recognized as the last bare-knuckle heavyweight champion under London Prize Ring Rules and the first gloved boxing heavyweight champion.

Lighter divisions like featherweight and bantamweight made their introductions not long after the 1853 revision of the London Prize Ring Rules, with welterweight being introduced and redefined alongside the lightweight division in the 1880s. At the beginning of the 20th century, weight classes became more standardized with the National Sporting Club of London’s 1909 regulations and the passing of Walker Law in the state of New York in 1920. The NSC’s newly established light heavyweight division set a 175+ pound limit for heavyweights and allocated the weight range for the traditional eight divisions of professional boxing. Walker Law followed their lead when enacting it in the United States, but the tweener divisions that populate over half the weight classes today were a byproduct of this law. Most of these tweener divisions weren’t highly regarded initially, with the National Boxing Association, now the World Boxing Association, or WBA, the sole governing body for a long time, recognizing early champions before going back and not recognizing them in these divisions. Eventually, they validated super lightweight and super featherweight in 1959; less than two months after the NBA renamed itself the WBA in 1962, they recognized Denny Moyer as their first super welterweight champion. With the WBC’s founding on Valentine’s Day 1963, the two governing bodies eventually also recognized junior flyweight in 1975, super bantamweight in 1976, established cruiserweight in 1979, raising the heavyweight limit to 190+ lbs, and recognized super flyweight in 1980.

The formation of the IBF in 1983 and the WBO in 1988 somehow necessitated recognizing super middleweight in 1984 and creating strawweight, hilariously called minimumweight by the WBA and WBC today, in 1987. The sanctioning bodies raised cruiserweight to a 200-pound weight limit in 2003; however, the real reason I’m providing you with this information is to correlate the ever-evolving weight classes with my Game Film articles about Mike Tyson. In a previous Game Film article1, I mentioned how Tyson receives criticism for dominating light heavyweights and cruiserweights in a weak heavyweight era of boxing en route to becoming the youngest heavyweight champion. While there is truth in those claims, it also disfavors Tyson’s accomplishments as the first true modern small heavyweight. To reach that point, you must follow along with me on this quick detour.

As other long-time boxing observers2 have noted, and as you’ve no doubt also come to realize while reading this, boxers competing in the heavyweight division have gradually increased in size and weight as centuries have passed. The entire reason for establishing a light heavyweight, and later, a cruiserweight division, was because heavyweights kept getting heavier. Mike Tyson never weighed in under 212 pounds during his professional boxing career and never weighed below 220 pounds from his second comeback in 1999 until his retirement in 2005. Let’s compare that to Joe Louis, who weighed in his heaviest at 218 pounds and defended his heavyweight title weighing in anywhere from 197 pounds to 2031/4 pounds from 1937 to 1941. Louis weighed in, on average, anywhere from 205 to 2133/4 pounds from 1942 until his retirement, but how about Jack Dempsey? Would you be surprised to learn Dempsey weighed in at 200 pounds just once during his career and never weighed in above 1921/2 pounds during his title reign?

I’ve rounded the weights to the nearest eighth pound. Not all data is complete due to certain fights taking place so long ago.

We could be here all day listing former heavyweight champions and their fluctuating weights, but I think I’ve highlighted it well enough with the above table. There is a history of shorter heavyweights bulking up and gaining weight in certain fights, but you’ll find an average weight range in their records if you pay close enough attention. 6′ 61/2“, 240-pound men like Jess Willard did exist back then, but unlike today, you didn’t have to squint hard to find 6′ 0”, 185-pound men competing in the division. The reality is, Rocky Marciano never weighed in above 1921/2 pounds; he wouldn’t even be allowed to step in the ring today with Tyson Fury, or any heavyweight for that matter. Joe Frazier was the heavyweight champion from 1968 until 1973, but what if I told you his average weight during his 11 bouts as champion was roughly 2073/4 pounds? Today’s heavyweights are all closer in stature to Willard than Gene Tunney, and this was apparent even by 1979, with 6′ 3″ champion Larry Holmes weighing in around 210 to 215 pounds until 1983, when he only weighed below 220 pounds just twice for the remainder of his career. The increasing size of heavyweights did warrant the creation of a new division for now “smaller heavyweights” to compete; however, the sanctioning bodies went in a completely different direction from the International Olympic Committee.

