By Thomas Hauser
Oscar De La Hoya versus Shane Mosley was the second most important fight in boxing last week. And although it ended in controversy, the bout was an economic success with HBO and Bob Arum joining forces to sell out the MGM Grand Arena and engender close to a million pay-per-view buys. However, an even higher-stakes battle raged behind the scenes in Washington DC, where lobbyists seeking to influence legislation that would create a federal boxing commission have been at odds over the definition of the word "promoter." Ironically, the chief adversaries in this battle have been HBO and Bob Arum. Now there are reports that, in the tumultuous wake of De La Hoya versus Mosley, HBO and Arum have reached a compromise.
As elaborated upon in a previous column [//www.secondsout.com/usa/column_53424.asp">Are HBO and Showtime Promoters?], the television networks don't want to be classified as promoters because it would (1) be bad for their image; (2) subject them to the financial disclosure requirements of the Professional Boxing Safety Act; and (3) propel them into the murky area of legal liability to fighters and others. By contrast, Arum (with a little help from his friends) has lobbied long and hard for legislation that would label the networks as "promoters" unless they significantly alter the way they do business.
Senator Harry Reid, whose support is crucial to passage of the legislation, has backed the Arum position. Meanwhile, AOL Time Warner lobbyists have told persons involved in the legislative process that HBO supports the overall purpose of the bill but will work against the legislation if passage results in HBO being classified and regulated as a "promoter."
The long-standing practice within the boxing industry of contract affirmations has been a key component of the debate. When HBO and Showtime sign a contract with a promoter for a major bout or for the longterm services of a fighter, they ask each fighter involved to sign a one-page affirmation stating that he is familiar with the contract and will abide by it. Thus, when HBO and Top Rank signed a contract giving HBO exclusive television rights to Oscar De La Hoya's fights, Oscar signed a ratification of that contract. Then, two years ago, the Golden Boy broke with Arum. Subsequently, they reunited. But in the interim, HBO claimed rights directly from De La Hoya pursuant to the one-page contract ratification that Oscar had signed. And before De La Hoya reconciled with Top Rank, he fought twice on HBO with Jerry Perenchio as his promoter. Arum would prefer that nothing like that happen again.
To date, Harry Reid has championed the Arum position. He has supported proposals that allow for ratifications of contracts, but only to the extent that a ratification confirms the promoter's right to provide the services of the fighter. If the ratification is construed as giving rights directly to a television network, then that network would be a promoter. Reid has reportedly also sought language in the legislation that would have the effect of restricting the manner in which the networks do business in other ways as well.
Meanwhile, having watched De La Hoya versus Mosley with Senator John McCain at his side, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg later told Flip Homansky of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, "We [AOL Time Warner] will not allow legislation that we think is unfair."
McCain, who has spearheaded the reform movement, has been caught in the middle. He has had the votes necessary to get the proposed boxing reform legislation out of committee, but lacked the votes required for passage on the Senate floor. Thus, he has had to find compromise language that is both consistent with the policy purposes of the proposed legislation and acceptable to those whose votes are necessary to win passage in Congress. One option he considered was deferring the task of defining "promoter" by placing it within the rule-making authority of the proposed federal boxing commission. But that solution was unacceptable to the warring parties.
As noted previously in this space, HBO and Showtime are involved in virtually every aspect of a big fight. The networks put up the money, dictate match-ups, organize press events, and have the final say over various crucial elements such as fight date and site. Anyone who thinks that Prize Fight Boxing (as opposed to HBO and Showtime) was the true promoter of Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson also thinks that Santa Claus puts all those presents beneath the tree for children to open on Christmas morning.
Within the boxing industry, HBO is particularly powerful by virtue of its checkbook. That was confirmed by Ross Greenburg when he testified before Congress on February 5, 2003, and declared, "We are the bank, and a powerful one at that . . . Here is one big pocketbook that is willing to stand up and speak out . . . We are a bank. We are powerful."
