The Amazing (Likely) Return (Probably, Sort Of) Of Boxing To Network Television

Boxing’s Holy Grail, or at least something like it, appears to be within reach. And from the sound of things, the sport might not even ruin it once it has goblet in hand.

Top Rank is reportedly going to ship the May 7 Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley pay-per-view from industry giant HBO to smaller rival Showtime, which in and of itself would be massive news — but it’s the reported agreement by CBS to air a documentary series that is the really really really big news. With the exception of one season of The Contender on NBC in 2005, this is the closest boxing has gotten to a long-coveted return to network television. But a Pacquiao-Mosley series features bigger  names than The Contender did, and the network it will air on and the prime time slot offer more potential for the sport to grow than the short-lived network run for that reality program.

For those remaining “boxing is dying, mixed martial arts is the future” zealots, it must be noted here that MMA is on hiatus at CBS and boxing is on its way to CBS. As I said yesterday, it would be hard to overstate how huge this development could be.

The details of what’s happening here are still being reported out — Rick Reeno, Lem Satterfield, Dan Rafael and Thomas Hauser are on the case, among others — but it’s worth delving into what we know, what we don’t know, what it means and how boxing could screw this up.

Top Rank and Golden Boy have both been angling for boxing’s return to network television for years, reasoning that the sport has been marginalized since departing the networks, so I wonder why this is happening now. Something like this has been discussed before. Top Rank’s feud with HBO and increasing alliance with Showtime (owned by CBS) is seemingly one potential impetus, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. If Top Rank’s Bob Arum could have pulled something like this off before Pacquiao-Mosley prior to HBO turning down Miguel Cotto-Vanes Martirosyan, why wouldn’t he have? It makes all the business sense in the world. HBO is a proven quantity when it comes to distributing and hyping pay-per-views and Showtime isn’t, but CBS’ muscle — available in 115 million homes, according to Reeno — offers a far greater promotional forum for a pay-per-view than HBO’s 28 million subscribers.

I suspect all the positive publicity the sport has gotten in mainstream media outlets for the past year or two has helped convince CBS to get on board. I also suspect that the success of boxing programming like “The Fighter” and HBO’s 24/7, both of which have proven to have incredible appeal to even non-boxing fans, has helped convince CBS to give boxing a chance. Boxing is terrific drama, to say the least, and more and more it’s a proven money-making commodity in that regard, i.e., drama. This is just a guess, though. Another point: Golden Boy has won universal acclaim for bringing mainstream sponsors back to the sport of boxing, part of their plan to show the networks that boxing has mainstream appeal. But that might not make sense, either — after all, it’s Top Rank doing this CBS thing, not Golden Boy.

It must be said that this is not the return of real-life boxing itself to network television, but rather a show about real-life boxing. Thus, this is more akin to the Holy Grail than the Holy Grail itself, but it’s close enough to be ridiculously exciting. And who knows? Maybe it opens doors to real-life boxing airing on CBS. You have to think that CBS/Showtime will do a good job with the program itself. As groundbreaking as HBO’s 24/7 was, and as good as it remains, Showtime’s Fight Camp 360 program has surpassed it. Pacquiao is both boxing’s best fighter and its brightest star; his story (up-from-the-boostraps x10 /boxer/Philippine congressman/jack-of-all-trades) has become familiar to non-boxing fans, but there are still plenty of people who aren’t familiar and surely would be enthralled to learn about him. Shane Mosley is an American whose story is a good deal less interesting and maybe controversial in a bad way — we’ll get to that in a second — but hey, he’s an American.

There is a risk that CBS’ involvement could overly sanitize the program. One of the things that makes HBO 24/7 fun to watch is how raw it is, from Juan Manuel Marquez drinking his urine as part of his training regimen to Brandon Rios cursing up a storm. But I think a PG-rated version of the pay cable programming can still work; in fact, I’ve seen a censored version of 24/7 that aired during the daytime and there was no noticeable drop-off for me in watching it bleeped.

When the series would air could make a big difference. CBS would air commercials in prime time, but when the series itself would air is less clear. (I was mistaken yesterday, based on a misreading of the available reporting, in believing the series itself would air in prime time; that is unreported thus far.) A Saturday 11 p.m. time slot doesn’t do as much for boxing as a better slot. Being seen by the biggest possible audience does. That said, a prime slot also offers the potential for failure. If Pacquiao-Mosley Fight Camp 360 or whatever it’s called is going up against even a diminished version of “American Idol,” I’m not sure I like its chances. Poor ratings could send boxing back to the ghetto right quick. The poor ratings for MMA on CBS had something to do with the network backing off from that particular fight sport. (And by the way, MMA might still return to CBS and thrive. I absolutely think boxing and MMA can coexist. It’s the false dichotomy — the “boxing is dying, MMA is the future” line of thinking — to which I object, not any notion that one is more successful than the other right at any given point, although there are arguments on both sides there.)

