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21 SEPTEMBER 2014

 

Don King, HBO, and the Heavyweight Muddle




By Thomas Hauser:
Like a traveling salesman displaying his wares, Don King returned to Madison Square Garden on November 13th. The promotion was labeled "Night of the Heavyweights" and offered some competitive heavyweight fights. But as is often the case in boxing, the action outside the ring was as compelling as the action inside it.

The fights took place against the backdrop of heated squabbling between King and HBO.

"I love HBO," King once said. "I helped build it." But at present, DK is upset that HBO is backing Vitali Klitschko as the true heavyweight champion to the detriment of his own heavyweight interests. It aggravates him that HBO rarely interviews him or shows him on camera. He doesn't like Larry Merchant's commentary. And he's troubled by the fact that HBO has more power to rearrange the landscape of boxing than he does. That power was most recently displayed when the cable giant enticed Antonio Tarver and Glengoffe Johnson to give up their light-heavyweight championship belts and fight one another after King had won a purse bid to promote a WBC title defense by Tarver against Paul Briggs.

In the past, King has voiced his frustration with comments like, "HBO thinks it runs the world . . . HBO is the Evil Empire . . . HBO covers its arrogance and its mistakes with money." Then, on the afternoon of the October 2nd fight between Felix Trinidad and Ricardo Mayorga, he exploded.

"I don't give a fuck about HBO," King declaimed, "because HBO doesn't give a fuck about me. I work my ass off for HBO and then I get kicked in the butt every fucking time. They smile to my face and then they manipulate things and stab me in the back. They try to steal my fighters and do everything they can to hurt me. I don't need this shit. I resent this shit. I'm tired of kissing HBO's fucking ass. Fuck HBO. They got me begging like a fucking vagrant, knocking on the fucking door."

King also claimed that HBO had announced inflated pay-per-view numbers for Oscar De La Hoya versus Bernard Hopkins to his detriment. He accused Merchant of "discriminatory remarks and outlandish hatred for everybody," adding, "Everyone in the country knows his biases and his bigotry." And he closed with the broadside, "HBO wants to control boxing without having any of the responsibility or accountability that come with power. HBO is diminishing boxing in pursuit of its own selfish agenda to control the sport."

In response, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said simply, "I'm not going to get into a verbal sparring match with Don. We appreciate his ability as a promoter and hope to buy fights from him in the future. But the things he's saying now are ridiculous." And Merchant added, "Don's problem is that he thinks every fight is about him, and they're not."

But the verbal assaults continued. "The fans at home believe what you tell them if you keep telling them long enough," said Bob Goodman (a DKP vice president and King's point man on boxing). "HBO barrages the public with publicity that they're the heart and soul of boxing and their boxers are the best. The way they work at HBO is, if they can't control a fighter, the fans won't see him. The people at HBO are the ones who will ultimately kill boxing by destroying competition and free enterprise. Someday, when Don and Bob Arum leave the business, we'll all be at the mercy of HBO. And believe me; it will be 'no mercy'."

Then King himself poured more fuel on the fire with talk of creating a television boxing network that would feature live bouts, archival fight footage, martial arts matches, and hip-hop music.

"That's really the only way to go," King declared, "because you don't have to worry about someone sabotaging you or putting a knife in your back when you do it yourself. My channel will be a global channel. I'm looking for international partners. I have the greatest boxing library in the world. I have the press conferences, the up-close-and-personals, the human interest stories that give character to boxing. And I've been on top for thirty years, so I've got the fights. This isn't a dream; it's going to happen. I'm not going to be an indentured servant anymore."

Meanwhile, King's Madison Square Garden card highlighted the gruesome state of the heavyweight division. Give DK credit for taking his best heavyweights and matching them against one another. But the best he has are less than sterling.

