What If All Sports Were Like Boxing?

by Ben Zauzmer

Of all the methods of awarding a championship, none is stranger than boxing. To become the champion, you simply have to beat the current champion. No matter if you lost the vast majority of your fights this year. No matter if you’ve lost to the current champion multiple times in the past. All you need is a savvy promoter and, historically, enough cash on hand, and you can have a shot at the title.

As frustrating as this is to mathematical purists – who prefer to see titles awarded to the most skilled athletes – there is also a beautiful simplicity to it. If you beat the champion, you are the champion.

I would never suggest that the NFL go down that road … but what if they did? How would NFL history look?

To start, let’s name the Rock Island Independents as the original champions. They defeated the Saint Paul Ideals 48-0 on September 26, 1920, a full week before any other teams played a game. Granted, this was in the American Professional Football Association, but the APFA would rename themselves the National Football League two years later.

The Independents, named in 1907 due to their lack of club affiliations or corporate sponsorships, would hold the title for three weeks until being defeated by the Decatur Staleys, 7-0, on October 17, 1920. Never heard of the Staleys, named for the A. E. Staley food starch company of Decatur, Illinois? That’s because new owner George Halas would, two years later, move the team to Chicago and rename it the Bears.

Heading into the start of NFL play, in 1922, that newly minted Bears team held the title belt, but not for long. The Canton Bulldogs grabbed a hold of the title later in 1922 and seemingly never let it go. The Bulldogs won 22 consecutive games, discounting ties, as title-holders, even continuing their streak after their move to Cleveland. It wasn’t until November 16, 1924, that the Frankford Yellow Jackets would finally knock the Bulldogs off their pedestal, 12-7. That 22-game streak is still the all-time record.

This wasn’t the only time that the title belt traveled with a team. Those same Bulldogs took the title with them over the 1928 offseason to Detroit, where they were renamed the Wolverines (incidentally, the Wolverines would only play one season before merging with the New York Giants).  The same thing happened with the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles after the 1945 season, and again when the Boston Yanks became the New York Bulldogs in 1949.

Once the Super Bowl era began in 1967, one might suspect that the Super Bowl champion always ended the year as the title holder, but that is not the case for 18 of the 48 Super Bowl seasons. Most recently, in the 2011 season, the San Diego Chargers stole the championship from the Oakland Raiders in Week 17, but only went 8-8 on the year and lost the division tiebreaker in the mediocre AFC West to the Denver Broncos. Thus, the entire 2012 playoffs were irrelevant from the perspective of this experiment.

All time, the Chicago Bears have spent the most weeks as NFL champion by this metric, at 150 and counting.

This year, the progression has been as follows: Seahawks (coming off last year’s Super Bowl), Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Cardinals, Seahawks. That’s right, even the lowly Raiders were at one point this year NFL Champions by this obscure system. Incredibly, this was the first time the Cardinals held the title since their move to Arizona. They were the last team to not have held the title in their current location (the last time they had it was in 1983, in St. Louis).

Given that the Seahawks are the current champions and they made the playoffs this year, the winner of Super Bowl XLIX on February 1 will hold the title heading into this offseason.

Now, this is the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, so surely is some Harvard sports tie-in here. In fact, if we do the same style of championship-awarding for college basketball, the Harvard Crimson have in fact held the title at one point in time.

There is no one clear starting point for college basketball, but it doesn’t particularly matter, since the winner of March Madness should almost always be the champion at the end of the year. In fact, if we start with the 1985 season, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, and we take 1984 champion Georgetown as our first title holder, then the March Madness victor was the end-of-season title holder every single year.

That doesn’t mean March Madness doesn’t provide any excitement for this exercise. To take a particularly notable example, 2006 was the one time when the championship belt was handed off every single round, from Iowa to Northwestern State to West Virginia to Texas to LSU to UCLA to Florida.

Going back to 1985, after the Hoyas won their first 14 games, St. John’s (NY) defeated Georgetown 66-65 on January 26, 1985 for the first dethroning. Ironically, the Hoyas would take the title right back from the Red Storm on February 27 of that year, winning 85-69. Adding insult to injury, Georgetown would go to beat St. John’s yet again that year in the Final Four.

How does all of this reach Harvard? Well, Connecticut held the belt going into the 2011 season, but then fell to Central Florida in the Battle for Atlantis semifinal. The Crimson was right there to spoil the Knights’ celebration, winning the in-season tournament on November 26, 2011, and unknowingly winning this type of title in the process.

As fate would have it, after victories against Vermont and Seattle, the Crimson would give the title right back to UConn on December 8, falling 67-53.

Last year, UConn would again claim the title, earning it against St. Joe’s in the Round of 64 and then carrying it all the way through March Madness. They didn’t lose it until falling to West Virginia this year, who would then hand it off to LSU, making the Tigers the current champions of college basketball.

Harvard, by the way, is arguably not the most surprising team to hold the title. Other surprising kings include Air Force in 1997 (immediately following a 10-game losing streak), and nearly every team in 2007 (part of the order was as follows: Appalachian State, Elon, Chattanooga, Wofford, College of Charleston, Appalachian State, Furman, Georgia Southern, Elon, Georgia State, George Mason, Northeastern, Drexel). Somehow, Alabama-Birmingham has held the title five separate times (1990, 1996, 2003, 2007, and 2014).

And if all of this interests you, be sure to tune in Thursday night for the thrilling heavyweight championship bout as LSU looks to defend its “title” against Missouri. May the best team win.

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  • A fun thought exercise, but you’re glossing over some major points about the boxing system.

    Fighters are ranked based on their performance and, for the most part, title bouts only happen between the current champion and fighters ranked very high.

    George Foreman lost his WBA belt when he chose to fight Axel Schulz instead of the number #1 ranked contender and then lost his IBF title when he declined a rematch against Schulz. This is why any Oakland vs. San Diego “title” and LSU vs. Mizzou title matches would not materialize.

    If anything, the crazy system that boxing uses would ensure that non-conference schedules in college sports would be much more interesting.

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