“And still” screamed the emcee, as Vijender Singh held aloft his title belts, having polished off a sub-par opponent to retain the WBO Asia-Pacific and Oriental Super Middleweight championships. The two shiny straps were enough to send the couple thousand in attendance at Jaipur’s Sawai Mansingh Indoor stadium into a frenzy; nevermind the fact that one of the titles had already been contested and won nine days ago in Brisbane.
On December 14, Australian boxer Rohan Murdock defeated Russian Apti Ustarkhanov to win the WBO Super Middleweight Oriental championship. According to the sanctioning body, Murdock fought and won the “interim” title, even though major outlets reported that the bout was for a “vacant” title. Rules dictate that a title is vacated if the fighter is unable to defend it in 120 days. Vijender, who won the belt from China’s Zulipikaer Maimaitiali on August 5, took the ring after a gap of 140 days. WBO, however, recognises both Vijender and Murdock as the official champions.
“Sometimes, we approve interim titles at the regional level to keep the division active, giving opportunities to more boxers to rise in our world rankings,” said Danny Leigh, WBO executive committee member and supervisor for the bouts. “There are no mandatory fights forced with our regional titles. Rather than strip one of the titles, we create an interim title which allows Murdock to take up tougher fights and keep the wheel turning.”
Incidentally, Murdock was the last to hold and vacate the Asia-Pacific title before Vijender won it in 2016. An ideal case scenario would be for the two to meet in a unification bout to decide the official Oriental champion. Pitting two hot prospects against each other would however be counter-productive to WBO’s agenda.
“By two belts, we are just allowing both fighters to rise independently of each other and develop their careers,” said Leigh. “Unless the money is on the table, the two don’t have to fight each other.”
Boxing is oversaturated with championship belts, and two of the same kind would be the last thing the sport needs. However, the regional titles have long been used to earmark growing territories and identify and push talent up the rankings. “It helps us develop places like India and China, where the standard is not that high. So it makes sense for a Chinese guy to get an interim title as well,” said Leigh.
“There are big TV sponsorships involved. At the end of the day, it is a business and WBO is competing against other sanctioning bodies. Therefore, we look for the best quality fighters available in a country. Vijender had a great amateur background and was a big star in India. Similarly, Murdock is a very good fighter. I wouldn’t just approve anyone for the interim title.”
A good fighter doesn’t cut it. According to Bob Arum, promoter for the likes of Muhammad Ali and Manny Pacquiao, Murdock “has a lot of talent, a lot of charisma and he can be a major star in the super middleweight division. He’s a work in progress but I am confident from what I’ve seen that he can be a big star.’’ The 25-year-old, who has flown under the radar for most of his seven-year professional boxing career, put on a stunning performance on a card headlined by compatriot and current welterweight world champion Jeff Horn. With 20 wins in 21 fights – his only defeat a disputed points decision in 2011 – Murdock has a flight path mapped out and is already pencilled in for a world title match this year.
Vijender is unbeaten at 10-0. He is also 32, and fought twice in 2017, with both bouts going the distance. After being tested by Maimaitiali, the boxer and his promoters seemed to take two steps back as the Olympic bronze-medallist fought an unexceptional Ghanaian Ernest Amuzu. Against Maimaitiali, Vijender gassed out in the later rounds while he had weight-cutting problems in the run-up to the Amuzu fight.
Leigh believes that Vijender needs to train harder but defends the choice of opponent.
“Vijender has to move faster than a young prospect. And if we are really critiquing, I would like to see him train a lot harder. In a real, hard shape, he would have been able to knock an Amuzu out,” said Leigh. “As far as the opponent, from a fan perspective, a rematch with Zulipikaer would have been intriguing. But business wise, Zulipikaer isn’t worth anything now. It would be a tough fight for nothing.”
The plan for Vijender and Co has stayed the same from the start. While Murdock has shot into spotlight and world title contention, the Indian has had to build his name up from ground zero. On the cards is a Commonwealth title bout against Rocky Fielding and a possible world title fight towards the end of 2018. Leigh approves of the slow and steady approach.
“I have spoken to Vijender’s trainers and they would jump at the idea of fighting higher-ranked boxers,” said Leigh. “He is a name, has credibility and could get a call for a world title bout tomorrow. Do I think he is going to beat (WBO Super Middleweight world champion Gilberto) Ramirez? No. But what would be better for Indian professional boxing? To fall short of the world title, or to organically create a challenger who has pioneered the sport?”
What would be best for Indian professional boxing is to not have its poster boy share spotlight with a rookie, let alone a title.