He is the walking dead, front and center at many high profile matches, hovering over boxing like the specter of a media coverage cliche. Except he defies aspects of that cliche: He is a celebration of the sport — strange, bordering on supernatural, with beaming laser eyes serving as its brightly glowing highlights.
This is the purgatory in which boxing regularly finds itself, as represented by the Catrina mascot. It is not dead, no matter how many times it's been said. But it is something different from what it once was at the peak of its life, perhaps more like the undead — carrying on magically, sometimes inspiring wonder, but stuck in a kind of stasis.
In 2013, the condition that most made boxing thrive is also the condition that most threatens its future success. The competition between HBO/Top Rank and Showtime/Golden Boy led to a game of one-upsmanship that demonstrated the value of pure capitalism. But this situation isn't like Verizon and AT&T separately offering lower prices and more minutes. This is a sport with a limited talent pool, one that requires quality match-ups between a variety of fighters over a certain span of time to produce excellence — Verizon and AT&T refusing to work together hurts neither company nor its customers, whereas the dominant forces in boxing refusing to work together ultimately must.
There was more happening in boxing in 2013 than the Cold War, of course, but it is the storyline that most determined the quality of the product last year and that is likely to most shape the quality of the product in 2014.
HBO began the year as the boxing ratings king and ended it that way. The top 5 highest-rated cable boxing matches were on HBO, according to the network based on figures compiled by Nielsen (although one of them featured Adrien Broner, since departed to Showtime). Its World Championship Boxing main events averaged 1.2 million viewers, 45 percent higher than Showtime's equivalent, and HBO's smaller program, Boxing After Dark, had main events that outperformed Showtime Championship Boxing by 25 percent. We'll get to Showtime's gains shortly, but that still shows what a gap there is between HBO boxing viewership and Showtime boxing viewership. Some of that is simply because HBO maintains a subscription edge.
But HBO didn't just stumble into higher boxing ratings than Showtime; it put out a pretty good product. With some of its biggest names departing for Showtime, HBO turned to the development of new names — Sergey Kovalev, Adonis Stevenson and Ruslan Provodnikov all debuted in 2013, while Gennady Golovkin went from a ratings disaster in 2012 to a boon in 2013. You could normally attribute a little of that to Top Rank, still viewed as the industry standard on fighter development from prospect to star (Main Events has a reputation of developing fighters, too, but usually picks them up later in their careers). But if you look at who promotes Stevenson, Kovalev, Provodnikov and Golovkin, you'll not find Top Rank as the promoter of any of them. That some of them exploded like they did is about luck, maybe, because it's not like anyone expected Stevenson to knock out Chad Dawson. But HBO did a good job of taking the cards that were dealt and making the most of them — they get credit for developing some of those names. Other developing names, like Terence Crawford or Mikey Garcia, are still on the incline, while still others, like Nonito Donaire, Guillermo Rigondeaux or Andre Ward, treaded water or regressed in 2013, sometimes HBO's fault and sometimes not. Ward's constant battles with his promoter in court, his injury tendencies and some general stubbornness hurt his 2013, but let's also not forget that he was booked to face Kelly Pavlik in early 2013 in a fight that would have boosted his profile. Rigo also hurt himself with some stubbornness, but HBO and Top Rank hurt him late in the year by airing him in a main event fight that was bound to fail, booked it an area where Rigo wasn't going to sell tickets (if he even can) and pitted it against a higher-profile Showtime card in a nearby area where the headliners were regional draws.
And the highest highs of 2013 came on HBO. Fights and fighters on the network swept our major awards at TQBR — Knockout, Round, Fight, Fighter. Again here, there's a mixture of HBO's doing and not; only a tiny percentage of people expected Timothy Bradley-Provodnikov to be even worth half a damn, and nobody was predicting it would be the Fight of the Year. The entertainment value of specific HBO cards looked especially good on paper in late 2013, in a surge that appeared directly related to the excellent work Showtime had done over the summer, but most of the cards fizzled slightly. Bradley-Juan Manuel Marquez was a solid bout, but nothing special. The potential entertainment value of Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios never materialized. Still, some obvious choices delivered over the course of the year — Rios-Mike Alvarado II, Alvarado-Provodnikov, Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler II.
