Are Boxers Overpaid? Responding To That And Other Intriguing Questions From Steve Kim

Floyd_Mayweatherr.jpgSteve Kim’s an excellent and pugnacious boxing writer for, and I usually agree with him in whole. His latest column
offers many “amen” moments, but it offers a few points I take issue
with as well.

I’ll excerpt the column and respond to it piece by piece. To read the entire column, go here.

The word is that this weekend’s bout between Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones at Madison Square Garden and the November 22nd contest between Ricky Hatton and Paulie Malignaggi at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas are struggling (to say the least) at the box office, as the expected influx of patrons from the UK simply has not materialized…

That tickets aren’t selling well for Calzaghe-Jones is not that surprising. I don’t personally know many boxing fans that are looking forward to this fight.

In response, the newest mantra being sung in unison by those in the boxing business is to blame the economy. And it’s certainly a factor, but as you dig deeper, you begin to realize that many of boxing’s ills are self-inflicted wounds or man-made disasters.

True ’nuff.

Consider that ringside seats for Calzaghe-Jones were priced at $2,500 and Hatton-Malignaggi at $1,000. The thought process was that the British, with their strong economy, would look at these prices over here in the good ol’ US of A as a discount versus our fading dollar. Well, as their currency, following in line with the rest of the world, took a pound-ing, those prices suddenly don’t look so palpable…

It is a little more surprising that the British fans may not be hitting the shores for Hatton. I assumed they’d follow the guy wherever they went. There doesn’t seem to be any dampening of enthusiasm for him in the U.K., so I think you can chalk this one up almost entirely to the economy.

What’s funny is that both of these events would most likely thrive in England/Europe, but were inexplicably placed in the United States. Calzaghe, after his disappointing showing in Las Vegas this past April against Bernard Hopkins (where money was actually rebated back to the host venue), should be facing Jones in Wales. The word is because of the insistence of HBO, it wound up in the Big Apple in exchange for ’24/7′ being produced. If there is a fight of the two that should’ve been in New York it was Hatton-Malignaggi, and the Garden seemed to be the logical fit. But because of Golden Boy Promotions’ corporate tie-ins with AEG (which owns venues all across the world, but not MSG), the fight ends up in the desert. It’s worth mentioning that when the two co-headlined a doubleheader in Manchester, England back in May, a crowd of over 55,000 showed up at the City of Manchester Stadium in Hatton’s hometown.

I couldn’t agree more about how well both fights would have done in Britain, and how both should have been staged there. I don’t have some parochial “all fighters must fight in the United States” hang-up. I do think fighters should prove themselves on foreign turf from time to time, but if a fight is going to draw a bigger crowd overseas, why not have it there then broadcast it here? Likewise, it’s kinda dumb that Hatton-Malignaggi isn’t in New York City, given Malignaggi’s roots there.

Also, Calzaghe-Jones hasn’t proved it deserved a 24/7 show. It’s not as if their haven’t been good and interesting moments so far – like Jones talking about his relationship with his father – but I’m afraid neither man is colorful enough to carry a show like this. It all could have been distilled down into a 30-minute preview show and there still might be a few dull moments. No amount of great camera work or stirring theme songs can make Calzaghe or Jones suddenly really interesting dudes. Hopkins and Kelly Pavlik – now that’s a 24/7 that would have been fun, because Hopkins is so smart and occasionally offensive, Pavlik is a self-deprecating figure whose story sells and trainer Jack Loew is a quote a minute.

It hasn’t helped that Calzaghe-Jones has no real promoter. In fact, Calzaghe and Jones themselves are the promoters of record for Saturday night. It’s worth noting that their televised undercard is perhaps the worst in memory that did not involve Butterbean or Mia St. John. But then what did you expect when you don’t have a real promoter involved running things?…

Here’s one point where I object. Sure, Calzaghe and Jones have no promotional experience, and sure, the undercard is hideous. But I think the problem here is not that neither are “real promoters,” it’s that neither of them have hardly any experience being promoters. Golden Boy Promotions is doing all right for itself, whether you agree with their business practices or not; there’s no reason to discriminate against promoters who happen to be fighters. The promotional abilities of each promoter should be evaluated based on their track record. Calzaghe and Jones don’t have much of one, and that’s why the promotion sort of sucks, not because they’re fighters.

Speaking of which, rumors are running rampant that both HBO and Showtime are getting their boxing budgets slashed for the upcoming year. On the surface that may seem like a disaster. It says here that it’s a step in the right direction – one that leads back to reality.

Why? And how, you ask?

Well, for years, as Ivy League-educated executives got hustled by fighters and their representatives for exclusive, guaranteed contracts, those said fighters (who are the biggest names in the sport) began to fight less and less. The contracts became semi-annual annuities on which to collect – oftentimes against non-descript opposition. There used to be a time when a boxer’s market value was determined by the amount of ticket revenue he generated. Nowadays, it’s arbitrarily set by network executives, with their biases and whims.

Kim knows that their “whims” have little to do with it, even if he doesn’t recognize it here. He answers his own question a little later.

The result is that activity for fighters is at an all-time low. Performing three times a year at the world-class level now makes you Henry Armstrong or Archie Moore.  But beyond that – and perhaps more importantly – an unnatural and unrealistic market value has been established that, many times, keeps anticipated fights from becoming a reality as financial demands become exorbitant. Fighters who headline in 1,500 seat ballrooms (at half capacity) regularly make six-figure paydays nowadays. Hey, you can’t knock the hustle; it’s good if you can get it. But it has had a deleterious effect on the industry. At first this deal was like a never ending ATM machine. But after 25 years of this, fighters are now less active, less marketable, less recognizable and less popular than their predecessors, as there is less incentive for them to perform often.

