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22 OCTOBER 2014

 

Top Rank Goes It Alone


Cotto enters the ring at MSG: HoganPhotos.com
Cotto enters the ring at MSG: HoganPhotos.com

By Thomas Hauser

Don’t get carried away by the title of this article. It would be a stretch to liken Bob Arum to Gary Cooper in High Noon. But in recent weeks, there has been talk of a new economic model in boxing. And Arum, in tandem with Todd DuBoef (his stepson and the president of Top Rank) might be charting a path out of the wilderness that the sweet science has wandered through in recent years.

Arum is an old-time promoter who is adapting to today’s economic and technological realities. “I don’t look back,” he says. “I’m seventy-eight years old. If I look back, I’d stumble and fall, so I just look forward.” Then he adds, “Boxing needs to move into a new era. We have to face realistically what’s going on in the world and present our product in different ways.”

That thinking was evident on February 21st, when Top Rank promoted separate bouts featuring Kelly Pavlik and Miguel Cotto held at separate sites linked by an independently-produced pay-per-view telecast.

The move was born of necessity. Last July, Cotto suffered a brutal beating and the first loss of his career when he was knocked out by Antonio Margarito. Three months later, Pavlik was out-boxed by Bernard Hopkins over twelve one-sided rounds and defeated for the first time. Kelly retained his WBC and WBO middleweight belts because Pavlik-Hopkins was contested at 170 pounds. Cotto lost his WBA welterweight crown.

But the titles were of secondary importance. More significantly, two undefeated fighters who were being groomed for super-stardom by Top Rank lost in an era when a single defeat often sends a fighter’s commercial viability spiraling downward. Pavlik and Cotto had to be rehabilitated in the public eye.

The world sanctioning organizations (for a sanctioning fee, of course) provided the “get well” tonic for Arum’s fighters. The WBC offered up mandatory challenger Marco Antonio Rubio for what ailed Pavlik, while the WBO approved a match between Cotto and Englishman Michael Jennings for its vacant 147-pound throne. Neither Rubio or Jennings was given a serious chance to win.

“When a fighter loses,” DuBoef said, stating the obvious, “there are steps that have to be taken to get him to the top again. Not every fight can be Cotto-Margarito, Cotto-Mosley, Pavlik-Taylor, or Pavlik-Hopkins.”

Besides; Pavlik and Cotto were entitled to a breather. Pavlik’s opponents in his previous five bouts (Jermain Taylor twice, Edison Miranda, Gary Lockett, and Bernard Hopkins) had a 160-8-3 composite record. Cotto’s previous ten opponents included Margarito and the likes of Shane Mosley, Zab Judah, Ricardo Torres, and Carlos Quintana (who, let’s not forget, beat Paul Williams).

Rubio and Jennings had faced “no-chance” opponents themselves to get to where they were in boxing’s food chain, so they knew the odds. So did HBO, which declined to bid on the fights. If that was done to punish Arum for his recent public criticism of HBO’s boxing programming, then it was poor form. If it was done as part of a new network policy to televise more competitive fights in the future, then hats off to HBO.

The idea of holding the title fights at two different sites originated when Top Rank was trying to sell the bouts to HBO. Todd DuBoef explained, “It was an effort on our part to make the deal work in the face of the relatively low license fee that HBO seemed willing to pay. Then HBO passed and we decided to do it on our own. This way, we get two live gates. The whole thing is labor intensive and requires a huge amount of coordination. We’re putting all the pieces together times two, but we think it will be worth our while.”

The other major piece in the puzzle was Arum’s decision to distribute the telecast as an independent pay-per-view show. “We’ve been doing it for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr,” the promoter elaborated. “We did it for Erik Morales early in his career and for Manny Pacquiao not long ago. What else are we supposed to do? Tell Pavlik and Cotto that they can’t fight because HBO isn’t interested? That’s not the way we do things at Top Rank. If we have to, we move our fighters on our own. For a mega-fight, we’d probably still need HBO’s marketing power. But for a card like this, we think we can do it as well as they can and save the ten-percent distribution charge. Thank God, my life doesn’t depend on whether or not I make [HBO Sports president] Ross Greenburg happy.”