The Pacquiao pay-per-view was actually one of the worst cards of the year, with a pitiful undercard, and the poor numbers reflected that, and/or the possibility that Pacquiao has faded as a PPV attraction, and definitely that overseas PPVs hurt sales. That there was only one major PPV via HBO is a good thing for its subscribers, of course, but it hurt the network's bottom line.
The key way Showtime made such ratings gains in its boxing programming was by aligning with Golden Boy and stealing away from HBO names like Floyd Mayweather, Adrien Broner and Canelo Alvarez. Those guys do numbers. But the subscription gap has slowly been closing, and much like HBO didn't sit on its advantages, Showtime didn't simply steal away big names and smugly think that's all there was to it.
There were very few universally bad Showtime cards, and some of that was a result of solid matchmaking while some of it was a result of just putting on a shit-ton of boxing. You could watch boxing from 7 p.m. to 1 p.m. some days, I swear, with Showtime airing undercards on Sho Extreme and then doing frequent quadruple-headers. Some of it was bound to be good. And it made sitting through a lackluster fight or a chess match between skilled boxers that much more tolerable, because you always knew another fight was about to start. And Showtime/Golden Boy weren't afraid to take chances with their match-ups: Canelo Alvarez-Austin Trout was a huge gamble, but it made Floyd Mayweather-Canelo pay off all the more.
But the "names" stolen made the biggest difference in Showtime's ratings gains. Yes, yes, yes, for the millionth time yes, ideally it's "fights not fighters." But one of the highest rated shows of the year (on HBO, mind you) was Adrien Broner vs. Gavin Rees, a fight no one cared about, but it featured Broner, and people want to watch Broner. Likewise, Bernard Hopkins did big numbers against Karo Murat because sometimes for some reason B-Hop does big numbers. By December, Showtime boasted that its Showtime Championship Boxing ratings were up 24 percent compared to 2012 and 64 percent over 2011.
The biggest gains overall in 2013 were thanks to Mayweather's arrival. Showtime went from having no real PPV wing to a one-time dalliance with Pacquiao to stealing away the sport's reigning PPV king. Whether this will work out for them in the long run remains a subject of considerable doubt; the first fight in the deal led to reports of sub-1 million buys against Robert Guerrero, and there's ongoing worry that Mayweather won't be able to find two opponents each year for the life of the deal to make it so Showtime can cover his minimums. But the Mayweather-Canelo PPV was a resounding success, no worse than the second biggest PPV of all time. And it turned in an undercard with a chief supporting bout that was more highly-regarded by some fans than the main event. Although there's been griping subsequently about how competitive Canelo could ever have been, this was the best match-up available to the sport's biggest star and with an undercard that made sure nobody was too bitter about how they spent their money.
Where Showtime came up shortest was with one of its storied programs, ShoBox, which has gone from a program that puts prospects in tough to a show that has a bunch of "special editions" featuring lesser match-ups and a showcase for Mayweather-promoted fighters. It also doesn't have the diversified boxing offerings of HBO beyond the ring, with its All Access suffering in comparison to HBO's 24/7 (although it improved from Mayweather-Guerrero to Mayweather-Canelo to Broner-Maidana) and with HBO having things like "Legendary Nights," "The Fight Game" and a pair of boxing films centered around Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.
