Why Are There So Many Boxing Weight Classes?

Boxing is one of the most uncompromising sports. A single mistake puts a fighter at risk not just of losing a match but also of suffering serious bodily harm. Yet for all of its brutality, the sport has an innate sense of fairness. This is best embodied in the range of weight classes used in pro boxing.

The need for so many weight classes — 17 in total, according to Bleacher Report — confuses many people. In some cases, it grows difficult to establish the best boxer in a particular division. Let’s break down the pros and cons of having so many weight classes and investigate complicating factors.

The pros of so many weight classes

Proponents of boxing’s many weight classes have their hearts in the right place. The central arguments have to do with fairness and safety — two of the sport’s core values. Those values led to the adoption of the original eight weight classes. Later, boxing added nine more classes in order to foster a more competitive environment.

For pro fighters, even a relatively small difference in weight can lead to a huge advantage. Weight classes eliminate this kind of disparity, ensuring that skill remains the most important factor in determining the victor. With fewer weight classes, a smaller boxer would have poor odds of ever becoming a champion, no matter their skill.

Furthermore, weight classes are designed with boxers’ safety in mind. In a mismatched fight, the smaller opponent stands a much greater risk of suffering a serious injury. Simply put, boxing is dangerous enough already without pitting smaller fighters against physically larger opponents.

Cons of having so many weight classes

A common argument against so many weight classes centers on the issues it creates in terms of championship belts. How many sports can you think of where 17 different champions exist every single year? Detractors of the current weight-class structure argue that the system diminishes the value of winning a championship. It would be like if the NBA had different leagues for players of different heights.

The fractionalized structure of boxing increases its perception as a niche sport. You don’t have to be a die-hard football fan to tune in to the Super Bowl and figure out what’s going on. Boxing makes it a lot harder for casual fans to understand. With so 17 different title fights, it’s hard to determine which matches have value.

To make matters more confusing, boxers are constantly moving up and down in the weight classes. For instance, boxing star Floyd Mayweather won championships in five different weight classes. This kind of fluidity makes it even harder to judge the relative value of a championship.

An even more pressing issue

Even the most hardcore opponents of the current weight-class system don’t want to strip it down to just eight classes. Instead, they call for making selective cuts to certain weight classes — primarily those at the lower end of the scale, where classes are often separated by as little as three pounds.

Yet the call for a reduction in the amount of weight classes overlooks a more pressing issue: the number of championship organizations.  Currently, four major sanctioning bodies exist in boxing: the WBA, WBC, WBO, and IBF. Each of those organizations holds its own world title at each weight class.

In other words, there aren’t just 17 boxing world champions; there are 68. This adds to the confusion when it comes to determining who the best fighter actually is. Instead of focusing on reducing weight classes, boxing activists would be better off spending their time fighting for a consolidation of the four championship organizations.