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23 AUGUST 2014

 

HBO and the State of Boxing – Part One




By Thomas Hauser

There was a time when the sweet science was governed by the axiom, “As the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing.” Now, in the United States, the rule of thumb is, “As HBO goes, so goes boxing.”

No network has ever been associated with a sport to the degree that HBO is associated with boxing. And no network has ever set the agenda for a sport to the extent that HBO sets the agenda for boxing.

HBO has the single biggest boxing budget in the world.

It’s one of the few places that a fighter and promoter can go to make big money in the United States and, for many Americans, their only exposure to boxing. Indeed, most of the public and media are unaware of a fighter’s existence unless he fights on HBO.

Most big fights in the United States happen if and when HBO chooses to televise them.

In most sports, athletes with talent succeed. In boxing, a good or bad manager, a powerful or weak promoter, a competent or incompetent matchmaker can spell the difference between success and failure. But the most dominant force of all is HBO.

That sort of power demands scrutiny. Indeed, one can make a case that, while HBO’s primary obligations are to its subscribers and Time Warner shareholders, it also has a fiduciary obligation to boxing by virtue of its power.

This article is long. It will be posted in three parts over a three-day period. No one is required to read it. Anyone who’s concerned about the future of boxing might take the time to do so.

I


Much has been written lately about how boxing is struggling in the United States. It’s not just boxing. Dozens of MMA companies have folded in recent years. Even UFC, despite perpetually rose-colored pronouncements, has seen a dip in key economic indicators as of late.

Boxing has been a staple of HBO’s programming since 1973. For a quarter-century, the network has been the best brand in boxing. But in recent years, HBO’s boxing programming has drawn a smaller and increasingly older fan base. One reason this demographic is older is that many viewers first subscribed to the network when HBO boxing was special. They’re staying on out of habit. But HBO boxing is attracting relatively few new subscribers.

The best thing to happen to HBO Sports in recent years was the success of 24/7, both as a marketing vehicle for pay-per-view buys and a passageway to young male viewers. The network continues to have success with its Sports of the 20th Century documentary series. Hard Knocks enjoyed high ratings this summer, courtesy in part of a foul-mouthed New-York-based head coach.

But ratings for HBO’s live fights have been disappointing. And HBO CEO Bill Nelson is said to be particularly troubled by the fact that, in recent years, African-American viewership of HBO Sports programming has dropped significantly beyond the drop for other demographic groups.

Nelson rarely gets involved with the sports department budget; but this year, he has. Sources say that, on September 16, 2010, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg made a presentation to the CEO and outlined a plan to raise ratings among African-American viewers. Greenburg’s suggestions included the idea that HBO spend more money on advertising and promotion targeted at the African-American community. But Nelson is a numbers guy and wary of simply throwing more money at problems.

Sources also say that Greenburg has told Nelson and HBO president Richard Plepler that boxing is struggling because (1) despite HBO’s best efforts, it was unable to consummate a deal for Manny Pacquiao to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr this year; (2) there are no stars because promoters aren’t developing them; and (3) there are no good American heavyweights.

Nelson and Plepler are ambivalent toward boxing. They know there are problems with HBO’s boxing program, but they rely in large part on Greenburg for input regarding the sweet science. Also, in recent years, they’ve had concerns that are more pressing than boxing, such as the need to rebuild HBO’s programming staff on the West Coast after Chris Albrecht’s abrupt departure, replace Sex and the City and The Sopranos, and deal with the challenges posed every day by an ever-changing new media.

HBO Sports operates within this framework. That said; there’s no escaping the fact that the fights shown on HBO during the first ten months of 2010 have been disappointing. The network’s subscribers bankroll its fights. More than thirty million subscribers pay HBO well over one billion dollars each year, so the network has total freedom to buy and televise what it wants. Armed with this freedom and the largest budget in boxing, HBO’s 2010 offerings to date as part of its premium package have been:

