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Bob Arum, HBO, and Cotto-Margarito
Antonio Margarito: photo by Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
It was called “La Batalla.”
On July 26th at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the eyes of the boxing world focused on the much-anticipated showdown between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito But things in the sweet science are never as simple as they seem. La Batalla unfolded against a backdrop of the never-ending battle for television dates and control of boxing. Behind the scenes, tempers were flaring and tensions rising.
Cotto-Margarito was marketed as a crucial chapter in the ongoing rivalry between Mexican and Puerto Rican fighters. Cotto has lived in Puerto Rico for his entire life. Margarito was born California, but his family moved to Tijuana when he was two years old and he has lived in Mexico ever since.
Before the bout, there was a lot of talk about Mexican fighters being known for an almost blind toughness. “Mexican tradition,” wrote William Dettloff, “is you’re not in the fight until you’re bleeding; that if you don’t have a hook to the liver, you’re nothing; that if you’re not moving forward, you’re running away.” Conversely, Puerto Rican fighters are often seen as stylists in the mold of Wilfredo Benitez and Hector Camacho.
In reality these stereotypes are belied by Puerto Rican punchers (such as Wilfredo Gomez and Felix Trinidad) and Mexican practitioners of the finer points of boxing (e.g. Marco Antonio Barrera). Indeed, for much of his career, Cotto has fought “like a Mexican fighter.”
Regardless, passions between the two countries run deep. Before his 1992 victory over Camacho, Mexican icon Julio Cesar Chavez said, “The Mexican people will never forgive me if I lose. They will lynch me if I lose. I couldn’t return to Mexico.”
Margarito acknowledged, “Ever since I signed for this fight against Cotto, I was very aware that it is Mexican against Puerto Rican. That makes it a very important fight, a special fight.” And Cotto observed, “Everybody knows about the rivalry. Now it’s me against Margarito.”
But in simpler terms, Cotto-Margarito promised to be a great fight, period. The combatants could have come from Slovakia and the Czech Republic and boxing fans would have eagerly anticipated the battle.
“Forget all the bullshit and phony events that HBO is into these days,” promoter Bob Arum said at the May 22nd kick-off press conference. “Boxing done right is the most exciting sport there is. This is two honest, hard-working, real fighters.”
Cotto is soft-spoken and polite. One has to move close to hear him speak. His English has progressed to the point where he now conducts entire interviews with the English-speaking media without an interpreter. He has come a long way since 2004, when he journeyed to Las Vegas to fight Randall Bailey. On that occasion, a security guard at Mandalay Bay saw him walking around the casino, evaluated him as an undesirable, and asked him to leave the casino floor.
At the start of 2008, Cotto was grouped with Floyd Mayweather Jr, Manny Pacquiao, and Joe Calzaghe at the top of most pound-for-pound rankings. His record stood at 32-and-0 with 26 knockouts. Victories over Paulie Malignaggi, Carlos Quintana, Zab Judah, and Shane Mosley had raised his profile to the point where many observers considered him worthy of a place in the pantheon of Puerto Rican boxing heroes alongside Benitez, Gomez, Trinidad, Carlos Ortiz, and Jose Torres.
“If you ask me to put me on a scale with other boxers,” Cotto said when the subject was raised, “I cannot tell you that I deserve a ranking. I don’t compare myself to the other greats. My job is to train and to box. I just try to do my work to win for me and my family and my country and the people who root for me. The people that write about boxing will decide my ranking and my legacy.”
As for Margarito; a victory over Cotto would move him closer to the gods of Mexico: Chavez, Barrera, Salvador Sanchez, Ruben Olivares, Vincente Salvidar, and Erik Morales.
Margarito had five losses in 41 fights prior to meeting Cotto, but that statistic was deceiving. He’d turned pro at age fifteen. Three of his losses came when he was 16, 17, and 18 years old by decision against opponents with a 31-and-3 composite record.
“There’s nothing subtle about the way Margarito fights. As Jim Lampley observes, “Antonio is willing to get hit for the opportunity to hit you back.”
“I’m the type of fighter who throws a lot of punches and puts a lot of pressure on my opponent,” Antonio says. “My strength is my power and my stamina and my ability to be on top of my opponent all the time.”