The first pay-per-view fight of the night pitted Evander Holyfield against Larry Donald. For two decades, Holyfield has been one of the most compelling figures in boxing. He won his pro debut on a six-round decision over Lional Byarm at the Garden on November 15, 1984, and a glorious career followed. But Evander is now a shot fighter, and everyone except Evander knows it. Hence, the familiar Holyfield mantra:

* "The problems I had the last few years weren't about age. They were about my not doing the things I used to do in training camp and in my other preparation for my fights. You look at a champion and ask what it was that made him great. With me, it was my work ethic. And what happened was, I was with people who didn't believe in me, so they didn't push me hard enough in camp."

* "I'm not in denial about my age. I know how old I am, but I refuse to quit. And because of that, eventually I'll get everything I want. At one time, they said I shouldn't be in the game because I was too small, and then they realized that size don't make a difference. Now, they're looking at my age, and I've got to show them that age don't make a difference as long as one is willing to pay the price necessary to be the best. I still have a passion for the game. I go to sleep and wake up wanting to fight. You're only old when they throw dirt on you."

* "My goal is to retire as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. It's just a fact that I have to finish the right way. None of us choose our beginning, but we can choose our end. And at the end, if I retire as undisputed heavyweight champion, I will have had a perfect career."

* "In life, there are always more doubters than people that have faith in you. They say you can't do it, and I understand that they're only telling me that because it's something that they wanted and they didn't do it and they're trying to talk me into being like them. But I'm gonna do it whether they say I can or not."

* "Don't sit here and make people feel sorry for me. The best is yet to come. You ain't seen the best yet."

Still, reality has a way of seeping in. Evander had headlined every fight card he'd been on since 1986. This time, he was in the opening act.

And then there's the matter of money. Evander needs it, despite having made well over $100,000,000 in his ring career. His Atlanta mansion is costly to maintain and will be difficult to sell if and when the time comes. He lost a small fortune investing in a Christian television network and a rap music venture. There have been two divorces. And for a while, there was a serious gambling problem.

Holyfield was paid $8,000,000 for his 1990 victory over James "Buster" Douglas. This was the first time in 24 fights since then that his purse was under $2,000,000. Evander said he was getting $1,500,000 for the Donald fight. Contracts filed with the New York State Athletic Commission put the figure at $1,000,000. There were whispers that the true number was $500,000.

It's hard to imagine Holyfield being in a dull fight, but this one was. Only the fact that Evander was a participant gave it drama.

Larry Donald is a journeyman fighter. He's 37 years old and had won only three fights in the past four-and-a-half years. Moreover, those wins had come against opponents with a combined record of 5 victories against 28 losses in their most recent outings.

Still, Donald dominated from start to finish. Evander knew what to do. He just couldn't do it. His balance was bad and his timing was worse. His trademark aggressiveness was gone, and he got hit with right-hand leads all night. He was weak and unable to manhandle Donald in the clinches as he used to do to opponents. There were times when Larry was wide open for counters, and Evander simply couldn't pull the trigger. All totaled, Donald outlanded Holyfield 260 to 78. Mercifully, he doesn't have a big punch. The judges scored it 119-109, 119-109, and 118-109. The judge who gave two rounds to Evander was being kind to him.

One image from the contest lingers. Midway through round one, Evander threw a punch, stumbled, and fell.

There's a particularly painful memory for baseball fans who grew up watching Willie Mays ply his trade in centerfield for the New York Giants and later in San Francisco. At the end of his career, Mays returned to New York for one last season with the Mets. Except he wasn't Willie Mays anymore. And in the World Series, chasing a routine fly ball, he fell down. Mays was 42 years old at the time; the same age that Holyfield is now.

Next up in the Garden was Hasim Rahman versus Kali Meehan.

Meehan is an immensely likeable, big strong guy without world-class skills or a heavyweight punch. King touted him as the "uncrowned WBO champ" by virtue of his recent disputed-decision loss to Lamon Brewster. But given the fact that Brewster has won only one round convincingly since knocking out 309-pound Joe Lenhart twenty months ago, that credential hardly struck terror into Rahman's heart.

