The Square Jungle: Lomachenko-Linares, Stevenson-Jack, Eddie Hearn and DAZN
In “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to find himself mutated into an insect (a beetle, according to Vladimir Nabokov); a few months ago, Jorge Linares emerged from a deep professional sleep, transformed into a fighter with ambition. After nearly 50 fights and interminable years of circle-jerk puffery, Linares gloved up to a challenge, two weeks ago, when he answered the bell against the most dangerous little man in the world – Vasiliy Lomachenko. As the Latino Gary Russell, Jr., Linares benefited from the boxing Infoapocalypse, a powerful vortex that swallows up analytical thought and replaces it with hagiographical fan fiction. (Indeed, canonization in boxing is now just a click or two away.) His classy style, combining finesse with precision punching, was aesthetically pleasing – if not always successful – against an assortment of second-raters and Yorkshiremen but Linares was never eager for a marquee slot among the elites. “Carpe diem,” it seems, was a phrase as alien to him as certain Yiddishisms.
(An interesting contrast to Linares is the perpetually maligned Adrien Broner, whose four world titles in as many divisions spur derision the same way Ivan Pavlov forced dogs to drool uncontrollably. Yet between stints in courthouses, Broner has faced much tougher competition, has never lost to journeyman fighters and has beaten more than one top-notch professional, including Antonio De Marco, for a lightweight title DeMarco originally won by stopping Linares. In a career spanning over 15 years, Linares has managed to score notable wins over a faded Oscar Larios and limited Anthony Crolla (whose ersatz WBA trinket was somehow enough to vault him into a battle of lineal lightweight supremacy last year).
When Linares entered the ring in Madison Square Garden, on May 12, he was hoping for his first victory over a world-class fighter. Looking slower and less dynamic than he had five pounds ago, Lomachenko still managed to dazzle Linares at times, particularly with his nimble footwork. As Linares began to bruise and swell, it looked as if “Hi-Tech,” unlike so many of his peers, not content to coast, was on his way to another early TKO stoppage. But Linares remained patient, scored with some thudding counters and worked behind his jab. Then the heart-stopping moment came. In the sixth round, Linares landed a textbook straight right that dropped Lomachenko to the canvas and raised hopes for an improbable upset. Most dreams in boxing are short-lived, however, and Lomachenko recovered to batter Linares with his trademark combinations. Finally in the 10th round, Lomachenko punctuated a sequence with a digging left to the ribcage that sent Linares to his knees. Although he beat the count, Linares remained doubled over in pain, prompting referee Ricky Gonzalez to halt the action.
He may have suffered the fourth KO defeat of his career – and that to a visibly smaller man – but Linares can consider his performance an accomplishment, one of the few he has managed to earn in an overpraised and underwhelming career. Winning via losing hardly counts as a successful strategy in this pitiless sport, which, more often than not, whittles its participants down to a nub regardless of talent or distinction but, from time to time, it is an outcome beneficial to all involved.
This principle may have proved itself again, in short order, when WBC light heavyweight titlist Adonis Stevenson and WBC featherweight beltholder Gary Russell Jr., two of the least ambitious fighters in boxing, took on fair competition for the first time in years, in a quality split-site doubleheader on Showtime last Saturday night. In outpointing the undefeated Joseph Diaz, Jr., Russell not only brushed off mothballs from another lengthy spell in storage, he also took part in a first-rate fight against an opponent who did not resemble a halfway-house castoff. By engaging in a competitive scrap as a solid short-ender, Diaz also saw his stock rise. However for Diaz to capitalize on his performance, he will have to try to kickstart that most elusive of boxing qualities: momentum. That means getting back into the ring as soon as possible and under marquee circumstances. For Russell, who showed his class over 12 hard rounds against Diaz, just gloving up before 2019 would be a triumph of sorts.