The odds opened with Cotto a 2-to-1 favorite and rose as high as 13-to-5 before returning to 2-to-1. The feeling among the boxing intelligentsia was that Miguel had been good to begin with and was constantly improving as a fighter. Having moved from 140 to 147 pounds, he was stronger and had even more stamina than he’d displayed earlier in his career.
Also, several of Margarito’s previous fights cast doubt on Antonio’s status as an elite fighter. In 2004, he was struggling against Daniel Santos when an accidental clash of heads ended the match. The fight went to the judges’ scorecards with Santos winning a split decision.
Two years later, Margarito looked less-than-imposing in defeating Joshua Clottey, who suffered damage to both hands in the fight. And in 2007, Antonio turned down a match against Cotto in favor of a WBO title defense against Paul Williams. But against Williams, he gave away the early rounds and, after rallying impressively, virtually disappeared in round twelve to lose a close decision.
Still, a realistic case could be made for Margarito beating Cotto. Miguel is used to being the brute. Antonio would be the most physically imposing fighter that Cotto had faced and the first who could be considered more physically imposing than Miguel.
Moreover, Cotto’s greatest perceived vulnerability was his chin and his propensity to get hit on it. Margarito was expected to put that theory to the test.
“I think it’s going to come down to whose rhythm do we dance to,” Antonio said. “I have a lot more power than Judah and Mosley and a bigger heart than both of them combined. I know I have twelve good hard rounds in me. I’m not going to pace myself. I’m going to go hard and see if he can keep up with me. I’ve been waiting for so long to get to this place. This fight is my consecration.”
And significantly, the relationship between Cotto and his trainer (his uncle, Evangelista, who had trained him from his first day in the gym) was strained. During a fight-week sitdown with the media, Miguel said that the problem stemmed in large part from the fact that the gym they train in is too-heavily trafficked and he has to wait to move from one training exercise to another. Miguel Diaz (Cotto’s longtime cutman) added, “Evangelista has had control over Miguel since he was a boy, and there comes a time when Miguel wants to make his own decisions.”
But a source in the Cotto camp pointed to other reasons for the estrangement. First, there had been a much-publicized falling out between Evangelista and Miguel’s brother, Jose, who Evangelista also trained. Miguel tried to patch things up between them, but Evangelista wanted no part of it. And second, Evangelista had been critical of the way that Miguel separated from his wife and particularly the fact that Miguel had brought his girlfriend to the gym and exposed his children to her.
“It’s like a marriage,” Miguel said when pressed on the issue of his relationship with Evangelista. “We have our happy moments; we have our problems. It’s not a hundred percent, but it’s better now.” As for his family life, Miguel said simply, “I’m not the best husband, but I want to be the best father.”
Viewing the whole picture, it was clear that Cotto was a favorite at risk. And he deserved credit for fighting Margarito because, given his unbeaten record, Miguel had more to lose than Antonio by taking the fight.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, an equally intriguing confrontation was brewing; this one between Bob Arum and HBO (which was televising the fight on pay-per-view).
HBO Sports has struggled the past few years. Most recently, the July 12th World Championship Boxing telecast of the fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Tony Thompson did a 1.4 afternoon rating and 1.9 for the replay that night. Those were Klitschko’s lowest ratings ever and the first time a same-day HBO World Championship Boxing prime-time telecast slipped below 2.0. Adding to HBO’s woes, just prior to that, the June 7th pairing of Kelly Pavlik and Gary Lockett engendered a rating of 2.0.
HBO is the banker of boxing. Its deep pockets allow it to dictate much of what happens in the sport. HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg has the final say in deciding which fights HBO buys. That goes a long way toward determining the course of the industry and which promoters thrive.
There have been complaints that Greenburg plays favorites among promoters. In mid-July, these allegations peaked amidst a flurry of activity that saw HBO’s dates for autumn 2008 change more rapidly than the pairing of Johns and Janes in a bordello.
HBO had planned to televise Shane Mosley against Ricardo Mayorga (a Golden Boy promotion) on pay-per-view on October 11th. Then Showtime revealed its intention to televise Chad Dawson against Antonio Tarver on the same night and pair it with a same-day tape-delay of Samuel Peter vs. Vitali Klitschko.
At that point, HBO (which habitually counter-programs Showtime’s first-day-of-the-month telecasts) became sensitized to the dangers of counter-programming. A remarkable stream of events followed.
