We're part way through January and already we're looking at four boxing pay-per-views through the first half of 2014 in the United States. Two more in the second half seem certain, at minimum; more might be on the way. It's always expensive to be a diehard boxing fan — expanded cable packages, DVRs to deal with dueling same-night network offerings, tickets-travel-hotels if you want to see fights live, authentic replica Adrien Broner brushes — but it could get more expensive still this year, friends.
So what and whom is worth your money? And what and whom is likely to be able to make the PPV model work well enough to make it worth the networks'/boxers'/promoters' while?
Canelo Alvarez vs. Alfredo Angulo
I'm on record digging this March 8 fight and this card. But a couple cogent arguments from people I rarely agree with have made me do some second guessing. It's true: moving Canelo from Showtime to Showtime pay-per-view nullifies some of the gains the network has made on HBO. And the talk has been that all of Canelo's fights in 2014 will be on PPV. If that happens, it will not be a good trend for the fans.
It's not that Canelo can't carry a profitable PPV — he was a massive part of one against Floyd Mayweather. I suspect this card will exceed the break-even point, despite the two headliners coming off losses. The issue is whether it's the best use of Alvarez at this point in his career. To not put Mayweather on a PPV is to wash an awful lot of money down the garbage disposal. To move Canelo from Showtime to PPV is to weaken the offering to subscribers. And since the notion is to have Canelo on PPV three times in 2014, we're talking about an awful lot of scratch on one fighter.
It just so happens that I'm a boxing writer who buys every major PPV and am a radical enough fan that I would buy every major one even if I didn't feel obligated for the readers. That colors everything in this piece. BUT:
Two losing fighters in the headliner or no (an odd trend of late, even if it speaks well of boxing fans' willingness to forgive losses), Angulo's limitations against elite opposition taken into account, I still love the match-up. There's going to be a lot of "I'm the real Mexican!" macho on the line here, and both men present real problems for one another. If Angulo can corner Erislandy Lara, he can catch up to Canelo. Angulo lost that junior middleweight fight, but he made the pure boxer work his ass off. Canelo isn't nearly the pure boxer Lara is. And Angulo, for all his success against Lara, has struggled in his career with anyone who can move and counter. I can't tell you with certainty who will win this. Lara could punish the pretty boy or Canelo could pick the caveman apart. I like Canelo-Angulo better than Mayweather's likely next PPV main event, anyway, and it's in the ballpark with Manny Pacquiao's next PPV main event.
If Canelo-Angulo was all that the card was offering of any substance, though, I'd probably be bitter about shelling out my money. As it happens, the talk right now is of an undercard featuring Omar Figueroa vs. Ricardo Alvarez (lightweight), Nihito Arakawa vs. Jorge Linares (also lightweight) and Leo Santa Cruz vs. Cristian Mijares (junior featherweight). I'd watch Leo-Cristian as a Showtime headliner gladly, and Arakawa-Linares as a supporting bout gladly.
So we're talking about a headliner that promises action and in my book, uncertainty, along with an undercard that has two very solid bouts and spotlights one of the sport's up-and-comers in Figueroa. Despite my second-guessing, this is still a card I'm reasonably content to pay for, not that it's my preference. Will I feel the same about future Canelo cards? Probably not. Canelo-Lara is dangerous enough to make me think about it, but it also probably wouldn't be as entertaining as Canelo-Angulo. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, but I can't forecast a scenario where two more Canelo PPV cards feature headlining bouts up to snuff enough to ease the pocketbook suffering. (There's one exception, which I'll get to in a minute.) And I certainly won't be hot on another Canelo PPV main event if he loses to Angulo.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley II
Pacquiao's next opponent isn't set for HBO PPV, but signs point to a welterweight rematch with Bradley on April 12.
