The Square Jungle: On Golden Boy and FOX Sports 1, Wilder, Ward and PBC
At least Primo Carnera had sinister forces to help him along on his fraudulent journey from circus strongman to heavyweight champion of the world. Wiseguys flashed gats at ringside to discourage uncooperative patsies slapping Carnera from turnbuckle to turnbuckle. Treacherous cornermen threw in the towel despite objections from their fighters. Devious cutmen rubbed foreign substances into the eyes of those who entrusted them with their well-being. And greenbacks were often incentive enough for bigger names.
Today, however, all you need for an automatic win is a circuit fighter from, say, Raymondville, Texas and the blessing of a premium network suit with nothing but disdain for his subscribers. As Bert Sugar told The New York Times back in 2004, “Fixed fights used to happen like in old film noir movies, when you had a fighter in the tank and he would be told in his locker room, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night; go down in the third,’ and his mobster promoter would make a killing on a bet. Now losing is just not that interesting. We have the guys who are never matched to win. Silent offerings.”
All fighters deserve respect – boxing gyms are grimy infernos for all and even the least talented pug must grasp the boxing fundamental of mastering pain – but the backwater scrappers whose careers have been jury-rigged from the start simply have no parallel in American sport. You cannot get into the Major Leagues by playing weekend softball games in Central Park; the NBA remains a longshot for those who perfect the crossover dribble on playgrounds; football ranks are filled mostly by college draftees and the NHL has a minor league system that stretches from New Foundland to Bakersfield, California. But boxing specializes in the fugazi and a fighter can build a deceptive record against professional losers, dive artists and ex-headliners who should be medically suspended in tank towns across the country all to cash in on one money fight. Two violent examples include Wayne Martell, dropped five times in a single round by Zab Judah in 2004, and Jack Callahan, undefeated throughout Indiana in the mid-’80s before being massacred by Matthew Hilton in a comical title shot.
This is where Eric “Drummer Boy”Molina comes in. Last Saturday night, Molina challenged Deontay Wilder for the Wicomico heavyweight title in an artless scrap that, at times, resembled a lampoon of a boxing match. Molina showed nary a hint of skill and the fact that he managed to stun Wilder with one of his UFO-like haymakers only proves the suspicions about Wilder may be more fact than fiction. With his only notable victory coming over a physically compromised Bermane Stiverne (not exactly Sonny Liston) last January, Wilder remains an illusory proposition. Considering the fact that only an average of 678,000 viewers tuned in to watch the broadcast, Showtime subscribers may have come to the same conclusion. (despite the fact that Wilder-Molina viewership dropped nearly 50 percent from Wilder-Stiverne, Stephen Espinoza, whose penis envy regarding HBO seems all but incurable, still found something to troll about on Twitter concerning this disastrous fight). Wilder finally notched a Keystone Cops KO in the ninth round, having already scored three knockdowns during the fight.
When a fighter struggles to put away a man with little visible talent – how much worse did Charlie Zelenoff look compared to Molina? – it means his future will be narrowly and naturally circumscribed. In this case, Team Wilder must find worse fighters than Molina or take a risk on a jackpot payout. It seems difficult to imagine a fighter less threatening than Molina but, where preserving a possible meal ticket is at stake, boxing is always resourceful enough to send scouts out to Texarkana or Walla Walla.
A few weeks ago, The Square Jungle mentioned how solid matchmaking would be the key to success for Premier Boxing Champions and even suggested that PBC was interested in implementing such an approach regularly. Looking back, this assertion sounds crazier than some of the ravings of Donald Trump. Recent PBC cards have featured – and scheduled – outright dreck: Delvin Rodriguez, Roberto Garcia, Caleb Truax, Badou Jack, Danny O’Connor, Rances Barthelemy and Aron Martinez.
Incredibly, hapless Delray Raines, semi-retired for years from his very painful side gig, popped up on NBC to face Alfredo Angulo in a fight even the notoriously incompetent California State Athletic Commission must have thought twice about before rubber-stamping. Some PBC cards have attracted fewer viewers than certain fights on HBO (when that happens, the Nielsen Ratings Rooters vanish), surely a blow to the whole “Bigger Platform” argument.
Even the most significant PBC fights so far – Danny Garcia-Lamont Peterson and Adrien Broner-Shawn Porter – have had strange asterisks attached to them that suggest the bleak possibilities of having one man (who refuses even a hat tip to the concept of transparency) play matchmaker, manager, adviser, promoter and CEO simultaneously. Naturally, the grim ramifications of such a set-up seem lost on the most self-congratulatory media members and rank-and-file bloggers, whose only purpose appears to be to perpetuate second-rate writing of their own clubhouse members via social media (Oh, gosh; fewer retweets now and even more undercover readers for The Square Jungle!).
If you can get an ESPN boxing regular, for example, to write about something “hard-hitting” that goes beyond sanctioning bodies, the equivalent of fishing with a hand grenade, you can probably end the drought in California or get Brian Williams to tell the truth. While these chuckleheads are making the rounds and smirking at cameras between updating pound-for-pound lists, “reporting” on their own rankings boards and criticizing the WBA/C/O, curious things are happening right in front of their La-Z-Boys on (sometimes) free television.