Cold War Side Effects
How did we get such excellence from both networks? Competition, pure and simple. The origins of this network/promoter bifurcation began last year when Top Rank declared it would no longer work with Showtime, for reasons that were not 100 percent clear. Golden Boy, adviser Al Haymon and Showtime started getting real cozy thereafter. That led to the early 2013 departure of Mayweather from HBO to Showtime, and prompted HBO's Ken Hershman to declare the network would no longer work with Golden Boy. They've spent every day since in mortal combat. The Showtime summer came as sort of a "fuck you" to HBO, and HBO's big fall came as a retort of "fuck you" to Showtime's summer. And Showtime's strengthened hand in 2013 meant the two networks competed on much more even terms than before. No longer would Showtime be the scrappy underdog making due with HBO's leavings. Showtime was rolling with superstars and forcing HBO to adapt by creating new ones, rather than the historical vice versa.
By year's end, though, the edges of the Cold War benefits had begun to fray. There are still quality match-ups avaiable within Golden Boy's big stable and within Top Rank's big stable and when the two leading promoters decide to work with smaller promoters. But some fighters are left with their best options unavailable. Peter Quillin's best opponent is Golovkin and that fight can't happen because of the separate networks. Bernard Hopkins' best opponent is Adonis Stevenson or Sergey Kovalev and neither fight can happen. Nonito Donaire's best opponent is the winner of Jhonny Gonzalez-Abner Mares II and that fight can't happen.
Oh, and, of course, Mayweather-Pacquiao is the best fight for both men and that fight can't happen. The fight wasn't happening even when they were on the same network, and the bout is well past its "best by" date, and holy God would people just shut up about whether it might happen or might not happen or how it could happen. It won't. But one of the things that kept it from happening when HBO vs. Showtime wasn't an issue was the Cold War when it was just Top Rank vs. Golden Boy. Fans were denied this bout before in part because of the Cold War. They'll keep on being denied it in part because of a more advanced stage of the Cold War.
And, once more, this kind of thing is why boxing won't ever regain its status as one of the preeminent sports in America. It's why it's a niche sport that's barely a sport. I get sick of saying it, but every sport is a business — but it's a business because it behaves like a sport. Everyone in every sport wants entertaining, closely contested, high-offense battles, although some fans in other sports enjoy a good defensive struggle more than many boxing fans. But everyone always watches the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals or the World Series more than the rest. Portland Trailblazers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves? Fun as hell match-up of the two highest scoring teams in the NBA. Ratings for that game would pale in comparison to any game of the NBA Finals between defensive-grinding teams like the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. People want to see the best vs. the best, too. In fact, fans of other sports EXPECT it, because it's one of the things sports are for. Boxing is rare among sports in how frequently best vs. best doesn't happen. When the NBA and ABA were competing, it certainly led to some innovation — yay 3-pointers and dunk contests! — but both leagues suffered, and that's why they eventually set aside their feuds and merged.
Until boxing behaves like other sports in that fundamental way — the best face the best and a real champion is decided — it will be limited to an audience not much bigger than it has now, because for all the appeal of a slugfest the sport doesn't make sense to a large number of people who aren't fans of it already. There are other things that limit the sport's growth besides that, of course, and we'll touch on how those things are doing these days later. But the business of boxing suffers when boxing doesn't resemble a sport.
This trend that we saw by the end of the year isn't going to go away anytime soon. Certainly, we'll keep getting good fights. A promoter's pool of talent within a division will fade and replenish over time to create new appetizing fights. But the universe of options will be about half what it could be without the Cold War. And sooner or later, if it hasn't happened already, matchmaking will begin to suffer. We'll get good fights, but fewer great ones.
Hershman still doesn't see the need to work with Golden Boy. Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer has no interest in working with Top Rank. There is no happy ending to this situation in sight, no natural conclusion.
Other Networks And Promoters
There's more to boxing than HBO/Showtime, Top Rank/Golden Boy, of course. One of 2012's big developments was live boxing's return to NBC and CBS. NBC kept it going but the CBS live boxing disappeared. This is a backward step.
ESPN2 lost its boxing leader, Doug Loughrey, in the Worldwide Leader layoffs, but kept up the quality of its Friday Night Fights programming. It's not entirely clear how much of that was as a result of FNF thriving on Loughrey's leftovers, but the network started off its 2014 season with a quality main event on paper between Rances Barthelemy and Argenis Mendez, so maybe Loughrey's departure isn't the end of the world for a network that has gotten a lot done with a little cash during his tenure.
