HBO Breaks Up With Golden Boy, Deepening Boxing’s Biggest, Most Unproductive Rift

"Can't figure out/What happened to us/I won't count on you anymore/I'll be all right/Don't worry about me

Aren't you happy now/You got what you want/I wanted you/But I'm over that now/I'm so sick of you and what we went through"

–The Wrens, "Happy"

How far we've come, and not for the better. A few years ago, if someone told you HBO had broken up with Golden Boy Promotions and adviser Al Haymon, not only would you not have believed it, but you would've probably thought it was a good thing. Yet as of Monday, HBO has broken up with GBP and the virtually parallel Haymon, and mostly it's just the latest mutation of the biggest black mark on the sport right now: the ongoing split in the sport between the two biggest and best promoters — GBP and Top Rank — and the two biggest networks, Showtime and HBO.

It's not as if there won't be some advantages for HBO in going forward without GBP. It's not as if the move was all that surprising, given how things have been going between HBO/Top Rank and Showtime/GBP. But it's hard to figure out how this is good for boxing overall, or its fans.

My sense of all this is that HBO is basically feeling like a spurned lover, with Golden Boy shipping so many of its fighters to Showtime, and Golden Boy's partner Floyd Mayweather joining the exodus. HBO turned Golden Boy into a power, and has to resent how Golden Boy has taken its biggest names over to Showtime and helped it close the gap with the bigger network. Elsewise, HBO saw the writing on the wall that Golden Boy was going to take the remaining stars who fight on HBO over to Showtime anyway, so why not launch a preemptive breakup?

Because you can't make the case that Golden Boy has been bad for HBO business of late, at least compared to what else is out there. Seven of the 11 highest-rated HBO fights last year were via Golden Boy. There have been some dicey match-ups in there with Golden Boy/Haymon fighters, certainly — a couple of the Keith Thurman match-ups come to mind in particular — but Adrien Broner and Bernard Hopkins are Golden Boy boxers who have been near the top of HBO's ratings draws. Golden Boy and Haymon did more damage to HBO in the more distant past than they have on the whole more recently. Well, at least, internally; from afar, over at Showtime, Golden Boy and Haymon have helped close the gap between the two networks. And Haymon does have a way of giving a lot of minuses to go with his deep stable of fighters — you need look no further than how some of his guys have been matched so soft on Showtime to see that HBO no longer dealing with Haymon can be a plus.

Showtime has dealt almost exclusively with Golden Boy and Haymon since ex-GBP lawyer Stephen Espinoza took over the network. What Espinoza did with Top Rank isn't all the different than what HBO is doing with Golden Boy — more like when you want to break up with someone but don't want to be the one to pull the trigger, so you act like a dick until they break up with you instead. (Espinoza continues to deny giving Top Rank the cold shoulder, but most evidence points to him doing just that.)

Practically speaking, this is a small step toward the increasing bifurcation of the sport. It mainly affects a small handful of "name" fighters, chief among them Broner, Hopkins, Thurman and maybe Seth Mitchell who had been fighting on HBO. Top Rank and Golden Boy already weren't matching their fighters with each other, and that wasn't going to change, although perhaps this move by HBO makes it all the more unlikely.

Among the fighters affected, Broner is the most intriguing case. His future is in doubt on multiple fronts, with him getting arrested in Florida on some mysterious battery charge. His next fight was set to be a move up to welterweight against Paulie Malignaggi, but there are varying reports out there about when his contract will be up with Golden Boy, and he's previously made it known he prefers to stay with HBO. With 50 Cent lurking about in hopes of stealing away Broner (he's had his eye on other Haymon fighters, too, like Gary Russell, Jr., who rebuffed his wooing, and Andre Dirrell, who embraced it), he might be in a position to jump the Golden Boy ship.

There was a brief stir Monday over Manny Pacquiao when his adviser Michael Koncz talked about having the ability to move to Showtime, too, but Top Rank's Bob Arum quickly shot that idea down, citing his company's contract with Pacquiao. Based on each man's track record of competence, I'm going to guess Arum is right about this one.

Nonetheless, if I'm an active free agent boxer, I give serious thought to signing with neither Golden Boy or Top Rank. They are the top promoters for a reason — they're better at it than most of the others. But signing with one of the two limits one's fight options, and therefore earning potential. It's possible that we could see other promoters end up choosing sides, in effect, and as good as Main Events is, that company and Golden Boy have exchanged harsh words of late, so I don't suppose Main Events offers that kind of versatility. At any rate, it's something that very well could bolster the second-tier promoters, this split.

Golden Boy's Oscar De La Hoya and Richard Schaefer took different tacts about the HBO news, with Schaefer sort of shaking his head about how this is bad business for HBO and De La Hoya saying the Showtime/CBS partnership is swell, ain't it, and look at Arum and HBO "sailing… through the Dead Sea." In reality, Schaefer was probably looking to move most of his guys to Showtime anyway and is just pretending like he wanted to keep working with HBO. He might be right that what HBO did Monday is bad for business, but I think this overall trend is bad for business. By casting their lot with, basically, one promoter each, HBO and Showtime won't have the same kind of negotiating position to make the best match-ups.

And no, HBO isn't going into any Dead Sea yet. They've taken some hits and I don't think this move helps them overall. But this really has begun to look like the old WWE/WCW split in professional wrestling, when the WCW flexed some muscle and stole some WWE stars, forcing the WWE to offer an edgy product that that WCW couldn't. It's hard to say what product HBO could offer that Showtime couldn't counter; perhaps Showtime's allegiance with Golden Boy has led to a pronounced tendency toward mismatches, but it also has led to some real highs — the spring schedule for Showtime is better than the spring schedule for HBO. You can say HBO can now offer the best fights, rather than the best fighters, but that's not necessarily true, and besides, ratings trends suggest that a good fight sometimes won't out-do a fighter that the public cares about more than any given match-up. The ratings game is a crapshoot in some ways, and with subscription-based networks, only part of the success equation. But maybe HBO can get creative in a fashion I can't imagine and come up with a way to make what they did Monday work.

In the short-term, all these feuds have gotten old. From top to bottom, for whatever reason, boxing these days ruled foremost not by profit or some "greater good of the sport" motive, but by grudge.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a staff writer for CQ Roll Call.

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