The Square Jungle: Wilder-Szpilka, Glazkov-Martin, the Showtime Boomerang Effect and PBC
With just over a month to go before the opening bell, Deontay Wilder has finally secured an opponent for his Jan. 16 title defense at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. Wilder faces rugged southpaw Artur Szpilka, until recently best known for being stopped by Bryant Jennings in 2014. Although Szpilka will open as a solid underdog in Brooklyn, he is certainly an improvement over Eric Molina and Johannn Duhaupas, the last two human sacrifices to challenge Wilder for his off-brand heavyweight championship.
Wilder was originally scheduled to face undefeated Vyacheslav Glazkov but that fight hit the skids when Premier Boxing Champions front Lou DiBella asked for options on Glazkov. Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events, instead decided to match “Czar” against Charles Martin for the now-vacant IBF heavyweight title. As usual, when DiBella fails to get his way, he turns on the super-charged contempt with enough fuel power to melt his K-Mart halo.
“I won’t lower myself to her level,” DiBella, referring to Duva, told ESPN.com. “I sent her a completely reasonable proposal and she took a week to respond. I think she was waiting to see what happened in (Wladimir) Klitschko- (Tyson) Fury. But there is no promoter in boxing that doesn’t require options in an optional title defense. Options are standard.”
As is often the case, DiBella is being more than a little disingenuous here. Unless DiBella has some sort of contractual agreement with Wilder (as opposed to being a PBC beard, happy to front on an event-by-event basis for a man who regularly commits the ethical cardinal sin of managing both sides of a match – often multiple times on a single card), then his attempt to get a cut of Glazkov is as bad – if not worse – as any option deal Don King or Bob Arum ever cooked up in their heyday.
For years, options smacked of coercion. Although the Muhammad Ali Act put a limit on them, they still reek of restraint of trade, since a fighter must give up a stake in himself in order to participate in high-profile (i.e. remunerative) bouts (the exception to this scenario is when a fighter is a mandatory challenger for an Alphabet Group title; then he is protected from what amounts to “pay to play” by the Muhammad Ali Act). Essentially, options are insurance for a promoter – they make certain he is paid long after his initial investment has gone bust. Say Promoter X has a contract with Fighter A. In order to insure his investment in Fighter A pays off, he demands promotional options from Fighter B – a cut, in the form of co-promotional rights of future fights. If boxing has proven anything over the last 25 years or so, it may be that promoters are happy to follow the “something for nothing” credo of con men like Joseph “the Yellow Kid” Weil.
But Main Events made sure that DiBella, who, because he is happy to “go ballistic” or “volcanic” in softball interviews with hacks, cub reporters and third-rate bloggers, earning Teflon status over the years, was stymied. For that, DiBella had this to say: “She’s being dishonest but that is not shocking. I sent her something 10 days ago that was industry standard and she responded with something that would not be acceptable to anyone in boxing. She sat on the paperwork awaiting the result of Klitschko-Fury. I’m not criticizing her for that but tell the truth. Kathy simply could have said the truth: ‘We elected to go in another direction.’ No one would have faulted her for that. Instead, she chooses to take the low ground again.”
Glazkov, underwhelming in every notable bout he has fought, now gets an obligation-free shot against Charles Martin for the IBF title, recently stripped from Tyson Fury. A purse bid won by Warriors Boxing (No. 2 on the pound-for-pound PBC Front List) ensures Glazkov gets 65% of the final $1.24 million bid and – surprise, surprise – he winds up on the same show he was originally scheduled to be on in the first place: Jan. 16 at the Barclays Center, the card DiBella is…uh, promoting.
Even so, as the supposed 2-in-1 prizefight reincarnation of Mother Teresa and Samuel Gompers, DiBella ought to be ecstatic seeing a fighter control his destiny, notwithstanding his own efforts to chisel in, of course. How can you ask for options on behalf of a fighter, Wilder, whom you do not have under contract? The answer to that, most likely, has something to do with the low ground of which DiBella is so fond.
Embarrassing ratings for recent Showtime telecasts prove that the PBC Boomerang Effect Stephen Espinoza, Dean of Premium Cable Twitter Trolls, lauded as part of his masterplan with Al Haymon is a failure. While Espinoza claimed that having his fighters on PBC outlets would bring viewers back when they reappeared on Showtime, somehow the opposite occurred: Fewer people are watching “Showtime Championship Boxing.” This is hardly a surprise considering the fact that Espinoza cares about his subscribers as much as Martin Shkreli cares about SEC regulations.
