By Thomas Hauser
HBO and boxing are at a crossroads. The first draft of the network’s overall budget for 2010 was presented in July. It called for a US$15,000,000 reduction for HBO Sports; a cut in excess of twenty percent. Then, during the first week of September, Michael Lombardo (president of HBO’s programming group and West Coast operations) further signaled senior management’s displeasure with the status quo by instructing HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg to cut several million dollars from the budget for the last quarter of 2009.
The key players in the drama that’s unfolding are HBO CEO Bill Nelson, co-president Richard Plepler, and Lombardo. Sources say that these three men have been frustrated by the absence of a coherent overall plan for boxing at HBO. Plepler (who has an extensive background in public relations) is said to have taken particular notice of the publicity that Showtime received when it announced its 168-pound championship tournament. He wonders why HBO Sports, with a far larger budget, has stirred so little media interest in its own boxing programming.
At an early stage of the budget discussions, the powers-that-be asked Greenburg for a comprehensive plan that outlines his vision for the future of boxing at HBO. In making their request, they told him that simply saying HBO intends to buy better, more competitive fights in the future doesn’t constitute a plan. That’s what HBO should have been doing all along. They want a plan.
During the week of September 21st, Greenburg and his staff rehearsed the presentation of their case for restoration of the cuts from next year’s budget. That presentation was made to Nelson, Plepler, and Lombardo on Thursday, September 24th. Sources say that senior vice president for sports operations and pay-per-view Mark Taffet, HBO Sports senior vice president Kery Davis, HBO Sports executive producer Rick Bernstein, and HBO Sports senior vice president and chief financial officer Barbara Thomas were also present.
“It’s surprising how short the meeting was,” says a source with knowledge of the gathering. “It lasted less than thirty minutes. Ross was the presenter on behalf of HBO Sports, but he didn’t fight the cuts. He knows he has problems with senior management. His main concern right now seems to be not making waves.”
HBO’s budget will be finalized by Bill Nelson in late-October or early-November. Then it will be presented to Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes for approval. Nelson, Plepler, and Lombardo are unlikely to tell Greenburg where to cut $15,000,000 from his 2010 budget. That will be his decision. But if the $15,000,000 cut stands, most of it is expected to come out of boxing. There will be lower license fees, fewer fights, and, most likely, layoffs. It’s possible that Boxing After Dark will be discontinued.
“The problem,” one source says, “is that any plan Ross puts forward will be met with skepticism because, when it comes to boxing, his biggest initiatives have failed. His plan to hitch HBO’s wagon to Golden Boy and the Golden Boy output deal have been a disaster. And the idea of anointing Victor Ortiz, Alfredo Angulo, James Kirkland, Robert Guerrero, and Chris Arreola as HBO’s stars of the future doesn’t look so good.”
For some of Greenburg’s bosses, the lasting symbol of the network’s relationship with Golden Boy is a $100,000 party that HBO had planned for the night of Oscar De La Hoya vs. Stevie Forbes. A few days before the fight, HBO Special Events realized that the list of attendees was devoid of big names and cancelled the party.
“Ross has lost a great deal of credibility with senior management because of his dealings with Golden Boy,” a source says. “It goes back to when he convinced them to invest heavily in the license fee and marketing for De La Hoya-Forbes on the premise that it would be a big event. It wasn’t. Now Ross goes into the meetings and tries to sell boxing. And they tell him, ‘Ross, look at the ratings.’ For $15,000,000, Mike Lombardo can develop two new series and maybe deliver the next Sex and the City or The Sopranos.”
The future of boxing at HBO is more contingent now than at any time since former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham took over the reins more than two decades ago. With that in mind, let’s look at what HBO has done in boxing this year, starting with its flagship offering.
HBO World Championship Boxing got off to a good start in 2009. It’s first two shows were Antonio Margarito vs. Shane Mosley on January 24th and a February 28th doubleheader with Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Juan Diaz and Chris John against Rocky Juarez. Everybody understood going in that those were likely to be exciting fights.
Then, on April 11th, HBO televised Paul Williams vs. Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright and Chris Arreola against Jameel McCline. Williams is near the top of most “pound-for-pound” lists. Wright is 37 years old and has won one fight since 2005. Williams won eleven of twelve rounds (all twelve on one judge’s card).