Peter is co-promoted by Dino Duva and Don King. Klitschko is promoted by K2 Promotions. An agreement between the two camps calls for Duva Boxing to be the lead promoter on Peter-Klitschko in association with Don King Productions and K2. HBO had repeatedly said that it had no interest in televising the fight. Thus, Duva made an agreement with Showtime to televise Peter-Klitschko for a license fee of US$600,000. Both Duva and Showtime boxing tsar Ken Hershman say that the deal was verbally approved by Shelly Finkel (who has a close working relationship with Golden Boy and is also an advisor to Klitschko). Then Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer grew concerned that the Showtime doubleheader would undermine pay-per-view buys for Mosley-Mayorga.
On July 12th, Finkel told Duva that HBO had reversed course and was now interested in making an offer for Peter-Klitschko. In response, Duva sent Finkel an email that read in part, “I cannot agree to your suggestion that we solicit an offer from them. As you are aware, we have an agreement with Showtime already. You and I both made personal commitments to Ken Hershman to broadcast the fight on a tape delay on specific terms. As you also know, HBO had always advised both of us that they weren’t interested in the fight. I’m not sure what caused their sudden change of heart which, by the way, only came after talk in the business that we made a deal with Showtime. Something isn’t right with this. Regardless, it is my strong belief that we have a deal with Showtime and cannot violate that.”
On July 14th, according to Duva, Finkel told him that Duva Boxing couldn’t proceed with Peter-Klitschko on Showtime because Duva had a legal obligation to maximize revenue from the fight and HBO was now ready to make an offer that exceeded Showtime’s.
On July 15th, Schaefer called Duva and told him that Don King (who promotes Mayorga) had promised Golden Boy that Peter-Klitschko would not take place on Showtime on October 11th in competition with Mosley-Mayorga. Duva immediately emailed King, saying “I don’t believe [Schaefer]” and asked King to “make sure that there is no understanding between you and him on this matter.”
On July 16th, Schaefer faxed a letter to King that read in part, “I just wanted to confirm our numerous conversations and mutual understanding relating to the Sam Peter vs. Vitali Klitschko fight. You have expressly warranted to me that, as the co-promoter of Sam Peter, you will not compete against the PPV event scheduled for October 11, 2008, between Mosley and Mayorga. You have clearly stated that you will not sign off on a possible October 11th event between Peter and Klitschko if it is held on Showtime. Or to put it in your words, ‘Under no circumstances will I compete against myself.’ You have as well stated to me that, as the co-promoter of Sam Peter, you have never agreed to any Showtime deal and that any representations by Dino Duva are not valid without your approval. By the way, your representation is consistent with what Shelly Finkel has represented to me on behalf of the Klitschko side.”
That same day, King sent a return fax to Schaefer with copies to Duva, Hershman, and Ross Greenburg. In relevant part, King’s letter read, “Dear Richard, I must say that you have misstated the case. While I do not intend to ‘compete against myself,’ I first and foremost do not intend to act against my partner.” In the same letter, King represented that he had spoken with Greenburg on July 15th and communicated the King-Duva position to him.
HBO sports senior vice president for programming Kery Davis says that HBO never made an offer for Peter-Klitschko; that the offer came from Golden Boy. But Duva has a distinctly different impression.
“Finkel and Richard Schaefer kept calling me about the fight,” Duva says. “Finally, at their suggestion, I called Kery and he made an offer of $850,000. I specifically asked him, ‘Is this a definite offer?’ And Kery said, ‘Yes.’ Kery was saying to me, ‘This is a fight that should be on HBO. Come on; we want to build up to a rematch between Samuel and Wladimir.’ I told him, ‘Look; you guys told me point-blank that you weren’t interested in the fight. Now I have a deal with Showtime; and all of a sudden, you’re interested. Where were you before?’”
One source says that, when Duva told Davis that he had given his word to Showtime, Kery responded, “Fuck Showtime. This is a better offer.”
“I don’t remember those exact words,” Duva says. “But that was the sentiment Kery expressed. It wasn’t pretty.”
On July 17th, in an effort to avoid a Mosley-Mayorga pay-per-view disaster, HBO began discussions to move Mosley-Mayorga to HBO World Championship Boxing on September 27th (a date that had been held for Kelly Pavlik).
