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17 NOVEMBER 2018

 

The Downward Spiral




By Thomas Hauser
The current FBI probe into boxing has broadened to include a manslaughter investigation into the death of Bradley Rone. Rone died in the ring following a first-round stoppage of his July 18, 2003, fight against Billy Zumbrun in Cedar City, Utah.

The probe, designated Operation Match Book, has been underway since 2002. On October 31st of that year, an undercover New York City police detective using the alias "Frank Manzione" applied for a Las Vegas business license for a company called YGJ & Co. Working with the FBI, "Big Frankie" infiltrated the underbelly of the Las Vegas fight community. Court-ordered wiretaps culminating in a January 6th raid on the offices of Top Rank followed.

Investigators are now focusing on allegations that false medical records were created and filed with the Utah State Athletic Commission as part of the licensing process for Rone and in conjunction with his pre-fight physical. One of boxing's dirty little secrets is that false medical records have become a cottage industry. Manslaughter is a state criminal offense; not a federal one.

Amidst the turmoil, Top Rank is continuing the veneer of business of usual. But boxing is reeling. There are rumblings out of Nevada that the Nevada State Athletic Commission is bowing to Top Rank in the selection of ring officials. Don King has been barred once again from promoting in Atlantic City. And Lennox Lewis's retirement leaves boxing without a standard bearer in its flagship division.

Lewis has made a graceful exit, which is rare in boxing. But there's a problem. Historically, a new heavyweight champion gains credibility by beating his predecessor. Now, whatever comes next, that won't happen. So instead of Lewis-Klitschko II, boxing faces a situation akin to having four Kings of England.

The WBC heavyweight title will be fought over by Vitali Klitschko and 38-year-old Corrie Sanders. Should Klitschko win, he'll rise to the top of most heavyweight rankings. But he still won't have a true championship victory to his credit.

John Ruiz, who inherited Roy Jones's WBA crown after losing to Jones, is a paper champion.

IBF beltholder Chris Byrd was behind Vitali Klitschko on points when their fight was stopped due to a shoulder injury suffered by the Ukrainian and later lost to brother Wladimir. "People say that Byrd is underrated," observes Larry Merchant. "But they've been saying it for so long that now he's actually an overrated fighter."

Wladimir Klitschko and Lamon Brewster will battle shortly for the WBO crown.

The above parlay might be better than the days when Frank Bruno, Bruce Seldon, and Frans Botha were the heavyweight title claimants; but not by much. The situation was summed up recently by James Toney, who declared, "I want to fight another top-ten heavyweight, but there's only three or four of them around."

Meanwhile, boxing's most bankable stars remain Oscar De La Hoya and Mike Tyson, neither of whom holds a title. Given the fact that four heavyweight belts are up for grabs, chances that Tyson will fight soon for one of them. But Iron Mike is hardly the poster boy that the sport needs at the moment.

In other words, boxing has problems. And its downward spiral is accentuated by current happenings at HBO, Showtime, and ESPN.

Carlo Rotella wrote recently, "From ringside, you can see the signs of television's dominance of boxing. Bouts begin when the networks' schedule requires them to begin. Announcers, producers, and technicians have a roped-off section of ringside to themselves. Camera operators with shoulder mounts stand outside the ropes on the ring apron, trailing cables behind them as they follow the action, interfering with the crowd's view of the fighters."

But if HBO, Showtime, and ESPN dominate boxing, in recent years they have also supported it. Now that support might be wavering.

On September 8, 2003, this website posted an article entitled Is A Scandal Brewing At ESPN? The very next night, ESPN2 televised what might have been its worst fight card ever. Earlier in the year, Jeremy Williams had overwhelmed Andre Purlett. But against all apparent logic, ESPN turned down Williams versus Gerald Nobles in favor of Purlette versus Saul Montana and matched that fight with Audley Harrison versus TBA. Then Montana fell out and, four days before the fight, ESPN2 put together Purlett against Lionel Butler and Audley Harrison versus Quinn Navarre. Butler and Navarre were two of the deadest 36-year-old opponents ever seen in televised co-features. Butler had been knocked out six times and disqualified on three occasions. Navarre had been stopped eight times, including second-round losses at the hands of Ed Donaldson and Rodney McSwain.