Boxing After Dark: Juan Manuel Lopez vs. Steven Luevano, Yuriorkis Gamboa vs. Rogers Mtagwa, Devon Alexander vs. Juan Urango, Marcos Maidana vs. Victor Cayo, Ali Funeka vs. Joan Guzman, Chris Arreola vs. Tomasz Adamek, Alfredo Angulo vs. Joel Julio, Amir Khan vs. Paulie Malignaggi, Victor Ortiz vs. Nate Campbell, Timothy Bradley vs. Carlos Abregu, Alfredo Angulo vs. Joachim Alcine, Devon Alexander vs. Andres Kotelnik, Tavoris Cloud vs. Glen Johnson, Yuriorkis Gamboa vs. Orlando Salido, and Anthony Peterson vs. Brandon Rios

HBO World Championship Boxing: Kelly Pavlik vs. Sergio Martinez, Lucian Bute vs. Edison Miranda, Andre Berto vs. Carlos Quintana, Celestino Caballero vs. Daud Yordan, Paul Williams vs. Kermit Cintron, Yuri Foreman vs. Miguel Cotto, Vanes Martirosyan vs. Joe Greene and Chad Dawson vs. Jean Pascal.

How many of these twenty-three fights would boxing fans want to see again?

HBO simply isn’t giving its subscribers fights that fight fans want to see. One way of measuring that is ratings. Another way of measuring it is that fans aren’t buying tickets to many of the fights that HBO televises. By way of example, Andre Berto vs. Carlos Quintana (for which HBO paid a US$2,150,000 license fee) sold 972 tickets.

“The people at HBO still don’t understand what makes a fight entertaining,” Bob Arum says. “I have to understand because I’m a promoter. I don’t have tens of millions of subscribers sending me money each month. I wish I did, but I don’t. I have to sell tickets to fights. I have to give the public fights that it wants. HBO goes to the public and says, ‘These are the fights that we’re telling you to want,’ and the public is smarter than that.”

Boxing generates excitement when the best fight the best. Very few fights on HBO this year have matched elite fighters against one another. Too often, the network tries to justify a match-up by saying, “We’re putting this on to get to a good fight.” Why not say, “We’re only going to televise what we think will be good fights.”

Luis Cortes recently wrote, “I work in a marketing department. One of the first things I learned is that you can package things and market them as good quality and convince the public all you want. Except when it comes to sports.”

Allan Scotto adds, “Nothing turns a fan off quicker then watching someone purported to be a great fighter fighting yet another fight against a human heavy bag. The real excitement comes watching that same fighter when he’s actually challenged and faces someone with some skills.”

Fans want to see DANGEROUS fights. HBO should be looking for competitive action-filled match-ups, preferably involving one or more vibrant personalities. When these factors are combined, stars are born.

“The problem,” says hall-of-fame promoter Russell Peltz, “is that HBO is more interested in guys with good records than they are in g¬uys who are good fighters. They think they’re building stars, and they aren’t. Fighters become stars when they win exciting fights.”

But the prevailing ethic at HBO today seems to be, let’s get him an alphabet-soup title and then find out if he’s any good. “The way things are,” says trainer Don Turner, “as long as you’re beating up on a stiff, everything is fine. But the fighters aren’t learning how to fight. Then they get to a big fight and stink out the joint because they haven’t earned their way. There’s a difference between padding your record and developing as a fighter.”

Taking into account fights that have been scheduled through the end of 2010, the fighters who will have appeared live most often on HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark from 2008 through 2010 are Andre Berto and Alfredo Angulo with seven appearances each. Berto will be dealt with later in this article. Let’s take a look at Angulo.

Alfredo is an entertaining fighter. He’s a big strong guy who throws punches and gets hit. He had zero name recognition before he appeared on HBO. The network could have insisted that he go in tough. Instead, it was clear before the opening bell that each of his first three opponents (Richard Gutierrez, Andrey Tsurkan, and Cosme Rivera) was woefully overmatched. Then Angulo went in tough against Kermit Cintron and lost, so it was back to less threatening opponents (Harry Yorgey, Joel Julio, and Joachim Alcine).

Why are fighters like Alfredo Angulo consistently on HBO if they’re not willing to fight the best?

Fighters, as previously noted, become stars by going in tough. But they have little incentive to go in tough when HBO keeps overpaying them to fight weak opponents. By way of example, Angulo turned down a US$750,000 purse to fight Sergio Martinez in November. Martinez would have been favored in that fight.

