Relitigating, Part 1: Boxing Undercards

There have been a couple subjects that generated heated debate in this space in the last week, to the point that I believe they require a bit of relitigating. First up: The philosophy of boxing undercards. Next: Analyzing the pay-per-view buys for Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey.

Some friends of the site in the comments section — as well as friends in the boxing writing world — have defended or rationalized crappy boxing undercards. I know that these friends are smart people who are only trying to explain the phenomenon, and they’ve made cogent arguments. I’m sure they’re not happy themselves about bad undercards, and they’re just responding to my outrage (or the general outrage) by answering with calm retorts aimed at illuminating. But the arguments they’ve made have gotten under my skin, I confess, and I’ve been testier than usual in response.

I’ve heard all the arguments for why bad undercards happen, though, and I don’t think they’re good arguments. I think they are based on shortsightedness and questionable evidence that promoters and networks use to justify their behavior. Furthermore, I think they’re self-defeating arguments. You don’t have to follow the sport of boxing very long to know that a lot of people in this business do things that hurt not only the sport, but the immediate bottom line. For example, for years and years and years, really until fairly recently, boxing wasn’t regularly making the best match-ups, and its bottom line suffered. Once boxing started reversing that trend, everyone started making more money and drawing more fans. Why did boxing not make all those best match-ups? Well, there were REASONS. But they were lame reasons. And once the powers-that-be stopped justifying it and started fixing it, things got better.

I’m interested in fixing things. I’m not demanding anything too pie-in-the-sky. I just want my $60 to pay for a good show, instead of one main event that may or may not live up to the hype. And I’m not alone, as I’ll explain. This is going to be a bit of a manifesto.

Arguments For Bad Undercards

Good undercards are too expensive. It’s true that good undercards cost more money in boxing than they do in, say, mixed martial arts. But they needn’t break the bank. Boxing people could learn a lot from Lou DiBella on this count, but he’s not alone. DiBella was but a contributor to the excellent top-to-bottom Dan Goossen undercard for the December middleweight fight between Paul Williams and Sergio Martinez. It featured Chris Arreola against Brian Minto in a heavyweight fight that shaped up on paper as a pure slugfest and was. It featured Tony Thompson against Chazz Witherspoon, two borderline top-10 heavyweights in desperate need of a win. And it featured Carlos Quintana fighting Jesse Feliciano above the welterweight limit, for good measure.

Collectively, that undercard was more enjoyable, more evenly-matched and more meaningful than the undercard for Pacquiao-Clottey last weekend. Certainly, Arreola-Minto was a better fight than the lightweight Humberto Soto-David Diaz clash, as was Thompson-Witherspoon, and Thompson-Witherspoon was certainly more evenly-matched. Soto’s high ranking at junior lightweight and Diaz’s borderline top-10 lightweight ranking gave that one a dose of meaningfulness, but most people expected Soto would outclass Diaz, and when you combine it with the crap that was beneath it, I’d take the Williams-Martinez undercard over the Pacquiao-Clottey undercard 10 times out of 10. And I don’t remember DiBella or Goossen going bankrupt after that show.

There’s a difference here, of course — one was a televised pay-per-view and one was an HBO undercard where two bouts weren’t on TV. The pay-per-view card is more expensive, I’m sure, because boxers get paid more when their bouts are aired, but at the same time, one of the main reasons to do a pay-per-view is because you can make more money back on the upside. In fact, Floyd Mayweather and Golden Boy recently came up with some creative financing for his last fight: Mayweather would sacrifice some of his purse to pay for a better undercard, and in return he’d get a bigger cut of the pay-per-view sales. I’d be curious if he did it again. That relates in part to the next argument.

Nobody cares about undercards. Oh, but they do. Yes, most people buy pay-per-views because of the main event. HBO’s sports chief once said the network had done a study on this, although I don’t know what the exact questions were or whom they asked. But there is a segment of the boxing populace — I don’t know what percentage — that definitely won’t buy a pay-per-view event unless it has a good undercard. I talk to them all the time. All the time. Friend of the site Eric is one of them — said it like two days ago. He said he didn’t buy Pacquiao-Clottey because of the lame undercard. You see, not everyone will put up with having to fork over $60 for one potentially good fight and a bunch of certifiable junk.

The counter-argument to this is, “People say that, but they don’t mean it.” I’m sure some of them are like that. But all of them, or even most of them? Let’s say the dozens of people who have said on this very site that they won’t buy a PPV with a terrible undercard are representative of some larger population of boxing fandom. What percentage of that population do you suppose are chronic liars? Let’s say it’s a significant percentage. Isn’t that leftover percentage still a good number of fans? Each withholding their $60? How much does that add up to? Would it be enough to make it worthwhile to put more money into a good undercard?

I suspect the answer is “yes,” but I can’t know for sure. At any rate, this isn’t the lynchpin of my argument. It’s meant instead to rebut the case that a bad undercard has NO effect on PPV sales. It definitely has an effect.

That undercard wasn’t that bad. I’d said in a preview of the undercard for Pacquiao-Clottey that it was at least showing “progress,” but that’s the best I could say for it. It was a terrible undercard. Soto-Diaz, with Diaz looking like his best years were long gone, was the highlight. The other two bouts looked a bit lifeless themselves. Neither of the other two bouts had anything remotely like meaning. There was action in all of the fights, but none of it very compelling. Was it better than some of the garbage we’ve had shoved down our throats in recent years? Sure. But that doesn’t get me my jollies.