Meehan was brought in on the assumption that he'd lose to Rahman. "It's obvious that he's more experienced," Kali acknowledged. "He has all the advantages in his background and training, but I can't go into the ring thinking like that. Few people gave me a chance against Brewster, and I expected that. Few people give me a chance against Rahman, and I expected that, too. But it doesn't matter what I'm brought in as. It matters how I perform."

"I like Kali Meehan; we're cool," Rahman said in response. "But when the bell rings, I'm going to knock his head off."

That's pretty much what happened. People keep expecting big things from Rahman and not getting them. He'd been 4-3-1 in eight fights since his 2001 victory over Lennox Lewis. Part of the problem is that Hasim tends toward laziness in the gym. He also eats too much and has fought at weights as high as 259 pounds.

This time, Rahman came in at 232 pounds; his second-lowest weight in eight years. He also remembered to bring his jab, which he sometimes forgets. In the second round, he used the jab to bloody Meehan's nose. Then he began the process of chopping his opponent down. Finally, in round four, he trapped Kali in a corner and battered him like a heavy bag. Meehan's trainer stopped the action at the end of the stanza.

Then it was time for the title fights. Chris Byrd and Jameel McCline came first.

Byrd is the IBF champion. But in recent defenses against Fres Oquendo and Andrew Golota, it appeared that he needed questionable scoring from the judges to keep his crown.

"Most boxing fans don't understand the sport," Byrd said of those fights. "I don't worry anymore whether people appreciate me. Maybe I'll be appreciated after my career is over."

But for a guy who "doesn't get hit," Byrd has been getting hit a lot lately. Also, he's 34 years old. And fighters who rely on reflexes and speed, as he does, age more quickly in the ring than punchers.

Byrd said he was looking forward to fighting McCline, who towered above him and outweighed him by 56 pounds (270 to 214). "Muscles don't turn you into a puncher," Chris said. "I know Jameel very well. I've been at a lot of his fights. He has good hand speed, a good jab, and he's a big man with power. But I know how to shut down every opponent's game. I love fighting these big guys. It's exciting; it's a challenge. It's going to be like a piranha against a whale. The piranha is constantly biting away." Then Byrd added a cautionary note. "But the whale could end it all in one big gulp."

On paper, Byrd was a good opponent for McCline. Jameel is huge; but often in the ring, he thinks like a small heavyweight to the point of being intimidated by his opponent. Byrd's size and lack of power were expected to give McCline confidence.

At first, that's the way things unfolded. In round two, Jameel trapped Byrd in a corner and missed badly with a volley of punches; then landed a solid right hand that put Chris down. Around that time, McCline also seemed to realize that Byrd might be able to sting him with punches but would be unable to take him out. Thus, for a while, Jameel got brave and mixed his punches nicely. But he tired in the middle rounds and reverted to fighting like a small heavyweight. Byrd came on late for a 115-112, 114-113, 112-114 split-decision triumph. This observer scored it 115-112 in favor of McCline.

Then came the main event. John Ruiz versus Andrew Golota for the WBA title.

Ruiz has spent years trying to overcame the stigma of his 19-second knockout obliteration at the hands of David Tua. Then, just when he was beginning to gain acceptance, he was dominated by Roy Jones.

"I've always been a worker, but my confidence wasn't always there," Ruiz acknowledged earlier this month. "In many fights, I never really had the strength, heart, and balls to fight. I never had the mentality to think, 'I'm the best.' The main thing I lacked, the thing I work on that every champion has, is a champion knows every fight that he's going to win. I didn't have the mind of a champion."

"This is a perfect fight for me," Ruiz said, shifting his thoughts to Golota. "Is it going to be tough? Yes; every fight is tough. But like you've seen in a lot of other fights, Golota ends up quitting. What better opponent to have than someone who's going to quit as soon as I put the pressure on. Either he quits or I knock him out."

