The three universes of boxing
By most accounts, 2017 was a very successful year for the sport of boxing, one replete with not only solid fights but bona fide big events, and the industry seems to have strong momentum coming into the New Year.
But can it be maintained?
Among the American landscape, there are three major platforms investing in the sport: HBO, Showtime and now ESPN (which, last year, cut a deal with Top Rank to televise its cards, that featured WBO junior lightweight beltholder Vasyl Lomachenko, former undisputed junior welterweight champion Terence Crawford and WBO featherweight titleholder Oscar Valdez). It’s certainly a good sign that major networks – both premium and basic cable – want to be in the boxing business and are throwing millions of dollars into the sport.
For years, HBO and Showtime were the biggest stage for the marquee stars in the sport, beginning in the mid-to-late-1980s, as their lucrative license fees started the migration from the terrestrial networks to premium cable outlets, that needed to entice subscribers with equally premium content. For the past few decades, the biggest names in the sport regularly plied their trade on these channels.
Now, ESPN is squarely in the mix and it’s clear that, more than ever, boxing is much more of a priority at the four-letter monolith.
So what’s the problem with this scenario?
Well, it’s not so much a problem but there is a certain reality to this current set-up: It may cause further divides within a sport that is already fractured.
As the fight schedule for the first quarter is being set for 2018, there is a particular pattern that is very clear and evident. Last week, Showtime formally announced the February 17 telecast from the Mandalay Bay, in Las Vegas, that will feature Danny Garcia versus Brandon Rios.
Like their broadcast the week before, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas., which will feature Sergey Lipinets vs. Mikey Garcia, all of the featured fighters (and the B-sides) are aligned with Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions.
Looking at HBO’s upcoming fare, you’ll see various cards that are presented by their usual lot of promoters, with which they are closely aligned (Golden Boy Promotions, Tom Loeffler’s 360 Promotions and Main Events), with shows that will feature Lucas Matthysse and Jorge Linares at the Forum on January 27, “SuperFly 2” on February 24 and the light heavyweight doubleheader, which features WBO beltholder Sergey Kovalev and the anticipated pairing between WBA titlist Dmitry Bivol and Sullivan Barrera from the Theater at Madison Square Garden on March 3.
Meanwhile over at ESPN, all of its upcoming telecasts (which begin February 3 as WBO 168-pound titlist Gilberto Ramirez faces the unheralded Habib Ahmed, from Corpus Christi, Texas) showcase the Top Rank stable. They haven’t made any official announcements quite yet but expect Ray Beltran (versus Paulus Moses for the vacant WBO lightweight title) and Valdez to be featured and Jose Ramirez to face Amir Imam, for the vacant WBC junior welterweight title. Soon after, Lomachenko and Crawford will also be slotted.
So comprising this landscape are three clear universes that exist in boxing and they are all drawing from a particular pool of talent. It’s really nothing new, actually. Back when ABC, CBS and NBC were regularly televising the “Sweet Science,” they each had various alliances with Don King, Bob Arum, Dan Duva and others like Harold Smith (who suddenly had bag fulls of money to throw around). The loyalties would shift, at various points, and people would jump in and out of bed with one another. However, the point is none of these broadcast entities were truly ever independent, in terms of what fights they purchased for their respective viewerships.
Fast forward to 2018 and the big question is: Will we see any intersection of these universes, in terms of fights? In other words, will Crawford (who is a key component of ESPN’s new focus on boxing) ever be afforded the opportunity to face IBF welterweight titlist Errol Spence Jr. (who is under the Al Haymon/PBC umbrella)? Or will a fighter like IBF junior bantamweight beltholder Jerwin Ancajas (who just recently signed a multi-fight deal with Top Rank) ever get a chance to tangle with the other marquee super flyweights whom are now on HBO? And can any fight involving the trio of Lomachenko, Garcia and Linares ever come to fruition?
Yes, there has been cross-pollination, in the past, when Pernell Whitaker, an HBO staple, faced Julio Cesar Chavez on Showtime’s pay-per-view platform in 1993 and mega-fights such as Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield in 1999, Lewis-Mike Tyson in 2002 and, most recently, Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao in 2015 were done in union between HBO and Showtime, as the bottom line was so great, the Hatfields and McCoys had to sit together at the table and break bread.
