Ross Greenburg, the President of HBO Sports, left the network this week after 33 years as an employee and 11 years as the head of its boxing program. Although Greenburg achieved many successes during his tenure at HBO Sports, from the award-winning Real Sports to the documentary series Sports of the 20th Century to the 24/7 boxing preview series, the state of the HBO boxing deteriorated under his watch.
Television ratings eroded. He was known for playing favorites with manager Al Haymon and promoter Golden Boy. Too many fights were uncompetitive affairs, even on paper. He handed promoters blank boxing dates without the necessary quality controls. Greenburg also paid outrageous sums of money for fighters who failed to sell tickets or establish a buzz within the sport. Perhaps a final blow to his legacy was the defection of Manny Pacquiao to Showtime for his fight against Shane Mosley, an eventuality that would have been inconceivable just a few years prior. The Pacquiao incident further illustrated just how fractured the relationship was between HBO and Top Rank, one of the world's leading promotional outfits.
Whoever replaces Greenburg will have to restore HBO's prominence in the sport. Although the network is still the number-one destination for boxing in America, HBO has never looked so vulnerable. With an increasingly competitive landscape for boxing on U.S. television, the new head of HBO must better identify those boxers who will form the foundation of its boxing program.
What follows here is a quick primer on who should be HBO fighters and which fighters should be jettisoned from the cushy, long-term, multi-million dollar contracts that plagued so much of Greenburg's tenure. Some additional taxonomy will identify a second tier of boxers who would make for solid opponents for the core HBO talents. Additionally, some thoughts about Boxing After Dark will be shared:
The following 18 fighters should comprise the majority of HBO's World Championship Boxing and/or HBO PPV:
The following 18 fighters should comprise the majority of HBO's World Championship Boxing and/or HBO PPV:
I. WHO SHOULD BE "HBO FIGHTERS"
The Two Elites
HBO must carry every fight of Floyd Mayweather, Jr. (1.) and Manny Pacquiao (2.). The two massive superstars have established themselves as boxing's biggest names, gate attractions and pay-pay-view generators. Quite frankly, even if these two faced complete stiffs, they would still sell 500,000 pay-per-views. Luckily, both are capitalistic in nature and are competitive with each other in who will draw larger gates and pay-per-view numbers. In short, they want to make the most money, which means big fights.
The Two, Small Knockout Artists
HBO recently welcomed Nonito Donaire (3.) into its fold. His combination of power and speed should make him one of the featured boxers on HBO for years. Already in the top-five on most pound-for-pound lists, Donaire has a crowd-pleasing style that will endear him to the boxing public.
Similarly, Yuriorkis Gamboa (4.) has galvanized boxing fans with his power, athleticism and fighting spirit. Gamboa has already made numerous appearances on the network and HBO has correctly identified him as one of the building blocks of its boxing program
If Bernard Hopkins (5.) and Juan Manuel Marquez (6.) keep winning, sign them up. HBO and Hopkins have had a fractious relationship over the years, despite the fighter appearing on the network almost 20 times. After fighting Jean Pascal on Showtime, Hopkins signed a three-fight deal with HBO, starting with the Pascal rematch. The deal only guarantees appearances on the network if he continues to win. Although the agreement was widely panned at the time, Hopkins proved with the strong television ratings in both of his fights against Pascal that he has built up a reservoir of good will with many boxing fans. For HBO and Hopkins, their interests align at this point whereby Hopkins only wants big fights and HBO is only interested in the Executioner against live opponents.
Marquez has been involved in some of the best fights on HBO during the past decade (Pacquiao I and II, Diaz I and Katsidis). If he beats Pacquiao in their third fight or even makes a memorable fight in a close loss, HBO should remain in the Marquez business. It helps that there are also a number of great fighters from lightweight to welterweight who could make for intriguing opponents as Marquez winds down his career.
King Khan and the Welterweights
Amir Khan (7) has proven to be one of the most fascinating young talents in all of boxing. With a significant following on three continents, Khan could become boxing's next mega-star. He has displayed a willingness to take on big fights and wants to establish a legacy of greatness.
A number of boxers at junior welterweight and welterweight are also worthy of being "HBO Fighters." Marcos Maidana (8) cannot be in a bad fight. His three highest-profile fights in America – Khan, Erik Morales and Victor Ortiz (9) – have all been must-see television. Any fight that Maidana's in instantly signals to boxing fans that a night of blood and guts will follow.
Ortiz fights on the big stage in the fall when he faces Mayweather. Win or lose, Ortiz possesses the power and drama to make for a number of great fights. Should he lose badly to Mayweather, HBO needn't subsidize a slow climb back to the top, but as long as Ortiz is facing game fighters, the network should be interested.
Timothy Bradley (10) may not have endeared himself to the boxing public with the lack of aesthetics and sustained action in his fight with Devon Alexander. However Bradley, an undefeated American who wants to face the best (he didn't fight Khan this summer because of promotional problems). He figures to be a major player in the welterweight divisions over the next few years. Perhaps HBO has overpaid him to this point, but the network would be wise to keep him in the fold. Bradley could be a vital "B-Side" for some of the biggest fights in the sport (for example, Pacquiao, Mayweather and Khan).
Robert Guerrero (11) has finally put a couple of great performances together, displaying his intoxicating mixture of imposing physical dimensions, speed, power and ring savvy. As Guerrero moves up to 140, he has the potential to make several outstanding fights in the next few years.
Match These Elites Properly
Yes, Wladimir Klitschko (12), Vitali Klitschko (13) and Sergio Martinez (14) are elite fighters. However, their divisions (heavyweight and middleweight) are notoriously weak. If the right opponents are there, definitely put them on HBO. If they can't fight someone worthy of a competitive match, let them fight on their own dimes.
In their own ways, the three are all fascinating to watch, but unfortunately their talent levels supersede almost all of their potential opponents. Greenburg had the right strategy with the Klitschkos: if they fight live bodies, or if they fight in the U.S., HBO will be there. (What if they actually fought live bodies in the U.S.?) Martinez doesn't have an obvious big name at 160 right now, (Paul Williams has displayed too much slippage for a third fight to be viable). However, with the right enticements, perhaps Martinez will go fight some of the big names at 168. There is a small chance he could face Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. (15) next year, but I will believe it when I see it.
The Two Mexican Superstars
Chavez and Saul Alvarez (16) have proven that they can draw enormous ratings, even without facing top-rate opposition. As their careers progress, they have the ability to become ratings monsters. Although it is uncertain if either will become elite fighters, they both have clearly captivated millions on both sides of the Rio Grande. These are no-brainers for HBO.
Poach Two from Showtime
HBO let Brandon Rios (17) slip through its fingertips. The young American of Mexican descent fights in an all-action style that guarantees memorable fights. He is brash, relentless and fearless. HBO needs to make him part of the family.
HBO has never been active players in the Andre Ward (18) market. Broadcasting a few initial performances after the Olympic champion turned pro, the network let Ward matriculate at Showtime. Ward may not have the ultimate star potential of Mayweather or Pacquiao, but there's no reason why he couldn't become a compelling A-list fighter like Bernard Hopkins or Shane Mosley. At this point, Ward's following may not necessitate an exorbitant fee, but HBO should strongly consider his services for the next few years.
These 18 fighters should be the core of HBO's boxing business over the next few years. While Showtime may sign a few from this list here or there, or, perhaps there are temporary lulls regarding competitive opposition for these fighters, HBO Boxing should focus its mission on this group.
II. GOOD OPPONENTS, BUT BE JUDICIOUS
Obviously, the fighters listed above need suitable dance partners. HBO needs to identify solid opposition without over-committing to this second tier. Think of how HBO has periodically engaged Glen Johnson or Daniel Ponce de Leon for the best examples of utilizing fighters in this category. The boxers at this level may never attain elite status or may not be compelling enough to warrant a franchise-level commitment, but they should be considered for making quality matches.
The Two Canadians
Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute have rabid followings in Quebec. They have pleasing styles and sell out arenas. However, I would be reticent to offer them long-term commitments. As exciting a style as Jean Pascal has, a supposed, elite fighter in his 20s should never lose to a fighter in his 40s. Pascal may have already reached his ceiling. He could still be a great opponent for Ward or Bute, but I'm not sure he will get much better. Bute has incredible skill but seems more than content to face second-tier opposition. Until Bute decides to fight the best, he should not be afforded special treatment. Make him earn HBO slots by facing the elite.
The Two Heavyweights
HBO has handled the heavyweight division well. At heavyweight, there just aren't enough quality fighters who make for compelling television. Wisely, HBO will show the Vitali Klitschko-Tomasz Adamek fight in the fall. Adamek may not beat Klitschko, but he will be the best opposition that Vitali has faced in his return to the ring. Alexander Povetkin is another fighter who may warrant some HBO time should he decide to face a Klitschko, Adamek or David Haye. Unlike Adamek, Povetkin does not have a loyal following in America, but he is an energetic , well-schooled boxer who could make for entertaining fights.
Three More Welterweights
Zab Judah, Andre Berto and Lucas Matthysse have exhibited different strengths and weaknesses in their HBO appearances. Judah possesses a never-ending supply of charisma and knockout power. He is also erratic and often unmotivated. His fight against Khan should tell us a lot more about his immediate future on HBO. Berto has a plethora of skills but has not shown the ability to handle good fighters. He may yet turn around his career and become the elite-level talent that many foresaw when he was a special prospect. If he is to appear on HBO, make him the "B-side," and match him tough. HBO should not be showing Berto's fight against Jan Zaveck; this is the type of mistake that the network must avoid. Matthysse could have come away with decisions against Judah and Devon Alexander. He is an exciting fighter but his knockout power hasn't translated well to the higher level of opposition. Nevertheless, he could still be a great opponent for Rios, Bradley, Guerrero and Maidana.