NBC Sports seemed to have a lot of bad luck in 2013 but salvaged a lot of cards, and Main Events/Russell Peltz continued to use the platform to develop fighters like Curtis Stevens and Kovalev and Bryant Jennings into HBO or Showtime fighters, even if Jennings subsequently departed the promotional fold for Gary Shaw. Epix and AWE kept their hand sproradically in boxing, while Fox Sports 1 introduced a boxing program that was so terrible they might as well not have. More boxing on television is generally better than less, unless it's so shitty not even hardcore fans can stand to watch it.
And naturally people experience boxing from more than just their TVs. Canelo, Mayweather and Miguel Cotto were among the biggest headlining domestic ticketsellers, with Alvarez-Trout doing a whopping 39,247 attendance, Mayweather-Alvarez doing 16,746 and Cotto-Delvin Rodriguez doing 11,192.
After that it gets a little harder to tell who really drew the most fans because some of the cards did most of their business as multi-fight "events" rather than top-heavy cards. Adrien Broner-Marcos Maidana drew 11,312, but it was also the top fight on one of the best overall cards of 2013. The Danny Garcia-Zab Judah card drew 13,048 and had its own "stacked card" dynamic. For the last few years, the top ticketsellers in the United States have been Canelo, Cotto, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., Mayweather and Pacquiao in no particular order, with everyone else falling far below. But Pacquiao didn't fight in the United States in 2013 and Chavez, perhaps because of his weight-shifting antics or because of the match-up with Brian Vera or because of multiple reschedulings, drew just 5,206 fans. He also did big TV ratings for that fight, so who knows. Anyway, some of the second-tier guys like Ward saw their attendance figures eclipsed by these "whole card" events, usually abetted by a local draw like Omar Figueroa's appearance in the supporting bout of the Jesus Soto Karass-Andre Berto headliner.
It's not a bad trend. Yes, "fighters" might move fans, but these stacked cards getting fans in seats means "fights" do the same.
The biggest development outside the U.S. market is the development of the Chinese market. Anyplace that counts its populace in the billions rather than the millions is a lucractive fan base waiting to be tapped, and it was so potentially lucrative that Top Rank was happy to have Pacquiao-Rios in China rather than the U.S. even though it knew that PPV figures would suffer. People involved in the Chinese boxing cards have claimed massive TV audiences but much depends on Chinese Olympian Zou Shiming going forward. It makes all the sense in the world for boxing to move East somewhat, and it will be interesting to see how the market matures over time and whether it's just the latest fad that comes around and disappears — stadium bouts, say, or boxing back on the big four TV networks.
British boxing still puts on big shows where the enthusiasm of the live audience is the envy of other countries. Carl Froch-George Groves drew about 21,000 fans, and there were 19,000-plus in attendance for Froch's rematch with Mikkel Kessler. British boxing has its promotional squabbles like the United States, but its ongoing thriving crowds (and it wasn't all Froch-centric) continue to put the U.S. to shame on a per capita basis.
Russia hosted 35,000 or thereabouts for Wladimir Klitschko vs. Alexander Povetkin. The list goes on an on. Boxing's epicenter might by the United States, but there are so many countries where it is vibrant and popular.
Integrity And Safety
And there's more to the sport of boxing resembling a proper sport than best vs. best. Among the factors hampering boxing are the bevvy of inadequate safety measures, terrible judging and officiating and Alice in Wonderland belt-sanctioning organizations.