As for Arreola-McCline, HBO was grooming Chris for a title shot (more on that later). Jameel is 38 years old and has lost four of his last five fights. In fact, McCline had retired from boxing and taken a fulltime job when he was seduced back into the ring to fight Arreola for one last paycheck. He fought scared and bailed out in the fourth round.
Then things got worse. On May 9th, HBO World Championship Boxing paired the rematch between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver with a tape-delay of Manny Pacquiao’s second-round knockout of Ricky Hatton. Neither bout, it was suggested afterward, was “live.”
Greenburg’s decision to spend US$3,200,000 plus production and marketing costs on Dawson-Tarver II left a lot of people shaking their heads. Their first fight (on Showtime) had been twelve rounds of tedium that engendered a paid attendance of 911 (a true emergency number). The only reason they were fighting again was that Tarver exercised a rematch clause in his contract.
Dawson-Tarver II typified much of what’s wrong with the decision-making process at HBO Sports. It was summer stock on a Broadway budget. According to records filed with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, 1,426 tickets were sold. The live gate receipts totaled a meager $170,280. Something is very wrong when a network pays a license fee that’s nineteen times the live gate for a fight that can’t sell out a small hotel venue.
At the start of the telecast, HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman called Dawson-Tarver II “a fight that no one really wants to see.” After the bout, he labeled Dawson a B-plus fighter in a C division.” It’s unclear why HBO paid $3,200,000 (plus marketing and production costs) for a fight between a B-plus fighter and a past-his-prime 40-year-old in a C division.
But as Steve Kim noted, “Nobody can bid against themselves quite like HBO.”
Significantly, HBO’s ratings went down during the telecast. Subscribers turned on the television to watch a week-old tape of Pacquiao-Hatton. When Dawson-Tarver II began, they didn’t just stop paying attention. They switched to another channel or turned off their sets.
Afterward, Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote, “Nickelodeon is supposed to be for reruns, not HBO’s World Championship Boxing. But that’s what we got when the network, often with a budget shortfall, wasted a $3.2 million license fee for a rematch it did not need to do and nobody wanted to see. What a shame it poured all that money down a drain when it could have used it far more wisely. Alas, we got a fight that provided no fireworks and went virtually exactly as everyone predicted it would go.”
To make matters worse, two weeks earlier, Showtime had televised a fight-of-the-year candidate in Carl Froch vs. Jermain Taylor. HBO had turned down Froch-Taylor twice; the first time in favor of a dreary encounter between Taylor and Jeff Lacy in November 2008, the second time in favor of Dawson-Tarver II. Showtime paid $900,000 less for Froch-Taylor than HBO paid for the Dawson-Tarver rematch.
World Championship Boxing rebounded on June 13th with an entertaining match-up between Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey. Here, it’s worth noting that HBO paid a $2,650,000 license fee for Cotto-Clottey, and the fight engendered a live gate of approximately $1,700,000. That’s a multiple of 1.56. Compare that with the multiple on Dawson-Tarver II.
Then, having overspent on Dawson-Tarver II and several other fights, HBO Sports ran into budget problems and took World Championship Boxing off the air for fifteen-weeks. It returned on September 26th with a less-than-scintillating offering.
Earlier this year, I wrote a “Memorandum to Ross Greenburg” in which I advised, “Forget the heavyweights until a worthwhile fight comes along. And stop shilling for Chris Arreola. Arreola is an entertaining overweight club fighter, who might someday develop his potential but has never fought, let alone beaten, a world-class fighter. [He hasn’t] earned a fight against Vitali or Wladimir Klitschko or proven yet that he belongs in the ring with either one of them.”
On September 26th, Arreola fought Vitali Klitschko on HBO World Championship Boxing. The bout was paired with a tape-delay telecast of Floyd Mayweather Jr vs. Juan Manuel Marquez.
Every fighter deserves respect for getting in the ring. But there was nothing in Arreola’s record to suggest that he was a credible challenger for Klitschko’s WBC belt.
He wasn’t. Arreola fought with honor but was badly outclassed from the opening bell. There was never a moment when the outcome was in doubt. Klitschko turned him into a human bobble-head doll and out-landed him 301 to 86. Chris’s corner called a halt to the beating after ten ugly rounds.
