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20 DECEMBER 2014

 

Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting


Louis v Schmeling II
Louis v Schmeling II

By Thomas Hauser
In 1973, Elton John advised the world, “Saturday night’s alright for fighting; get a little action in.” Now Saturday is the only night on which mega-fights are held.

It wasn’t always that way. For the first half of boxing’s history under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, the live gate was the economic force that drove the sport. Big fights were held in major cities. Men (the crowds were overwhelmingly male) would leave work and go to the fight before going home. Thus, the biggest fights were virtually always on a weekday night. By way of example, John L. Sullivan vs. James J. Corbett (Wednesday), both Dempsey-Tunney fights (Thursday), and Louis-Schmeling II (Wednesday) were mid-week encounters. Louis-Schmeling I was slated for a Thursday but was delayed for 24 hours because of rain.

Then closed-circuit television become a force and, where mega-fights were concerned, mid-week continued to reign. Saturday was “date night” while Monday through Thursday were available for a “boys night out.” And more significantly, theater owners didn’t want a big fight to take place on a Friday or Saturday night. Attendance at movies was poor during the week, so those nights could be set aside for boxing. But shut out movie-goers on a Friday or Saturday night? No way.

Thus, all of Muhammad Ali’s fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes were contested on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Similarly, Sugar Ray Leonard’s three biggest closed-circuit bouts (Leonard-Duran II, Leonard-Hearns I, and Hagler-Leonard) were mid-week encounters.

Then two more forces came into play. Casinos started paying huge site fees for mega-fights with the intent of luring high-rollers in for an entire weekend, not just a weekday night. And the advent of pay-per-view made made Saturday-night mega-fights possible. Boxing was no longer dependent upon the willingness of theater owners to open their doors. Boxing fans could be charged for watching a fight at home.

Now, as a matter of course, every major fight is on a Saturday night. Is a mid-week mega-fight feasible today? A big-city arena like Madison Square Garden could host an event on the scale of Lewis-Tyson on a “work night” and the live gate would be fine. However, pay-per-view sales would probably suffer.

The west coast is now a major factor in pay-per-view buys. And the three-hour time difference between east and west makes a mega-fight on a “work night” impractical. Pay-per-view telecasts typically start at 9:00 PM EST, 6:00 PM PST. That means, on a Monday through Friday night, most west coast viewers wouldn’t be home from work when the first bout started. On the east coast, the main event wouldn’t begin until after 11:00 PM. And no matter how one juggles the timing, there would be a problem.

Also, watching a pay-per-view fight today is often a group experience with four or five fans getting together to party and share the cost. That’s a lot easier to orchestrate on a Saturday night.

Mid-week mega-fights are a thing of the past.


* * *

How bad are the opponents that Joe Mesi has been fighting lately?

Last Saturday night (April 14), Mesi knocked out Ron Johnson at the Hughes Center in Russelville, Arkansas. Knockouts are nothing new for Johnson. He has been stopped 17 times. The novelty here is that he was knocked out by a heavyweight.

You see, Johnson began his career as a junior-middleweight. Two fights ago, he was competing at 165 pounds. The fighters who have knocked him out range from Adrian Diaconu to Peter Manfredo Jr.

Mesi also fought in Russelville last year, when he knocked out Dennis Matthews who was 9-and-27 at the time. Matthews is now 9-and-30, on a ten-fight losing streak, and has been stopped ten times.

Joe’s other comeback opponents have been Ron Bellamy (who was carried from the ring on a stretcher in two of his previous three bouts before facing Mesi); Stephane Tessier (now 3-and-12 and on a ten fight losing streak); Jason Weiss (a novice with four pro fights); and George Linberger (who was knocked out in one round by Butterbean). Although to be fair, Linberger eked out a split decision victory in a rematch against Butterbean. Of course, The Bean weighed 384 pounds at the time.

Jack Mesi (Joe’s father and manager) says that his son shouldn’t be blamed for the poor quality of opposition in his most recent fight. "We found out at the last minute that there was a change in opponents,” Jack said the morning after. “I didn’t know anything about this guy [Johnson] until the bell rang.”

But Johnson was a substitute for Marvin Hill who, in 32 outings, has triumped over only three opponents with a victory to their credit. And Hill has been knocked out in the first round six times.

Mesi is expected to ask the New York State Athletic Commission to restore his boxing license later this year. In support of his application, he will cite his six consecutive comeback victories. New York should stand firm in support of its policy that fighters who have suffered uncontrolled bleeding in the brain should not be allowed to fight again. Meanwhile, Arkansas and the other jurisdictions that have allowed Mesi’s recent fights should reevaluate their standards.


* * *

The heavyweight division got a little less interesting last Saturday night when 7-foot-2-inch Nikolai Valuev lost his WBA heavyweight belt to Ruslan Chagaev on a 117-111, 115-113, 114-114 decision.

Most of Valuev’s recent opponents tried to get inside his reach. But once they did, he was able to tie them up, lean on them, and wear them down with his size.

Chagaev opted for a different strategy. He stayed outside and countered Valuev’s jab with straight left hands. Valuev was too slow to be effective with righthand leads (the traditional tactic against a southpaw). And as the fight wore on, Nikolai’s lack of experience against southpaws showed.