Arum had been trying to make Pavlik against Paul Williams for that date. Sources say that HBO had offered $3,500,000 for the fight. That left the parties $300,000 apart; a gap that Arum was confident could be bridged.
“I think Kery Davis tried in good faith to make Pavlik-Williams happen,” Arum says. “And I think Dan Goossen [Williams’s promoter of record] negotiated with me in good faith. But at the end of the day, Williams didn’t want the fight.”
Meanwhile, sources say that, unbeknownst to Arum, during the week of July 14th, Greenburg had told Schaefer (acting on behalf of Winky Wright) to make a deal for a fight between Wright and Williams for a $2,500,000 license fee. Wright claims that he agreed to the fight and had a binding agreement for a seven-figure purse. Then HBO changed its position and, on July 16th, attorney Judd Burstein (acting on Wright’s behalf) sent a letter to HBO’s legal department, threatening to sue the network for breach of contract. In settlement of Winky’s claim, HBO has reportedly agreed to put him on an HBO World Championship Boxing card in January 2009.
During the same time frame, HBO kept turning down opponents other than Williams (such as Marco Antonio Rubio and Joe Greene) who Arum suggested for Pavlik. Arum told his fighter that he was willing to promote an independent pay-per-view show headed by Pavlik-Rubio with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr on the undercard. But that would have required Kelly to take a cut in pay, which he didn’t want to do.
Arum recounts what happened next: “Richard Schaefer had asked me a long time ago if Kelly would fight Hopkins. Kelly said he would, but at 168 pounds, not 170. Then all this nonsense started with HBO turning down opponents and Paul Williams refusing the fight and we had no place to go with Kelly other than Hopkins if Kelly’s income level was going to be preserved. So I called Schaefer. I was the one who initiated the new discussions. We made the fight at 170 pounds for pay-per-view on October 18th with a fifty-fifty split between the two camps. I don’t like a lot of the things that are going on now between HBO and Golden Boy. But my experience working with Schaefer on big promotions has been good. Once a deal is in place, there are very few disagreements or problems, so I expect it will be a successful promotion.”
Moving Pavlik to October 18th freed up September 27th for Mosley-Mayorga. That led to criticism from a rival promoter who complained, “HBO wouldn’t have done this for anyone but Golden Boy. Why bail out Golden Boy? Ross should have let Mosley-Mayorga fail as a pay-per-view venture. That would have restored some semblance of sanity to the industry and reminded everyone that pay-per-view isn’t a bottomless pot of gold.”
Another promoter noted that September 27th is part of a free HBO preview weekend and said, “Something like that should be used to showcase young fighters with a future. Mosley-Mayorga isn’t a good fight to begin with and it’s about the past. Why spend all that money [a license fee believed to be in the neighborhood of $3,000,000] on the past?”
Also, it now appears as though HBO will pair Mosley-Mayorga with Andre Berto against Stevie Forbes.
Mosley should be fighting Berto. That would be a good fight. Instead, boxing fans will be subjected to more insulting erratic behavior from Mayorga coupled with another one-sided HBO bout between a quality fighter and an opponent provided by The Contender (e.g. Calzaghe-Manfredo, Cotto-Gomez, De La Hoya-Forbes, and Berto-Bravo).
Regardless; Arum was satisfied with the deal for Pavlik-Hopkins. “We made the best of a difficult situation,” he says.
Then another problem arose.
On May 25th, Roy Jones and John Wirt met in England with Joe Calzaghe and his attorney to discuss a Jones-Calzaghe match-up. Wirt, also an attorney, runs Square Ring (Jones’s promotional company). Enzo Calzaghe (Joe’s father and trainer) was not at the meeting because he has several fighters under contract to Joe’s former promoter, Frank Warren. Warren claims that he still has promotional rights to Joe, and Enzo is believed to be sympathetic to the promoter’s position.
At the close of the meeting, a contract was signed that called for Square Ring to promote a Jones-Calzaghe fight with a fifty-fifty split between the two camps after the deduction of direct promotional expenses. Wirt pitched the fight to Ross Greenburg, but HBO declined to bid on it because of a claim by Don King that he had promotional rights to Jones. Then, during the week of June 23rd, King stepped aside in exchange for Jones agreeing to not pursue money that King owed him in conjunction with his January 19th fight against Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden.