Meanwhile, given the tactics employed by each fighter in the past, the feeling among the boxing intelligentsia was that the Marquis of Queensberry rules were about to be broken. Indeed, there was a school of thought that Ruiz would try to win the fight by provoking Golota to the point where Andrew was disqualified for hitting below the belt. That's quite a fight plan; to go out and encourage an opponent who weighs 240 pounds to smash your testicles.

It's hard to land a good clean punch on Ruiz. But against Golota, John came out hard, throwing overhand rights, going for all the marbles. That left him open to a perfectly-timed right-hand counter in the second round. The blow landed flush on Ruiz's jaw and put him down. He rose but was hurt and went down again before the bell.

Then Ruiz reverted to form; clutching, grappling, holding, and mauling. In round four, referee Randy Neumann deducted a point from the champion for illegal blows to the back of the head. Meanwhile, Golota was responding in kind.

Eventually, the fight settled into a pattern, with Ruiz slipping Golota's jab and lunging forward with his head low like a fullback trying to work his way into the end zone. He also landed some effective body punches and, at one point, came close to head-butting Golota in groin.

The judges scored it 114-111, 114-111, and 113-112 for Ruiz. That seemed odd, given the fact that he incurred a three-point deficit in the knockdown round, was penalized a point for rabbit-punching, and was outlanded by Golota 152 to 121. This observer scored it even at 113-113.

But there was a second plot-line to Ruiz-Golota. Eight years ago, Golota fought Riddick Bowe at Madison Square Garden and was disqualified for repeated low blows. A riot followed, with Golota's Polish countrymen and Bowe's African-American supporters assaulting one another. This time, both the Ruiz and Golota camps were warned in advance by Ron Scott Stevens (chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission) to be on their best behavior.

As Ruiz-Golota progressed, there were scattered fist-fights throughout the crowd. Meanwhile, after the first round, Norman Stone (Ruiz's manager-trainer) ran across the ring to confront Golota's corner over a perceived slight. Stone also screamed obscenities at referee Randy Neumann throughout the bout. Finally, Neumann advised Stevens, "I might want this guy ejected."

"You're the referee," Stevens told him. "Do what you have to do."

Then, in round eight, Neumann brought Ruiz to his corner to repair some loose tape on his glove. But Stone refused to do the job and berated the referee with another stream of profanity. At that point, Neumann told Stevens, "Ron, this guy's got to go."

Stone was led by security guards from the arena.

It's not uncommon for a manager to be ejected from a baseball game by an umpire. But it's rare for a trainer to be banished in boxing. This time, it was warranted.

"He can scream and curse at me all he wants," Neumann said afterward. "But when he interferes with the flow of fight, something has to be done."

Stone is lucky that he was ejected instead of additional points being taken away from his fighter. Two days after the fight, the NYSAC took further action against him, imposing a $1,000 fine and 60-day suspension.

So; where it all leave boxing?

For starters, there won't be a war between King and HBO unless King wants one; and DK has nothing to gain by war right now.

King is frustrated by his inability to make money from his three heavyweight belts. In particular, it angers him that HBO has thrown its support behind Vitali Klitschko (the one titleholder he doesn't control) as the most credible of the four heavyweight champions.

"Klitschko is white," King complains. "That's the only credibility he's got. He's white and he's got HBO behind him. That's why he's where he is. Period, end of story."

The last time King left HBO, it was to form KingVision under the protective umbrella of a deal with Showtime for the services of Mike Tyson. But things are different now. The public doesn't care about King's heavyweights. The only real bullet in his gun is Felix Trinidad. So yes; Don would like more money for his fights and more support in selling his product; and he wants to be on camera more often. But HBO still writes the biggest checks in boxing, and no one else comes close.

