The Manny Pacquiao/ESPN team-up is big…but is it THAT important?
Can the Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight, on ESPN, really be called a television boxing milestone? Probably not, as it seems like a one-off fight for Pacquiao, who approved this option, since it would be difficult to sell an unknown Australian as a pay-per-view entity. This is not to diminish the importance or potential quality of the matchup, just that it is not likely to expand the audience of boxing in a significant, measurable or enduring way. The Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev bout is a perfect example of fans wanting to watch a big fight but not wanting to pay for the pleasure. As you can tell by the estimated 125,000 PPV sales compared with a tape-delayed HBO television audience of 752,000 a week later. If Pacquiao can draw six times his normal PPV audience on ESPN, it will have been an unqualified success. This is the first time Pacquiao will not be featured on HBO or HBO Pay-Per-View since 2005 (which covers a span of 22 ring appearances), so why not enjoy this event with as many people as possible?
I find it highly unlikely that this is a move other Top Rank pay-per-view entities will follow, unless company CEO Bob Arum decides to take an annual hit to his wallet to overpay a star appearing on ESPN instead of PPV. That remains to be seen but Top Rank President Todd duBoef has said he wants more events of this type, not only to feature a star attraction on the widely-seen ESPN but to ensure the event is surrounded by a lot of cross-promotions and build-up in conjunction with ESPN, that will, in theory, create more fans, as well as giving undercard boxers a larger audience to build on their future. All of this is a long way of saying their decision to feature Pacquiao on ESPN instead of HBO got me to thinking about some of the milestone fights in television history.
1939 (June 1) – The very first nationally-televised (WNBT-TV, a CBS station) fight in America took place at Yankee Stadium and featured former heavyweight champion Max Baer against rising West Coast prospect Lou Nova. They faced off in a Bronx battle that delivered on its crossroads promise, as Nova rallied to best Baer via a dramatic stoppage in the 11th round. It may have been a good thing this fight was televised in black and white, as the fight needed to be stopped by referee Frank Fullam because of all the blood pouring from Baer’s mouth (a badly cut lip and inner cheek lacerations) prevented him from breathing properly. This was definitely an exciting and fitting way to get boxing’s television era started!
1946 (November 8) – The legendary “Gillette Friday Night Fights” series had its origins in NBC’s “Cavalcade of Sports,” which morphed into and became synonymous with boxing during the golden age of sports. The series ran from 1946 to 1960 but boxing was dropped as the main focus because of supposed and real mob ties with which the sport had become entwined. The series found a temporary reprieve, for two more years, on ABC but was less successful, despite keeping the brilliant Don Dunphy to call the fights. Most of the cards emanated from New York City, with Manhattan’s St. Nicholas Arena hosting Monday night fights until 1949, while the more well-known stars performed on Friday nights at the famed Madison Square Garden. That 14-year run was the longest continuous weekly boxing program and all the icons of the era like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Rocky Graziano, Willie Pep and dozens of other Hall of Fame names appeared under that marquee.
1962 (March 24) – The nationally-televised final bout of Benny Paret, when he took a prolonged and frightful beating from Emile Griffith, was a shock for the nation. That night, Paret slipped into a coma and passed away from injuries sustained in the fight. It caused soul searching and debate about whether boxing was fit to be televised in a much more conservative era. This happened on ABC’s version of “Friday Night Fights” and may have had a lot to do with the network dropping the show a little over a year later. Paret had lost the world welterweight title to Emile Griffith via 13-round kayo but was given an unpopular split decision in their rematch. He then endured an extended beating at the hands of the naturally larger Gene Fullmer, which was followed by the tragic rubber match with Emile Griffith. Paret died 10 days after Griffith scored the 12th round stoppage. For more information on this calamitous moment, watch the “Ring of Fire” documentary to explore the toll that the clash left on everyone in the sport of boxing.
1973 (January 22) – HBO makes its boxing debut in a big way, as Big George Foreman crushed Joe Frazier over two one-sided rounds in the exotic setting of Kingston, Jamaica. Howard Cosell gave his now-famous “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” call for ABC but that was during a rebroadcast of the event in which Frazier was actually the 3-to-1 favorite before the first punch was thrown. Frazier was knocked down three times in the first round and three more times in the second round before referee Arthur Mercante mercifully ended proceedings. I am not one to call out others but how such a one-sided fight won the THE RING Magazine’s “Fight of the Year” remains a mystery to me. It does hold historical significance, however, and should be remembered for decades to come.
1975 (October 1) – Boxing is introduced to pay-per-view as the “Thrilla in Manila” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier allows the sport to take money from fans in the comfort of their home for the first time. If every PPV were as good as this fight, it would be worth it but, sadly, as the cost of PPVs increase, we are more likely to get a Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao than one for the history books like Ali-Frazier III. The fight was shown via closed-circuit in nearly 400 theaters and broadcast to 68 countries worldwide. As mastermind Don King was wont to do, he allowed HBO to air the fight, as well, as exclusivity was not as much of a requirement as it is today. This was deservedly voted “Fight of the Year” by most publications and THE RING Magazine went as far as to name it the best fight ever in a 1996 special edition.
1980 (April 10) – The first time ESPN televised a boxing event live, in what would become the longest running cable and weekly boxing series for a sports network. Of course, it became synonymous with Top Rank (who maintained an exclusive deal with ESPN), who supplied the matchmaking as well as most of the boxers, and the first show featured a young, all-action middleweight named Frank “The Animal” Fletcher. He set a high bar to break with an all-offense style that troubled all but the elite and went on to win a 160-pound tourney held on the network. Fletcher ultimately fell short of a world title, though he merited one, if it were based on creating exciting fights alone. That show began a 16-year run of not-always-great but for the most part intriguing fights. The series was fondly recalled when ESPN2 kicked off its version of “Friday Night Fights” in 1998, a good series in itself but never had the cult following of the original, even though it motored along until 2015 with regular hiatuses for football season.
1982 (October 1) – The USA Network’s “Tuesday Night Fights” began its fun and fascinating run, ironically enough on a Friday night, featuring Ralph Twinning losing to undefeated prospect Michael Bradley at the Playboy Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. The program had a kind of irrationality and unpredictability that made the series fun; their commentators Sean O’Grady and Al Albert were equally irreverent and had to do a lot of work to spice up some of the material, as the series hardly featured any world title bouts, despite running consistently until 1998. There were quirky moments like letting fans play matchmaker by phoning in which of three potential foes they would like to see Oba Carr face, which nearly cost the future title challenger his undefeated record against Livingstone Bramble – not the mention the Mark Gastineau fiascoes. Made a landmark out of the Blue Horizon venue in Philadelphia and The Palace in Auburn Hills drew great crowds for local products. They even went overseas to England once and broadcast the great Jorge Paez-Calvin Grove title fight in a Mexicali bullring.
1996 (March 10) – HBO found an upstart rival in Showtime, who began its challenge in an inspired fashion, paying for the rights to the highly-anticipated showdown between legendary middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler and African knockout artist John “The Beast” Mugabi. A solid start to be sure, even so, it was for tape delay rights only, as the fight was shown at 500 closed-circuit locations in America and available on pay-per-view. Still, it was a great choice as the 11-round classic featured everything a fledgling or diehard boxing fan could want and the fighters gave everything they had with both needing to be hospitalized overnight as a precaution. Overall, Showtime has held its own since then (especially with its great, talent-scouting “ShoBox” series), with the exception of the years in which Don King used his control over Mike Tyson to gain an exclusive deal with Showtime in the early-1990s, that saw some horrid arm twisting.