With King out of the picture, Jones, Wirt, Calzaghe, and Gareth Williams (who had become Calzaghe’s new attorney) journeyed to New York for a meeting at HBO. On July 2nd, they sat down with Kery Davis, Mark Taffet (senior vice president for sports operations and pay-per-view), Barbara Thomas (senior vice president and chief financial officer) and Peter Mozarsky (an attorney in HBO’s legal department). The following day, Greenburg joined them.
Sources at HBO and elsewhere say that a deal for HBO to televise Jones-Calzaghe on pay-per-view was finalized at the July 3rd meeting. The fight would take place on September 20th at Madison Square Garden or the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. HBO vetoed London and Cardiff as possible sites but, in return, agreed to produce a 24/7 series to promote the fight.
At the July 2nd and July 3rd meetings, Gareth Williams (who also represents Ricky Hatton and has had extensive dealings with Golden Boy) said that he wanted Golden Boy to be involved with the promotion to protect Calzaghe’s interests. Jones said that Golden Boy could act as Joe’s adviser, but that neither Richard Schaefer nor Oscar could hold themselves out as a co-promoter of the fight and that Golden Boy could not have any event signage.
Meanwhile, Frank Warren had sued Calzaghe in England for breach of contract. The lawsuit seeks money damages, not an injunction. But in addition to filing legal papers, Warren sent threatening letters to HBO, Madison Square Garden (which was close to finalizing a deal for the fight), and others who were potentially involved with the promotion. HBO asked Calzaghe for a promise of indemnification regarding any legal action that Warren might take against it. Calzaghe refused. Then, on, July 22nd, Wirt announced he’d been told by Gareth Williams that Calzaghe had injured his wrist two days earlier hitting a heavy bag. Also on July 22nd, the Jones camp issued a statement in Roy’s name stating that HBO and Madison Square Garden were working with him to reschedule the fight for November 8th.
At that point, the feces hit the propeller. Todd DuBoef, president of Top Rank (Arum’s promotional company) picks up the saga.
“After Manny Pacquiao fought David Diaz [on June 21st],” DuBoef explains, “HBO sent us a proposal for a Pacquiao pay-per-view fight on November 15th. I checked with In Demand and Direct-TV [which clear pay-per-view events for the industry] and learned that UFC was planning a show for November 15th. So I put a hold on November 8th and November 15th. Then I called Taffet and said, ‘There’s no point in going against UFC. I want November 8th.’ Taffet told me, ‘We have a World Championship Boxing show on November 8th [Jermain Taylor against a then-unnamed opponent]. Let me get back to you.”
Well and good.
But then, according to DuBoef, “The next thing I know, Mark has called In Demand and Direct-TV and told them that HBO is going with Jones-Calzaghe on November 8th. I called Mark to ask what was going on, and he told me that Top Rank could do its own show on November 8th; that the industry could carry two pay-per-view events on the same night the way it did in 2006 when HBO televised Hopkins-Tarver on pay-per-view and we did Cotto-Malignaggi.”
“That’s nuts,” DuBoef continues. “Why would HBO want to put Jones-Calzaghe and Manny Pacquiao against each other? That’s not good for boxing. And why couldn’t someone at HBO pick up the phone and tell us that they were doing Jones-Calzaghe on November 8th?”
“They’re small thinkers,” DuBoef says of HBO. “They’re trying to keep the boxing world small so they can control it.”
Arum is more pointed in his comments. He had planned to promote a fight involving the winner of Cotto-Margarito on November 1st and a Pacquiao fight on November 8th. HBO now has Jermain Taylor against Jeff Lacy scheduled for November 15th and Ricky Hatton vs. Paulie Malignaggi slated for November 22nd. That’s followed by Thanksgiving weekend and Oscar De La Hoya’s farewell bout on December 6th, leaving boxing’s dance card full toward the end of the year.
“With everything we were planning for Pavlik, Pacquiao, and the winner of Cotto-Margarito,” Arum says, “I never contemplated losing the November 8th date. We cleared it with In Demand and Direct-TV. HBO knew what we were doing. Representations were made. And then, all of a sudden, without anybody telling us, HBO takes the date away. Nothing like that ever happened before. There was a time when people in boxing said, ‘You can’t trust what promoters say.’ Now you can’t trust what HBO says. It’s not my fault that Ross got himself into a bind for November.”
