One of the most common complaints about the contemporary boxing landscape is the proliferation of "world titles". The WBC, WBA, WBO, and IBF all are considered "major" sanctioning organizations, each with their own champion (sometimes more -- the WBA has been known to have three in a single weight class). Add that to the legitimate Ring Magazine lineal title, and, well, that's a lot of folks who get to stroll around calling themselves "champ".
I don't necessarily disagree with this critique, but I tend to be a little more muted about it. In part, this is because the belts do sometimes (sometimes) accomplish useful things, forcing mandatories or elevating a talented but somewhat obscure fighter (often from Europe or Asia) to global prominence. But in part it's because the fighters care about them. It matters to them a great deal to be able to say they were "world champion", and I'm not from the sidelines willing to dismiss an institution that clearly means so much to the guys actually duking it out in the ring.
In this top ten (split into two posts), I give a list of ten people (in the recent past -- I only became a boxing fan in the last decade) whom I'm glad managed to win a title. Generally, this means folks who barely got over that hump -- for whom winning a title gives their career meaning it would have otherwise lacked, and legitimacy that I think their talent and dedication deserves. It's not that I'm sad Oscar de la Hoya won a title, it's just that it was never really touch-and-go for him -- he was a multi-division champ and international superstar. I'm talking about folks who scraped and clawed at the edges and, finally -- if only briefly -- managed to reach the top of the mountain. But when they retire, and talk to their grandkids, they'll be able say not "I once was a contender", but "I once was world champion".
10. Corrie Sanders (Heavyweight, 42-4, 31 KOs)
Essentially a fringe contender for his entire career, Sanders with a South African southpaw with fast hands and a vulnerable chin. He had amassed a solid 38-2 record prior to challenging Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight title, but was seen as a major underdog, with both of his two losses coming by stoppage and with Klitschko having the deserved reputation as a titanic puncher. Sanders also was 37 years old and had fought a mere 3 rounds in the past 2 years. Yet instead of the walkover many expected, Sanders dropped Klitshcko twice at the close of round 1 and twice at the start of round 2 to score the colossal upset. The iconic image here is a tie between Sanders screaming at Klitschko to get up after the first round knockdowns, and his trainer jumping into his arms after the fight was stopped.
Sanders immediately vacated his belt to challenge Vitali Klitschko for the WBC title, and was knocked out in 8. He never challenged for a title again, and last fought in 2008, a first round knockout loss to Osborne Machimana.
9. Carlos Quintana (Welterweight, 28-3, 21 KOs)
Despite a solid amateur background that included being a member of the Puerto Rican Olympic team, Carlos Quintana never really seemed to be in the conversation as a potential elite fighter. He first rose to prominence on an HBO card where he was intended to be the B-side showcasing far more hyped prospect Joel "The Love Child" Julio (who never did win a title). Despite suffering a flash knockdown in round one, Quintana thoroughly out-boxing Julio to win the fight and earn a shot at Miguel Cotto's 147 lbs belt. It was a competitive fight, but Cotto eventually overwhelmed Quintana with his power, knocking the younger Puerto Rican down with two painful body shots in the 5th (Quintana retired in his corner after the round).
That was the fight everyone remembered when Quintana signed to challenge unbeaten Paul "The Punisher" Williams. Williams had earned the moniker of the most-avoided fighter in boxing with his freakish, 6 foot tall frame, incessant activity, and surprisingly good inside presence, and had just won the biggest fight of his career in a slugfest against Antonio Margarito. Yet Quintana seemed to be in charge throughout the whole fight, brilliantly using his jab to control distance and keep Williams at bay. As Max Kellerman memorably put it, the story of the fight was "Carlos Quintana punches Paul Williams in the face". Yet Quintana's slick style and underdog status had people worried that a robbery was coming, and everyone was on edge when the scores were read. No need: Quintana won by unanimous decision to hand Williams his first defeat and lift the WBO welterweight crown.
The very next fight, of course, Williams knocked Quintana out in the very first round of their rematch to win the title back. Quintana then won two more fights against middling opposition before challenging Andre Berto for his title and getting knocked out in the 8th. He fought just one time in 2011, a win over journeyman Yoryi Estrella.
8. Cornelius Bundrage (Jr. Middleweight, 31-4, 18 KOs)
Cornelius "K9" Bundrage first was displayed to American boxing eyes against Sechew Powell in one of the wildest (and shortest) fights ever broadcast on ShoBox. It featured a double knockdown four seconds into the fight, followed by the Bundrage being knocked out seventeen seconds later (a confused Bundrage remarked in his corner: "I got knocked out that quick?").
Bundrage then became a contestant on Season 3 of The Contender, and was the final fighter picked to join a team. Boldly declaring that "the last shall be first", Bundrage was impressive in the tournament, beating Michael Clark, Walter Wright, and Norberto Bravo while losing to Steve Forbes and taking the bronze.
