When Tyson Fury walks to the ring to face Deontay Wilder on Saturday night, he will have two belts in tow. The WBC heavyweight championship and The Ring Magazine heavyweight championship, both of which he claimed by defeating the same opponent in February 2020. But he will also be defending another championship at the T-Mobile Arena this weekend, one that is not represented by a belt. Tyson Fury will be making the seventh defence of his lineal heavyweight championship.
While ‘The Gypsy King’ has been the fighter to popularise this concept in modern boxing, the lineal heavyweight championship actually goes back well over a hundred years. The concept is a simple one, the lineal heavyweight champion is “the man who beat the man”. Regardless of boxing’s murky politics, or the various trinkets doled out by the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO, the lineal championship can only be won or lost in the ring. No mandatory challengers, no interim champions, no ‘super’ champions and no titles being stripped for failing to fight somebody who wasn’t even in the rankings a month ago.
As the current lineal king, Fury is perhaps uniquely placed to tell the story of the championship. Fury told The Sportsman, “The lineal champion goes back to the first heavyweight champion under Queensberry rules. Some people will say it was Jem Mace, some people will say John L Sullivan. So, whoever does their homework will find out who it really was. It goes back from then.” Whichever inaugural champion you subscribe to, the title definitively lands with Fury.
The lineal championship is not solely a heavyweight concept, every division has crowned lineal kings. Britain’s own Ricky Hatton became the lineal light welterweight champion when he defeated Kostya Tszyu in 2005. Tszyu had reigned as undisputed champion since 2001, but had his WBA and WBC crowns stripped for failing to meet their mandatory contenders. As champion, Hatton would undergo the same thing, having his IBF belt stripped for fighting the great Jose Luis Castillo rather than the lesser-regarded Lovemore N’Dou or Naoufel Ben Rabah. His lineal recognition, however, remained until his stoppage loss to Manny Pacquiao two years later.
Fury has returned the title to the fore of boxing discussion, with the last time it became a mainstream talking point beyond boxing hardcores being George Foreman’s 1994-1997 reign. While his title victory is one of boxing’s greatest nights, Foreman’s reign did expose some of the issues around lineal championships.
At the age of 45, Foreman shocked the world by knocking out WBA, IBF and lineal champion Michael Moorer. ‘Big’ George refused to defend the WBA championship against Tony Tucker, because he did not want to get involved with a Don King promotion, and was stripped. After one defence of his IBF belt, he was stripped of that too. Foreman was criticised for avoiding big fights and instead defending his lineal recognition against Crawford Grimsley and Lou Savarese. This is something detractors will point to when discrediting lineal titles, as there is no central body in place to make sure a champion fights worth contenders.
Tracking the lineal championship has undoubtedly become a more mainstream pursuit since Tyson Fury has publicised his wearing of the crown. You can view Fury’s candidacy in two ways. If you see it how he does, he has enjoyed an unbroken reign from his 2015 win over then-champion Wladimir Klitschko. If you believe he should have been stripped for three years of inactivity post-Klitschko, then he is champion by virtue of his win over Wilder in 2020, when the pair were widely ranked as the top two heavyweights in the world.
Boxing has no shortage of world champions, with some sanctioning bodies even naming multiple claimants in each division. But there is a maximum of one lineal champion in each weight class, and being able to trace the title back to the very first champion in each division is a comforting notion. The lineal championships has endured due to its simplicity. Tyson Fury says it best, “To be a world champion is one thing, but to be a lineal champion... not everybody can be that.”
Tyson Fury is 4/11 to successfully defend his lineal championship with Betfred. You can get 9/4 on Wilder beating him for the championship, or 20/1 for a repeat of their 2018 draw.