If someone wants to make a case for the abolition of boxing, ESPN2's September 9th card could be an exhibit. Navarre never had a chin and was counted out the first time that Harrison hit him with a solid shot, which was 33 seconds into round three. Butler had fought ten days earlier and came in at 282 pounds. Purlett stopped him in two rounds. Viewers were also subjected to a shoving match between two woman with a combined age of seventy-six and a combined weight of almost four hundred pounds. The most disgusting fight of the evening was a brutal beating administered to Thomas Grissom by Hicklet Lau. Lau had a record of 17-10-2. Grissom was 2 and 17. That's not a typographical error. To repeat, Grissom was 2 and 17.

Did the ongoing FBI probe change things for the better at ESPN?

Apparently not. On Friday, January 16, 2004, one week after news of the probe broke, Matt Vanda was given an outrageous split-decision victory over Sam Garr in a ten-round junior-middleweight bout that was promoted by Sugar Ray Leonard as the main event on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights. Garr dominated the bout, landing 254 punches to 144 for Vanda. ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas scored all ten rounds to Garr.

This fiasco came on the heels of ESPN announcing that it will no longer pay a rights fee for fights. Instead, it's offering a plan that calls for promoters to sell a minimum of $240,000 in sponsorships in exchange for four television dates. The promoter would receive twenty percent of the advertising revenue. This means that a promoter meeting the minimum sales level would receive $48,000 spread over four shows ($2,000 less than ESPN used to pay for one show). ESPN would keep the rest. Sugar Ray Leonard is the exception. His company will continue to receive a monthly license fee through the end of 2004 because of a pre-existing contract.

ESPN2 says that it intends to televise forty boxing cards in 2004, but none during the months of October, November and December. Given the absence of license fees, the quality of these fights is expected to be mediocre.

Showtime has scheduled Showtime Championship Boxing for the first Saturday of each month and hopes to supplement it with eighteen ShoBox and three pay-per-view cards. But the network is struggling and suffered a significant blow when Kosta Tszyu and James Toney were forced to pull out of what had been an attractive doubleheader slated for February 7th.

That, of course, leaves HBO; the most powerful force in boxing. HBO bankrolls most of the sport's superstars and, to a great degree, defines how the sweet science is presented to the public. It still televises some of the best fights in boxing. But in recent months, there have been strange happenings at the cable giant.

On August 16, 2003, HBO was scheduled to televise a championship doubleheader. The opener was slated to be undefeated WBO junior-bantamweight champion Fernando Montiel against former titleholder Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson. That was to have been followed by Derrick Gainer versus Juan Manuel Marquez in a featherweight title-unification bout. One week before the planned bouts, Gainer suffered a torn pectoral muscle. As a substitute, promoter Lou DiBella suggested a heavyweight match-up between Juan Carlos Gomez and Erik Kirkland. Gomez, a former WBC cruiserweight champion, was undefeated in 36 bouts with 31 knockouts. Kirkland was 17-1 with 13 KOs. HBO said no. Next, DiBella offered two more heavyweights; Samuel Peter (14-0 with 13 knockouts) against Attila Levin (27-1 with 21 KOs). HBO said no again.

Then HBO accepted light-punching Marcos Licona as an opponent for Marquez in a ten-round non-title bout. Licona had lost two of his previous four fights and won only twice in the preceding thirty months. He arrived at the weigh-in weak and dehydrated with an icepack pressed against the back of his neck and tipped the scales at 133 pounds; six pounds over the contract weight. Marquez was a well-conditioned 127. The Mohegan Sun boxing commission then ruled that the fight could not proceed because the fighters were separated by too much weight and Marquez objected to the weight differential. The solution? Licona gave Marquez $30,000 out of his $85,000 purse. Marquez then drank two bottles of water, put on his sweatpants, and weighed in at 132.