Eleven years ago, after Shannon Briggs fought Lennox Lewis, HBO analyst Larry Merchant said something that could be applied with equal validity to Klitschko-Arreola. “Briggs was not equipped and not ready to fight someone of Lennox Lewis’s caliber tonight,” Merchant observed. “If they had paid more attention to teaching him how to be a fighter and getting him to where he could handle a shot at the title instead of putting so much effort into marketing, maybe he would have turned out to be a good fighter. But basically he didn’t belong in the ring with Lewis if the point of it was to win the championship. Frankly, I think they’re more into marketing than fighting. They tried to make a sting; a con job. And at the end of the day, they settled for a nice payday instead of bringing Briggs along patiently, where maybe one day he would have made a hundred times more.”
Fighters gain credibility by virtue of the fact that they fight on HBO. But HBO loses credibility when it markets a fighter as more than he really is and the truth is subsequently revealed by the fighter’s ring performance.
Why did HBO put so much time, money, and effort into building Arreola as a paper challenger?
“I guess Chuck Wepner couldn’t get licensed in California,” one denizen of the boxing world speculated.
It would be nice to think that the powers that be at HBO Sports know something that the rest of the boxing world doesn’t know. But too often, it appears as though boxing people know things that the people running HBO Sports don’t.
The next fight scheduled for HBO World Championship Boxing is a November 7th rematch between Chad Dawson and Glen Johnson. Their first encounter (on Showtime) was entertaining. But Dawson won 116-112 on all three judges’ scorecards. Johnson is forty years old, and the result is unlikely to be different the second time around.
HBO is paying a reported US$2,000,000 for Dawson-Johnson II. The opening bout that evening will pit Alfredo Angulo against Harry Joe Yorgey. Yorgey is not what people used to think of as an “HBO-quality fighter.”
As for HBO World Championship Boxing in December, the operative word has been “chaos.” More on that later.
Where HBO Pay-Per-View is concerned, the network deserves credit for cutting back on the number of events it schedules. There were eight pay-per-view cards in 2008. That shortchanged HBO’s regular subscribers and led to the belief in some circles that, if a fight was “only” on World Championship Boxing, it wasn’t a big fight. Also, several of HBO’s 2008 pay-per-view offerings revolved around relatively insignificant fights. That led to confusion in branding.
By contrast, there have been two HBO Pay-Per-View cards in 2009 (Pacquiao-Hatton and Mayweather-Marquez) with one more (Pacquiao-Cotto) slated for November 14th. That’s a step in the right direction.
The early reports are that Mayweather-Marquez (like Pacquiao-Hatton) did exceedingly well in terms of pay-per-view buys. More significantly, the buy rate for Mayweather-Marquez swamped a competing show that UFC offered on the same night. That’s a testament to the marketing power of HBO’s 24/7 series and, of broader note, good news for boxing.
Unfortunately, Boxing After Dark (the third component of HBO’s boxing programming) has fallen short of the mark in 2009.
BAD began the year with a good fight between Andre Berto and Luis Collazo on January 17th. Then came a Valentine’s Day tripleheader: Alfredo Angulo vs. Cosme Rivera, Sergio Martinez vs. Kermit Cintron, and Nate Campbell vs. Ali Funeka.
Angulo-Rivera was a predictably horrible fight that should never have been televised. It came about because Ricardo Mayorga pulled out of the bout and HBO was unable to prevail upon the promoters of record to find a satisfactory replacement. That being the case, the network should have cancelled the fight and saved the license fee. Instead, it opted for Rivera as Angulo’s opponent.
On fight night, Angulo (who is being marketed by HBO as a rising star) weighed 165 pounds. Rivera (a faded journeyman) weighed 150. That’s a differential of two weight classes. Their encounter was a brutal beating rather than an athletic competition.
Martinez-Cintron was a bad styles match-up that had the crowd booing through six rounds, two minutes, and fifty seconds. Then Martinez knocked Cintron out with what the cameras showed was a punch and Kermit claimed was a head butt. Referee Frank Santore was sufficiently confused that, after deliberating for several minutes (which gave Cintron time to recover), he decided to preside over a de facto five-round rematch. Ultimately, the fight was declared a draw.
Nate Campbell vs. Ali Funeka (the final televised bout of the evening) dragged on sufficiently long that, on the east coast, Boxing After Dark became Boxing Long After Midnight.
The next Boxing After Dark telecast was also problematic. On March 7th, HBO televised a triple-header featuring three Golden Boy fighters that the network was marketing as future stars. In each instance, the “house fighter” had been developed by another promoter and lured away by Golden Boy with the promise of dates on HBO and a signing bonus that was underwritten by HBO dollars.