Arum is a fascinating figure. Former Time Warner Sports president Seth Abraham (the architect of HBO’s boxing program) says that fighters and strategies provided by the promoter contributed significantly to the network’s early success. Later, Arum was instrumental in building Showtime Boxing as a counterbalance to HBO. For years, he was ESPN’s sole supplier of fights. More recently, he put Versus in the boxing business.
Arum is now 76 years old and has enough money to retire the national debt of a small country. But he still plays the game successfully and hard.
In recent years, Arum and Greenburg have been at odds. Their feud went public in 2006, when the promoter criticized HBO for refusing to offer a date to Kelly Pavlik and proclaimed, "There’s a perception with boxing network guys that, if you’re a white guy, you can’t fight. They judge by color."
In response, Greenburg called Arum’s comments "a disgraceful and undignified remark by a disturbed man."
That exchange resonated on July 4th of this year when the Grand Rapids Press quoted Floyd Mayweather Jr as saying that HBO’s announcing team was “racist” and singled out Jim Lampley for criticism. In response, Greenburg issued a statement that read, "Floyd is a tremendous athlete who gave his all to the sport. We have nothing but admiration for what he accomplished in the ring. His remarks regarding HBO broadcasters and executives are unfortunate and we could not disagree more. We will not engage in a debate. We are very disappointed in hearing about this. We wish him well in retirement."
The difference in content and tone between the two Greenburg statements was not lost on observers. “Res ipsa loquitur,” Arum said in his best Latin legalese. “The facts speak for themselves. A real general defends his troops as wholeheartedly as he defends himself.”
During Cotto-Margarito fight week, Arum sat for two long interviews to detail his relationship with Greenburg and HBO. “I don’t blame Richard Schaefer for what happened with the November 8th date,” the promoter said. “There’s a conspiracy theory that HBO took November 8th away from me to put Manny Pacquiao in a position where he has to fight Oscar, but I don’t believe that. I think it’s just Ross being a moron.”
Then Arum went into high gear. Among the thoughts he offered were:
* HBO still does some things right. It deserves credit for lighting a fire under De La Hoya-Mayweather and helping to make it the event that it was. But Ross thinks that, if HBO does one or two really big pay-per-view shows a year, he’s doing his job. That’s not how you build a boxing program. You build a boxing program month after month, one fight at a time, the way HBO used to do it when people who understood boxing were running the show. Right now, most of the fights are horrible; the ratings are horrible. And things will get worse before they get better because the guy with the juice acts based on ignorance and his own personal feelings rather than what’s good for the sport and HBO.
* Anybody who knows anything about boxing knows that Cotto-Margarito is going to be a great fight. Could something bad happen where it gets stopped early because of a cut from a head-butt? Of course. But absent something like that, everybody in boxing except Ross Greenburg knows that it’s going to be a great fight. It’s the kind of fight that HBO should get behind to build a fan base for the sport and for HBO boxing. Fights like this are building blocks. Fights like this make fight fans. HBO could have bought this fight for World Championship Boxing for $6,000,000, which is less than they’ve paid for some of their fights this year. But no one at HBO expressed any interest in it. In fact, not only was there no interest in putting Cotto-Margarito on regular HBO; I had to embarrass them through the media to get them to do a Countdown show for it. A Countdown show for this fight is a no-brainer unless you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t have a brain.
* You need a boxing guy to run boxing at HBO; not a bunch of TV guys who think they know boxing. The biggest problem with Ross, far worse than his personal animosity toward me and one or two other promoters, is his lack of knowledge and lack of interest in boxing. Ross has no idea who the fighters are. If they hadn’t drafted Kelly Pavlik as cannon fodder for Edison Miranda, Kelly still wouldn’t be on HBO.
* When HBO was HBO, Seth Abraham did the overall planning and Lou DiBella was the expert when it came to knowledge of boxing. Other than Taffet, no one does any intelligent planning at HBO anymore, and Taffet’s planning is all about pay-per-view.