I’ve rounded the weights to the nearest eighth pound. Not all data is complete due to certain fights happening on a smaller scale. I have included all of Tyson Fury’s bouts since his 2018 return only due to not wanting to include one official title defense from him on the table, and he has not officially lost his lineal heavyweight championship in the ring

The Olympics added a super heavyweight division in 1984 in response to the trend of the increasing size of heavyweights, but what they did, in reality, was rename the heavyweight division super heavyweight and add a division below it called heavyweight, with a weight limit of 200 pounds and a minimum limit of 178 pounds. Historically, many of the champions who reigned during the late 19th century and early 20th century would fit in with this heavyweight division in the Olympics. Since neoteric heavyweight champions tend to fall in or outright compete in the super heavyweight division before going pro, going with this approach in the professional fight game would easily allow people to place proper historical context in a boxer’s legacy. Instead, the creation of the cruiserweight division has made people conflate smaller, past heavyweight champions with the giants of today due to the association of the term heavyweight. Some fans of the sport have used Oleksandr Usyk’s relatively recent victory over Anthony Joshua for the WBA, IBF, and WBO heavyweight championships as proof3 that old champions like Jack Sharkey could compete in the division today. Never mind the fact Usyk is 6′ 3″ and consistently weighed in at or near the 200-pound cruiserweight limit and weighed in at 2211/4 pounds in his third professional heavyweight fight; meanwhile, 5′ 111/2” Sharkey, on average, weighed in at roughly 1921/8 pounds across his entire career.

A more skilled boxer can indeed overcome a size disadvantage, but it is also equally accurate that the bigger man will have a higher likely chance of success against the shorter man. Rather than give the appearance of watering down the premier weight class of boxing by adding a super denomination in front of it, the sanctioning bodies instead moved heavyweight to 200+ pounds and established cruiserweight below it. Instead of preventing fighters like the 260 pound, six-foot, five-and-a-half-inch Primo Carnera from ever winning the heavyweight championship again, an entire division where men built similarly to James J. Braddock, who was 6′ 2″ and 199 pounds at his heaviest, could compete. Could 6′ 21/2” Max Baer compete with the giants of today? Well, he weighed in no less than 190 pounds for his bouts with his recorded weight and maxed out at 223 pounds, so he would at least make weight; he certainly has a better chance than Bob Fitzsimmons, who maxed out at 175 pounds of all his bouts with a recorded weight.

How can anyone objectively state4 a six-foot, one-inch, 189 pound Jack Dempsey would knock out six-foot, seven-inch, 247 pound Vitali Klitschko in the opening rounds? Because Dempsey beat Willard up for three rounds before Willard’s corner called for a stop to the bout? Willard was a good fighter for his era and used his size to his advantage, but the harsh reality is that Vitali Klitschko is a lot more skilled than Jess Willard ever was. Casual boxing fans who buy into rose-tinted stories of yesteryears legends automatically assume that all former heavyweights must be of the same size and stature as current champions due to the usage of the term heavyweight. Willard’s average opponent weight throughout his entire career was 200 pounds; compare that to Klitschko’s average opponent weight during title defenses, and you’ll see a lot of what made Willard successful in that time was his size. While Willard outweighed his opponents on average by 331/4 pounds, Vitali only outweighed his opponents by roughly seven pounds on average in title defenses; his brother Wladimir outweighed opponents by around nine pounds on average in title defenses. The idea of placing Dempsey against a Klitschko is an entertaining one, but under current regulations, neither Klitschko brother would be allowed to step into the ring with Dempsey.