At the start of the telecast, blow-by-blow commentator Bob Papa proclaimed, “These are all highly competitive match-ups.” That simply wasn’t true. Robert Guerrero (developed by Dan Goossen prior to jumping ship for Golden Boy) was a 10-to-1 favorite over Daud Yordan in a fight that ended in a two-round “no contest” when Guerrero bailed out after suffering a cut from an accidental head butt. Victor Ortiz, a 5-to-1 favorite (previously with Top Rank), stopped Mike Arnaoutis in round two of a bout in which Arnaoutis landed a total of three punches. Then James Kirkland (developed by Gary Shaw) steamrollered Joel Julio, who quit on his stool after six rounds. Going in, Kirkland-Julio had looked like a more competitive fight than it turned out to be. No blame to HBO on that one. The other two match-ups weren’t HBO-quality fights.
On April 25th, Boxing After Dark televised Juan Manuel Lopez vs. Gary Penalosa and Lamont Peterson vs. Willie Blain. Lopez is a legitimate champion. He’s one of the most exciting young fighters in boxing and has superstar potential, so it’s understandable that HBO okayed the match-up as a way of introducing him to its subscribers despite the 8-to-1 odds. Peterson was a 7-to-1 favorite over Blain in a bout that was far less viewer-friendly.
On May 30th, Andre Berto won a lackluster decision over Juan Urango, who was fighting out of his weight-class to pick up Boxing After Dark dollars. On the same card, Alfredo Angulo was exposed when he lost a unanimous decision to Kermit Cintron.
Then Victor Ortiz was undressed when he quit in the sixth round of a June 27th Boxing After Dark bout against Marcos Maidana.
“They [HBO] gave their dates to one promoter, whose stable has now been wiped out,” Bob Arum observed afterward. “They would love to give us dates, but they can’t. They’ve committed dates to Golden Boy, who now has no fighters except retreads to put in. It was the wrong decision when they made it and now it’s coming home to roost.”
On August 22nd, Boxing After Dark was headlined by a good fight between Juan Diaz and Paulie Malignaggi (more on that later). The undercard saw the return of Robert Guerrero (who’s a lot less exciting to watch than Juan Manuel Lopez) against a very ordinary Malcolm Klassen and Danny Jacobs (a good young prospect) against battleworn Ishe Smith.
The key to the August 22nd card (and many others that HBO has televised this year) is that it was promoted by Golden Boy.
“You’re not getting the best boxing available on HBO,” Kevin Iole of Yahoo.com wrote afterward. “You’re getting the best boxing Golden Boy can deliver. There’s a significant difference.”
The Golden Boy output deal (which runs through 2011) is a millstone around HBO’s neck. The next Boxing After Dark show of 2009 is slated for November 28th. At present, it looks as though viewers will see a rematch of last year’s encounter between Lucian Bute and Librado Andrade. It will be the third rematch of a Showtime fight that HBO has televised this year.
Why Bute-Andrade (for which HBO will pay a reported $550,000 more than Showtime paid)? Andrade is a Golden Boy fighter, and Golden Boy has the date. Ali Funeka vs. Joan Guzman will round out the card.
There’s also talk that, despite its budget problems, HBO will add a December 12th Boxing After Dark date to its schedule. The names initially floated were Victor Ortiz, Robert Guerrero, and Jorge Linares (who Golden Boy signed recently with the promise of HBO dates; a promise that no other promoter can make). Now a rematch between Juan Diaz (another Golden Boy fighter) and Paulie Malignaggi is possible.
In the ring, one mistake can get a fighter knocked out. In programming, the damage from mistakes is incremental, but it adds up blow by blow. The current situation at HBO is a natural consequence of errors in judgment that people in the boxing community have been talking about for years.
Sixteen months ago, Bob Arum declared, “If I was in charge of boxing at HBO, the core of my programming would be twelve big shows a year. If they want to do Boxing After Dark, fine. But the key would be twelve big shows a year. Go back to being the network that puts on great fights that everyone wants to see and everyone talks about. That’s how to make people enthusiastic about HBO like they used to be and how to make new fans for boxing.”
That’s still sound advice. HBO’s plans for the future should be predicated on televising the biggest and best fights possible once a month on HBO World Championship Boxing. And the network should hold Golden Boy to the same standard that it holds everyone else. Let Golden Boy develop fighters the way Top Rank does. Then put them on HBO.
