Kathy Duva: ‘Premier Boxing Champions’ Is Doomed From The Start

MONTREAL — “It’s got so many holes in it, I could drive a truck through them all.” “It’s going to blow up.” “Smart people with access to lots of money make stupid decisions.”

There is little love lost between Main Events Promotions CEO Kathy Duva and boxing adviser Al Haymon. She sued him last year, when her biggest prize, light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev, lost out on a bout with lineal champion Adonis Stevenson following his decision to sign with Haymon. She had gained in-roads for Main Events at NBC before Haymon came along and paid the network money to let him air his fights on the channel.

But, like Haymon, she, too, is one of the smartest people in the business. And from her perspective with 30 years in boxing, Haymon’s new Premier Boxing Champions series — which aired on both NBC and Spike TV in the last week alone, and set to move to other channels soon — is financially doomed.

Some caveats from Duva, in Canada to promote Kovalev vs. Jean Pascal Saturday on HBO:

“Experience tells us that there is, in my view, a level at which this level could work beautifully,” she said. “I was trying very hard to get us there. I got us one step of the way by getting NBC to accept boxing, period.

“My whole life the last 20 years has been trying to figure out how to make that work. I’m not saying that just because I couldn’t do it it’s impossible,” she added.

Her quibble isn’t with the main event (Keith Thurman-Robert Guerrero) of last Saturday’s NBC debut for PBC, either, or even the presentation of that show, particularly.

“The main event was a perfectly good fight, and the people who planned it made choices, and they were their choices; they wouldn’t be mine, but that doesn’t make them necessarily wrong,” she said, when asked about what she thought while watching the program. “The holes I could drive a truck through don’t have as much to do with the presentation as the finances and the reality that this is a worldwide sport.”

She said it did indeed look as though Haymon was trying to turn PBC into a boxing league. That, she said, can’t work. “You can’t own a worldwide sport,” she said, thinking of Kovalev and how she happened to sign him. “I’ve got fighters every day calling to know if I’ll sign them. I’m in business because I took a call from Russia when nobody else would.”

When she looks at the finances for PBC, Duva sees parallels in Revel Atlantic City, the casino that opened in 2012 and was closed by 2014. Duval diagnosed Revel’s problems as thus: The people who were behind that project were smart, too, and had access to lots of money. But the casino led to a build-up of rooms in Atlantic City that affected the overall market, which meant that Revel had to underprice theirs to compete. That attracted a clientele that didn’t have enough money to spend on gambling to make Revel its money back.

“Decades of experience told every other person in the casino business when they started to build that monstrosity that they were doing everything wrong,” said Duva. “And they couldn’t stop them.” (Main Events put on Kovalev-Blake Caparello last year at Revel, for what it’s worth.)

Back to PBC. The purses for the NBC card were somewhere between $5-6 million, by her reckoning, a lofty sum. Duva said she sees an economic bubble developing.

“That main event, it was a perfectly good fight, I’m not going to hate on it at all. But there are more competitive opponents out there for Keith Thurman,” she said. “What’s it going to cost them to get him to fight one of them?

“I did a show on NBC two, three years ago. I had a $150,000 rights fee. I had to live in that,” she said. “At the peak of my show, I had 3.2 (million watching), they had 4.2. He went out and spent $8 million on marketing, production, the time buy and only got a million more people to watch than I did. My marketing budget on that show was $5,000.”

Haymon is officially an “adviser” or “manager,” although some in the industry have labeled him a promoter despite not being licensed as one.

“When you have a body of experience and you have that to draw on you just know can’t work. How many boxing matches has he promoted?” Duva asked. “Because the answer is, ‘one.’ He’s going to do 50 this year, I’m told,” she said, then laughed ever so slightly like Nelson from The Simpsons.

And Duva can’t figure out a way Haymon gets his money back. Even if he got good ad rates for his first show, he only had one national advertiser, and that was a beer company sponsor, Corona. Those rates aren’t going to get any better, she predicted. The debut UFC show on Fox did much better ratings years ago than PBC did in its debut, but with purses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than the millions — and the ratings since then have consistently dropped.

The UFC is comfortable breaking even with its free-to-air products because it makes more money off pay-per-view, she said. Could a bigger PPV audience as a result of boxing’s broader exposure get Haymon a return on his investment? Duva said she doesn’t see how. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao make about 80 percent of the revenue off their PPV shows, and the fighters on other boxing shows typically still soak up around 50 to 60 percent of those revenues, she said. Meanwhile, Ronda Rousey made just $1 million of an estimated $15 million from her last UFC PPV, Duva said.


Despite her criticisms, Duva said she still believes she could work with Haymon to make Kovalev-Stevenson happen. If Kovalev beats Pascal Saturday night on HBO, he would face Nadjib Mohammedi, the mandatory challenger for one of his belts, next (assuming Mohammedi also wins Saturday night). Duva said Kovalev would not drop one of his belts to skip the Mohammedi fight.

Then, by summer, the idea would be to install Kovalev as the challenger to Stevenson’s belt. “Then it will be up to Adonis Stevenson and the Manager of the Year to decide if they want to do it,” she said, snarking on Haymon’s status as a two-time winner of that award from the Boxing Writers Association of America.

She said the past friction with Haymon won’t dictate any business deals.

“Of course, I’ve worked with Don King, I’ve worked with Bob Arum. When we started in this business, do you know how Main Events established itself? By suing Don King, and the WBC, and the WBA, and Bob Arum to get what was rightfully ours according to the rules, to get our mandatories,” she said. “Evander Holyfield got the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title because we won a lawsuit with the WBC. I was just up there hugging the guy from the WBC. I was hugging the guy from the WBA. We’re all friends. I’ve made more fights with Don King personally than with a lot of other promoters, and we find a way to work with our enemies we have to.”

The fight will be even more doable if Kovalev, fighting on Stevenson’s home turf in Canada, becomes a star in the eyes of Canadians by beating Pascal, Duva said.

“A little more than a year ago, when that fight with Stevenson got canceled, did any of you think we’d be standing here today, after he has beaten Beranrd Hopkins, and is about to get in the ring with Jean Pascal, or did everybody think, ‘Oh boy, he’s really screwed now because they killed his fight?'” she asked. “Because I thought at that moment we were really screwed, and look what happened. I knew it before but it’s been reinforced. This sport changes every minute.”

(TQBR reached out to a Haymon publicist for comment on Saturday. This post will be updated with any response. For video of the full interview, click here.)

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. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.