Long ridiculed for his hesitation to do much of anything, Stevenson nearly saw his long-standing, if mostly underwhelming, light heavyweight title reign come to an end when he struggled to a draw against Badou Jack at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario. It was a rare appearance for Stevenson between the ropes. It was even rarer to see him face off against a live body. And Although Stevenson barely escaped with his title, he showed grit and generated the kind of positive buzz he seemed almost immune to producing over the years. After six forgettable opening rounds, Stevenson and Jack bludgeoned each other to the final bell, producing a dramatic brawl whose outcome remained in doubt until the last scorecard was read. An undistinguished grinder who nevertheless has pushed a slew of contenders to the brink, Jack seemed on the verge of stopping Stevenson in the ninth and 10th rounds but his lack of a finishing touch – along with a painful 11th round, when Stevenson rallied violently – once again cost him.
At 40, Stevenson does not have enough time to turn a stagnant career around (from the viewpoint of the aficionado, of course. The paychecks “Superman” cashes belie any notion of run-of-the-millism) and transform into a fan favorite, nor does it seem likely that he would want such a distinction but, for one night, at least, his willingness to cross his own cautious Self proved that same caution gratuitous.
Al Haymon, famous for his preposterous sotto voce boast, “If I wanted to, I could run boxing,” is apparently the only man who cannot get a network – of any kind – to pay for his dodgy product. (Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, remains, as he has for many years, the strange exception to this rule.) With a staggering eight-year, one billion-dollar contract in hand from Perform Group, Matchroom Boxing Group Managing Director Eddie Hearn, along with Top Rank, has shown that boxing remains a viable investment for companies looking for more than free content, oversized Jumbotrons and ADA-compliant wheelchair ramps that lead to the ring.
And although fights have popped up on streams over the years via MaxBoxing, RingTV, and GoFightLive, Hearn, with the exception, perhaps, of a few contractually-bound fighters, is set to leave networks completely behind in the U.S., which makes sense, considering how traditional television has been knocked for a loop by the combination of technology and consumer apathy. The cable industry has long been despised from coast to coast for its arbitrary pricing, its obsession with contractual fine print and its Kafkaesque approach to customer service. To make matters worse, the networks themselves have become black holes of programming. Even a premium channel such as IFC airs blocks of syndicated repeats of “Two and a Half Men” – just like local channels in downscale markets across jerkwater hamlets throughout the U.S. Nor has cable been particularly good for boxing recently. While that may be a surprise to some who see fights taking place in every corner of TV Land, the fact is that the biggest fights HBO produces will play on pay-per-view; ESPN has exclusive rights to Top Rank fighters and Showtime, much improved due to the collapse of the Premier Boxing Champions, is still an Al Haymon plaything. What makes this Matchroom deal with DAZN intriguing is that Hearn claims it will be open to all fighters. Now, taking a promoter at his word is like believing a three-card monte dealer but Hearn has an incentive here: His deal with DAZN has a renewal option after two years. This is not free cash from a derelict investment fund; it is a payout for services to be rendered and Hearn is going to have to deliver on his promises for the sake of the venture.
But already Hearn has collided with the mystifying reality of the current fractured American boxing marketplace: Adrien Broner publicly rejected an eye-opening three-fight deal from Matchroom for nearly $7 million. Whether Broner (the first boxer since the crazy train days of Mike Tyson to possess commercial appeal based almost entirely on his extralegal antics) even deserves such a favorable contract is another question altogether. But the fact remains that Hearn will find the U.S. landscape divided into several fiefdoms, where his competition will not be limited to Frank Warren.
With the PBC, in particular, Hearn is in the odd position of trying to woo talent from a promotional firm run by a man who simultaneously advises these same fighters. Where fiduciary obligation would convince many freestanding managers to chase after the most remunerative offers extant, Al Haymon, despite the ongoing disintegration of the PBC, has other ideas in mind. Over the last few years, Haymon has allowed select fighters to perform on other platforms. Only Danny Jacobs, however, stands apart from the Al Haymon Outsourcing Program as a fighter who did not double as a ritual sacrifice. To offset runaway PBC expenditures, Haymon greenlighted suicide missions for second-tier fighters such as Amir Khan, Charles Martin and Dominic Wade to face off as hopeless underdogs against Saul Alvarez, unified heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua and unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, respectively. This limited record of promotional cooperation has convinced some of the easily-convinced across cyberspace that the PBC is and has been an open city of sorts. Broner will likely be the first of many to surprise Hearn with an Instagram brush-off.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.