The fights took place in New York and Youngstown, Ohio. Boxing belongs in both of those cities, and each one has a boxing tradition of its own.

Cotto-Jennings marked Miguel’s return to Madison Square Garden, where he’d drawn well in the past. Pavlik versus Rubio was slated for the Chevrolet Center in Youngstown, where Kelly’s hometown fans were expected to turn out in force. There would be a live undercard at each venue. The first three bouts on the pay-per-view telecast would originate from New York. Pavlik-Rubio would follow. At each location, the off-site pay-per-view bouts would be seen on giant screens in the arena.

On fight night, Arum was in Youngstown, while DuBoef spearheaded operations in New York. Ring announcing honors went to Jimmy Lennon in Ohio and Michael Buffer at Madison Square Garden.

Youngstown was the easier sell where on-site tickets were concerned. Arum greased the skids with pronouncements like, “The people in Youngstown are throwback people. They realize that, when boxing was boxing, a loss wasn’t the end of the world for fighters and the great fighters lost fights . . . Kelly’s fans traveled to Atlantic City and Las Vegas for Kelly. Now Kelly is fighting at home for them.”

Tickets for Pavlik-Rubio went on sale on January 10th. Thirty minutes later, 5,500 of them had been sold. The remaining 1,700 were gone by fight night.

“I was really surprised when I saw how fast everybody lined up,” Kelly told Steve Kim of Maxboxing.com. “It made me feel pretty good. The support helps and it gives me another motivation. Naturally after a loss, you’ll have people that turn away or jump off the bandwagon. You’re always going to have guys that say, ‘Oh, he was overrated; he fought bums; he ain’t this, he ain’t that.’ But when you have people that are still your fans, that makes a big difference.”

As for the loss to Hopkins, Pavlik observed, “Losing sucks, but I’ve gotten past it. The only thing I can take from that fight is to say mentally, ’Hey, I lost; screw it; let’s move on.’ That’s what I’ve done. In my head, I said, ’It’s not worth it. I’m going to beat myself up over what? Shit happens; especially in boxing. Your greatest fighters have four, five, six, seven losses in their careers. It took about a week to get over it. Then I realized that I had to put my concentration on the next fight; not the one that was done. My job is to bounce back and dominate and show that it was a fluke. I still feel like a champion, but I also feel like I have a lot of proving to do.”

Meanwhile, Cotto was on a more difficult emotional journey. Kelly had lost by decision to Bernard Hopkins and taken a bit of a beating. Miguel was knocked out by Antonio Margarito and badly beaten up.

At the January 13th kick-off press conference in New York, Cotto seemed dispirited and acknowledged that he’d been walking around at 178 pounds (31 pounds over his fighting weight). Arum opined, “I think the loss affected Miguel psychologically more than it did Kelly because that’s the kind of guy he is.”

Then the Margarito hand-wrap scandal broke. In the dressing room prior to Antonio’s January 24th fight against Shane Mosley, it was determined that trainer Javier Capetillo had improperly wrapped his fighter’s hands, inserting an illegal hardened pad over the knuckles in each glove. The pads were removed and Margarito re-wrapped. Mosley knocked him out in the ninth round.

Thereafter, Margarito’s license was revoked by the California State Athletic Commission. He is precluded from fighting in the United States for at least one year.

It’s well within reason to surmise that Margarito-Mosley wasn’t the first time that Antonio’s hands were improperly wrapped. That meant Miguel could put his mind at ease by telling himself that the damage Antonio inflicted upon him wasn’t dealt in a fair manner and that he’d been a victim of foul play. Moreover, Mosley’s stock was sky-high after his dominant performance against Margarito. And in November 2007, Cotto had scored a unanimous-decision victory over Mosley.