HBO’s announcing teams are still a problem that has to be fixed.
Also, “There’s a lot of fat in HBO’s budget,” one knowledgeable industry veteran says. “They’re overstaffed and they overspend. The license fees are still excessive for some of their fights. They could cut production costs by twenty to twenty-five percent and the audience would never know it. Staff salaries [as opposed to salaries paid to talent] aren’t set against the sports department budget, but they factor into the overall financial picture. And it’s a mystery what some of these guys on staff do.”
“HBO’s economic model is all wrong,” another industry insider says. “Right now, HBO, and HBO alone, determines the value of fighters and fights, and they’re way off-target a lot of the time. HBO decided that Dawson-Tarver II was worth $3,200,000 and Dawson-Johnson II is worth $2,000,000. But if you look at ratings and ticket sales, those numbers are ridiculous. The public, not HBO, should create the value.”
The biggest obstacle that HBO faces in rebuilding its boxing franchise is that not enough people there have in-depth knowledge of the business and sport of boxing. One HBO employee notes, “Ross hasn’t been able to put together a plan for boxing that works because he doesn’t know the business the way Seth [Abraham] did; he has no one on staff who knows the fighters the way Lou [DiBella] did; and there are times when he lets his personal feelings get in the way of sound business judgment.”
Bob Arum builds on that theme, saying, “To do the job right in any business, but particularly in boxing, you have to be on the ground. And these guys aren’t on the ground. When it comes to boxing, Ross has no feel for the job. The most knowledgeable person he has on his staff is [Mark] Taffet. Taffet is a politician, but at least he’s a bright politician. Some of the people over there are morons.”
“Ross has been in the business for thirty years,” a longtime HBO employee offers. “Richard Schaefer had no experience of any kind in boxing until he hooked up with Oscar. So what happens? Schaefer out-negotiates Ross and winds up with a pile of dates, and HBO winds up with a few good fights and some garbage. Has Ross figured out yet that the Golden Boy output deal was a dumb thing to do? If he hasn’t, it doesn’t speak well for the future.”
“Right now, Ross is just throwing stuff against the wall and hoping that something sticks,” the speaker continues. “The problem with that is, when you throw stuff against a wall, you usually get a mess.”
HBO Sports has to go in a new direction insofar as its boxing programming is concerned. Its goals should be to (a) reestablish the almost mystical aura that once attached to HBO Sports; (b) recreate the buzz that surrounded HBO fights in the 1990s; and following logically from these two points (c) increase ratings.
So let’s get specific. Here are some concrete steps that HBO Sports can take to revive its boxing program.
(1) HBO should focus its choice of fights and the marketing of these fights on the issue of “WHO’S #1?’”
Forget about champions. The world sanctioning organizations have made a mockery of the term. And forget about the Ring Magazine belts. The Ring is owned by a promoter. And even if it operates in good faith, its championship-belt rules don’t work in today’s world. That’s evident from the number of Ring titles that are currently “vacant” and the fact that Carlos Baldomir was Ring’s welterweight “champion” in 2006 despite the fact that there were a half-dozen welterweights who were better than he was.
HBO should identify the most credible rankings possible. That might mean convening its own “panel of experts.” It could involve compiling composite rankings based on the work of others. Then, when feasible, it should match the #1 fighter in a given weight class against the top-ranked available challenger.
“WHO’S #1” works for college football and college basketball. It works for tennis and golf. It can work for boxing.
(2) One of HBO’s most satisfying offerings during the past decade was the 2001 middleweight championship tournament with Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad, William Joppy, and Keith Holmes. Given the network’s economic clout, it could orchestrate similar tournaments in various weight divisions today.
There’s a lot to admire about Showtime’s 168-pound tournament. It guarantees fans twelve bouts between evenly-matched elite fighters. But the Showtime tournament will take too long to unfold. There won’t be a winner until 2011.
HBO should televise a series of four-man elimination tournaments. Some of these tournaments could crown the #1 fighter in the world in a given weight class. Another tournament could identify the #1 American heavyweight.
Where young fighters are concerned, HBO should take Boxing After Dark back to its roots. Make it about young fighters in crossroads fights. Match the best young prospects against the best young prospects in four-man elimination tournaments. Don’t televise Danny Jacobs against Ishe Smith in a fight where everyone knows that HBO wants Jacobs to win and, if Smith wins, it’s back to the drawing board. Match Jacobs against another good young middleweight on the rise. That way, no matter who wins, there’s a star in the making.