* Ross was a good producer, but that doesn’t qualify him to be the head of a major department at a major premium network. I’m sorry to say it, but Ross is ill-equipped for the job and he’s certainly ill-equipped to run HBO’s boxing program. If someone has no understanding of boxing and no love for the sport, he gets hooked on names he’s heard of, even if those names belong to fighters who are way past their prime or could never fight to begin with. That’s why you see so many horrible fights and so many of the same tired old faces on HBO. The only reason HBO is televising Mosley-Mayorga is that Ross has heard of both guys. Make up a quiz about boxing, and give it to all the executives who’ve been involved in buying fights for the television networks over the past ten years. I guarantee you; Ross would come in last.
* There’s no adult supervision at HBO as far as boxing is concerned. And that’s a shame because HBO could be so good for boxing if the guy in charge knew what he was doing.
* Ross has stopped speaking to me altogether. He won’t take telephone calls from me anymore because he’s mad that I’ve criticized him. I’ve called him five or six times in the past few weeks, and he won’t return my calls. That’s not how a responsible television executive behaves. It’s worse than unprofessional. It’s fucking moronic. I’m supplying Manny Pacquiao, Kelly Pavlik, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito. None of them are tied to HBO, which means they can bolt at any time. Ross might despise me. But doesn’t he have an obligation as the head of HBO Sports to talk with me? Don King and I were mortal enemies at times, but we always talked. Seth Abraham was pissed off at me more times than I can count, but we always talked. Even when Seth and I were fighting, he’d pick up the phone and call to say ‘congratulations’ after a great fight.
Ross Greenburg declined to be interviewed with regard to his rift with Arum. Instead, an HBO spokesperson sent a response that read in part, "We’ve grown weary of Bob Arum’s tirades against HBO Sports. They are foolish, unproductive, and marginal in accuracy. Bob’s mission is to create leverage. We are not going to play his game."
HBO is correct is saying that Arum’s remarks should be viewed through the prism of self-interest. But give Arum credit. He’s willing to go on the record. A lot of promoters in boxing today are saying the same things that he is, but only on condition of anonymity.
“It’s like the old Soviet Union,” Arum observes. “If you spoke out against mismanagement or abuses of power, you were punished. Promoters today are afraid that, if they speak out about what’s going on at HBO, Ross will retaliate and they won’t get the one date a year they hope he’ll give them. I don’t give a damn. At my age and in my position, I’m able to speak out. So I do.”
Also, as Todd DuBoef notes, “Pissing on the number-one boxing buyer in the world doesn’t create leverage. Bob is simply telling the truth as he sees it.”
On July 26th, for an hour at least, the bickering came to an end.
A great fight isn’t necessarily a big event: So much of boxing is illusion; how a fight is sold and how the result is spun afterward. Cotto-Margarito never became a big event. Arum put the bout in Las Vegas. Part of his motivation was that there’s a huge pay-per-view market in the southwest and California that Cotto had been unable to penetrate. The theory was that a Vegas site would engender more media coverage in those markets and hence more pay-per-view buys.
The MGM Grand Garden Arena seats 16,000. A disappointing crowd of 10,477 attended the fight. Puerto Rico vs. Mexico is still essentially an east coast rivalry. The bout would have been better attended had it taken place at Madison Square Garden or in Atlantic City. But Arum’s judgment was vindicated by the first post-fight pay-per-view numbers, which indicate that there were close to 500,000 buys.
The fight itself lived up to its billing and then some. As it unfolded, everyone in the arena understood that they were watching greatness. There were virtually no clinches and the pace never slowed over ten-and-a-half exhilarating brutal rounds.
Each man had weighed in at 147 pounds, but Margarito was three inches taller with a six-inch reach advantage. Cotto could have negated those numbers by going inside, but it seemed as though that was the last place he wanted to be. From the early moments on, it was clear that Miguel respected Antonio’s punching power more than Antonio respected Cotto’s. Miguel is used to being the fighter who applies pressure, but here it was the other way around.
One has to marvel at a fight plan that calls for beating Cotto by walking through his punches. But essentially, that’s what Margarito strategized. He was the aggressor throughout, moving inexorably forward and forcing exchanges whenever he could. “Pressure, pressure, pressure,” he said afterward. “That was the plan. I knew he was a better boxer, but I am the heavier puncher.”