Next, there's King's plan for the creation of a boxing network. Certainly, he has the programming. A boxing network could begin like Classic Sports Network did, with an 8-hour cycle repeating three times each day. The core programming would be fights, live and on tape. Start with King-promoted main events. Add on thousand of clubs fights from around the world that are taped each year. Throw in DK's archives. And supplement the package with movies about boxing, documentaries, panel discussions, and interview shows.

But the economics, logistics, and mechanics of the real world make it almost impossible to create a boxing network. For starters, there's a need for capital. Best estimates are that investors would have to be prepared to lose between $50,000,000 and $70,000,000 during the first five years. That's for a low-end, tape-driven, basic-cable network.

Next, a network needs distribution. And it's unlikely that a multi-system cable operator would give Don King (or anyone else) his own dedicated channel for a scandal-ridden niche sport with an aging fan base that can't draw more than a few commercial sponsors.

Moreover, King might be serious about starting a boxing network. But saying "I'm gonna do boxing, hip-hop, and martial arts" doesn't equal a serious business plan.

Clearly, there are opportunities for King to do business with the giant cable companies for video-on-demand. And somewhere down the road, an Internet boxing network is feasible. But for the moment, the most realistic appraisal of the situation comes from Seth Abraham, who has reigned in the past as president of HBO Sports and chief operating officer of Madison Square Garden.

"Don has two chances of forming a boxing network," says Abraham. "Slim and none, and slim just left town. To launch a cable network, you need ongoing corporate support. And corporate support simply isn't there for boxing at the present time. What Don is doing, really, is putting out a business card to the television community, saying 'I'm at war with HBO; do you have a home for me?' That's all. And if he doesn't find someone who gives him what he wants, he'll stay with HBO."

That, of course, leads to the question of what fight fans might see next in the heavyweight division on HBO. King's November 13th card resolved nothing. No one delivered a dominant performance and no new blood emerged to excite the public. The big winner, assuming he beats Danny Williams when they meet on December 11th, was Vitali Klitschko. Right now, by the process of attrition, Klitschko is probably the best of the bunch. But the truth is, at present, the heavyweight title is vacant. Today's championships are no more real than the faux diamonds and rubies in the various sanctioning-body belts.

King says he wants to promote an elimination tournament in 2005 to crown an undisputed heavyweight champion. But for the tournament to be credible, he needs the winner of Klitschko-Williams to participate. That's not likely to happen. DK doesn't control either fighter and probably wouldn't allow either of them into the tournament unless he had options on future fights. That leaves open the possibility of title-consolidation fights among King's three champions. But no one would pay much for those fights. The only way for a promoter to make big money in the heavyweight division today is to control THE champion or Mike Tyson. So look for King to throw mandatory challengers at Klitschko while he maintains the other three belts (and multiple title fights) for the forseeable future.

And that's it, except for one final note. On November 15th, the New York State Athletic Commission placed Evander Holyfield on indefinite suspension for "poor performance" in his losing effort against Larry Donald. The suspension is for medical reasons, which means that it must be honored by all members of the Association of Boxing Commissions. In order to be taken off suspension, Holyfield must undergo extensive medical testing under the supervision of the NYSAC and satisfy the commission that his recent performances have been an aberration. Alternatively, he could challenge the suspension in court.

"I have enormous respect and admiration for Evander Holyfield," Ron Scott Stevens said in announcing the action. "But as a regulator, my first obligation is to ensure the health and safety of all fighters. It should be apparent to anybody who follows boxing that Mr. Holyfield's skills and reflexes have declined to the point where it is no longer safe for him to continue in the ring."

It's sad when a great fighter loses his greatness. Evander Holyfield has enjoyed a career of legendary proportions. But he has won only two of his last nine fights and three fights in the past seven years.

"I know that I'm good enough not to get hurt," Holyfield said last week.

So did Muhammad Ali.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com.

November 17, 2004

Picture by David M.Warr/DKP Productions



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