On one hand, Bradley has enhanced his standing significantly since the lackluster PPV buy rate of Pacquiao-Bradley I. On the other hand, Pacquiao's standing as a PPV attraction has diminished since then. Whatever the list of reasons Pacquiao-Brandon Rios did such a poor buy rate in 2013 and which one was predominant (and it very well might be that the bout was in China), one of them had to be the memories of Pacquiao splattered by Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012. Some fighters can rebound from losses, if they're defensible or explainable enough — hell, Pacquiao-Marquez IV did a quality figure even after Pacquiao's "loss" to Bradley in the fight just before. Some fighters have their appeal diminished significantly.
It's not clear whether Pacquiao-Bradley II would tell us all that much about what's left in the Pacquiao PPV superstar tank. But then, it's hard to see any fight that could give us the Pacquiao PPV buy rates of his pre-Marquez knockout years. Miguel Cotto is still around for a rematch, I suppose, and Marquez V still has some appeal. But Cotto seems preoccupied elsewhere — Sergio Martinez, Canelo — and he's also now trained by Pacquiao's corner man, Freddie Roach. And Marquez, that mean, petty sumbitch, is talking about any fight but another Pacquiao rematch. What's that leave for Pacquiao? Ruslan Provodnikov isn't any more proven an attraction right now than Bradley, popular though he might be with the hardcores, and anyone else with big moneymaking potential is likewise unproven and will probably stay that way through 2014. Perhaps if Provodnikov-Marquez comes off and Prov wins, it would give him a huge name recognition boost.
So, strangely enough, we're left with a situation where Bradley — coming off his Fighter of the Year campaign — is the best available near-term moneymaking option for Pacquiao. He also might be the most dangerous available opponent. He's got an indomitable will and probably has grown from his trying 2013, which features wins over both Provodnikov and Marquez, masters of opposite styles. Pacquiao-Bradley II could do lower PPV figures than the first bout, depending on its location, or similar/slightly higher. The bout interests me, but then, I'm also down for strategic battles where the outcome isn't clear; not every fight needs to be a bloody brawl, like it must be for some fans. There's also the chance that HBO and Top Rank would put together a quality undercard that bolster the main event a la Mayweather-Canelo, but the trend for Pacquiao PPV undercards is toward "absolute shit" rather than toward "Who cares if Pac is fighting, gimme that undercard!," so I wouldn't count on it.
No, Pacquiao's PPV future isn't terribly, terribly bright right now, in part because there aren't any absolutely riveting must-see Pacquiao PPV opponents likely to thrill the masses and in part because Pacquiao is past his "every fight is so electric just because Pacquiao is in it" peak. When the fans aren't clamoring, then they're less likely to pay, obviously. And let's not even indulge the notion of Pacquiao-Mayweather. It isn't happening.
Floyd Mayweather vs. Amir Khan
We're down to one viable/available Mayweather opponent for May 3 on Showtime PPV, now that Adrien Broner has exercised his rematch clause with Marcos Maidana. Maidana had been a darkhorse for May for Mayweather after the Argentinian welterweight beat up min-Mayweather, his "little brother" Broner.
And that opponent, Amir Khan, just isn't that viable. Those who give Khan a chance have an argument that boils down to this: "He's fast!" And it's true. He is. And Mayweather, has, it's also true, struggled with speed that is anywhere comparable to his, be it Shane Mosley or Zab Judah. But Khan is moving up in weight, to welter, and has a chin that — while it has persevered more than it's given credit for — makes Judah's punch resistance seem Herculean by comparison. Which is a less impressive pre-Mayweather bout: Judah's loss to Carlos Baldomir, or Khan's lucky unanimous decision over Julio Diaz? Baldomir had a good run subsequently, and Diaz lost to Shawn Porter in their rematch.
So we're left with the "Amir Khan is a different kind of boxing figure than usual, right?" as the appeal beyond the competitive one, with the competitive appeal being weak in the eyes of most. Khan is British and of Pakistani heritage, and is a Muslim, albeit a Muslim with a higher ratio than most of online cock shots. You can market all this. and bring in markets that aren't often available for the sport. Khan is also cocky (no pun intended) and might actually play the villain to Mayweather's usual Snidely Whiplash, so that could sell the fight, too.
