Ability is often of less advantage to a fighter than being well connected politically, and the public are frequently fobbed off

When John L Sullivan went around boasting that he could lick any man on earth, there was only one heavyweight champion. Presently there are six versions of the title. As Seth Abraham put it this week, the inmates are running the asylum.

Since Abraham presides over Time Warner Sports, parent company of Home Box Office (HBO), the American cable television network that failed to cut a deal with Mike Tyson when the former undisputed champion was released from jail, it can be assumed that his response to a lamentable state of affairs in the heavyweight division is more than slightly subjective.

However, in drawing attention to the spurious authority assumed by a proliferation of self-serving alphabet organisations, and allowing for the fact that he has dealt with some of them in the past, Abraham is doing the sport a service.

It does not take much perception to realise that ability is often of less advantage to a fighter than being well connected politically, and that the public are frequently fobbed off with phoney status.

As reported yesterday it is HBO's intention to organise a heavyweight tournament without alphabet sanction. It involves a great deal of money, around $175m, to determine by public acclaim the best heavyweight apart from Mike Tyson. No belts will be at stake. With the addition of those on offer from two fledgling organisations, the World Boxing Union and International Boxing Council, belts have become the bane of boxing, piling ever higher in the alphabet junkyard. "It is time to establish who is the real heavyweight champion," Abraham said this week. "The guy the public would like to fight Tyson, if Tyson retains his lustre, is the guy who is the best. That's the object of our tournament. We'd have him."

That brings us to Riddick Bowe, the World Boxing Organisation champion who is widely regarded as the best heavyweight out there, and the former World Boxing Council champion, Lennox Lewis. Without their co-operation the HBO tournament would be meaningless.

There is some irony in all this because it was HBO who brought about a unification of the heavyweight championship nine years ago. Setting up a series of contests involving the champions of the WBC, World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation, Trevor Berbick, James "Bonecrusher" Smith and Tony Tucker respectively, they threw in Tyson. Within six months Tyson blew them away.

Next month, Tyson returns to the ring against Jim McNeeley at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Assuming that nothing untoward happens he will fight again in November.

You may have noticed no reference has been made so far to Tyson's promoter, the great master of "trickeration" himself, Don King, who more or less regained control of the heavyweight division when Tyson was persuaded to resume their old alliance.

The problem this created for HBO is that King is associated with Showtime, a rival network. From being the most powerful single funding force in boxing, HBO found itself on the outside looking in.

King has the WBC champion, Oliver McCall, the WBA champion, Bruce Seldon, and a number of handily placed contenders. King thinks further ahead than a chess champion. Through a long-standing friendship with the WBC, he got Lewis displaced by Tyson as their No 1 contender on a technicality. As one prominent promoter said recently, there is no point in having the WBC rules handy because they change every day.

Lewis and his associates have made noises about challenging this legally but it might be better to become involved in the HBO tournament. It could finally lead to a contest against Bowe and a total of more than $30m in purse money. As Lewis has not got a prayer of being nominated to meet the winner after McCall defends against Frank Bruno in London on 2 September, an agreement with HBO becomes a possibility.

In any case, Abraham asserts that the alphabet bodies have lost all credibility. "Those organisations have been flipped on their heads," he said. "The boxing public don't care anymore."

Some substance disappeared from Abraham's case when he stated that until George Foreman is beaten or retires he remains the true champion. On the basis of direct succession from Tyson, who lost the undisputed title to James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo six years ago, this is indisputable. But Foreman is no longer a fighter. He is a monument.

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