When February 21st arrived, Pavlik-Rubio and Cotto-Jennings went pretty much as expected.

In Youngstown, Pavlik went after Rubio from the opening bell, while the challenger simply tried to survive. There weren’t ten seconds in the first five rounds when it appeared as though Marco Antonio was trying to win the fight. In the sixth stanza, the challenger decided to challenge a bit, opened up, and landed a few solid blows. But that meant he took more punishment in return. In round eight, the beating got ugly. Rubio retired on his stool after round nine.

In New York, Jennings found out that the trouble with fighting Cotto is that you’re fighting Cotto. The Brit’s record was 34-and-1; but he’d never fought, let alone beaten, a world-class opponent. The fact that he’d lost to someone named Young Mutley three years ago didn’t enhance his credentials, nor did his explanation for the loss (“I love training, and I overtrained for that fight”).

Against Cotto, Jennings fought as well as he could, which wasn’t nearly well enough. Earlier, when asked how he planned to beat Miguel, Michael had responded, “I’ve got to use my jab a lot and use the whole ring and keep moving.”

That sounded a lot like he planned to stay away from Cotto for as long as he could and then . . .

Class told, and rather quickly. In round four, Jennings was staggered by a left hook upstairs, took a knee after a hook to the body, and was downed a second time by another body shot. Cotto ended matters in round five with a right to the jaw that put the Brit on the canvas for the third time. Jennings rose but referee Benjy Esteves appropriately stopped the fight.

The next day’s newspapers had headlines like, “Youngstown Fight Brings Celebration to the Valley . . . Pavlik Thrills His Hometown Fans with TKO . . . Cotto Roars Back at the Garden . . .”

In truth, Pavlik and Cotto had beaten seriously overmatched opponents. Nonetheless, Arum had the story-line that he wanted, and each fighter had taken an important step on the road back to where he’d been before.

Most likely, Pavlik’s next fight will be in June or July. Cleveland Browns Stadium and Progressive Field (home of the Cleveland Indians) beckon. But Arum says, “I’m not doing outdoor stadiums unless they’re covered; not at my age.” So the 20,000-seat Quicken Loans Arena (home of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers) is a more likely site. The loss to Bernard Hopkins still stings. But it should be remembered that Kelly is only 26 years old. At age 26, Hopkins was fighting in six-round preliminary bouts and had just beaten a guy named Mike Sapp in Fort Myers, Florida.

Cotto is likely to be in action again at Madison Square Garden on June 13th (the night before the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade). At the moment, there’s tension between Miguel and his promoter. Arum has mounted a spirited defense of Antonio Margarito (also a Top Rank fighter), saying that Margarito should not be held accountable for the misdeeds of his trainer.

“All I know,” Cotto says in response, “is, when we get our hands wrapped, every boxer knows what is in them. I’m very angry [with Top Rank]. In the name of boxing, Margarito and his group have to comply with the penalty. Everyone in his group was aware. You go in the ring thinking you are on the same level. This is a sport. This is not a slaughterhouse.”

Meanwhile, Evangelista Cotto (Miguel’s uncle and trainer) says of Cotto-Jennings, “This was a very important fight psychologically. Miguel had to get back in the ring, and he looked very decisive. I was very pleased.”

But the greater significance of February 21st lies in the changing economic landscape of boxing. As previously noted, the venture gave Top Rank two live gates.

Take note of the phrase “live gate.” Arum didn’t simply act as a middle man dependent upon a license fee from a television network and a site fee from a casino. He actually PROMOTED the fights. The crowd at Madison Square Garden was a bit disappointing. The paid attendance was 9,903 with live gate receipts of US$969,424. But the Chevrolet Center in Youngstown sold out.