And, to the credit of Showtime and Mayweather, the tendency toward quality undercards is likely to continue. Yeah, fans buy PPVs mainly for the main event. But often they're sold on the undercard, too.
But what then, after Khan? Maidana, perhaps, if he beats Broner again, would be ideal for late 2014. Danny Garcia could have further enhanced his name. Cotto could be back, although, again, he seems to be looking elsewhere. Mayweather is in a better position to keep a solid buy rate even with a mid-tier opponent — Canelo was top-tier, as was Mosley, and Cotto, and Ricky Hatton, and Oscar De La Hoya and Marquez even then was near it, with only Guerrero unproven as an attraction prior to Mayweather ascending the PPV throne — for two reasons. 1., He's still viewed as the top fighter in the world, whereas Pacquiao lost that argument a couple fights back; and 2., He has better options available to him thanks to each man's respective promotional allegiances. Among mid-tier guys, I'm of the mind that Garcia, Maidana and Khan are more sellable for Mayweather than Bradley, Provodnikov or Mikey Garcia. I could be wrong. But there's still #1, which gives any Mayweather match-up juice that any Pacquiao match-up no longer has.
Basically, though, unless Cotto walks through the door with the middleweight championship, Mayweather is due to do worse in 2014 than in 2013 both in buy rates and in PPV bouts likely to enthuse fans (those two things are related), just because Canelo was such a tremendous option across the board. Oh, and he's third up to bat in 2014 on the PPV calendar. Will that hurt him? It very well could. Each successive PPV card in 2014 stands the chance of being diminished just by being the latest in a too-long line of them.
Miguel Cotto vs. Sergio Martinez
Here's another one I kind of like, but I've second-guessed the more I listen to folk out there. Cotto-Martinez for Martinez's middleweight championship is due June 7.
We know Cotto is the reigning #3 man in PPV boxing in the United States. He can put up 500,000 or so as a headliner and has given both Mayweather and Pacquiao some of their biggest numbers as an opponent. We know he's retained his status as a draw despite his various losses because we saw him do big ratings against Delvin Rodriguez in his last junior middleweight bout.
We have to assume that he'll do pretty solid PPV figures for HBO despite being the last in line in 2014 so far, and despite a perception that he's a big underdog against Martinez. To paraphrase the knocks on this fight, if Martinez smokes Cotto as some suspect he will with his speed and size, it will show what a farce the match-up is; if Cotto is competitive, it will show how badly the aging Martinez has faded due to injury.
Both are true, but the latter scenario at least offers some parallels with great matches in boxing history. The Thrilla in Manila was such a great fight because both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were a little worse for the wear. Cotto being undersized and giving heat to an aging Martinez in a competitive bout could be wildly entertaining. Martinez smoking Cotto is no fun, though, to be sure.
I do think that for Cotto to be viable as a future Canelo opponent, he needs to be somewhat competitive against Martinez. Cotto's team is banking on the Canelo bout being there even if he loses to Martinez, which is why they chose this fight first — if Cotto loses to Canelo first, he's less interesting as a Martinez opponent, whereas if Cotto loses to Martinez first, he can chalk it up to an ill-advised jump to middleweight. But Cotto straight getting shanked by Martinez makes him less interesting as an opponent for anyone. If he avoids a shanking, Canelo-Cotto becomes a pretty lucrative PPV bout, I expect.
It is still somewhat on the dismal side that the best hope for this fight entertaining us involves Martinez being badly faded. As such, again, it would be wise to lard the PPV card with great supporting bouts. Will HBO do that? I'd love it if they did, but I wouldn't count on it. The possibility that Top Rank wouldn't necessarily decide the undercard by itself (Cotto is something of a free agent, and Martinez is promoted by Lou DiBella, who has a track record of putting on good undercards sometimes) gives some cause for optimism. Of course, Cotto might insist on filling the undercard with his promotional stable, and then, God help us.