Cotto’s only road to victory was to outbox Margarito. He couldn’t out-tough him. And Miguel had never been in a situation like that before. He had faster hands and was the better boxer. He did his best to be elusive, circling away and landing sharp crisp hard counters. He won five of the first six rounds by getting off first and hit Margarito with punches that had caused other fighters, good fighters, to crumble. But Antonio shrugged them off and kept moving relentlessly forward, digging to the body with thudding blows and going upstairs when the opportunity presented itself.
Margarito had the better chin. That was the difference. It enabled him to beat Cotto down with constant pressure and brutal punching power, just as Miguel has done to so many fighters in the past. As early as round two, Cotto was bleeding from the nose. He suffered a cut on his left eyelid in round three. By round six, he was bleeding from the mouth.
By then, it was clear that, even though Cotto was ahead on points, Margarito was imposing his will. “In the sixth round,” Antonio said afterward, “I felt him weakening and I knew the fight was mine.”
From round seven on, Margarito beat Cotto up. Miguel’s facial features were remade. He fought back, but the smothering assault continued. Cotto’s counters became less about causing damage than simply keeping Antonio off. And Miguel’s punches were losing their sting, which took away the only defense he had against Margarito’s assault.
It’s an axiom of boxing that any fighter can lose and any fighter can be broken. In round eleven, Cotto was broken. A barrage of punches punctuated by a vicious left uppercut put Miguel on the canvas at the 1:20 mark. He rose, but his face was a bloody mess and he bore the look of a thoroughly beaten man. Another barrage of punches, this one lasting twenty seconds, backed him into a neutral corner. Then, what had once been unthinkable happened.
Miguel Cotto took a knee.
Referee Kenny Bayless began to count and Evangelista Cotto, white towel in hand, intervened.
It was a great fight that left hardened observers in awe of what they had seen. “This was Margarito’s night.” Cotto said afterward. “He did his job better than I did.”
As for the future; Margarito’s victory muddies the waters a bit. If Cotto had won, he would have stood alone atop the welterweight division and been a serious contender for the mythological “pound-for-pound” crown. Whatever Margarito was against Daniel Santos, he’s a lot better than that now. But Antonio also lost to Paul Williams. Williams split with Carlos Quintana. Quintana was destroyed by Cotto. And so it goes.
The most logical next fight would be a Margarito-Williams rematch. Few fans care about Williams against Winky Wright, nor are they interested in seeing Williams defend his WBO belt against mandatory challenger Michael Jennings. Indeed, Margarito gave up his IBF bauble (won from Kermit Cintron in April) to challenge Cotto rather than face a mandatory challenger. Cotto-Margarito showed how unimportant today’s titles and title-unification fights are to true boxing fans.
“If I had my choice,” says Arum, “Pavlik would be fighting Calzaghe; Oscar would be fighting Margarito; and Pacquiao would have an interim fight in November before fighting the winner of Hatton-Malignaggi.”
But Arum doesn’t have his choice. For starters; De La Hoya (like Floyd Mayweather Jr) has avoided both Margarito and Cotto. That won’t change.
Two days after Cotto-Margarito, Top Rank moved its pay-per-view hold from November 8th to November 1st. What happens on November 1st depends in large measure on whether Manny Pacquiao fights Oscar on December 6th.
“Either way,” Arum promises, “all my guys are going to fight one more time this year. Would I like it to be on HBO? Of course I would. But the one thing I’m not going to do is let them sit. An athlete’s career is a depreciating asset. He has to stay busy during his most productive years.”
Todd DuBoef elaborates on that theme, saying, “Kelly Pavlik is already scheduled for October 18th. Both Pacquiao and Margarito will fight this fall. And if Cotto wants to, he’ll fight in December. The difference between our business model and other promoters is, if HBO doesn’t have room for our fighters, we’ll take them somewhere else. The Cotto-Margarito doubleheader we did on Showtime in 2006 is an example of that. And we’re fully capable of doing our own pay-per-view shows. Antonio Margarito just won the biggest victory of his career in one of the most exciting fights in years. His livelihood shouldn’t depend on whether or not HBO wants him to sit out the rest of the year.”
Meanwhile, Cotto-Margarito showed what boxing can and should be. Two elite fighters with exciting styles in the prime of their respective careers fighting each other in a competitive fight.
The sport is healthier now that it was ten days ago because of Cotto-Margarito.
And boxing fans have served notice that they want to see more than good fighters. They want to see good fights.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org