“It’s idiotic to throw money at unproven fighters to fight second-rate opponents,” says Bob Arum. “But that’s what HBO does, and then they’re surprised when they can’t make the fights they want. They’ve created a totally artificial market based entirely on how much money Ross and Kery [HBO senior vice president for sports programming Kery Davis] are willing to pay for a fight. We [Top Rank] got a US$2,750,000 license fee for Foreman-Cotto, which is HBO’s highest-rated show of the year so far. Look at how often they’ve paid the same amount of money or more for dog shit. The license fees that HBO pays, and I’ve said this before, are totally arbitrary. They remind me of when people were selling tulip bulbs in Holland for ridiculous amounts of money. Then, one day, people woke up and said, ’What, are we crazy? These are tulip bulbs!’ And the market collapsed overnight.”

As a general rule, the economic model for boxing should equate making the most money with making the most entertaining, most competitive fights. Similarly, HBO should pay its highest license fees for the most entertaining, most competitive fights.

But it doesn’t seem to happen that way.

HBO paid US$3,200,000 for a rematch between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver last year (their first fight drew 911 paying fans) because it wanted Dawson in its stable. Dawson-Tarver II sold 1,426 tickets. Then HBO paid millions more for a rematch between Dawson and Glen Johnson before Dawson lost to Jean Pascal.

“That’s what happens when a network tries to create a star out of nothing,” says Arum. “If the people at HBO bought fights like intelligent people, do you realize what they could have bought for five million dollars?

And more to the point; how many fights has Chad Dawson been in that boxing fans were excited about? What are the chances that anyone outside of Dawson’s immediate family has said, “Gee; I think I’ll pop in a DVD of Chad’s two fights against Antonio Tarver.”

The National Basketball Association entered a new era when it began marketing around Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark have entered a new era by marketing around Andre Berto, Alfredo Angulo, Chad Dawson, and company.

“They just don’t get it,” says Kathy Duva, who has been at the helm of Main Events for the past fourteen years. “The thing that’s totally missing from HBO’s boxing programming today is passion. If you look at all the superstars in boxing - Ali, Ray Leonard, Tyson, George Foreman, Oscar - they inspired passion. Arturo Gatti wasn’t a great fighter, but he inspired passion. Passion is what makes sports entertaining. People aren’t making an emotional connection with the fighters they see on HBO anymore.”

“Let’s be honest,” Duva continues. “HBO doesn’t understand the importance of passion in boxing anymore because the people who run boxing there have no passion for boxing. That’s clear from the fights they make. They keep telling the public, ‘You should watch this fighter; he’s the best.’ And they’re not connecting with the public because, whether or not their fighters are the best, they’re not entertaining to watch and people don’t care about them.”

“Kery and Ross should pay fighters based on how much money they’d take out of their own pocket to see them fight,” Duva says. “Would they pay their own money to watch Chad Dawson? How many people care if Andre Berto wins or loses? And how can you get excited watching Andre Berto and Chad Dawson when there’s no passion in the arena? The only time there was passion in the arena for a Chad Dawson fight was when he went to Canada and fought Jean Pascal. Ross and Kery are television programmers trying to be promoters and they aren’t listening to the fans. Kery’s vision of the world is very small. He doesn’t understand that there’s more than HBO involved in a promotion. In the real world of boxing where I have to balance a budget based on how many fans buy tickets for a fight, entertainment matters. Arturo Gatti lost three fights in a row, but he always gave the public great fights. Go to a Tomasz Adamek fight. Tomasz’s fan base isn’t as broad as Arturo’s was, but it’s just as passionate. Tomasz’s fans come to his fights wearing red and white. Their faces are painted. They scream all night. His fights are exciting. And the only way he can get on HBO is to go out to California and fight an Al Haymon fighter in a half-empty arena. There was a time when HBO created icons with its boxing programming. Where are the icons of tomorrow?”

It has been said that, to do great things, a person must have passion about what he or she doing. Often, when HBO hosts an on-site party on fight night, the party takes place during the undercard and extends into one or more of the televised fights.

What message does that send?

In recent years, HBO has consistently come up short in identifying young fighters with the potential to become both true champions in the ring and marketable outside it. Berto, Angulo, and Dawson have already been referenced. Chris Arreola, Victor Ortiz, Robert Guerrero, and Danny Jacobs stumbled. Now the network is said to be pushing a fight between Tomasz Adamek and Wladimir Klitschko in the hope of breathing life into the heavyweight division.

