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WBO #1 spot + WBA Interim Belt GONE – What is Mick Conlan’s route to World Titles now?

Michael Conlan underlined his status as a world class professional talent earlier this month following a career-best performance in victory over former champ TJ Doheny.

However, while his stock within boxing is perhaps higher than ever, his route to world titles is slightly most confusing than before.

Ahead of the Féile headliner, Conlan [16(8)-0] looked set for an assault on super bantamweight title honours, holding the #1 position in the WBO rankings with plenty of talk of a fight with the winner of next month’s WBC-WBO unification between Stephen Fulton and Brandon Figueroa.

During fight week a wildcard was dealt, with it being announced that the Conlan-Doheny fight would be for the WBA ‘interim’ featherweight [126lbs] title. Questions surrounding the Belfast boxer’s ability to make the 122lbs super bantamweight limit were raised but it was repeatedly assured that the ‘interim’ title fight was merely to keep options open.

The current WBA featherweight champion is Leo Santa Cruz but the Mexican-American has not fought in the class in over two years. England’s Leigh Wood won the often-derided ‘regular’ belt during the summer and there have been constant suggestions that the Matchroom man will be elevated to full/’Super’ champion in the near future.

Leigh Wood and Leo Santa Cruz

Conlan is open to whatever, explaining in this week’s Boxing News that “the Stephen Fulton and Brandon Figueroa fight happens on September 11, so we can wait and see what happens there and weigh up my options as mandatory challenger. The option at 126 is Leigh Wood. That’s another fight I really like.”

“I’ll go on holiday, come back, and decide what’s the best option: Fulton, Figueroa or Leigh Wood. I’m happy either way.”

However, things don’t look to be that simple.

Between the Boxing News interview being completed and published, Conlan was removed from the updated WBO rankings. The organisation’s in-house lawyer Gustavo Olivieri then told the Irish News that “under our rules and policies, when a ranked fighter fights for a world title – Michael fought for the WBA’s interim featherweight championship – he is automatically excluded from the rankings.”

“Conlan’s team were advised that he was fighting for a title from another sanctioning body and if he pursued that route he would be excluded from the rankings. That’s the WBO policy.”

The Puerto Rican counsellor also clarified that Conlan, while ranked #1 at super bantamweight, was never actually the mandatory challenger for the WBO world title belt.

Olivieri explained how “there was never any official ruling by the WBO committee that he would be facing the winner of the Fulton-Figueroa unification championship bout. The WBO had not designated a mandatory challenger at 122lbs.”

“Regardless of whether a fighter is ranked at number one that does not mean he will automatically fight for the title. That is a misconception.”

Conlan has won the WBO Inter-Continental featherweight and WBO International super bantamweight rankings titles

Interestingly, just days after Conlan’s interim title win the WBA sent out a circular announcing the withdrawal of such belts. The letter stated that “The World Boxing Association Championships Committee has decided to withdraw all the Interim championship titles approved so far in light of the resolution to eliminate all the interim champions. However, they will be approved as elimination fights. The WBA Championships Committee will study case by case to decide which Interim champions will be ordered to fight the champions.”

Some may haven take this latest declaration with a pinch of salt following previous statements from the WBA regarding the reduction of the number of titles in 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2020.

However, WBA president Gilberto Mendoza has pledged to implement the change, telling to ESPN how “I know that I have said it before in multiple occasions, and I haven’t been able to keep my promise. I’ll do it now, though. I’m saying this with my feet on the ground and after assessing financials, after assessing the situation and all the controversies.”

The Venezuelan then followed up on this tonight by announcing that all interim titles will be vacated and their former holders be designated as mandatory challengers. It is hoped that a fight between either Wood or Santa Cruz and Conlan will be ordered but this is currently unclear as tonight’s statement suggests that Mick may still need to win a final eliminator

[From the statement]: At the discretion of the Chairman and the Championships Committee, they will be considered as mandatory contenders to the world champion of the division, either to fight for the championship as an official challenger directly or, depending on the case, to participate in a Box-off elimination bout to determine the official challenger.

WBA President Gilberto J Mendoza

While, like every governing body, the WBO have the ability to contravene their own rules and policies at a whim and Conlan could still find himself in the picture for the Fulton-Figueroa winner, it would certainly seem now that the WBA featherweight title is the Irishman’s likeliest route.

Wood, who shocked Can Xu to take the secondary belt, has been embroiled in a war of words with IBF champ and Matchroom stablemate Kid Galahad. A unification between a regular titleholder and a champion is usually a no-go – although, as mentioned above, an elevation for Wood seems a distinct possibility.

Santa Cruz has not fought since his heavy knockout loss to Gervonta Davis and whether he will ever compete at featherweight again – or perhaps at any weight, with ‘El Terremoto’ also mentioning the possibility of retirement.

A Wood-Conlan fight certainly does appeal – although the Matchroom v Top Rank element could perhaps be a stumbling block. That said, a clear policy from the WBA and a concrete order could see this fight become a reality.

For those tired of the politics of boxing and the issue of belt proliferation, Conlan recently entered the esteemed rankings of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board for the first time. The 29-year-old was put in at #10 at featherweight but was quickly bumped back out of the ladder following Mark Magsayo’s KO win over Julio Ceja. There is no current featherweight champion under the TBRB’s policy, with #1 Gary Russell and #2 Mauricio Lara needing to fight to crown a champion.

Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie