(October 30, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Professional boxer Floyd Mayweather watches the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center. Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
Major boxing news Tuesday: The biggest name in boxing in the United States and the country's highest-paid athlete in any sport, Floyd Mayweather, has signed a long-term deal with Showtime, starting with his next fight against Robert Guerrero in May, in a move away from industry giant HBO that isn't a total shocker but that has a whole bevy of potentially huge ramifications for the business of boxing.
We saw this once before, kind of, when Showtime stole the other biggest name in U.S. boxing, Manny Pacquiao, away from HBO for a fight. But they key word there is "once" — HBO upped its game, healed its rift with Pacquiao's promoter Top Rank and stole him right back. This is a (potentially) six-fight theft.
The how-tos and meanings of all this are fairly dizzying. Where to even start?
HBO Versus Showtime
HBO is the bigger network of the two, but the gap has been closing. By the looks of things, even as HBO has shrunk its boxing budget because of diminishing returns, Showtime has been viewing boxing as its way of expanding its reach. The financials on this will be very interesting, once they come out. Showtime has been throwing a lot of money at boxing, even outspending HBO on some fights, and Mayweather is the kind of guy who tries to extract every penny he can from a deal. I bet Showtime paid out the wazoo under this one, or else was willing to make a greater commitment in number of fights than HBO, which ends up being about the same thing. It's said to be a "unique revenue-sharing deal" between Showtime and Mayweather, whatever that means. I bet it means a lot of money, one way or the other. Mayweather's team, which it must be cautioned has a knack for exaggerating his earnings, offered this: "At this record-setting PPV performance level, if all six fights contemplated by this deal occur, it will be the richest individual athlete deal in all of sports."
Showtime's approach in the past year has been a high-risk, potentially high-reward one. Its alliance with Golden Boy Promotions and Al Haymon has come under fire in the past year with ex-GBP official Stephen Espinoza at the helm, and has resulted in some crappy fights. But I'd have to guess it also has helped give them an edge against HBO with the golden goose of GBP/Haymon fighters, aka Mayweather. Another edge for Showtime is CBS. CBS owns Showtime, has gotten back into airing live boxing and has been used as a promotional vehicle for Showtime pay-per-views as it will be again here (CBS was also one of the things that helped net Pacquiao back when, before HBO used its less gigantic corporate alliances [TNT, CNN, etc.] to expand its promotional might and win Pacquiao back). I also wouldn't be surprised if it turns out Showtime is giving Mayweather more control over how he's marketed via the network, as Mayweather had soured on HBO's handling of him on its 24/7 documentary/marketing series. There have been hints of cultivation here for a long time, which is why I say it's not a "total shocker," but it definitely is a big deal.
In the short-term, it all has the look of a good gamble. Mayweather is now the undisputed champion of pay-per-view in the United States, as he consistently exceeds the 1 million buy mark. His arrival will bring some buzz to Showtime and he'll sell well for them in May. In the long-term, I have to wonder. Mayweather turns 36 years old this weekend. He's still arguably the best fighter in the world, but he's not what he once was. If he gets splattered any time soon like Pacquiao did in his last fight, this could look like a burdensome deal for a declining fighter. He's fought once a year for the past four years, but the current deal calls for "up to six" fights over 30 months, and it's hard to imagine him fighting THAT often.
This isn't the death of HBO boxing or anything like it, but it certainly does put the network on the defensive. The four biggest attractions in the United States are Mayweather, Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. Mayweather is with Showtime now, and he's the one with the best track record. Alvarez, still significantly untested and on the verge of fighting a much more difficult opponent than he ever has in Austin Trout, has been fighting on Showtime rather than HBO and with his interest in meeting Mayweather, we have to assume he'll continue to do so. Pacquiao's decline is far more precipitous than Mayweather's, and while he'll no doubt remain "big" for at least one more fight until people see what he has left and whether he can avenge his loss to Juan Manuel Marquez, he's probably the one with the least upside of this foursome. Chavez, meanwhile, has his own element of risk in that he's chronically lazy and has more than once abused substances that are worrisome for his long-term future. Pacquiao and Chavez, two Top Rank fighters, have been fighting on HBO.
One assumes they will continue to do so; this move furthers the bifurcation of the sport between HBO/Top Rank and Showtime/Golden Boy. Top Rank had already said that network bifurcation makes it harder to do Top Rank-Golden Boy fights, and while I'm not completely sold on it, the deeper and more pronounced the divisions become, the chances of the network allegiances getting in the way of bouts probably increase.
For now, HBO has one prominent GBP/Haymon fighter on its network, up-and-coming Adrien Broner, and one has to think this puts the impetus on HBO boxing boss Ken Hershman to cultivate the next big thing. But, as noted after Broner's fight this weekend, Broner puts HBO in a compromised position — Showtime's knack for stealing away GBP/Haymon fighters means HBO has less leverage to insist on the kind of bouts they'd like him to take, and that means a less clear path toward moving from up-and-comer to superstar. HBO takes a hit here, no doubt, but maybe it puts Hershman in his more comfortable position from when he ran Showtime to be forced to innovate against an opponent who has some inherent advantages.
Mayweather Vs. Robert Guerrero
On May 4, Mayweather will fight fellow welterweight Guerrero, then. Non-boxing fans probably are wondering, "Who's that?" Guerrero is a top five welterweight, behind Mayweather, Marquez, Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley, coming off a stirring victory in a brawl against Andre Berto that was a Fight of the Year finalist. His arrival at welterweight is very fresh, as he really started as a featherweight and has slowly been climbing up in weight until making a big jump to 147 pounds in 2012. Competitively, he has as good an argument as anyone in the division for facing Mayweather, which isn't the same as saying he will win or be anything less than a prohibitive underdog. But he's proven himself at the weight against ranked opponents, proven he can take a punch from naturally bigger men and has won against a variety of styles. Guerrero is no Mayweather — nobody is — but he's a smart fighter who knows how to box, and he's got the grit to stick out the rough spots.
Guerrero probably got this fight, though, due to his "story," one that makes him a perfect foil to the villainous Mayweather. That story, involving his wife's leukemia and how she overcame it and how it affected his boxing career, will get a lot of national media attention, so I won't belabor it. But that attention gives Mayweather-Guerrero a marketing angle to help sell a fight involving a Mayweather opponent who doesn't have the profile outside boxing of a Shane Mosley or the built-in ethnic/regional fan base of a Miguel Cotto, although Guerrero does have a loyal following in Northen California.
Since Mayweather has already beaten Marquez and the fight with Pacquiao fell apart or never got off the ground so many times I've lost count, and since Bradley isn't a big draw and is with GBP rival Top Rank, that puts Guerrero in the next tier of best possible opponents in all the metrics. The Alvarez fight might've been at the top of that list, because Alvarez is naturally bigger as a strong junior middleweight and is riotously popular with the Mexican fan base. But Alvarez is still young, and if he makes it past Trout — possibly on the undercard of Mayweather-Guerrero — that fight becomes double-huge, because the knock on Alvarez has been that he isn't ready for someone like Mayweather based on his level of competition. He'd be significantly more ready if he beat a skilled craftsman like Trout, who like most people isn't as good as Mayweather but profiles similarly to him in many regards. Since Mayweather plans to fight again in September, the idea very clearly seems to be to match those two around Mexican Independence Day.
We'll preview the hell out of Mayweather-Guerrero closer to the fight, but it boils down to nearly as good a fight as was makeable for Mayweather next. I could ask for more, but this is a fight I can live with, and even look forward to, albeit not on pins and needles.