During the course of his testimony, Greenburg maintained that HBO is not a promoter and likened its televising fights to other networks televising sports such as tennis and golf. But when Mike Weir won the Masters at Augusta this year, the first words out of his mouth weren't, "Thank you, CBS, for giving me the opportunity to participate in this tournament." NBC doesn't dictate which players compete at Wimbledon. Yet when HBO has an exclusive contract with a world champion like Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones, or Oscar De La Hoya, it can shut fighters other than "mandatory" challengers out of fighting for the title by simply refusing to accept them as an opponent.
Indeed, Don King complained that, after Ricardo Mayorga beat Vernon Forrest, HBO told him that the only Mayorga fight it would accept was a Mayorga-Forrest rematch. "What HBO said to me," King wailed, "was, if you want Mayorga to be on HBO, then you have to fight our guy." One can imagine King continuing his discourse with the complaint, "When a poverty-stricken Nicaraguan wins the title in the ring, HBO tries to take it away from him. It's not fair."
Much of what King says about the sweet science should be taken with a grain of salt; particularly when his own interests are involved. But King is on the mark when he suggests that HBO has enormous power to influence the course of boxing. That suggestion has also been made in Congress.
During the question-and-answer portion of the February 5th Congressional hearing, Senator Byron Dorgan asked Greenburg why HBO wasn't taking a more proactive role to help clean up boxing in light of misdeeds like the IBF ratings scandal. "Why," Dorgan demanded, "are not the largest beneficiaries from a revenue standpoint, including the networks and HBO; why are they not pushing very hard to say, 'Look; let us clean this up. We put the prestige and the energy of our organization behind it?'"
In relevant part, Greenburg answered, "We have absolutely no involvement with any of these sanctioning organizations to know what is going on behind the scenes between the promoters and the sanctioning organizations." But as HBO commentator Larry Merchant has said, "In the real world, that separation doesn't exist." And more to the point; if the powers that be at HBO don't have a pretty good idea of what goes on behind closed doors, they should. Everybody else in boxing does.
HBO also contends that it doesn't choose opponents except to the extent of trying to avoid mismatches and that it doesn't tell promoters that they have to make a certain match. But the fighters themselves tell a different story. Recalling the negotiations that led up to his June 21st encounter with Vitali Klitschko, Lennox Lewis declared, "After Kirk Johnson got hurt, HBO told me it was Klitschko or nobody. We offered them alternatives like Joe Mesi, Lamon Brewster, and Jameel McCline, and they said no to all of them even though those guys were the same level opponent as Kirk Johnson. All the discussions regarding the opponent were with HBO; not Gary Shaw, who wasmy promoter. HBO gave me a choice. Take the harder fight for more money or go home empty-handed. HBO made that fight."
Vitali Klitschko's August 26, 2003, conference call with the media is equally instructive. During the question-and-answer session, a reporter asked, "You are going to be fighting on December 6th. When will we know your opponent?" Klitschko answered, "I am not ready to give a name for December 6th. HBO will decide my opponent, and I hope they find me an interesting opponent."
Now comes word that HBO and Arum are pulling in their horns a bit. Under their reported compromise agreement, HBO will get most of what it wants. The network's previously-existing contracts with fighters will be "grandfathered in" under the legislation, so HBO's relationships with fighters already under contract won't be effected. And the proposed compromise language will have only minor limiting effects on the conduct of television networks in the future. Arum appears to have won several smaller victories including restrictions on fighters promoting themselves.
Meanwhile, there's sad irony in the pronouncements that emanated from HBO and Arum after the decision in De La Hoya versus Mosley last Saturday night. HBO's commentators condemned the judges in that fight as inept or worse. Arum was so angry with the decision that he denounced boxing as "the garbage can of sports" and threatened to abandon the sweet science at the end of the year.
But it's HBO and Arum who have done more than anyone else in recent weeks to block the proposed legislation that offers the best hope of cleaning up boxing. And as long as they continue to flex their political muscle, boxing can expect more Bradley Rones and more financial exploitation of fighters. One expects that type of conduct from Arum, but HBO is a different story.
HBO has been good for boxing, and it has been fairer to fighters than most promoters. For a long time, the network has been seen as part of the solution to what ails boxing. It would be a shame if HBO were to become part of the problem.