Given today’s economic realities, promoters and fighters will line up to participate in these mini-tournaments because they have nowhere else to go. Even with its impending budget cutbacks, HBO has far and away the biggest checkbook in boxing and is the final arbiter of which big fights are made.
But (and this is a big “but”) for the tournaments to work, the matches will have to be made by people who know boxing and aren’t swayed by the entreaties of particular promoters or managers.
(3) Boxing is HBO‘s signature sport; plain and simple. Everything else that HBO Sports gives its subscribers is available elsewhere. If the network plans to stay in boxing, it should introduce a low-budget magazine show that probes, investigates, and addresses serious issues in boxing.
(4) HBO boxing has gotten stale. It’s doing the same thing over and over again. Creative thinking is in order. For example, “rivalry weekends.”
Paulie Malignaggi had some pointed things to say about the officiating in Texas after he fought Juan Diaz. A lot of people agreed with him. How about a New York versus Texas fight card? Malignaggi (New York) vs. Diaz (Texas); Danny Jacobs (New York) vs. TBA from Texas; and so on down through the off-television preliminary fights.
Also, instead of pretending that nothing has changed, HBO should RELAUNCH its boxing program. It should tell the boxing community, the boxing media, and boxing fans (most notably, its subscribers) that this isn’t just a paint job or new graphics over the same old product. It should declare loud and clear, “We’ve listened to you and, like a good fighter, we’ve made adjustments.”
One thing HBO should NOT do is key its entire boxing program for 2010 to a possible Pacquiao-Mayweather fight. First, it might never happen. Second, constant references to it will diminish other good fights. And third, one big pay-per-view extravaganza isn’t the solution to what ails HBO Sports. De La Hoya vs. Mayweather was styled as “the fight to save boxing.” It did remarkable pay-per-view numbers and made a lot of money for those involved. But the status of boxing in the United States and the fortunes of HBO Sports have continued to decline since then.
Meanwhile, there are several more issues that require attention. The first revolves around HBO’s role in boxing and its moral obligation, if any, to the sport.
At present, HBO is the only real power in boxing in the United States. By virtue of its checkbook, it’s the closest thing that boxing has to an effective governing body.
HBO can’t carry boxing on its shoulders, and it shouldn’t be expected to. Nor is it HBO’s job to clean up boxing. But it is HBO’s job to provide satisfying viewing to its paying subscribers. And it makes no sense for HBO to underwrite conduct that tarnishes the product that’s at the core of HBO Sports.
The issue crystallized when Paulie Malignaggi journeyed to Texas to fight Juan Diaz on August 22nd.
Hometown decisions are all too common in boxing. But In recent years, Texas has become known for particularly biased officiating in big fights. That fact was not lost on Malignaggi, who had significant reservations about fighting Diaz in Houston. But given the parameters of the deal that Golden Boy (Diaz’s promoter) and HBO were offering, he had no choice.
It was a close fight. To the extent that Laurence Cole’s refereeing was a factor, his actions shaded toward Diaz. Most observers thought that Malignaggi won.
“I was a little nervous while I was waiting for the decision,” Paulie recalls. “But I was confident I’d won the fight. Then they announced the judges’ scores. And when they got to 118-110, I said to myself, ‘This is crazy; neither of us won ten rounds; the fight was closer than that.’ But as strange as it might sound, when they announced 118-110, I figured I’d gotten the decision because not even a blind person could have given ten rounds to Diaz.”
“Then they announced that Diaz was the winner,” Malignaggi continues. “My heart dropped. And the next thing was, this rage started rising inside me. I have no beef with Juan. It was an honest fight between two honest fighters. He fought as hard as he could. But before the fight happened, I told the media that they were going to rob me and I was right. I’ve watched a tape of the fight several times. I have it scored 7-4-1 in my favor, so call it 7-5 for me. Could someone have scored the fight even? I won’t question their competence or integrity if they did that. But the judges’ scores were ridiculous, and it’s no accident that they were ridiculous in favor of Juan Diaz.”
In the aftermath of Diaz-Malignaggi, there was a firestorm of protest. Ross Greenburg was moved to say, “These kinds of things are terrible for the sport. They have to stop.”
But in many respects, the buck stops with HBO.
