Reacting To A Must Read Story About The Most Powerful Force In Boxing

Thomas Hauser has a must-read story at about HBO’s boxing operation. Despite some good progress over the last year or so, it shows just how much further boxing has to go to build itself back up, when the most powerful entity in the sport has the problems HBO does. But, for as long as it is, it also provokes more questions and thoughts than I can shake a stick at. Still, I shall try to shake said stick in that general direction. The main thing I don’t understand — and that nobody seems to understand, really, since only conspiracy theories were offered in Hauser’s piece, and then with anonymous sources — is why networks cast their lot with one promoter or the other instead of many. HBO’s allegiance with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy is the most flagrant example and the one with the biggest impact, and it contributes to a ton of festering wounds. But Showtime and Gary Shaw are just as intimate with one another on a smaller scale, to the point that next weekend, perhaps the best 154-pounder out there, the Shaw-promoted Vernon Forrest, is going into what is widely viewed as his second straight mismatch, this time against Sergio Mora. That’s not a headlining-caliber fight in any world. Versus, meanwhile, is finishing up its own exclusive contract with Top Rank, a contract that has seen Tye Fields, an earnest but not-very-talented heavyweight spotlighted repeatedly, to the point that he’s the running joke about the quality of Versus’ programming. And ESPN has encountered its own allegations of favoring certain promoters. What’s the advantage to all this, for either the promoters or the networks? You can see the advantage for Golden Boy to befriend HBO, up to a point — that point being when its fighters get televised mismatches that corrode the sport for everyone in the long run, including themselves. Recent events have shown that when promoters set aside their pettiness and try to make the best fights, the market supports it and everyone — the networks, the promoters, the fighters — makes more money. This, to me, is the enduring mystery of the politics of the boxing business. I was quite surprised to learn from Hauser about the De La Hoya-Steve Forbes (at 150 lbs.) mismatch getting such low ratings. I figured De La Hoya vs. anybody would generate solid ratings. Instead, it topped out at 4.7, which compares to Jermain Taylor-Winky Wright’s 5.9 — a solid middleweight (160 lbs.) fight, both from a matchmaking standpoint and its result, but neither of those fighters are the man they call “The Golden Boy.” That said, Hauser points to two other mismatches this year as an example of HBO’s tendency to air mismatches, and neither were promoted by Golden Boy: Miguel Cotto-Alfonso Gomez (welterweight, 147 lbs.) and the upcoming middleweight fight between Kelly Pavlik-Gary Lockett, both Top Rank productions. That doesn’t refute the favoritism to Golden Boy, of course, I’m just pointing it out. Now, I am guilty in the case of Cotto-Gomez and Pavlik-Lockett of giving both Cotto and Pavlik a pass, since both men had been on a hellacious streak of difficult fights, so much so that they were both contenders for Fighter of the Year. I think it’s unreasonable as a boxing fan to expect ONLY the best fights EVER. I had little to no interest in De La Hoya-Forbes, so I’m not blindly accepting. I’m the kind of boxing fan who watches most everything I can, even if I fully expect it to be crap, so I’ll watch Pavlik and Cotto, two of the most TV-friendly fighters around, in one bad fight on occasion. Besides, it’s kinda my job. At any rate, taken as a whole — stepping back like Hauser did — it’s clear that HBO’s still airing too much filler to promote stars. With that step back, HBO’s apparent generosity in deciding not to put De La Hoya-Forbes or Bernard Hopkins-Joe Calzaghe (175 lbs.) on pay-per-view looks less generous. I applauded that decision at the time. Overall, it’s better for the sport and its fans to put fewer fights on pay-per-view. But it now looks less like generosity or smart long-term business and more like HBO was worried it wouldn’t get many buys. De La Hoya-Forbes didn’t do that well, as previously discussed, and neither did Hopkins-Calzaghe, scoring a 3.9 rating. The bad news? Hauser writes: “What sort of profit does HBO make from pay-per-view? We keep hearing, ‘It isn‚Äôt as much as you think it is.’ But there is a profit for HBO Sports, and there‚Äôs a far greater profit for Time Warner,” HBO’s parent company. That means, despite the acknowledgment of HBO officials in Hauser’s story that pay-per-view is bad for boxing and hurts them in the long run, they’re probably going to keep doing it. And here’s how bad it is: I love boxing. Kinda my job to watch it, like I said. I have my gripes about welterweights Zab Judah and Shane Mosley, as a fan, but I would have loved to see them fight this weekend as scheduled, before it was canceled. But it was on pay-per-view. I wasn’t going to buy it. When even I won’t watch under those circumstances, who in the world would have? I’m sure somebody would’ve, but I bet it wouldn’t have amounted to a very big audience. The secton about HBO outbidding itself for fights is just unfathomable. I simply don’t understand it. It’s what makes me wonder why they would do it, and Hauser doesn’t answer the question. You don’t see major companies do things that aren’t to their benefit for no good reason. I know mere sentences ago I wondered aloud whether Hopkins-Calzaghe and De La Hoya-Forbes were moved from pay-per-view to regular HBO because of fears that they would do poorly… and wondered aloud who thought Mosley-Judah would bring in a big enough audience… but maybe HBO does some of the dumb things it does because, somehow, they come out on top money-wise when they do. I don’t know how much money the average poor-selling pay-per-view brings in, cash-wise. Maybe there is some reason they pay so much in licensing fees. I would like to know the answer to both. If HBO’s rationale for bad pay-per-views and bad spending on licensing fees can be made plain, we can either punch holes in their argument if they’re faulty, come up with suggestions about how to do it better or accept it as a fact of life if both fail. As it is, Hauser doesn’t explain HBO’s motive in either case. I think Hauser’s spot-on when he talks about HBO over-investing in aging talent instead of building up new stars. But there, I think the reason they do so is more obvious, if left out of his piece. It usually takes a lot of time to build up most stars to the point where they are a big draw; how long was Floyd Mayweather, Jr. one of the best fighters alive before he burst into superstardom, 10 years or so? There are some good young stars out there now, like Cotto and Pavlik, who moved pretty fast, and HBO’s focus on them was quite nice and deliberate in the case of Cotto and quite accidental in the case of Pavlik, whom HBO discovered could be a huge draw when he was fed to another guy the network wanted to pump up, Edison Miranda, and Pavlik destroyed him with aplomb in an excellent fight. There are tiny signs around the edges that HBO wants to focus on developing new stars, but it’s a risky business if a guy gets knocked out and people sour on him. That doesn’t mean HBO shouldn’t do more of it. How much more money is HBO going to be making on the front end, exploiting the talents of Cotto and Pavlik while they’re still young, than they are continuing to throw money at older stars? I think there’s a good business model available. It just requires HBO to look past the short-term financial gain of older, proven vets and think about the long-term financial gain of turning younger guys into newer, proven vets. Not long ago, I lamented that there would be no “Countdown” preview show for the Cotto-Antonio Margarito fight July 26, a lament shared by others. (Remember, not watching that automatic candidate for Fight of the Year could shave years off your life.) I couldn’t imagine the reasoning behind this decision. HBO reversed itself, and Hauser traces it back to Top Rank boss Bob Arum complaining about how if they were Golden Boy fighters, they would definitely have gotten a preview show. But I still don’t have a good sense of why Cotto-Margarito wasn’t going to get a Countdown show originally. Was it that HBO didn’t want to offend Golden Boy? Why even televise Cotto-Margarito, then, if giving it a Countdown show would have offended Golden Boy? It’s still so mysterious to me. It makes me scratch my head and ask, “Is there something I’m missing here? Am I that dense?” Or is it that it’s mysterious because no one understands it and no one can explain it? (And how did Versus “out-fox” HBO, exactly, to pay next to nothing for Ricky Hatton’s ring return in a junior welterweight [140 lbs.] double-header, as Hauser said Versus did?) As for the Larry Merchant-Max Kellerman thing, where the lead analyst role on HBO is split between two men, I must say I think Kellerman gets a bad rap. Yes, he says some daffy things. No, he’s not as strong as Merchant overall. But Merchant says some daffy things, and, I think, more all the time. Somebody’s got to take the job at some point. I didn’t like the way HBO tried to squeeze Merchant out, though, and even at his age he’s still pretty damn good. Maybe Kellerman’s not the best man for the job — Hauser mentions some other potential candidates — but sometimes Kellerman’s dead-on. The cost-cutting stuff Hauser writes about, and the detachment of HBO brass from boxing, is mighty worrisome. Even after reading a piece that takes HBO to task pretty thoroughly and justifiably, if HBO got out of the boxing business, I shudder to think…

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.