I have no doubt this is all correct.

It’s not a popular thing to say, but the fact is that many fighters are, in fact, grossly overpaid. Yeah, I said it. If you can’t get more than a couple of thousand fannies in the seats and do Nielsen ratings lower than Bob Gibson’s ERA in 1968, do you really deserve a high six-figure payday?…

From the standpoint of capitalism, I guess this is a fine argument. From another standpoint of what is “deserved,” it is not. Come on – how could you not watch Israel Vazquez put his life on the line against Rafael Marquez and think he doesn’t “deserve” to be a wealthy, wealthy man? I have more to say on this momentarily.

As our country ushers in new leadership… maybe it’s time for HBO to find a replacement for Ross ‘Dubya’ Greenburg and the rest of his administration, who have sunk this once proud franchise to all-time lows. As HBO has become more and more influential on the state of this business throughout the years, it’s been said that as HBO goes, so goes the business. Well, in allowing the tail to wag the dog for so long, the dog is now foaming at the mouth and morbidly ill.

I wouldn’t have a problem with some new leadership at HBO. There’s a broad consensus in the industry that they’re not doing many favors for the sport.

ow, if it’s indeed true that HBO and Showtime will condense their schedules and have less shows, perhaps that will spur, for one, a better quality of fight that we will see on their airwaves, with the goal being quality over quantity. Instead of Kelly Pavlik-Gary Lockett being on HBO, we’ll instead see Pavlik against Bernard Hopkins and so on. It’s been said that if the networks pulled out of boxing that the sport couldn’t survive…

What’s “been said” is actually a great and valid concern.

Now, the casinos which for years helped finance the sport in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are becoming tighter with their purse strings, as they themselves are feeling the effects of this economy.

Again, in the long run this can actually be a very good thing.

As these venues tighten their belts, maybe, just maybe, it creates the necessity to actually go out and develop local attractions and with that, establishing fanbases and realistic market values…

Will the re-establishing of local markets actually ever take place? Who knows. But this much is clear – the over-reliance on television and casino money the past three decades was boxing’s version of recklessly borrowing against the future, but never saving for a rainy day. There was a time long ago if a fighter and promoter couldn’t secure a spot on television, they would merely rent an arena, sell some tickets and make a few bucks as they stayed busy. They earned their cash; they didn’t need credit.

This is the root of the problem. It’s not about the “whims” of the networks, per my earlier point. HBO has made a calculation that it’s to their business advantage to air a fight like Pavlik-Lockett. It’s not a whim. It’s a conscious decision. But Kim’s right: The calculations favor short-term gain over long-term viability.

There are actually a lot of similarities between the current economic crisis and boxing. An artificial market was created that had unrealistic numbers, with leadership that simply couldn’t see the trees through the forest. Greed, hubris and a lack of foresight are the common denominators here. And perhaps boxing’s version of Alan Greenspan continually lowering interest rates was boxing time and time again leaning on its same 300,000 diehards to purchase it’s pay-per-views (as HBO squandered its budget for mismatches before running out of money by August). But alas, even that has come to an end it seems, as reportedly less than 200,000 Joe the Plumbers purchased the Hopkins-Pavlik pay-per-view on October 18th. Organizers of the event took heavy losses across the board…

Economists sometimes talk about a spate of bad times as a “correction,” where the market was propped up for the wrong reasons and the bad times are simply the understandable result of that. Maybe boxing does need to raise interest rates, keeping with Kim’s metaphor, i.e., paying its fighters less. I would argue that idea shouldn’t go too far. A little less money might be healthy, but let’s not forget that there are already lots of other ways to make money that aren’t near as hard as boxing. One of boxing’s competitive advantages over other sports is that you can earn more money doing it once you get at the top level than you can anywhere else. Even within the world of fighting, mixed martial arts combatants make very paltry sums compared to boxers. If boxers don’t make enough money per bout, there’s a chance they’ll fight more. But they might just never become boxers.

In other words, there’s a chance of a short-term gain if fighters are paid less. But long-term, it might turn into a problem.

As for Pavlik-Hopkins: For so many reasons, that fight should not have been on pay-per-view. You hope taking a loss on a fight like that makes HBO wise up and say, “Maybe we shouldn’t have paid so much for this fight that we had to put it on pay-per-view.” And here’s where I’m sympathetic to Kim’s argument. One of the reasons this fight happened was because it was the only way for Pavlik to eclipse his purse of $2.5 million he’d been earning of late. Pavlik promoter Bob Arum offered Pavlik $1 million plus upside to do a smaller Top Rank-produced pay-per-view show where Pavlik would have fought Marco Antonio Rubio. I might have bout that were it affordably priced, in the neighborhood of $25. But I’m sorry, when $1 million or more isn’t enough to entice a fighter to take on a dramatic underdog, there’s something wrong with that fighter’s thinking.

It’s interesting as you see the state of the business in this country and contrast it to foreign markets. Without nearly the amount of network interference and casino settings, Europe has a host of lucrative attractions like Arthur Abraham, Felix Sturm, the Klitschkos, Mikkel Kessler and Amir Khan, among others, that have been established by real promoters who still have them on over-the-air television and yet still fill arenas. Just a couple of weeks ago, Lucien Bute, a solid, if not spectacular fighter of Romanian descent, packed the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada with 16,000 patrons who have followed his rise in that area. Fans still come out in flocks in Mexico and Puerto Rico.

Yes, the boxing business is actually thriving in many other foreign markets, believe it or not.

In America, it has met thy enemy – and it is itself.

Well said, sir.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.