Cloud and Cobra
Tavoris Cloud and Carl Froch make for great television. In a perfect world, Cloud would have a huge following with his all-aggressive style and offensive temperament. However, Cloud has gone through many periods of inactivity and his career has been mismanaged at various points. He should be a bigger fighter than he is. However, he still has the possibility of fighting and beating many elite names over the next several years.
Carl Froch has proven during the Super Six tournament that he is not a fighter to be underestimated. Beating Glen Johnson, Arthur Abraham and Andre Dirrell is no small accomplishment. Once the tournament is over, he could be in the mix for several big fights at super middleweight or light heavyweight. I'm not sure how many years he has left to fight, but, win or lose against Ward, he should have an eventful 18 months.
III. AVOID THESE FIGHTERS
Give These Fighters Their Gold Watches
Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Paul Williams and Kelly Pavlik have all provided many wonderful moments on HBO. However, their skills have seriously eroded over the past two years. Beating second-tier fighters, Cotto can still draw ratings and crowds, but what's the point? There is no ultimate upside for him. He can't beat Mayweather or Pacquiao. After he settles his grudge match with Margarito, perhaps his last big fight is against Chavez, Jr. Cotto is now comfortably in his cash cow phase for Top Rank, where he will make good money by facing lesser fighters. HBO need not subsidize this.
Pavlik's middleweight title reign was a mess, plagued by inferior opposition between the ropes and alcohol-related problems outside the ring. Top Rank is trying to build him back up for an eventual fight with Lucian Bute, but Pavlik will never be as good as the fighter who beat Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor.
Margarito now wears the black hat. Because of his loaded glove scandal, the boxing public at large will never embrace him again. That may be a moot point since it isn't clear what he has left. Margarito has been in some hellacious wars and it wouldn't surprise me if he retired (either willingly or due to ring injuries) during the next year.
This month's fight with Erislandy Lara demonstrated how far Williams' skills have deteriorated. His defense has become terrible, he doesn't seem to have his legs and his punches don't have any snap. Perhaps he needs to take an extended break from boxing and come back re-energized (a new team around him wouldn't hurt). This current version of Paul Williams is not long for the sport.
Can I Return This?
HBO has seen enough of Chris Arreola, Devon Alexander and Andre Dirrell to know that they do not have what it takes, either physically or in some cases mentally, to make it to the top of the sport. Arreola went through the James Toney training regimen. Unfortunately, he forgot to first attain the glory and accomplishments that Toney had achieved. No fighter has eaten himself out of more opportunities. Alexander is a solid A-minus boxer who lacks the power and, perhaps, the mental fortitude, to beat the elites. He very well could have three losses on his ledger by this point. Dirrell has serious makeup issues that will inhibit his ability to rise to the top of the sport. Both Dirrell and Alexander have the potential to turn around their careers, but I wouldn't invest in either of them at this point. In two years, if they have radically changed their fortunes in the ring, then feel to reassess.
IV. BOXING AFTER DARK THOUGHTS
HBO should still utilize its Boxing After Dark program as an incubator for developing young talent and showcasing lesser-known, but quality fighters. There are a ton of superior boxers in the lower weight classes that could fill up these shows, including Abner Mares, Giovani Segura, Ricky Burns, Mikey Garcia and Guillermo Rigondeaux.
HBO should also be bold. In years past, they would use Boxing After Dark to highlight emerging fighters in a single division. Since HBO plans to be in the Saul Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. businesses for the foreseeable future, the junior middleweight division would be a perfect opportunity to highlight some of the intriguing contenders who could become potential opponents for their Mexican stars. Put a triple-header together with Austin Trout, Vanes Martirosyan, Pawel Wolak, Carlos Molina, Deandre Latimore and Erislandy Lara. This process will help separate the wheat from the chaff in a division that features many promising boxers with little name recognition.
Also, the network should take a look at some of Britain's emerging fighters. Nathan Cleverly might become an opponent for many of the best at light heavyweight. Kell Brook would be a good match for Mike Jones. Tyson Fury is creating all sorts of hype, if not yet signature wins.
HBO should also keep searching for new international talent. Today's elite boxers come from all around the world. Perhaps a Gennady Golovkin-Dmitry Pirog unification match would create some buzz in the middleweight division, and a future opponent for Sergio Martinez. See if Daniel Geale from Australia can fight. Consider Chris John, Omar Narvaez and Anselmo Moreno if they want to fight elite opponents on American soil.
Finally, HBO should use this platform to take risks. Great television fighters can come from anywhere, Don't be encumbered by the age, geography, promotional affiliation, management contract or amateur pedigree of the fighter. Hire creative boxing industry talent to find your next stars. Forgo the endless showcase fights and make competitve ones. This philosophy will ensure that Boxing After Dark is the HBO boxing pipeline it was intended to be, not a forum to pay off promoters with blank television dates. The fighters are out there and I see no reason why Boxing After Dark can't see significant improvement in television ratings and critical reception.