In his post-fight commentary, Max Kellerman said in part, “Let me preface this by saying everyone deserves a fair shake and there’s no excuse for a fighter not getting a fair shake under any circumstances. However, the marketplace spoke tonight. Paulie Malignaggi has not been able to cultivate the kind of following that Juan Diaz has been able to here in Houston. So, for that reason, Juan Diaz winds up with the powerful promoter and the hometown decision, if you consider this a hometown decision. So even though every fighter always deserves a fair shake, I think here the marketplace spoke and Juan Diaz gets the nod.”
What Kellerman left unsaid is that HBO is the marketplace. That fact is evident in every fight it buys. Look at Chad Dawson. Earlier this year, Mike Criscio (Dawson’s manager) told Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News, “Having a title doesn’t mean anything these days, because it’s about the money and fighting on a network. We’re basically at the mercy of HBO.” To that, Gary Shaw (Dawson’s promoter) added, “They don’t have some of the power; they have all of it.”
The question now is how HBO will use its power. Diaz-Malignaggi is about more than one bad decision. It’s about the integrity of boxing and HBO’s role in the marketplace.
Were the powers that be at HBO actually surprised by what happened in Texas? If so, they haven’t been paying attention to the fights they’ve televised in recent years from the Lone Star State.
Is HBO intent on righting a wrong and using its economic might to forge a Diaz-Malignaggi rematch with neutral officials or is it just trying to ride out the storm? Sources say that HBO, Golden Boy, and Team Malignaggi have reached an agreement for a December 12th rematch on Boxing After Dark subject to Diaz’s approval. Let’s hope it happens. If so, a tip of the hat to all involved.
There are also serious questions regarding the means by which HBO Sports is constructing its schedule for December and beyond. Here, a bit of history is in order.
HBO is planning to televise Kelly Pavlik vs. Paul Williams (an excellent match-up originally scheduled for early October) on December 5th. The fight has been on and off the boards (and is now on again) because of a nagging staph infection that has troubled Pavlik for months.
That scheduling decision put Greenburg at odds with Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, who says that Ross had promised him December 5th for a Shane Mosley fight. Regardless, Schaefer agreed to shift gears and promote Mosley vs. Joshua Clottey on December 26th. Contracts were negotiated and put in final form. Then, before they could be signed, Greenburg said that Mosley’s next fight should be moved to January 30, 2010 (which HBO had previously promised to Golden Boy for Bernard Hopkins).
Hopkins was displeased when advised of the development. His assumption had been that he would fight Tomasz Adamek on January 30th to commemorate his forty-fifth birthday (January 15th). Main Events (Adamek’s promoter) and Adamek had already reached an agreement with Golden Boy for the fight with HBO’s knowledge and assent. The final piece of the puzzle was the amount to be paid to Hopkins.
The shuffling and re-shuffling led Schaefer to declare, “I am very disappointed, angry, and upset about the lack of respect that has been shown [by HBO] to Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins, and I am not going to tolerate that any longer. To string people along is the wrong way.”
That earned a riposte from a rival promoter, who declared, “Right now, for ten seconds, Ross and Kery [Davis] are treating Golden Boy like they treat everyone else, and Richard is throwing a shit-fit. Welcome to the club.”
Then, on September 25th, a deal was signed for Hopkins to fight Roy Jones Jr on HBO-PPV during the first quarter of 2010.
Jones-Hopkins II placates Golden Boy and solves HBO’s Bernard Hopkins problem. It also makes short-term economic sense for HBO Sports if the network didn’t guarantee an unrealistic number of pay-per-view buys. Further down the road, HBO hopes (but it’s less likely) that the bout will set up a fight between the winner and Chad Dawson.
But there’s a downside to Jones-Hopkins II. It’s likely to be a sad night for boxing.
Meanwhile, as negotiations for Jones-Hopkins II progressed, things were getting dicey on another front. Greenburg decided that the most logical opponent for Mosley to fight on January 30th would be Andre Berto. The problem was that Berto’s promoter (Lou DiBella) was in discussions with Gary Shaw about Andre fighting Timothy Bradley (one of Shaw’s fighters) as part of a two-fight deal for Berto on Showtime.
