Thursday, April 14, 2011

Will Frank Warren Keep His Crop?

Frank Warren has cultivated an impressive crop of young fighters from the U.K.  Undefeated contenders such as welterweight John Murray, light heavyweight Nathan Cleverly and gold-medal Olympian and super middleweight James DeGale fight under his banner.  Warren also promotes junior lightweight titlist Ricky Burns.  It's too early to tell if this group will rate alongside Warren's previous best wave of boxing talent, which featured Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and Naseem Hamed.  

However, it is not too soon to start asking whether Warren will provide his current fighters with the big fights necessary to keep them in his stable.  Earlier this year, welterweight prospect Kell Brook left Warren, dissatisfied with the quality of his competition and the rate at which he was being moved.  The Brook incident follows a wave of defections from Warren.  Hatton and Calzaghe both left Warren for Golden Boy.  Amir Khan followed suit a few years later.  All three fighters (as well as Brook) had the same goal in mind; they wanted to make it big in America. 

Warren, paternalistic as ever, recently wrote an article published in whereby he admonished young, British fighters about the drawbacks of fighting on U.S. network premium television.  It's not that Warren's arguments were without merit.  Yes, British fighters are often brought in as opponents.  Unless a fighter is a transcendent star, there is no guarantee that HBO or Showtime will make significant investments or provide substantial purses.  There are only a handful of British fighters that have transitioned to become reliable ticket sellers and TV ratings attractions in America.    

But Warren must face facts.  Boxers want to be the best in the world not the best in the Commonwealth or England. 

As a promoter, Warren knows how to take green prospects and polish them into attractions.  Like Top Rank, Warren and his team have a gift for matchmaking.  He understands more than any other promoter the idea of "home field advantage."  He packed Cardiff for Joe Calzaghe, Manchester for Ricky Hatton and is drawing substantial crowds for Burns in Glasgow.  Warren has a long-standing arrangement with Sky TV, Britain's premier boxing television network.  He has built scores of successful pay-per-view broadcasts and is Sky's most valued boxing content provider, returning to the network after stints with rivals ITV and Setanta.

Warren must have reacted with glee when Sky took the unusual step of downgrading Amir Khan's pay-per-view to an over-the-air broadcast on Sky Sports 3, not even its signature network, Sky Sports 1.  Sky made its decision because of problems with the undercard -- on paper the main event (Khan vs. Paul McCloskey) does not look to be a competitive matchup.  The move cost Khan hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He subsequently arranged to have the fight carried on a lesser pay-per-view outlet.  

Surely, if Warren were still Khan's promoter, it would be inconceivable for him to lose a valued pay-per-view slot on account of a bad undercard.  Sky's treatment of a potential, future cash cow is shocking; the incident does not remark well on Team Khan and its often difficult negotiating strategies.  With Warren at the helm, most likely the situation would have been resolved with Khan keeping his substantial purse.  

Warren's next big card is the double bill on May 21st, featuring Cleverly's title shot against Juergen Braehmer and a fight between James DeGale and fellow rising prospect George Groves.  The card will be held at the O2 Arena and figures to do significant business both at the gate and on pay-per-view.  

However, more trouble brews for Warren.  Ricky Burns has been seeking a unification fight against Mzonke Fana, which Warren has not delivered.  Murray, joining Warren after leaving rival promoter Mick Hennessey, is itching for big fights.  A proposed bout with Kevin Mitchell would have done well in England but Mitchell wouldn't agree to terms.  There is some hope that the fight will get made for later in the year.  If Warren loses any more of his main attractions, prospects Frankie Gavin and Billy Joe Saunders are still a few years away from being true U.K. headliners.  

Warren has preached patience to his fighters as he builds them.  Joe Calzaghe was viewed as an overly-protected fighter before he dismantled Jeff Lacy.  Hatton was a giant underdog against Kosta Tszyu. 

For Warren, the importance of building a fighter takes precedent over cashing out for the biggest paydays.  Warren believes in creating the local following.  With the passionate ticket base eventually translating into sizable TV ratings, Warren can bring more financial muscle to negotiations, forcing opponents to meet his fighters in the U.K.  The strategy has worked well.  Who knows how much the time differences and hostile environments worked against Tszyu and Lacy, but it's clear that those two fighters had their worst professional performances against Hatton and Calzaghe.

Warren seems to resist the well-documented notion that the biggest money fights in boxing take place in the United States.  With the backing of U.S. premium networks and large pay-per-view pools, the available money increases massively if mega-fights take place on U.S. soil. 

With the U.S. networks, Warren does not have favored-nation status or the extensive history of deal making and personal relationships.  Warren has made fights with HBO and Showtime before but he is not a stakeholder in their success.  Were HBO or Showtime to falter, the impact on Frank Warren would be insignificant.  If the networks have plums to give out, why would they reward a promoter who is such an infrequent contributor to their bottom line?  In short, staging fights in the U.S., Warren loses much of his leverage.  

Warren's primary business is in the U.K.  Fights in America mean graveyard shift time slots in the U.K., deflating British pay-per-view numbers and depressing viewership.  Thus, his British fighters are not getting proper exposure in the U.K.  Again, many of Warren's motivations are understandable but his well-reasoned misgivings about committing to the U.S. market can lead to disappointed fighters. 

Many boxers around the world dream of fighting under the neon lights of Vegas or appearing on the marquee of Madison Square Garden.  Most of all, they want to be recognized as the best and become superstars.  Boxers make tremendous physical and mental sacrifices to reach the top; they want the glory that comes with that status -- money, fame, magazine covers, the good life, etc.

Warren has an ultimate choice to make:  Does he want to become his fighters' promoter for life or is he just their British weigh station on the road to greater things?  Eventually his current stars will demand the big fights (and purses) that Hatton, Calzaghe and Khan wanted.  It is up to Warren to determine how to proceed.  

Maybe there is a third option.  Perhaps, Warren has a workable solution to his dilemma and decides to partner with a U.S. promotional entity (such as the Golden Boy-Universum arrangement) to deliver big fights to his boxers.  With the support of a Golden Boy or a Top Rank, he will have the additional financial leverage he needs to make the best deals for his fighters.

The good money says that Warren sticks to his current path, ruling his U.K. roost.  He may want to be the promoter who takes the best, young British talent all the way to the mountaintop, but past history has demonstrated that his best charges will leave him behind, at a safe plateau.  At Warren's age and with his considerable ego, will he exhibit the willingness to change or can we expect the same, tiresome articles to appear after another one of his fighters leaves for greener pastures?

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