There are some extremely entertaining fights involving Tomasz Adamek that HBO could televise. Adamek against Klitschko is not one of them. It would be one-sided beat down.

Kery Davis is HBO’s primary programmer for boxing. “I report to Ross,” Davis explains. “My responsibility is to determine when fights are made and which fights we buy, negotiate deals for those fights on behalf of the company, and strategize with marketing before and after the deals are made. I’m not a matchmaker. We buy fights that promoters offer us. The criteria we use are: We want the best fighting the best. We want exciting fights. We’re in the business of identifying and developing stars, so we want fighters who have star potential. And the fight should fit within an overall strategy, such as our decision this year to get heavily involved in the 140-pound division because that division has exciting talent that runs deep and can be matched up in competitive fights.”

“Kery runs the boxing program on a day-to-day basis,” says Greenburg. “He’s the one who does most of the dealing with promoters and is primarily responsible for the matchmaking on HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark. Mark Taffet works the pay-per-view world.”

A number of promoters have complained about misinformation that they say flows from Davis’s lips during negotiations; misinformation regarding the license fees that HBO pays to other promoters, HBO’s arrangements on subsidiary rights with other promoters, the amount of money that HBO receives for foreign rights on a given fight, the availability of dates, and the money that’s available to license a fight on a given date.

“I don’t give misinformation,” Davis says when the issue is put to him. “I give people the most accurate information I have at the time. Sometimes things change.”

“That’s very Kery,” one promoter says in response. “He has zero credibility with some of us, but he and Ross hold our livelihood in their hands.”

Bob Arum points to what he believes is a larger problem at HBO.

“The larger your organization,” Arum says, “the more you have to rely on other people. There are things I don’t know about the new media because I’m not a new media guy; so for those things, I rely on Todd [Top Rank president Todd duBoef]. On other things, I might rely on someone else. Ross has no one who he can rely on when it comes to making decisions about boxing.”

“Kery isn’t a boxing guy,” Arum continues. “To do that job, you have to love boxing and be part of boxing and get boxing. Lou [DiBella], for all his craziness, was a very, very good boxing guy. Kery has no feel for the sport. He would dispute that, but I’ve been in boxing for a long time and I know what I’m talking about. The biggest need that Ross has right now is for someone to advise him who knows fighters, knows what makes a good fight, and knows what’s really going on in boxing. Otherwise, HBO will keep making the same mistakes again and again.”

“Ross needs someone with his finger on the pulse of boxing,” says another promoter. “HBO got burned last month when it came out that Alfredo Angulo is in the United States illegally. A lot of us have known that for a long time. I mean, come on; Angulo drove cross-country for an HBO fight because he couldn’t get on a plane. Why didn’t anyone at HBO know?”

Another factor to be considered in HBO’s boxing programming is the influence of Al Haymon.

Haymon has roots in the concert-promotion business and, over the past decade, has become the most powerful manager in boxing. His roster of fighters includes Floyd Mayweather Jr, Paul Williams, Andre Berto, Chris Arreola, Antonio Tarver, Andre Dirrell, and many young prospects. In the past, he has represented Jermain Taylor, Vernon Forrest, and Lamon Brewster.

Haymon’s reach extends into Showtime, although not to the same degree that he has penetrated HBO. Also, his relationship with Showtime might have been irrevocably damaged as a consequence of his handling of the aborted “super-six” tournament bout between Andre Dirrell and Andre Ward. One of the featured bouts in the tournament next year could be Showtime versus Dirrell in federal court, with a jury asked to decide whether or not Andre was really physically unable to continue in the tournament and what Haymon knew when about the situation.

HBO Sports has entered into contracts for bouts involving Haymon’s fighters that seem to defy logic. Ross Greenburg says, “I’ve tried to dispel the notion that Al has some sort of special influence at HBO. He’s a very powerful manager with a lot of good fighters, who conducts himself in the style of Mike Trainer with Sugar Ray Leonard in the 1980s. We talk with Al, but he doesn’t wield the power that people think he does.”