On Monday, September 14th, Berto (who was visiting in New York) found his way to HBO’s offices, where he met with Luis Barragan (director of programming for HBO Sports) and Kery Davis. The conversation touched on Berto’s future. That, in and of itself, was of questionable propriety, since the meeting is said to have occurred without the knowledge of Al Haymon (Berto’s manager) or DiBella (Berto’s promoter). After the meeting, Davis spoke with Haymon and told him that it had taken place. But that was only part of the story. Berto had a second meeting at HBO on Tuesday; this one with Ross Greenburg.
A network executive’s job is to buy programming; not to meet with fighters and discuss possible fights in the absence of their manager and promoter.
DiBella was not aware that the Greenburg-Berto meeting was going to take place. Haymon told DiBella afterward that he was also unaware that it would happen.
Berto describes his September 15th meeting with Greenburg as “a meet and greet type of thing that didn’t last longer than ten minutes.”
Ray Stallone (HBO’s vice president for sports publicity and media relations) says, “Andre Berto had a meet and greet with Ross at HBO that lasted for ten minutes.”
The similarity of these statements reminds one of the coordinated response one hears when a high-profile politician is caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Other sources (who spoke with Greenburg and Berto) elaborate, saying that Greenburg told Berto he should fight Shane Mosley on HBO in January; that HBO would put more money into the pot than had been previously offered for the fight; and that, if Berto beat Mosley, he could become a crossover star.
Greenburg might have thought that he was meeting with Berto in confidence. If so, he failed to convey that message with sufficient clarity to Andre, who went out and tweeted to the world.
DiBella learned about the Greenburg-Berto meeting on September 16th, when Rick Reeno (who broke the story on Boxingscene.com) telephoned him and asked for comment. One of Reeno’s associates had read about the get-together in Berto’s “tweets.”
In recent months, there has been increasing talk among promoters about filing a lawsuit against HBO that would allege conspiracy in restraint of trade, tortious interference with contract, and other violations of law.
“A lawsuit might make it difficult to get dates on HBO,” says one promoter. “But why worry about burning the bridge when you’re not allowed on the bridge?”
Consideration has also been given to filing a complaint with the Justice Department, asking that the government investigate allegations that HBO Sports is acting as an unlicensed promoter in violation of federal law and (more seriously) engaging in anti-competitive conduct. The latter allegation would move beyond boxing and touch upon corporate-wide issues such as the relationship between Time Warner (HBO’s parent company), Time Warner Cable, and In Demand (the conduit through which virtually all cable-TV pay-per-view telecasts flow to cable system operators).
Antitrust is an issue with the potential to dwarf all other problems that HBO Sports has at the moment.
“If I’m Bill Nelson” one industry insider says,” I call Ross into my office and ask, ‘Did this meeting with Berto really happen? And if so, what in the world were you thinking?’ Ross did the same thing when he met with Winky Wright, and he wound up giving dates to Gary Shaw [Wright’s promoter] to bail himself out. Everybody makes mistakes. Ross’s problem is that he doesn’t learn from them.”
“Lou should be happy about this,” adds another industry veteran. “If he doesn’t die of a heart attack, he’ll get a good settlement out of it. And what makes it really crazy is, you know that HBO would dump Mosley-Berto in a second if they could make Mayweather-Mosley. But that’s Ross. His attitude is, ‘We’re HBO; we can do whatever we want.’ People are getting angry.”
Meanwhile, the hole that HBO Sports finds itself in keeps getting deeper. Ironically, the network is now looking to Bob Arum (not Golden Boy) to salvage the year with Pacquiao-Cotto and Pavlik-Williams.
As for what comes after that; the thoughts of someone who has sat opposite HBO at the negotiating table for years are instructive. “We look at boxing as the be all and end all,” he says. “But boxing is a tiny cog in the Time Warner machine. If things keep going poorly at HBO Sports, they might simply replace it with a new part.”
If HBO were to go out of the boxing business, the short-term effects would be disastrous for a handful of elite fighters and promoters. But other sports in the United States get along fine without HBO.
Boxing is growing increasingly popular in other parts of the world. But in the United States, it’s being strangled by a bottleneck in the pipeline that’s supposed to bring the sport’s most compelling fights to its followers but doesn’t. By way of analogy; Howard Stern lost much of his audience when he left terrestrial radio for Sirius. The move isolated him from the general public. Boxing has lost much of its relevance for the same reason.
Thus, in the long run, HBO’s disengagement might actually be good for boxing. It would force promoters to be promoters again, spur ingenuity in the marketplace, and maybe even get the sport back on broadcast television.
Let the chips fall where they may.
There are a lot of chips.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.