What Is The Lineal Champion In Boxing

Tyson Fury. Source: Gatty Images

In the sport of boxing, being the lineal champion means being the man who beat the man. It represents being the true successor to the championship throne, the top guy in your weight class. While sanctioning bodies hand out alphabet titles, the lineal crown has a more organic, old-school feel. Let’s take a closer look at what it means and why it still matters.

Definition of a Lineal Champion

The lineal champ is the boxer who defeats the previous lineal champion in the ring. It works like a direct line of succession, stretching back to the beginning of the weight class. To become lineal champ, you must beat the man who beat the man, all the way back to the first recognized champ of the division.

Unlike alphabet titles, there are no vacated lineal championships or stripping of belts. The lineal title remains intact until one champion beats the other in the ring. It’s about definitive wins and losses between boxers, not politics or sanctioning fees.

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History of the Lineal Championship

The lineal concept goes back to the early days of boxing in the late 1800s. At the time, there were no sanctioning bodies, just the champ. When John L. Sullivan beat Paddy Ryan in 1882, he became the lineal heavyweight champ. This continued with Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano.

Muhammad Ali later won the lineal crown from Sonny Liston. Over time, alphabet organizations like the WBC and WBA muddied the waters, but fans recognized the lineal champ as the true kingpin of each division.

How Lineal Champions are Determined

The lineal belt can only change hands when champion loses clearly to the No. 1 contender or consensus top fighter in the division. Controversial losses or vacated titles don’t count. The succession must take place in the ring, not in a board room.

If the lineal champ retires, then the No. 1 and No. 2 fighters must face each other to establish a new champion. For example, after Rocky Marciano retired undefeated, Archie Moore fought Floyd Patterson for the vacant lineal heavyweight title.

There can only be one lineal champ at a time in a weight class. It’s a singular promotion that unifies all, not just another alphabet belt.

Importance of the Lineal Championship

In today’s fractured era of multiple sanctioning bodies and titleholders, the lineal championship brings clarity. It cuts through promotional politics and provides historical continuity to the concept of being “the man” in each division.

The lineal champ doesn’t need to hold alphabet belts to be the true king of the hill. From a legacy standpoint, it carries more prestige to be the lineal champion than to hold secondary titles. Even with five belts, there can only be one definitive top dog.

Current Lineal Champions

At present, Canelo Alvarez holds the lineal championships at middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight. Other current lineal titleholders include Oleksandr Usyk (heavyweight), Jermell Charlo (junior middleweight), and Josh Taylor (junior welterweight).

The lightweight and welterweight divisions are currently vacant. Teofimo Lopez was the last lineal lightweight champ before being upset by George Kambosos Jr. Manny Pacquiao held the welterweight crown until retiring last year.

Iconic Fights for the Lineal Championship

The lineal championship represents the true line of succession for the best fighter in each weight class. Here are some of the most iconic lineal title fights throughout boxing history:

  • Jack Johnson vs. Tommy Burns (1908) – Johnson became the first African American lineal heavyweight champ after following Burns around the globe and calling him out. This fight is credited with ushering in the African American boxing era.
  • Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling (1938) – Their rematch was one of the most politically charged fights ever, with Louis knocking out the German Schmeling in the first round. This fight defined the heavyweight division leading up to WWII.
  • Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston (1964) – Still considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history, Ali stopped the feared Liston to become lineal heavyweight champ and launch his legendary career.
  • Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler (1987) – Leonard came out of retirement to shock Hagler in a close decision, ending Hagler’s seven-year reign as middleweight king.
  • Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield (1999) – Their rematch settled a controversial draw and unified the heavyweight title, with Lewis gaining lineal champ status by stopping Holyfield.
  • Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad (2001) – Hopkins dominated the previously unbeaten Trinidad to become undisputed middleweight champ in the last tournament to produce a lineal champion.

Criticisms of the Lineal Championship

Some criticisms of the lineal title argue that it relies too heavily on history and lineage. In the contemporary boxing landscape of multiple belts, some feel it has become outdated or redundant.

Others argue the concept can be subjective when determining successors after retirements or if an upset champion loses his first defense. With no official rankings or records, the succession standards are loosely defined.

Lineal vs. Alphabet Champions

While the lineal champion is considered the true king of the division, fans and the boxing industry also recognize the major alphabet titlists.

Often, a boxer will first need to capture belts like the WBC and WBA before having a chance to face the lineal champ. Alphabet titlists help build prestige to earn a shot at the lineal crown.

In recent decades, the lineal champ usually holds one or more alphabet belts too. But the lineal designation takes precedence in historical importance.


The lineal championship represents the most legitimate claim you can have to being the undisputed best fighter in your weight class. It holds powerful historical meaning in who is the true successor in a given division. For purists who reject belt inflation and fractured rankings, the lineal title still matters greatly. It’s the real measure of championship pedigree and earning your place among the immortals of boxing history.

Author: Boxing Coach Kirill Yurovskiy

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