But sources say that Haymon has influence beyond the skills of his fighters and that it comes from a series of personal alliances as well as his ability to assist in providing talent for HBO entertainment specials.

Sports is in a subsidiary position at HBO. No one leans on Michael Lombardo (the president of HBO programming) to give Chris Arreola a cameo appearance on Boardwalk Empire. But the sports department gets leaned on from time to time.

By way of example; when HBO televises a 24/7 series that relates to a fight, the promoter foots the bill. Top Rank paid US$1,300,000 for Pacquiao-Cotto 24/7 and is paying a comparable amount for Pacquiao-Margarito 24/7. Golden Boy has incurred similar costs for 24/7 shows that involved its fights.

However Jimmie Johnson 24/7: Race to Daytona was subject to a different set of rules. Creative Artists Agency (one of Hollywood’s top talent agencies) represents the likes of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Jimmie Johnson is one of its clients.

Sources say that, at the request of CAA, Lombardo asked HBO Sports to produce the Jimmie Johnson show. Greenburg, these sources say, was lukewarm to the idea. But he reports to Lombardo and a deal was struck. HBO paid the production costs for Jimmie Johnson 24/7 and also a license fee to Johnson. As part of the horse-trading, Lombardo agreed that the money wouldn’t come out of the sports department budget.

Al Haymon is a very powerful concert promoter. Among his many ventures, he promoted Beyonce’s I Am … Tour.

Beyonce, like other Haymon clients in the musical world, has appeared on HBO.

“If I had Beyonce,” Kathy Duva says, “I could get dates on HBO too.”

Kery Davis rejects the notion that Haymon leverages his non-sports relationships to gain favor from HBO Sports. “No person at HBO outside of sports has ever spoken to me about Al Haymon,” Davis says. “And the music business is different from the boxing business. In the music business, Al is a promoter, not a manager. And in the music business, the person who would sell a concert to HBO is the artist’s agent or manager, not the promoter.”

But in the music business, an artist’s promoter often works closely with the artist’s agent or manager.

Haymon isn’t Mother Teresa for long-suffering fighters. He likes the power he wields within the boxing industry and also the money he makes from his share of numerous pies. He’s also believed to have made millions of dollars by reselling tickets for big fights; most notably on De La Hoya vs. Mayweather and Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton (where Alan Haymon Development Inc. had the right to purchase US$3,100,000 worth of tickets at face value).

A look at HBO’s dealings with Andre Berto (one of Haymon’s fighters) is instructive. Berto is a talented boxer, who is currently the WBC 147-pound belt holder.

Fans don’t buy many tickets for Berto’s fights. As noted earlier, his last championship bout (against Carlos Quintana on April 10th of this year) drew 972 paying customers. And the ratings indicate that HBO’s subscribers aren’t particularly interested in Andre, which raises the question of why the network paid a US$2,150,000 license fee that night.

No one knows how good Berto might be (including Andre) because HBO keeps paying him large amounts of money to appear against ordinary opponents.

Berto will be fighting Freddie Hernandez as part of an HBO triple-header on November 27th. HBO is paying a license fee of US$1,200,000 for Berto-Hernandez.

Hernandez is an ESPN-level fighter. Recently, Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote, “Berto-Hernandez is a dog. Al Haymon, Berto’s adviser, has manipulated, leveraged, and bamboozled HBO into overpaying and coddling Berto for years, and it continues here. HBO is paying $1.2 million for trash.”

Berto-Hernandez will be Andre’s tenth fight on HBO over a four-year period. His first nine opponents were:

Miguel Figueroa (December 9, 2006), who took the bout for one last paycheck before retiring.

Norberto Bravo (February 17, 2007); a hopelessly outclassed opponent, who has now lost seven of his last twelve fights.

David Estrada (September 29, 2007); a credible opponent, but one who was beginning a downward slide that has seen him lose in three of his last six outings.

Michel Trabant (February 9, 2008) – In his first fight after being knocked out by Berto, Trabant lost a unanimous decision to Roman Seliverstov (a fighter with a 7-and-7 record, who had lost seven of his previous nine bouts). That gave Trabant a five-fight run of one win, two losses, a draw, and one no-contest (relating to a positive test for steroids).

Miguel Rodriguez (June 21, 2008) – This one was for the WBC welterweight belt. Rodriguez, as of this writing, hasn’t won a fight since September 2007.