Let's go in reverse. The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (disclosure: I'm a chair of the Board) made some headway in 2013 in getting momentum for its mission. The Board's work toward designating true champions based on credible rankings got the endorsement of ESPN's reform-minded analyst Teddy Atlas and was featured by big worldwide publications like The Guardian, NPR and The New Yorker. It will be a long, slow process to rid boxing of the alphabet sanctioning outfits that take money from fighters to win belts that don't designate true champions — i.e., the best facing the best to fill a vacancy or a contender beating a champion — and past efforts have fallen short. But the momentum is real. Oddly enough, several new champions were crowned despite the Cold War — Mayweather, Danny Garcia, Guillermo Rigondeaux — so while some have said the Cold War makes the idea of lineal champions obsolete, the best were able to face the best multiple times in 2013. And besides, settling for a lower standard of how champions should be crowned because of the Cold War just institutionalizes it and accepts it, rather than rejecting it and hoping that pressure from fans to see #1 vs. #2 in 2014 builds such that the Cold War eventually begins to thaw. While there are no signs of a thaw right now, it wasn't that long ago that Golden Boy and Top Rank set aside their feud and worked together for an number of years. They can again, and fans and writers shouldn't embrace the Cold War as inevitability but rather set a higher standard.
Judging and officiating incompetence (best-case scenario) or corruption (worst-case scenario) continue to plague the sport. Chavez didn't deserve to beat Vera, but did anyway because of judging that strongly favored the "house" fighter. Who the hell knows what C.J. Ross was thinking in deeming Mayweather-Canelo a draw. Nobody thinks Froch-Groves should have been stopped when it was except Froch, even with fans so conscientious about late stoppages in 2013. The largely unpenalized fouling in Klitschko-Povetkin made it unwatchable to all but the most devout Klitschko fans. This kind of thing turns off even the hardcore boxing fans who are willing to overlook boxing's warts, and to outsiders, it reinforces the notion that boxing is the red light district of sports. Bad whistles from refs happen in every sport, but bad judging and officiating can decide the outcome so much more direclty in boxing than in other sports. The options for fixing them are few, but it simply must happen.
Advanced testing for performance enhancing drugs in boxing is a total mess, as it's almost entirely voluntary and ad hoc, but does seem to be making incremental progress. If a boxer dies in the ring and PEDs are found to be involved, boxing will take a massive hit in popularity.
And that goes to another major impediment to boxing's growth in 2014. You can look throughout boxing history and note occasions where boxers suffered fatal injuries in the ring and then examine how quick the backlash was. Ratings scandals like those of the 70s turned major television networks off boxing. But so did the death of Duk Koo Kim and Benny Paret.
We saw too many referees, corners, doctors and fighters themselves dance too closely around death in 2013. One of the fights that nearly killed a man, Mike Perez-Magomed Abdusalamov, happened on HBO. Another fight that should've been stopped much, much sooner, James Kirkland-Glen Tapia, ended frighteningly on HBO, too. The impulses that lead to fights going on too long or fighters being allowed to continue their careers after scary outings are often well-intended — give him a chance to win! Let him decide his own destiny! Some might be sinister — corners that want to profit at all costs in a one-sided bout with the ambition that a miraculous victory will lead to a big paycheck next. But none of it is worth it. All of those impulses ought to be overrided by the notion that life comes first, particularly a healthy life. Boxers understand the risks of the sport, much as NASCAR drivers understand their risks. There will be deaths in boxing no matter how cautious we are. Nobody wants them. Nobody enjoys them, save the most disgusting of masochists. Nobody should feel apathetic about them when they happen. Everyone should try to avoid them. Corners, doctors and referees must look out for the health of the fighters first and foremost. If a fighter objects to a borderline call, at least he lives to fight another day or lives at all. Fans simply must adjust their perception of when it's acceptable for a fighter to call it quits if the corners/referees/doctors won't do their jobs.
It's one thing for boxing not to behave like a regular sport, in terms of whether it can grow. It's a whole 'nother thing for it to resemble a snuff film. Boxing inherently operates at the periphery of morality in the best of worlds. Snuff films are confined to the darkest corners of the Internet. It's in no one's interest for boxing to have displayed the tendency toward snuff film it displayed in 2013. In 2014, a drastic adjustment of attitude is required if the sport is to avoid sinking into the groteseque.