AIBA Launches Its Professional Boxing Arm, Promises to Shake the Sport’s Landscape

Several major changes proposed by AIBA, the world’s foremost governing body of boxing, began taking place right after the London Olympics with the appearance of new rules for amateur boxing and the emergence of the semi-professional World Series of Boxing (WSB).

And this past weekend, the organization (renamed as International Boxing Association to eliminate the word “amateur” from its original name, even though they still maintain their old acronym) has launched its most ambitious project to date with the start of the APB (AIBA Pro Boxing), a competition destined to create, along with amateur boxing and the WSB, an all-encompassing career path for fighters worldwide, who could choose to remain within the supervision of AIBA during their entire careers while stretching their Olympic eligibility for many more years.

With a handful of cards that took place on Friday, Oct. 24, each one staged in a different country and featuring a single weight class in each event, the APB began its first official competition. During the first week of competition, all eight participants in each of the 10 divisions that comprise the initial stage of this worldwide league have seen action.

The APB assigned each weight class to a single host country per division, usually making that assignment to accommodate the home country of the biggest star in that particular division. The 91+kg/200+lb heavyweight division, for example, will be disputed entirely in Italy for the first leg of the tournament due to the presence of their star fighter Clemente Russo, and something similar will happen for the rest of the divisions.

AIBA calls this stage the “pre-ranking phase” of the competition, in which eight of the world’s top amateurs, semi-pros (a controversial, unofficial denomination given to those fighters who participate in the WSB) and professionals with less than 20 pro bouts will compete for the new championship – and a chance to be the first professional boxers to participate in the Olympic Games.

According to AIBA’s website, their desire is to turn the APB into “a clear competition structure based only on a boxer’s performance, (and) a secure development path (…) with protection and financial stability guaranteed”, which would translate into “the most appealing proposal for boxers worldwide”.

Boxers in the APB fold are signed to five-year contracts with the AIBA Boxing Marketing Arm (BMA) to compete in AIBA-mandated matches. Each boxer will have a minimum of four guaranteed bouts per year at an agreed purse, which would allow them to “maximize their training programs and fight schedule throughout the year with a regular match calendar.”

Under the new set of AIBA rules, Rio 2016 will be the first Olympic Games allowing pro boxers to compete. Both the champion and the runner-up from this competition will automatically qualify for the Olympics. Those who end up in third place may have another chance to qualify, depending on their weight class, by participating in a box-off with qualified competitors from the amateur and WSB ranks.

“For the first time in history, boxing fans will witness a comprehensive, merit-based ranking system in Pro Boxing,” indicates AIBA in its official website, also stating that the APB competition will be the only way in which professional boxers may qualify for Olympic participation from now on. The entire program is fully supported by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The initial stage of the APB competition (based on an arbitrary Top 8 ranking decided by the seven members of the APB Boxers’ Selection and Ranking Committee) will see each fighter engaging in two fights of six three-minute rounds, in order to establish an initial performance-based ranking based on those results. Only the top four fighters will remain in the run for Olympic eligibility for Rio 2016.

Depending on those results, each boxer will then fight again at least three six-round fights in the Matches for Champions, with the winners making their way to an eight-round title fight that will crown the first APB World Champion in each division.

The APB and the rest of the alphabet soup: Trouble in the horizon?

The new competition, however, is not exempt of criticism, unanswered questions, and at least a few potentially conflicting situations.

Some federations have complained (off the record) that the AIBA is pushing towards a complete control of boxing worldwide, and in that interest they are starting to exert a not-too-subtle pressure upon every national federation in order to force them to choose between their affiliation with AIBA or their partnership with the known sanctioning bodies (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO) that rule today’s pro boxing landscape.

Even though the legality of such an ultimatum (if it should ever come to that) may be in question, it is safe to imagine that AIBA will progressively invoke their condition of boxing’s only “governing body” and oppose it to the condition of “sanctioning bodies” of these alphabet soup organizations, to start imposing at least some of their conditions on the professional boxing landscape.

Whether this will create even a greater schism with the traditional boxing powers (especially the US, which refuses to recognize WSB fights as professional bouts and therefore leaves them out of a boxer’s official record) is still unclear, but it would appear that a countdown towards substantial changes in boxing’s current business model has begun, at least in the developmental, post-Olympic part of a fighter’s career and the promoter’s ability to recruit young talents.

As unappealing as the conditions in the APB may be for top-tier amateur talents emerging from (or on their way to) an Olympic event, fighters in certain countries may be inclined to embrace the APB, since it affords them a number of guaranteed opportunities (both competitive and economic) that were not available to them before.

With the average boxing career spanning about 45 fights, having almost half of that career under a guaranteed contract to fight some of the world’s best opponents available while retaining Olympic eligibility may sound enticing to many young fighters, who would otherwise have to sign contracts that would force them to engage in fights against less-than-stellar opposition in order to build up an artificially unbeaten record before aspiring to making money and participating in more appealing fights. And AIBA is betting on this equation to keep young fighters in their fold even beyond that initial stretch.

The broadcasting industry will also play a big role in this new development. Although the TV rights for APB-sanctioned bouts depend heavily on each country and each weight class, their business model may end up drawing some interest from international networks and cable operators, who may like their chances to develop the new wave of future stars in countries such as China, Germany, Russia, Argentina, Italy, Azerbaijan, Cuba, and Kazakhstan, and all for a reasonable price tag. This model could also represent a healthy alternative to the “prospect vs. trial horse” recipe that so many promoters often force upon TV networks and fans week after week.

And since the entire competition revolves around the prospect of Olympic participation, the APB may end up enticing a number of new fans from countries usually not drawn towards boxing, who may welcome the chance to cheer on their countrymen on a more structured, leveled tournament in which they have a legitimate chance.

Even if these hypothetical situations fail to materialize, it is clear that the emergence of the APB will, at the very least, bring about the beginning of a major shakeup in the initial stages of a fighter’s professional careers, formerly limited by their ability to secure a contract with an independent promoter based on their personal appeal and marketability, aside from (and oftentimes regardless of) their pure athletic skills.

Whether the APB forces the sport of boxing to become, in time, a structured, major league-style worldwide competition with AIBA becoming boxing’s own FIFA, is the subject of pure speculation. But their intentions, however feeble, are very clear in this regard. A statement in their official website indicates that “AIBA President Dr. Ching Kuo Wu believes the APB is a step in the right direction in AIBA’s mission to govern boxing worldwide in all of its forms”.

In this context, the recent contacts and (so far informal) meetings between leaders of the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO should be taken as a signal that AIBA’s threat is very real. Whether AIBA wants to stage a hostile takeover of the entire professional boxing world, or merely a piece of the pie, remains to be seen. But regardless of what transpires in the immediate future, it is clear that a potentially huge dispute over the future of boxing’s business model has only begun, and that the fighting promises to spill out of the rings and into the unforgiving court of public opinion in the near future.

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