Stevie Forbes (September 27, 2008), who was known as “Little Stevie Forbes”. And that’s when he was fighting at 135 pounds. Forbes had no business fighting Berto at 147. He has lost five of seven fights since February 2006.

Luis Collazo (January 17, 2009). This was a good fight. But Collazo had lifestyle issues when he fought Berto and has continued to have them since then. He has fought only once during the past twenty-one months (against a club fighter with a 9-and-16 record, whose nine wins came against fighters with a total of five victories to their credit).

Juan Urango (May 30, 2009) – Urango is another smaller guy who came up in weight to fight Berto. He lost a decision to Andre and got knocked out by Devon Alexander at 140 pounds in his next fight.

Berto was scheduled to fight Shane Mosley in January 2010, but pulled out of the bout because of concern for his family in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. That was understandable. But then, rather than proceed with Mosley-Berto at a later date, HBO paid Andre the equivalent of step aside money in the form of an inflated license fee for Berto-Quintana so the network could proceed with Mayweather-Mosley on May 1st.

Then Berto fought Quintana. Carlos is well past his prime and has won only two fights during the past thirty-three months. Those victories came against Joshua Onyango (4-17-1 in his past twenty-two bouts) and Jesse Feliciano (who hasn’t won in forty-four months and is 0-and-5 during that time).

Has Al Haymon done a good job for Andre Berto? Absolutely.

Has HBO fulfilled its responsibility to its subscribers by televising the Andre Berto fights referenced above? Absolutely not.

There are also complaints that HBO has empowered Haymon to act as an unlicensed promoter.

Because of his relationship with HBO, Haymon is in a position whereby he rarely has to give a promoter long term contractual rights to one of his fighters. Often, the promoter has little more than a handshake and Haymon’s word that, where this particular fighter is concerned, the promoter is Al’s guy. That gives Haymon enormous leverage over the promoter in terms of how income generated from each fight is split. Promoters put up with the arrangement because, over the years, HBO has been remarkably generous when giving out dates and paying license fees for fights involving Haymon’s fighters.

Haymon works with five primary promoters: Dan Goossen, Lou DiBella, Richard Schaefer, Gary Shaw, and Brian Young. Despite their involvement, he acts in many respects as the de facto promoter for the fighters that he manages. Often, he deals directly with Ross Greenburg and Kery Davis during fight negotiations, while the promoter of record is minimally involved and reduced to doing the nuts-and-bolts work on the conduct of the fight.

“Al Haymon functions in large measure as a promoter,” says Bob Arum. “Part of a promoter’s job is to speak directly with the television networks and put fights together, and that’s what he does. States should require him to be licensed as a promoter, but they don’t.”

Promoters with Al Haymon fighters are more afraid to talk about Haymon on the record than they are to talk about HBO. But several of them have complained that they’re often bypassed by Kery Davis, who talks directly with Haymon regarding the details of match-ups for fighters that Al manages and they promote.

Davis disputes that point, saying, “If a fighter has a licensed promoter, I deal with the promoter; not Al Haymon. It presents itself on a case by case basis. When we were hoping to buy Paul Williams against Sergio Martinez [which HBO will televise on November 20th], Dan [Goossen] didn’t have an agreement with Paul until late in the negotiations, so I negotiated with Lou [DiBella] on behalf of Martinez and with Al on behalf of Paul.”

“Almost everyone who promotes an Al Haymon fighter has been neutered by HBO,” says another promoter. “The things that they do for him are absurd. He’s difficult to work with and he squeezes me hard. But I have to say; I think he’s good for the fighters he manages.”

As for the HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark schedule over the next three months; Martinez-Williams shapes up as an exciting competitive fight between two elite fighters. It’s also a model in many respects for how HBO should do business in the future. The network demanded that each fighter go in tough, offered a US$3,000,000 license fee, held firm during negotiations, and got what it wanted. The fighters were free to go elsewhere, but no one else was offering them nearly as much money for any fight. For once, HBO didn’t bid against itself.

Amir Khan vs. Marcos Maidana on December 11th is an interesting fight. The assumption is that Khan will outbox Maidana for two minutes and fifty-five seconds of every round. The question is, “What happens in those other five seconds?”