But those bouts were major pay-per-view promotions, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. In recent years, we’ve simply seen too many bouts below that level, like Abner Mares vs. Nonito Donaire – when both were undefeated super bantamweights several moons ago – that simply did not occur because of promotional battles (this was during the most frigid time period of the “Cold War” between Golden Boy and Top Rank) and, of course, television conflicts involving Showtime and HBO. Sergey Kovalev-Adonis Stevenson also comes to mind as another highly anticipated fight that went to “Bolivian” as it was bogged down by the usual snafus.
When promoters are aligned with a particular network, they are loath to take their talent to a rival network for fear of permanently damaging the existing relationship.
What do they say about biting the hand that feeds you?
Sometimes promoters would rather keep a network content than make fights for their clients on a competing channel. And then many of them have exclusive multi-fight contracts that make it almost impossible to migrate – even for one fight – across the street. (Recently, middleweight contender Danny Jacobs, who made a career-high payday by breaking free from the PBC to face unified champion Gennady Golovkin, in March, on HBO Pay-Per-View, made the decision afterward to effectively leave Haymon and sign with Matchroom Boxing and HBO because he understood that most of the top middleweights reside on the other side of the fence.)
It was already problematic with two factions. Now you add ESPN and you see how this can become even more troublesome, if the powers-that-be do not work in concert, at least once in awhile, for the good of the business. Bob Arum, the CEO of Top Rank, has suggested the “trading” of boxers from one network to another in exchange for reciprocity down the line.
While this sounds good in theory, this isn’t as simple as trading bubble gum cards. It has to be asked how these rival factions will view what is exactly a “fair” trade, in terms of the caliber of boxers involved and other important issues, such as the money assigned to each individual fighter involved in such a transaction.
It’s not a terrible idea, honestly, but how realistic it is to execute?
This writer has an idea, one I’ve brought up in the past: How ’bout in situations in which there are fighters who are aligned with a network (say Valdez against the winner of the Leo Santa Cruz-Abner Mares rematch) in which you have, in essence, a purse bid between the two, whomever puts up the most money wins the right to broadcast the fight?
If I’m not mistaken, Lomachenko actually won his first world title on Showtime, when he defeated Gary Russell Jr., as that side put up a large license fee for that fight, at the StubHub Center, in the summer of 2014. After winning the WBO 126-pound title, he became a staple on HBO for the next couple of years.
However with the other featherweight beltholders associated with Haymon/PBC, he had very limited options during his first reign as a champion and he quickly moved up to 130, where, ironically, he faces the same dynamic, as the other beltholders (Miguel Berchelt (WBC), Alberto Machado (WBA) and Kenichi Ogawa (IBF)) have all recently appeared on HBO.
Yeah, this particular solution I’ve suggested has its flaws and is perhaps also unrealistic but, at the same time, it would force networks to make a real determination on just how much a fight is worth to them. In many cases, with competing bids, it will most likely aid the boxers financially. Also under this scenario, networks would have to be strategic, in terms of what bouts they would want to bid on. After all, none of them have an unlimited budget.
Regardless the game/business of boxing will only move forward with those who often compete against one another, consistently reaching across the aisle for the greater good.
One of 2017’s signature events was the titanic heavyweight battle between IBF/WBA titlist Anthony Joshua and future Hall-of-Famer Wladimir Klitschko. Joshua was a Showtime boxer, while Klitschko had a long-term affiliation with HBO. Yet somehow this event (which saw 90,000-plus at Wembley Stadium) took place, as both networks made concessions. Showtime aired the fight live and HBO handled the re-broadcast, with other compromises that came with the rematch that never took place, as Klitschko decided to retire after getting stopped in 11 rounds by Joshua, last April.
Moving forward, can three separate universes co-exist as one?
POST X-MAS FLURRIES
Ringstar Sports CEO Richard Schaefer says he is aiming for the Santa Cruz-Mares rematch to take place at the Staples Center…Who’s my “Fighter of the Year”? Honestly, I don’t think anyone really stood out enough to get that distinction…The Cleveland Browns just might go 0-16, geez…If I’m Josh Rosen, I try and “Elway” out of Cleveland…I can be reached at email@example.com and I tweet (a lot) at twitter.com/steveucnlive. I also share photos of stuff at instagram.com/steveucnlive and can also be found at tsu.co/steveucnlive.