Valuev’s loss takes a potential attraction out of the immediate heavyweight championship picture. But there’s a more significant story-line attached to Valuev-Chagaev. This is the second month in a row that MSG Network has televised a better live fight than HBO.

HBO’s live offerings in March were Miguel Cotto against Oktay Urkal (with Miranda-Green as the opener) and Wladimir Klitschko vs. Ray Austin. In each instance, HBO paid a multimillion-dollar license fee to televise the fight. By contrast, MSG Network paid a reported $50,000 to televise the rematch between Jean-Marc Mormeck and O’Neil Bell.

So what whappened? Bell-Mormeck was a barn-burner reminiscent of the type of fight that HBO used to televise. And HBO’s offerings fell flat.

That’s not surprising. Prior to Cotto-Urkal, Kevin Iole of the Las Vegas Review- Journal branded the match-up “the type of one-sided blowout that has become an HBO staple.” And Klitschko-Austin, which did a reported 2.5 rating (the lowest in the history of HBO Championship Boxing), has become a magnet for mainstream media criticism of the cable giant.

“Things have reached a crisis level in the heavyweight division with the debacle involving IBF champ Wladimir Klitschko and Ray Austin,” Tim Smith of the New York Daily News wrote afterward. “To call this a heavyweight title match would be to defame all the former champions who fought for, held, and defended the undisputed title with class and distinction. It was disgraceful for all involved; Austin for his lack of effort; the IBF for moving an unworthy challenger into the No.1 spot; the promoters for perpetrating this fraud, and HBO for broadcasting the farce. Shame on them all.”

Dan Rafael of ESPN.com was even more pointed in his criticism. Rafael called Klitschko-Austin “perhaps the single worst HBO show in the network’s 34 years of televising boxing,” and declared, “We all knew Klitschko-Austin was a mismatch going in, and that’s exactly how it turned out. Is it too much to ask for competitive fights? Is it too much to ask that HBO stop spending its millions on sewage? It was an embarrassment to HBO. And it was a waste of time for fans.”

HBO also televised the 168-pound match-up between Mikkel Kessler and Labrado Andrade in March. But it was on a tape-delay basis, the perils of which became obvious when, before the bout aired, fight fans learned that Kessler had triumphed with a 120-108 shutout on each judge’s scorecard. Is it too much to ask that “the heart and soul of boxing” give its subscribers live fights?

Then April rolled around. Valuev-Chagaev (for which MSG Network is believed to have paid a $100,000 license fee) was an intriguing competitive heavyweight match-up. By contrast, so far this month, HBO subscribers have seen two mismatches: Joe Calzaghe against Peter Manfredo Jr and Amir Khan versus Stefy Bull.

There’s a simple rule that HBO should follow. When HBO buys a fight, both fighters (not just one of them) should be an HBO-quality fighter.

To repeat: When HBO buys a fight, both fighters (not just one of them) should be an HBO-quality fighter.

But there’s an issue here that supercedes the quality of HBO’s recent fights. The mantra at HBO Sports is “There’s nothing wrong with us; the problem is boxing.” The flaw in that thinking is that HBO is the most powerful force in boxing. It has been for some time. And HBO is contributing significantly to the boxing’s current problems, not only by televising predictably lousy fights but also by paying absurd license fees that have skewered boxing’s price structure.

The current price structure in boxing has been set largely by HBO bidding against itself. Could HBO have bought Valuev-Chagaev for $100,000 or Bell-Mormeck for $50,000? No. But the other side of the coin is that HBO paid a reported $4,000,000 license fee for its December 2nd telecast of Winky Wright against Ike Quartey and Jeff Lacy vs. Vitali Tsypko. Wright was the primary beneficiary of the deal, receiving an estimated $2,500,000.

Why did HBO put up the money for a deal that paid the Wright camp $2,500,000 to fight Ike Quartey (a fight that, judging by the live gate and TV ratings, the public wasn’t interested in seeing)? Suppose HBO had told Winky, “We’ll put up the money for a deal that lets you fight a rematch against Jermain Taylor or an equally competitive fight. If you don’t take it, you can fight for a fraction of that amount on Showtime, MSG Network, or ESPN2.”

HBO is now televising fights that are reminiscent of the Roy Jones mandatory days. But HBO was obligated by contract to televise Roy Jones’s mismatches. Fights like Klitschko-Austin, Cotto-Urkay, and Calzaghe-Manfredo aren’t required.

“HBO hangs itself, and De La Hoya-Mayweather won’t solve the problem,” says one boxing insider who does business with the network and thus wishes to remain anonymous. “Oscar and Floyd will be a big event. It will be a nice junket at shareholder expense for some heavy hitters at TimeWarner. But on May 6th when all the partying is over, things will be the same.”

Bobby Goodman (who has been in and around boxing since the 1940s and is vice president for boxing operations at Don King Productions) has a similar view. “The people who run boxing at HBO,” Goodman says, “make me think of a sign that Benny Friedman had on his desk.”

Friedman played quarterback for the New York Giants during The Great Depression. To help make ends meet, he ran what he called a “quarterback school” for high school students. Goodman says that the sign on Friedman’s desk read, “God, forgive them for they know not what they do not know.”


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






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