Now put that in context with the sell-out crowd of 20,820 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 24th for Margarito-Mosley (the arena’s largest crowd ever) and another sell-out crowd at the Toyota Center in Houston for the February 28th match-up between Juan Diaz and Juan Manuel Marquez and one can see a trend. To wit; match-ups between elite fighters can succeed financially without a casino subsidy.

The first key to success is to have a fighter with a strong local fan base in the main event.

Would the University of Michigan football team (stadium capacity 107,000) sell out all of its home games if the games were played in Norman, Oklahoma? Obviously not. Why not?

Answer: Because football fans in Norman want to see the University of Oklahoma.

Duh !

Thus, Arum posits, “This is the year when boxing realized what all sports know; that if you have a Philadelphia Eagles-Arizona Cardinals game, you’ll sell-out in the stadium in Arizona. But if you put that same game in the Meadowlands, you couldn’t get 25-percent of your seats filled. So you put the event where the fighters are popular. You put the fight in a place where there’s going to be some connection and it’s going to draw.”

Second key to success: Give the fans entertaining competitive match-ups. Pavlik-Rubio succeeded locally despite violating this rule because Kelly has been loyal to Youngstown and the fans there figured they owed him one. But Margarito-Mosley and Diaz-Marquez were great fights going in.

Third key: Tickets should be affordable for the average fan. Prices for Diaz-Marquez ran as low as twenty-five dollars. Margarito-Mosley, Pavlik-Rubio, and Cotto-Jennings could each be seen live for as little as fifty dollars.

Too often, boxing treats its live fans as though they don’t matter. Television cameramen stand on the ring apron blocking their view. There are long waits between fights. Many arenas don’t even have a round clock. But on-site fans are important for many reasons. They generate revenue. And a passionate crowd also enhances the experience of watching a fight on television. The excitement is contagious.

Here, the thoughts of Sylvester Stallone are instructive. Stallone wrote and starred in Rocky without ever having been to a professional fight. Years later, he recalled the first fight he actually went to (Larry Holmes versus Ken Norton).

“What a great fight,” Stallone reminisced. “If I’d seen that fight before writing Rocky, the movie might have been a little different because one of the things that struck me about Holmes-Norton was the audience participation. In the fight scenes in Rocky, we focused on the fighters and their corners. But at Holmes-Norton, I realized that the crowd is a character in itself.”

Contrast that thinking with the upcoming rematch between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver, originally scheduled for March 14th at The Palms in Las Vegas but now in limbo with a likely May 9th date at the Hard Rock because Dawson injured a ligament in his right hand.

Dawson is from New Haven; Tarver is from Tampa.

“So why the fuck are they fighting in Vegas?” Arum queries. “I know that’s the easy way to do it. But if you’re a real promoter and you think that maybe Dawson can be a star, you build a fan base for him in Connecticut. You fight him in Hartford and at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. These two guys already fought once at The Palms and sold something like three hundred tickets. Were those three hundred people who bought tickets so happy that maybe you’ll sell three hundred tickets again?”

Only one of Dawson’s last eight fights has been in Connecticut.

Frank Warren didn’t develop Ricky Hatton as a mega-attraction by putting him in casinos. Joe Mesi became a box-office star fighting in and around Buffalo.

Get the point?

HBO and Showtime offer lifelines from time to time. But the few television dates available today are distributed to a select group of individuals. Given the current economic climate, it’s now more important than ever that a fighter be able to sell tickets. And that’s particularly true of mid-level fighters who have yet to attract significant television dollars but can command respectable purses if they put asses in seats.

At present, there’s virtually no middle class in boxing. A renewed emphasis on fighters who sell tickets might create one. That, in turn, could lead to less emphasis on mega-fights and more emphasis on entertaining match-ups featuring mid-level fighters with strong local support.

That would make boxing healthier in the long run. Pyramids are built from the bottom up; not from the top down.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (“The Boxing Scene”) has been published by Temple University Press.


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