Right now, however, despite its Super PAC-sized war chest, its time-buy frenzy, its appeal to Twitter Sheriffs and Blogspot blowhards who discovered boxing in 2009, its IMAX production values, its phony audiences full of claqueurs, its very own Pravda-like propaganda agents spread across its website and its announcing crews, PBC fails at boxing, the sport, itself. In a way, Al Haymon and the PBC suggest a quote from George W.S. Trow: “No one, now, minds a con man. But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.”
You need COINTELPRO, maybe, or Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, to figure out the PBC endgame. But the real question is: Can its goals be met with such a determined commitment to mediocrity?
In 1987, Sugar Ray Leonard returned from a three-and-a-half year layoff to score one of the biggest upsets of his era by defeating Marvelous Marvin Hagler in a blockbuster superfight. Nineteen months after outpointing limited Edwin Rodriguez over 12 dull rounds, Andre Ward, who uses words like “legacy” and “greatness” with a regal haughtiness that belies his inability to stir up passion in the average aficionado, returns to the ring on Saturday to face Paul Smith on BET.
Roc Nation Sports, which managed to bungle a Miguel Cotto fight in New York City two weeks ago and whose early televised cards have been hodgepodges of celebrity rap sightings and awful/offal match-ups, will now lose a bundle on having to pay a third party to air the greatest MMA practitioner in boxing. In the early-1990s, Butch Lewis had a short-lived series on BET, which usually featured a young Bernard Hopkins as headliner. If Lewis, who was good friends with BET founder Robert Johnson, were alive today, he would be slack-jawed to know that one of the supposed P4P superstars in boxing needs a time-buy proposition to get on a network which has had zero ties to boxing in over 20 years. Not even HBO, which has invested plenty of time and money in marketing Ward as some sort of ATG, was interested in having “S.O.G.” use its airwaves for sparring.
After winning Showtime’s “Super Six” in 2011 (a tourney, by the way, in which he faced one less qualifying fighter than his eventual finals opponent, Carl Froch), Ward succeeded in making the late Dan Goossen his greatest rivalry. But with the HBO hot stamp, the P4P imprimatur from listicle lunkheads and the puppy-love purple prose of all the Adam Abramowitlesses in cyberspace, Ward began to believe in his own eminence. Although a healthy ego is something all top-notch pros must have in order to perform at the highest levels in boxing, Ward borders on delusional. It must have stung him when he tried crossing over to Showtime a few months ago only to be rebuffed. See, even premium cable Twelebs who double as boxing programmers know that all the ability in the world cannot make a sourpuss disinterested in dramatizing his skill beyond dull 12-round decisions into a superstar. At 31, Ward is young enough and talented enough to reverse his image as a dull spoiler who would rather scold than put on a show. Maybe Sugar Ray Leonard, an egomaniac who nonetheless understood that boxing is part performance art and part character test, said it best: “You’ve got to want it bad enough.”
After months of speculation, FOX Sports 1 has officially dumped Golden Boy Promotions in favor of Premier Boxing Champions. This switcheroo will take place in July, meaning PBC will now be on more channels than “Law & Order” reruns. Of course, Oscar De La Hoya will pretend that losing FOX Sports 1 is no big deal; after all, he has mastered the art of dissembling the same way he mastered his left hook during his heyday as a lightweight.
For years, GBP treated its second-tier television outlets (and, by extension, viewers) with a contempt and cynicism shocking even for the fight racket. For every Luis Collazo-Victor Ortiz or David Lemieux-Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam, there were five or six bouts that should never have received a pass from state athletic commissions. Squash bouts featuring fighters on seven-year winless streaks (Dennis Sharpe), fighters in retirement for six years making a one-time comeback for rent money (Pablo Sarmiento), and 46-year-olds making only their second start in 12 years (John Michael Johnson) were the norm for Eric “The Ghoul” Gomez, a matchmaker who could have doubled as a body snatcher during the Victorian Era. In fact, Golden Boy is the only top promotional company to knowingly program one-round blowouts with regularity, which amounts to twin middle-fingers aimed directly at advertisers looking to retain viewers between rounds – at least once, anyway, during a match.
Most GBP series excluded the interests of fans, networks, advertisers and B-sides, whose health was at risk the moment they signed a contract for blood money. It seems unlikely that Al Haymon could put on anything worse than Golden Boy, which is saying a lot, considering the fact that Haymon managed to sandblast the boxing programs of both HBO and Showtime at one point. In the end, all De La Hoya cared about – surprise, surprise – was himself. Now, in keeping with his “Me, Myself and I” philosophy, maybe he can shift his torture porn specials to his new vanity channel, De La Hoya TV. If you happen to be a clubfighter out of the ring for half-a-dozen years or so and need your transmission replaced in a hurry, send GBP an email. It may hurt a lot more to get whacked out in the wind-up (or even the main event), but it will be a hell of a lot cheaper than MoneyMutual.com.
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 Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.