Their fight had the intensity of a sparring session. In the first round, the crowd started booing. In round two, there were shouts of "Boring! Boring!" Licona quit on his stool after round nine. At the time, all three judges had the bout scored 90-80 in favor of Marquez.

HBO lowered its standards to make Marquez-Licona. The reason? Marquez is promoted by Bob Arum. And a lot of people believe that HBO's fight schedule is now dictated in part by a screw up.

Last year, HBO aired a twelve-part series entitled Legendary Nights highlighting its thirty years of boxing. Unfortunately, it forgot to license relevant fight footage before the programs were put together. The two main beneficiaries of this snafu were Main Events and Top Rank.

Pat English, the attorney for Main Events, acknowledges, "HBO made the documentaries without getting the rights. We were in the same situation as Arum. We decided to ask for what we would have asked for if we hadn't had HBO over a barrel. We didn't get dates as such, but there was a license fee and also some promotional considerations."

Arum wasn't as kind as Main Events. Thus, in the forseeable future, fight fans might be watching some match-ups on HBO that the network would not normally telecast. Or as one HBO insider put it, "Once the mix-up happened, there were ways to remedy the situation other than raping the core product of HBO Sports. But instead of dealing directly with the situation and paying a straight license fee for the footage, HBO entered into a deal that lets Arum put on crap with bring-your-own opponents."

That view was born out by the Top Rank fights that HBO televised on January 31st. They constituted one of the worst Boxing After Dark cards ever. In the opener, IBF bantamweight title-holder Rafael Marquez faced off against Pete Frissina. Then WBO welterweight champion Antonio Margarito took on Hercules Kyvelos. Everyone in boxing with the possible exception of senior management at HBO knew going in that both fights were mismatches. True to form, both bouts ended with second-round knockouts. It was left to Larry Merchant (bless him) to tell viewers afterward, "These weren't serious fights. We're used to seeing competitive fights. This was junk."

HBO might try its hand at damage control by claiming that it was using the January 31st card to build Margarito and Marquez for the future. But in the past, when the network built stars like Arturo Gatti and Marco Antonio Barrera on Boxing After Dark, it did so through competitive fights. The only good thing to be said honestly about HBO's January 31st telecast came later from Jim Lampley, who declared, "My grandmother always told me, 'If you can't be interesting, be brief.' So I suppose we should be thankful that both fights together were shorter than Bernard Hopkins against Morrade Hakkar."

HBO has another Top Rank card scheduled for February 28th. Then, on March 13th, viewers will see Shane Mosley against Winky Wright and Joe Mesi versus cruiserweight Vassiliy Jirov. April 24th and May 15th are penciled in for possible pay-per-view dates with a wish list that once included Roy Jones versus Bernard Hopkins and Lewis-Klitschko II. Now Klitschko versus Corrie Sanders and a rematch between Jones and Antonio Tarver seem more likely.

Then comes June 5th. It was announced last week, without a site and without an opponent, that Oscar De La Hoya will fight that night. More than coincidentally perhaps, this has the effect of counter-programming Showtime's intention to televise Showtime Championship Boxing on the first Saturday of each month. Showtime isn't particularly happy about the De La Hoya date. It will be interesting to see if boxing's number-two network seeks to counter Oscar's expected pay-per-view show with Mike Tyson versus a barely warm body.

But there's a more important issue to be addressed than particular fights on a given night. Ratings for boxing are dropping at HBO. And the two men at the top of the HBO organizational chart -- chairman Chris Albrecht and chief operating officer Bill Nelson -- reportedly aren't as fond of boxing as their predecessors. Thus, there are two schools of thought with regard to the future.

"I'm optimistic," says Larry Merchant. "But the truth is, I'm a pathological Pollyanna."

And then there's the always-quotable Lou DiBella, who expresses the view, "Boxing has always been a filthy business. What concerns me now is that it's a filthy dying business."

Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be reached at
thauser@rcn.com



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