That’s too low a standard, and it’s too often what we celebrate: Better than the worst. We’re paying customers. We’re entitled to demand a better product. We shouldn’t be grateful when something sucks a little less. Think nobody’s listening? DiBella is. Goossen was, at least for the one show I witnessed. Golden Boy saw some value in a good undercard for Mayweather-Juan Manuel Marquez. Lots of club shows make sure bouts are matched well, because customers will come back. The reasons given, in the case of the big boys? They were doing it because the fans deserved it. I suspect good undercards happen sometimes for short-term benefit, not some kind of “we love the customers” rah-rah stuff. But that leads me to…

Arguments For Good Undercards

Good undercards bolster questionable main events. If you can accept the premise that some percentage of people don’t buy PPVs with bad undercards because they don’t want to pay $60 on the chance that the main event sucks — and if you can’t, you’re ignoring available evidence — then a good undercard can bolster sales of a main event that might suck.

It probably was the motive for the good undercard Golden Boy put together for Mayweather-Marquez, a fight many considered to be a mismatch with one of the combatants, Marquez, not much of a PPV attraction to date. If it was, then this was the case of a promoter realizing — or at least suspecting — that good undercards CAN translate into sales. And again, this is the cynical interpretation of Golden Boy’s motives.

Good undercards that support big main events expose casual fans to quality boxing and boxers they might want to see more of. Even the Pacquiao-Clottey undercard seemed to recognize that somebody cared about the undercard, because it was all geared toward setting up the boxers on the undercard for future bouts. The expressed reason to have Irish middleweight John Duddy on the undercard was to warm Texas up to a potential Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. showdown in Dallas. Granted, that’s the perverted version of the point I’m trying to make, but it shows a recognition that people do care about undercards in some way, shape or form.

That’s the perverted version because the boxing itself has to be good to take full advantage of a good undercard on a promising main event. I can’t imagine anyone who watched that Duddy fight is pining to see him again. And if you’re trying to sell tickets or PPVs to Mexican fans with the undercard, how many more might you sell if those Mexican fans anticipate an actual good fight between quality Mexican fighters, as opposed to throwing any two shopworn or undertalented Mexicans in there?

Good fights, and good fighters, create boxing fans. Oscar De La Hoya brought in his share of fans who didn’t normally watch boxing with his crossover appeal. But I know plenty of boxing fans who came to love the sport because of that one fight they saw that made them realize they loved boxing — some Arturo Gatti classic, perhaps.

So sometimes boxing puts together a big event that draws the casual fan, usually because one or both of the main event fighters have won their attention for a night. Why not give that fan a look at a future star in a tough test (because, again, even casual fans can recognize when the future star is given a tomato can, so doing that undermines the very idea)? Why not give that fan a good fight, one that will make the casual fan become the kind of hardcore fan who will soon be like those of us who buy any old pay-per-view in the world? We’re talking multiples of $60 buys here, for the future.

Good undercards engender brand loyalty. Let’s say every argument I’ve put forward is bunk somehow. Every scrap of evidence — all of it. Do yourself a favor and talk to any fan of mixed martial arts. Ask that fan why MMA is better than boxing. You’ll get a lot of answers, but frequently you’ll get this one: MMA PPVs are value for the dollar. Look at the UFC PPV this MMA writer mentions: The chief supporting bout was an eliminator for the heavyweight championship of the organization. Certainly, boxing’s pay scale probably couldn’t afford something like that, but we’ve already demonstrated that it could afford better than it usually does. MMA fans are spoiled in that way, and it’s not a coincidence. UFC boss Dana White saw an opening (one of several) when he looked at the junk cards boxing fans paid for — an opening to deliver a better product, one that is aimed at building loyal fans.

I’ll just quote the above-linked MMA writer at length:

Boxing fans have been ‘educated’ by promoters for years to accept lousy undercards as time to order pizzas or vacuum your house until the main event starts on the PPV telecast.

Unfortunately for promoters like Bob Arum, he and his brethren in the boxing business are going to find out that this model for customer (un)satisfaction will not play long-term in an economy good or bad…

What these younger fight fans want is often different than what old-timers in the boxing industry are accustomed to giving their fans — good undercards and a real matchmaking philosophy.

One of the cornerstones of UFC’s business philosophy is to emphasize all of the fights on a PPV show…

Boxing is not dying, but it’s [sic] growth is stagnating thanks to a lack of understanding by those in the business about why good undercards matter and what younger combat sports fans expect when they purchase a 3-hour show.

Sometimes people say things like, “The era of great undercards in the 1980s is over. Boxing promoters are smarter now about making money on fighters by spreading them out.” I think it’s interesting that the 80s were such a big decade for boxing, and the sport’s decline roughly coincides with the deepening of a number of destructive trends like bad match-ups and yes, bad undercards. (Boxing has corrected many of these destructive trends, but bad undercards are still endemic.)

So have promoters gotten smarter by giving fans bad undercards? Or is it the opposite?

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.