Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bradley's Bet

"I wanted to be with a real promoter. I just wanted to be promoted. That is what it boiled down to...I've captured three world championships, and you walk outside and ask people and nobody knows me...I was supposed to become a star after I beat Alexander, and it didn't happen. If I beat Amir Khan, it wouldn't have done anything for my career."

                                                     -Tim Bradley, as told to

Last spring, Tim Bradley turned down a guaranteed $1.4 Million to face Amir Khan. His refusal to accept the fight led to opprobrium from many boxing writers and the usual, and often, tired calls of "ducking" or "cowardice" by the boxing public. In addition, by not taking the fight, Bradley was sued by his promoters, Gary Shaw Promotions and Thompson Boxing, for breach of contract. Essentially then, just to extricate himself from his promotional agreement, Bradley was willing to forgo the opportunity to be recognized as the number one junior welterweight in the world, an almost $1.5 million purse and any professional momentum in his career. Instead, he put himself on ice, waiting for the lawyers to give him the go-ahead to sign with another promotional company.

Without context, many of these moves would seem ridiculous. Boxing is not necessarily flush with cash these days and what boxer wouldn't want the opportunity to be recognized as the best in his division? However, Bradley is not a stupid man. Since claiming his first junior welterweight title in 2008, Bradley has fought three times in a small local Indian casino in Palm Springs, California, once in a casino on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, once in an arena in Montreal and once in an abandoned football stadium in Detroit. Excepting the wonderful atmosphere of the Bell Centre in Montreal, do any of these other locations indicate Bradley' imminent superstardom?

Bradley realized that, at 28, he was entering the prime of his career, and he didn't like his current status in boxing: a virtual anonymous champion. To him, he had done his part – winning titles, exhibiting professionalism and being available for and gregarious during media appearances. But he didn't see any vision for his career. Why was he still a well-kept secret outside of hardcore boxing fans?

His promoters were able to deliver dates on network television, but where was the creativity in his marketing? Were there any credible efforts to engage the broader sporting press outside of boxing? Was there any geographically coherent plan for creating a buzz for his career? Why wasn't he brought into the Los Angeles market? Where were the fights in Las Vegas, New York or Atlantic City? Why were there no endorsements?

Bradley passed up the short money, however enticing it was, for a shot at a more fulfilling boxing career and legacy. And although there has been a long tradition of boxers misreading their economic value (think Winky Wright passing on a $5M rematch with Jermain Taylor or Hasim Rahman turning down a 10-fight HBO contract), Bradley's calculus was entirely defensible.

He figured on the following: 1. There were many opponents besides Khan who could generate significant revenue for future fights. 2. If he lost to Khan in July, his market value would have been diminished and the stigma of his loss would hurt him in garnering the most lucrative promotional option. 3. If he backed out of fight against Khan, other promotional companies would bid to sign him. 4. Although $1.4 million is a nice payday, that's not exactly his ceiling in boxing, especially when there could be fights looming against Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather in the future. 5. Any damage with his relationship with HBO could be repaired by a stronger promoter.

All five of Bradley's assertions intuitively made sense. If Khan (who previously backed out of a fight with Bradley when he was trying to extricate himself from Frank Warren) would be unwilling to fight him in the future, then there would still be a number of enticing opponents in his surrounding weight classes who could generate hefty purses, including Victor Ortiz, Marcos Maidana, Andre Berto, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. Additionally, if Bradley lost to Khan in July, he would have been in a far worse negotiating position with prospective suitors. Who knew how that fight would have turned out? Maybe he doesn't put together a good performance. Perhaps he hurts himself.

Bradley also bet on himself and his record. As an undefeated American fighter who had won three championship belts, he realized that he was a marketable commodity, even if his current promoters were unsuccessful or unwilling in their efforts to build him properly. Bradley knew that both Top Rank and Golden Boy would bid on his services. In fact, both companies expressed their desire to contact Bradley once his legal case ended. Also, both companies had deep pockets, kept their fighters busy and had vast experience in creating big events and building fighters. Bradley probably understood that he might not make millions immediately in his first fight with a new promoter, but either Top Rank or Golden Boy had more reliable track records in presenting lucrative fights and generating publicity than did the Gary Shaw/Thompson arrangement.

Furthermore, the two companies have enough juice with HBO to smooth over any residual bad blood between the network and Bradley (Golden Boy has an exclusive output deal with HBO while Top Rank played a significant role in the ouster of former HBO Boxing head Ross Greenburg).

Last week, it was announced that Top Rank signed Tim Bradley and that the fighter will appear next against Joel Casamayor as the chief undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez mega-bout. Surely, Bradley will not make $1.4M for this fight, but it's a great platform for him to gain exposure to the boxing community (fans and media alike), especially after a significant layoff.

Earlier in his career, Bradley had the reputation of fighting anyone that was put in front of him. He traveled to England to face Junior Witter. He won a unification fight against Kendall Holt. He dominated undefeated prospect Lamont Peterson and he even had a fight in place to meet Marcos Maidana, before the Argentine pulled out because of management issues.  In his highest profile fight, Bradley defeated unbeaten American titleholder Devon Alexander, even though the timing and location of the match may have dampened the fight's potential earning power. Assuming that Bradley gets by Casamayor (and he certainly should, given the Cuban's advanced age and diminished athleticism), expect Bradley to continue to meet the best in the ring. 

Bradley's actions this summer may have been sensible, but they did create negative repercussions for him both in and out of the ring. He has damaged his reputation in the sport by pulling out of the Khan fight, and he certainly didn't please fight fans. In addition, he still faces a lawsuit by his former promoters, which sucks up energy, time and financial resources.

Eventually the legal skirmishes will subside and if he continues to fight with the professionalism and skill that he did earlier in his career, he will certainly help mollify much of the current negative sentiment directed towards him. Leaving Gary Shaw and Thompson Boxing solves one of his two problems; now Bradley needs some solid performances in the ring. With Top Rank, he will have the platforms and opponents to make the most of his career.

Bradley has emerged from his extended, self-imposed vacation, but from here on in, he will have a short leash regarding any out-of-the-ring theatrics. Burn HBO once, you might get away with it. Burn the network twice, and you'll become Joan Guzman – and will never appear on its airwaves again.

Bradley bet big on himself this year. Unlike other fighters who wager on themselves through some offshore sports book, Bradley took the long view of his career in order to solidify his financial and professional well-being.  Why cash out in a tough fight against Khan this year when, if you keep winning, you can have four or five bigger opportunities in the next few years? 

This summer's episode illustrated that, for Bradley, it wasn't necessarily about the money. His displeasure rested with another factor that can be just as important for any fighter: glory. Boxers don't just get into the sport for money; there are other considerations like belts, public recognition and approval, marquees, tee shirts, newspaper articles, Larry Merchant interviews, the MGM Grand, press conferences and endorsements. To Bradley, he was already the number-one junior welterweight in the world. He was receiving perfectly acceptable purses, but his anonymity was a deal breaker. Bradley had set his sights on becoming one of the biggest boxers in the world, and he couldn't accomplish that goal fighting in Palm Springs and Biloxi.

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