James DeGale and Lucian Bute waged a fierce brawl that averaged a measly 269,000 viewers a few weeks ago and Danny Jacobs left Peter Quillin wide-eyed and stutter-stepping for a first-round TKO witnessed by 386,000 viewers on Dec. 5. Most troubling of all, perhaps, is that Adrien Broner, ratings gold in the past, posted a miserable average of 509,000 viewers against Khabib Allakhverdiev in October. This, despite the fact that Broner had consecutive fights on NBC, the widest platform possible for Premier Boxing Champions, coming into the Allakhverdiev bout (you can almost hear Nielsen Porn Kings moaning about competition from baseball, the NFL, college football, and the UFC – as if these entities suddenly materialized, like something out of Star Trek, in 2015 to go heads-up against boxing).
Seeing Quillin sandblast Michael Zerafa, a man who only partially resembled a prizefighter, or Danny Jacobs labor to halt Minnesota nice guy Caleb Truax, is not exactly optimum PR material and the idea that flattening woebegone fighters (a PBC specialty) can generate excitement seems almost counterproductive. For his part, Broner looked awful in two dull waltzing sessions against Carlos Molina and Shawn Porter (who outpointed “The Problem”) and his lack of spark recently seems to have carried over to Showtime. After publicly announcing that he is, in fact, not interested in good match-ups, Broner might have undercut his future viewership even further. It will take an awful lot of click-bait antics for him to regain the buzz he had less than a year ago but look for him to try his TMZ-best in the coming months. Maybe the entire PBC roster will have to find extracurricular ways of raising its Q-score…That would certainly help Showtime in its battle against irrelevancy.
Chris Arreola kept himself in the PBC title picture (as well as sopapillas for him and his trainer Henry Ramirez) by grinding out a decision over Travis Kauffman last week on the lowest-rated PBC on NBC prime-time telecast yet. At 236 ½ pounds, Arreola was relatively svelte, showed stamina by accelerating late and recovered from a hard knockdown in the third round. The only problem, really, was the fact that Kauffman edged the fight. Not only did Kauffman drop Arreola, he rocked him on several occasions and, perhaps most telling, taunted Arreola throughout (in a way, an Arreola win was a boon for boxing: It made sure there would be no more maudlin “Chris Arreola and his failed promise” stories wasting broadband or ink). If Deontay Wilder continues to do the two-step around Alexander Povetkin (as we have seen repeatedly, the fact that sanctioning bodies claim they will enforce mandatory defenses is as meaningful as a promise from a used car salesman), we may see Arreola, who remains marketable because of his earthy persona, fight for a heavyweight title of some sort one more time.
One of the most interesting things about the PBC is the strange atmosphere surrounding it. In addition to having one man (Al Haymon) managing both ends of most fights – a conflict of interest beyond the pale for a blood sport – arenas are often surreally empty (despite tickets being given away); the press is ignored almost entirely; the matches take place at odd weights, often without participants’ title belts on the line; the crowd is often made up of paid claquers and television announcers whitewash the criminal pasts of the fighters.
But the PBC also has an odd habit of announcing B-sides within weeks of the opening bell, which virtually guarantees a fight that is not on the level. This practice seems to have been modeled on the career of Gary Russell Jr., who had hardly faced an opponent not named “TBA” for most of his career. That meant having an edge in conditioning, since most of the poor shlubs answering the bell against him did not have the benefit of a full training camp.
Similarly, several PBC fighters have missed weight but Omar Figueroa Jr., who weighed 151 pounds for a bout against faded Antonio DeMarco last Saturday, added a unique twist to scale shenanigans: His bout had been billed as a junior welterweight fight, without specifics. Poor DeMarco, a solid lightweight in his prime, had to mix it up 16 pounds north of his best division without even having the public at large clued in about his disadvantage. The real issue, however, is the repeated flouting of fair play by a single entity that bills itself as some sort of savior for a sport too often beleaguered by corruption and fraud. Does a league that specializes in arbitrary practices face more of a backlash than other independent operators? Mike Marqusee outlined the importance of a level playing field in his book on Muhammad Ali, “Redemption Song”:
“Sports lose their meaning for the spectator – and therefore their place in the market – unless everyone plays by the same rules, shoots at the same-size goalposts, is timed with the same stopwatch. The level playing field is the autonomous logic of modern sport. For a contest to be satisfactory, its rules, conditions and conduct must ensure that the result is determined only by the relative and pertinent strengths and weaknesses of the competitors. The objectivity of sporting contests is like the objectivity of a scientific experiment. To the extent that the extraneous is excluded, the test is regarded as valid.”
Boxing has not always excelled at the level playing field but it seems like we are in an age in which deception has a consistent corporate face, something new to think about.
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.