This article isn’t to denigrate former heavyweight champions from bygone eras; as stated prior, size alone does not purely determine the outcome of a fight. Skill and fighting style will always factor into the equation, and it is why Mike Tyson deserves respect for his accomplishments. Fighting as the smaller man immediately gives you a disadvantage, and 5′ 10″ Tyson used it to his advantage to dismantle taller foes for two decades. Tyson is an interesting case because he became heavyweight champion just as the super heavyweights of the Olympics started affecting the size of professional heavyweights; it’s no coincidence Tyson outweighed 18 of his first 28 opponents before being outweighed in 20 of his last 28 fights. It’s unfair to past heavyweight champions to say they would automatically be disqualified from competing in the division and would have little chance of being successful today simply due to their size. However, it’s also unfair to compare modern heavyweights to past champions that they outweigh, going back to the issue that arrived from the sanctioning bodies’ decision to create the cruiserweight division rather than establish super heavyweight.

The sanctioning bodies could have set a potential weight limit on heavyweight5, established super heavyweight, and explained to fans that old heavyweight champions who fought above the current new limit would be super heavyweights had the division existed at the time. Instead, they made us do the retroactive work on our own and the history behind it as well, forcing us to partially detach past fighters from the divisions they historically competed in when placing them in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups against modern contemporaries. These former champions aren’t “small heavyweights;” they’re just what heavyweights used to be at the time. They don’t increase their size along with the regulations of the weight division; context is crucial. When comparing two boxers’ legacies or placing them in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, one must view their career in a historical context and look at the facts presented to them in the form of their height, weight, record, and fighting style. Perhaps Dempsey could gain an additional 16 pounds from his average weight in title defenses and fight amongst the current heavyweights, but we don’t know for sure because he never did. We wouldn’t want to fall into blind hype and exclaim Jack Johnson would knock out Tyson Fury in two rounds or less since he was the first black heavyweight champion over 100 years ago now, would we?

It’s unlikely the sanctioning bodies will ever revert their decision to consider the denomination of heavyweight to be the heaviest weight class, especially now considering the WBC has created a division between heavyweight and cruiserweight. It’s almost hilarious that they’ve decided to create a new division in response to the increasing size of heavyweights just 40 years after they initially created a new division for the same reason. I hope the irony isn’t lost on you how the sanctioning bodies established multiple smaller weight classes separated by a few pounds while glossing over the weight discrepancy and historical confusion of what constitutes a heavyweight.

You’ve likely noticed the abundance of weight classes, titles, and sanctioning bodies in modern boxing, especially during the reading of this article. While the UFC has just eight weight classes for men to compete in, it’s ultimately helped them sell their fighters and deftly identify who their champions for each weight class are. Boxing once had that kind of marketability, but as Floyd Mayweather Jr. himself once said6, the inclusion of so many weight classes and multiple world champions in each weight class has turned off casual fans. Many people would argue the UFC simply has a more exciting product to watch than professional boxing, but the profusion of weight classes and champions certainly can’t help any. It’s become more lucrative for the sanctioning bodies to create championships out of thin air, collect the sanctioning fees on them, and force boxers to make mandatory defenses against preferably only that sanctioning body’s ranked challengers. The easy solution is to reduce the number of weight classes or have all four sanctioning bodies come together and determine one unified champion per weight class, both of which are unlikely to happen. Is it any wonder why the UFC continuously gains fans while boxing stagnates?

Editor’s Notes

  1. Havarti – 7/30/2021 – Game Film: Mike Tyson’s 1985 Fights (Part Two)
  2. heavyweightblog.com – 4/29/2010 – Boxing eras (1) The best heavyweight era of all time -OR- Is Roy Jones Jr. a better cruiser than Rocky Marciano?
  3. YouTube/Rummy’s Corner – 9/21/2021 – Oleksandr Usyk – New Heavyweight Champion
  4. boxingforum24.com – Heavyweight Tourney: Final: Vitali Klitschko .Vs. Jack Dempsey
  5. Maybe they could have set an upper weight limit of 215 pounds and then had super heavyweight start at 216 pounds. It’s not perfect since certain heavyweight champions from the past had weights fluctuating both under and over those theoretical limits, but this was just a quick suggestion since we proposed the idea.
  6. Boxing News 24/7 – 10/22/2020 – “We Gotta Clean This Sport Of Boxing Up,” Says Floyd Mayweather – “It’s Too Many Belts”

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