There is also the risk that this particular fight between Pacquiao and Mosley could be a turnoff. There are few-to-zero hardcore fans excited about Pacquiao-Mosley, given Mosley’s recent poor showings in back-to-back fights. (He also has a performance-enhancing drug scandal in his past that could prove unpopular with a wider viewership.) If CBS helped promote the hell out of Pacquiao-Mosley, and Mosley laid an egg on fight night, there’s a chance all the people who bought the pay-per-view because of the CBS program would go, “What the hell did I get all excited about this for?” That said, Pacquiao is such a transcendent performer that he might make up for it, since everyone who sees him fight comes away wanting more, whether his opponent puts up a fight or not. And if Mosley still has any life in his bones, the fight could be a good action fight between two speedy, hard-hitting boxers. If Pacquiao, the biggest star in the sport, were to lose… well, hell. I don’t even know what would happen next. But there’s also talk of Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito II being a part of the deal, which is a fight that has its own controversial elements, such as the potential that Margarito is ruined as a fighter by two consecutive horrific beatings and is too villainous to be appealing due to his glove-loading scandal and inappropriate behavior in re trainer Freddie Roach’s Parkinson’s disease. Like Pacquiao-Mosley, Cotto-Margarito II has serious detractors within the boxing world, although it has more fans than Pacquiao-Mosley as a match-up because it’s perceived as competitive.

Another worrisome aspect of this is that there murmurs this is an exclusive deal with Top Rank. I mean that as no disrespect to Top Rank; if Arum pulls this off even reasonably well, as often as I am critical of him, I would nominate him for president. But exclusive deals are, as we’ve seen time and time again, a bad thing for boxing. When a channel makes a deal with a specific promoter rather than for specific fights, there is potential that we’ll get bad fights because a promoter controls the program and promoters have historically shown an interest in protecting their fighters from risky, exciting bouts in those situations, since there’s little leverage for their short-sighted asses not to do so. An output deal with Golden Boy is presently causing some trouble for HBO. Other such arrangements have failed in the past, even the recent past for Top Rank and Versus, although Top Rank appears to have learned its lessons with the Top Rank Live series on Fox Sports Net/Deportes, airing competitive bouts frequently. Showtime’s ability to succeed against HBO despite a smaller budget has been predicated on its “great fights, no rights” philosophy, and between this and the three-fight Lucian Bute deal, it now appears Showtime is turning its back on what made it work.

But there’s a second problem with the way this is shaping up vis-a-vis an exclusive deal. Top Rank and Golden Boy, the two biggest promoters in the sport, have been in the middle of a feud that Golden Boy says it wants to end but that Top Rank has shown zero interest in ending. If one promoter has an exclusive deal with one television station and the other has a different exclusive deal elsewhere, the chances of us seeing important fights between those two promoters gets yet more difficult. If you don’t think that can be damaging, think back on the days when a highly desirable bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson was blocked for a long time by Lewis’ association with HBO and Tyson’s association with Showtime.

We still don’t have a real hard confirmation that this is going down, and some of the details remain hazy, obviously. The impact could be wide. For instance, maybe it puts boxing on HBO’s boxing programming in really bad shape, something there have been murmurs about for a while anyway — and HBO has propped up boxing for so long it’s silly. Let’s say the CBS experiment fails, and HBO’s boxing program dies or atrophies in the interim… where does that leave the sport? But then, it could also prompt HBO to make some countermoves that could be good in the sense competition helps everyone, such as the reported possibility of Time Warner building on HBO’s programming by putting boxing on TNT or some such thing. Maybe there are other countermoves made here, too.

It has increasingly become conventional wisdom that neither boxing nor MMA need to be on network television to thrive. Just look at the big pay-per-view numbers and gates for boxing over the last couple years, and consider that the UFC is airing MMA on Spike, with UFC boss Dana White saying he won’t make a deal with a big network unless it’s just right.

I can tell you this, though: I’d far trather boxing be on network television than not. That’s why this is such a thrilling development if it comes to fruition, even as fraught with peril as it is. 

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.