So if Martinez wins, we're probably not talking about him as a future PPV star. Oh, he did pretty well as the B-side to Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. in 2012, but who else would Martinez fight on PPV? Gennady Golovkin, maybe, but that one's more likely for terrestrial HBO. Would Mayweather be bold enough to take on a Martinez who just beat Cotto? Doubtful, especially since tright now they're fighting on opposite networks. That's the totality of options, unless somehow Martinez-Cotto is wildly competitive enough to demand a rematch.
The super middleweight champion imagines himself as a PPV star, and it's a vague possibility. He's got the Olympic gold medal, the argument for the best boxer in the world once Mayweather departs, the Christian faith thing, the "best American fighter" thing, the Northern California fan base, the Nike ad. And if he had fought Kelly Pavlik in early 2013 and beat him and then notched another win late in 2013, maybe I could see it — instead, all he has in 2013 is a win over Edwin Rodriguez thanks to injury and promotional feuds. And the best opponent for him to sell some PPVs with, Chavez, has diminished himself in the eyes of fans with a lackluster effort against Bryan Vera, the weigh-in scandals, and various other debacles. He's also getting up there in the years at 29, is back into another legal battle with his promoter and might not be doing much to build his case in 2014. So, yeah, "vague possibility." But while I like Ward a good deal more than the segment of fandom that absolutely despises him, there's no PPV fight I can imagine him in that doesn't make me frown.
Kevin Iole nominated him a few weeks ago, and I didn't see it then. For all the talk since, I still don't. Top Rank seems to be building Garcia toward a Pacquiao showdown, but it feels too far away. Dude just moved up to junior lightweight. There's a lot of daylight between 130 pounds and 147 pounds, and as stellar as Garcia has been in every outing, we've seen Nonito Donaire go from "phenom" to "meh" as he has climbed up in weight. Another thing: Mikey's personality just isn't that compelling. I could be totally wrong, but I just don't see him as a PPV attraction for a long time if ever.
Think about where Bradley would be if he beats Pacquiao definitively next: Coming off a Fighter of the Year campaign and beating a man who remains one of the two top PPV attractions, however diminished, and maybe eclipsing Ward as best American fighter not named Mayweather. Would a Marquez rematch sell? What if Bradley fled Top Rank and offered himself up to Mayweather? Yeah, there's potential here, but Bradley needs to beat Pacquiao to tap it.
It wasn't so long ago that Showtime and Golden Boy were grooming Broner — a master vulgarian, competely hateable, talented — as the next PPV star in their stable. Thankfully, they took Broner-Maidana off PPV and moved it to regular Showtime, but Maidana also spoiled the possibility that Broner's next fight would be on PPV. That said, he still did great ratings against Maidana and the rematch will be well-watched, so if Broner beats Maidana the second go-round, he might be right back on the precipice of a PPV headliner. Since I dislike him, I don't relish the notion of filling his pocketbooks with more money for him to literally flush down the toilet.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.
It might seem like a longshot given his loss to Martinez and the dreary, unscrupulous showing against Vera, but don't forget that Chavez had shown himself to be a low-level PPV attraction before he arrived at the world level, that the Chavez-Martinez card did solid PPV figures and that his fight with Vera was still a ratings hit. Since Chavez has only sporadically been must-view TV in the ring, I'm rooting for him to not get back to the PPV level.
For a lot of fighters, getting to the level of PPV headliner is the top of the esteem chain. But let's be totally clear: As much as I and a certain number of fans will buy most any PPV, it's not good for the sport if all of these men move to PPV, and even if Canelo holds all three of his fights on PPV as promised. We saw how much the excessive PPVs of several years back rotted away the fan base of the sport, and we saw how much the gangrene sloughed off once the sport began to confine PPV to just a couple events a year. This is an estimate of who could or might end up on PPV in 2014. It is not an endorsement of them doing so.