At the other end of the spectrum, HBO’s November 27th offering leaves much to be desired. Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Michael Katsidis is little more than an entertaining mismatch unless Marquez gets old overnight. Berto-Hernandez has already been discussed. Celestino Caballero against Jason Litzau is what Lou DiBella would call a “death match” if Caballero wasn’t his fighter.

The other fights on HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark before the end of the year tie into HBO’s obligations to Golden Boy, which will be discussed later in this article.

Looking ahead to 2011, Greenburg anticipates nine or ten World Championship Boxing cards; eight or nine Boxing After Dark shows; and three or four pay-per-view events. He says that there won’t be a firm cap on license fees, but that he expects a downward “market correction.”

Since HBO is the market, he can make that happen. HBO should hold firm on quality and price. If promoters and fighters balk and HBO boxing goes dark for a few months (as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have done in the past), the world won’t end. Eventually, elite fighters will return in competitive fights for reasonable license fees because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

“We’re going to go back to basics next year,” Greenburg promises. “The best fighters and the best fights.”

That sounds good. But one has to remember:

Ross Greenburg (2007): “We intend to dig our feet in a little more on mismatches and not give in to promoters, managers, and fighters who don’t want to take a risk.”

Ross Greenburg (2008): “This year, if a fighter wants to be on HBO, we’ll expect him to go in tough.”

Ross Greenburg (2009): “This year, we intend to televise the best fighters in meaningful competitive fights.”

Ideally, Greenburg means it when he says, “We have to look at the things we did to make the rematch between Martinez and Williams and learn from that experience.”

Much of HBO’s focus in 2011 will be on the 140-pound division. Depending on the results of Zab Judah vs. Lucas Matthysse on November 6th, Victor Ortiz vs. Lamont Peterson on December 11th, and Khan-Maidana on the same date, the network plans to pick and choose among Timothy Bradley, Devon Alexander, and the just-mentioned 140-pounders with a few more fighters thrown into the mix.

HBO’s first fight in 2011 is slated to be Bradley vs. Alexander on January 29th. The network stumbled in setting up the fight. First, it put Alexander in soft against Juan Urango. Alexander looked good. Then it put Bradley in soft against Carlos Abregu at 147 pounds and Timothy looked lackluster. After that, it put Alexander in what was thought to be a relatively easy fight against Andreas Kotelnik. Devon looked ordinary and almost lost. Thereafter, Bart Barry wrote, “Alexander needs to eschew the greatness track and get back on the Andre Berto track, blasting former champions from smaller weight divisions and outpointing predictable South Americans for good money.”

Bradley-Abregu and Alexander-Kotelnik took the edge off Bradley-Alexander. But it’s still an intriguing fight. HBO is paying a US$2,750,000 license fee for the bout. Timothy is on track to become a promotional free agent on May 8, 2011. Devon becomes a promotional free agent on June 23rd. Gary Shaw and Don King (their respective promoters) wanted contract extensions. There was a compromise whereby, win or lose, each fighter will fight one more fight with his current promoter on HBO. The network can require a rematch of Bradley-Alexander if it so chooses. Otherwise, Bradley and Alexander will be in separate fights against different opponents chosen by mutual agreement between each fighter’s camp and HBO. The license fee for each of these fights will be US$3,000,000.

HBO hopes that its 140-pound festival will evoke memories of the glory years when Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler fought each other. Unfortunately, Bradley, Alexander, Khan, and Ortiz aren’t Leonard, Hearns, Duran, and Hagler.

But whatever happens in the 140-pound division, one thing that HBO should avoid in 2011 is allowing Pacquiao-Mayweather (or the absence thereof) to overshadow the entire year.

There were times in 2010 when HBO Sports looked like a kidnap victim tied to some railroad tracks, hoping that Manny and Floyd would come to the rescue. Ask a fight fan today, “What fights do you want to see?” and chances are that, after Pacquiao-Mayweather, the answer will be, “I don’t know.”

There’s danger when talk of one fight, even if it happens, sucks the air out of everything else. Pacquiao-Mayweather, if it takes place, will make a lot of money for two fighters and a handful of corporate entities. But that money won’t trickle down to others in the boxing world any more than the money from De La Hoya-Mayweather did. If boxing and boxing on HBO are to become healthy again (as opposed to a single fight generating one big score), it won’t be on a pay-per-view basis. Fans need a more satisfying product across the board.