Still, Bundrage wasn't really considered to be a true contender for a title. A knockout loss to Joel Julio seemed to verify this, as Julio himself was really considered only a B+ fighter. His victory over Kassim Ouma (see below) was seen more as proof of how far Ouma had fallen, and a loss to Contender winner Grady Brewer was just icing on a bitter cake. But an upset knockout victory over previously unbeaten Zaurbek Baysangurov in Germany put Bundrage back on the IBF charts, and he was slated to face Yuri Foreman (see below) in a title eliminator. That fight ended in a no-contest due to a headbutt, but in my estimation Foreman seemed to be in charge early. Foreman elected to pursue a shot against WBA titlist Daniel Santos, which handed Bundrage a fight against reigning champ Cory Spinks in Spinks' hometown of St. Louis.
Even though Spinks was considered quite faded, Bundrage wasn't really considered an elite challenger. But he proved the skeptics wrong, knocking out Spinks in 5 (something previously done only by Zab Judah) and handing Bundrage the IBF 154 lbs title.
Bundrage is actually the only reigning titlist on this list, and has already made one successful defense of his belt. And who was his opponent? Why, none other than Sechew Powell, who had KO'd Bundrage in 21 seconds in that wild Showtime fight, so many years ago.
7. Kassim Ouma (Jr. Middleweight, 27-8-1, 17 KOs)
In a sport filled with tough stories, Ouma's may rank as among the worst. Born in Uganda, Ouma was pressed into service as a child soldier at age 6 in Uganda's civil war. He eventually left the army and joined the Ugandan national boxing team, defecting to the United States in the late 1990s (an act for which his father was killed by the government in retaliation). Despite never being wounded in his time a soldier, Ouma was shot twice in drive-by shootings upon arriving in Florida.
Ouma won his belt in 2004 against tough Verno Phillips, defending once against Kofi Jantuah before losing his crown to Roman Karmazin. Since then, Ouma has specialized in the "brave, losing effort", a skid that began in a near-suicidal performance against then-middleweight champion Jermain Taylor (albeit one that established him as among my personal favorite fighters). This wasn't actually considered to be a major hiccup, as Ouma was considered too small to be a true middleweight and was excused for his ill-advised jump up a weight class.
Unfortunately, upon dropping back to 154, he then lost what was supposed to be a bounceback fight against Saul Roman and another to Cornelius Bundrage. Then, after a win over journeyman Martinus Clay, dropped a split decision to Gabriel Rosado and a UD to prospect Vanes Martirosyan -- the last of which, in Ouma's defense, very well could have been a brave, winning effort (he dropped Martirosyan in the 9th and one could have very easily scored the fight for Ouma). This past year, he challenged emerging star Gennady Golovkin for his WBA middleweight belt, but lost in (what else) a brave effort.
6. Yuri Foreman (Jr. Middleweight, 28-2, 8 KOs)
Ah, the "Kosher Krusher". Yori Foreman was part of a trio of Jewish boxing "contenders" that most real boxing fans viewed more as marketing ploys. Roman Greenberg was knocked out by Cedric Boswell, and Dmitry Salita was annihilated in one round by Amir Khan. And Foreman -- a slick boxer who wishes he had Paulie Malignaggi's pop -- wasn't really seen as any better. He had managed to eke out split-decision victories over Anthony Thompson and Andrey Tsurkan -- both decent gatekeeper types, but neither the sort that a true title contender should be struggling with. And though he looked decent against Cornelius Bundrage before that fight was prematurely stopped on a headbutt, few -- myself included -- gave him much of a shot when he stepped up to challenge reigning WBA titlist Daniel Santos.
Boy were we in for a surprise. Not only did Foreman dominate the fight, he actually put Santos on the canvas twice (in the 2nd and 12th rounds) to win the bout handily and earn the title of world champion.
In his next fight, Foreman was matched against Miguel Cotto as the latter attempted to bounce back from his loss to Manny Pacquiao. The fight was the headliner in the first boxing match at the new Yankee stadium, and early on Foreman had decent success with his stick-and-move strategy. Unfortunately, Foreman's knee gave out in the 7th -- bad for any fighter, but disastrous for a guy like Foreman who depends on lateral movement and who has no power to speak of.
Yet Foreman bravely carried on, trying to stand in the pocket and trade with Cotto despite (a) Cotto being one of the best body punchers in the sport and (b) Foreman not having any power even when he can put weight on both legs. The result was predictable: Yankees fans were treated to an extraordinary display of boxing courage, and Foreman was treated to having the crap kicked out of him before the fight was finally stopped in the 9th. Foreman fought just won more time, losing by corner retirement in the 6th round to Pawel Wolak.