Another reason for the drop in ratings experienced by HBO’s boxing programming is that its presentation of fights has gotten stale. The network has a great deal of creative talent. It should use it more.

On the marketing side, HBO should find a way (if it’s not too late) to tie Martinez-Williams in Atlantic City into its critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire series.

Has anybody thought of asking James Gandolfini to host a pre-fight show on an HBO-PPV card? Or creating a pre-fight panel with some combination of Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, and Denzel Washington (all knowledgeable fight fans)? Throw Mike Tyson into the mix. That would get some ink and attract viewers. I’d move heaven and hell to have J. K. Rowling talking on camera at a big HBO fight. Ditto for Oprah Winfrey. That would broaden the viewer demographic.

24/7 has proven to be an important tool in building the audience for pay-per-view fights. Why not use it to build the brand of boxing? Take four good young evenly-matched fighters in the same weight division. One each promoted by Golden Boy, Top Rank, Main Events, Lou DiBella, Dan Goossen, and Gary Shaw.

That’s six promoters, you say; not four.

Right. You’d have the promoters competing against each other and offering their best product so as not to get left out. Set the promoters loose on one another and put the four chosen fighters in an elimination tournament. If you think that watching Roger Mayweather shop for a Thanksgiving turkey on 24/7 is fun, how about that battle royale?

Boxing After Dark was originally conceived as a platform for exciting young fighters to showcase their talents in competitive fights, while a date on HBO World Championship Boxing meant that a fighter had made it to the big time. Now viewers see some match-ups with aging fighters on BAD and some very ordinary events on WCB. At times, the programming is indistinguishable. So drop the BAD label. All it does is connote lesser fights. The announcing teams are the primary difference between the two franchises, and even that distinction has been blurred.

That leads to another problem. HBO will have televised twenty-two shows by the end of this year; five pay-per-view, eight World Championship Boxing, and nine Boxing After Dark telecasts. Max Kellerman will have been on the air for fifteen of these shows; Jim Lampley thirteen; Bob Papa nine; and Larry Merchant six. If I’m running a boxing program for a major television network, I want Jim Lampley to be my go-to branding guy; not Max (who, by the way, will also have more “face time” on HBO this year than Lampley).

Next point. HBO has to think outside the box. One way it can do so (and I suggested this last year) is to focus its choice of fights and the marketing of these fights on the issue of “WHO’S #1?’”

Championship fights used to excite fans. Not anymore. The absurd proliferation of title belts has destroyed the idea of lineal succession. As Patrick Kehoe wrote, “The nature of a championship as a marketing tool for gaining network television money has become a championship’s primary function, divorcing it from the historic concept of symbolic superiority. Champions have become fighters with belts who are no longer required to defeat the very best within their division. Essentially, titleholders need to defend titles against network-sanctioned opponents and make a yearly mandatory defense; politics not merit, determining that status.”

Last year, Eric Raskin analyzed some statistical data and observed, “In the spring of 1998, there were twenty-one American-born fighters who wore IBF, WBA or WBC belts. In the spring of 2008, that number was down to fourteen. Right now, in the spring of 2009, the total is seven.”

By my calculations, including the WBO (which Raskin left off his list), the present total is six.

Stop the nonsense! HBO should identify the most credible rankings possible. That might mean convening its own independent panel of experts. I’ve offered suggestions in the past as to how that might be done. Then, as the network moves through the 140-pound division, it can tell viewers, “This fight is between #1 and #2. This fight is between #3 and #5.”

“WHO’S #1” works in other sports. It can work in boxing. But the key to it all is the fights themselves, not how they’re packaged. Every fight that HBO televises should have two fighters that the public wants to see; not one. Instead of telling its subscribers, “We’re giving you great fights,” HBO should give its subscribers great fights.


“HBO and the State of Boxing – Part Two” by Thomas Hauser.

“HBO and the State of Boxing – Part Three” by Thomas Hauser.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (Waiting For Carver Boyd) was published by JR Books and can be purchased at http://www.amazon.co.uk/ or http://www.abebooks.com. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”


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