For decades, HBO Boxing reigned as the American gold standard for the sport. Producing stars such as Mike Tyson, Oscar de la Hoya, Roy Jones, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, HBO was the forum for boxing's best. It was boxing's Broadway or Hollywood.
However, HBO's position as the clear, dominant U.S. boxing network has significantly eroded. The biggest star in the sport no longer fights on the network or its pay per view arm. HBO has cut itself off from one of the top promoters in the sport and almost always refuses to do business with boxing's best manager. HBO's matchmaking and quality control have been spotty at best. Its broadcast team has lost its critical eye to the action at hand, creating a wedge between fighters and potential fans. The network launched a boxing show that was somehow both overly solemn and ultimately frivolous. Times have certainly changed for HBO and the luster of network's boxing program no longer shines as brightly as it once did.
In short, HBO is in a bind. With Showtime emerging as a serious threat to its dominance in American boxing, HBO seems to be muddling along with its programming without a coherent plan or strategy. And make no mistake; there are significant challenges ahead for the network with its current roster of fighters, including impending retirements, diminished capabilities and the lack of credible opponents.
Its most famous boxer (Manny Pacquiao) recently lost two fights and is most likely on the back side of his career. One of its stalwart performers over the last half-decade (Sergio Martinez) has been out-of-action because of injuries. Its best fighter (Andre Ward) has already become a boxing broadcaster and has only appeared in the ring twice in two years. Much of the new talent pipeline (Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev, and Adonis Stevenson) doesn't have natural American constituencies. In short, HBO is going to have to work hard to make its new faces into bona fide pay per view attractions or legitimate boxing stars. It would certainly help if the network thought it was worthwhile to match them consistently in competitive fights.
This article will examine these issues associated with HBO Boxing. From an outsider's perspective, the piece will detail how HBO found itself in its current quagmire and the contributing factors that continue to weigh down its ability to ascend to its previous heights. I will conclude with some suggestions for how the network could best move forward.
I. HOW HBO BOXING GOT HERE
Part 1. Haymon Fighters
In understanding the context of HBO's current position, its recent past must be examined. HBO currently doesn't do business with arguably the Top U.S. Boxing promoter (Golden Boy) or the number-one manager in the business (Al Haymon). Although HBO had some legitimate reasons to recalibrate its relationships with these entities, its draconian measures to excise them from its airwaves create many long-term challenges for the network. More importantly, these decisions will hinder its ability to grow in the future.
Thus, I will be delving into HBO's problematic past dealings with Haymon and Golden Boy. Yes, many of these issues predated the current regime, but the new leadership at HBO Boxing has arrived at solutions for Haymon and Golden Boy that are far worse than the initial issues that prompted concerns in the boxing community.
From my perspective, a first sign of a fall from grace for HBO Boxing could be best summed up with its failure to control the relationship, both in terms of dollars and programming, with boxing kingmaker, manager and adviser Al Haymon. Before entering boxing, Haymon was a music promoter, making a small fortune filling arenas with many of the hot, contemporary R&B stars. His first major boxer that he represented was Vernon Forrest, a solid welterweight who became a titleholder in 2002 by upsetting Shane Mosley, an HBO Boxing darling. Within a few years, Haymon started to spread his wings in boxing, representing many of the best or up-and-coming African American boxers in the sport. Soon, he would represent Floyd Mayweather, Jermain Taylor, Paul Williams, Andre Berto and many other significant fighters of note.
These fighters were certainly talented, Mayweather was already the best fighter in the sport by mid-decade, but HBO seemed to be short-circuiting the development of Haymon's fighters, fast-tracking them to stardom without the boxers having the requisite qualifications or legitimacy in boxing to earn such a lofty status. The network paid many of these fighters fees that far exceeded their commensurate status in the sport. They were granted umpteen network appearances, regardless of the quality of opposition.
In short, HBO Boxing, under then-head Ross Greenburg, was often bidding against itself for the services of these unproven or unpopular fighters. The preferential treatment of Haymon's boxers created a lot of ire among other fighters, promoters and managers in the sport (to say nothing about the boxing media or some of the more knowledgeable fans). How HBO handled the careers of Taylor, Berto and Williams was its most egregious mistake in this area.
Taylor was put forth as the heir-apparent to Bernard Hopkins at middleweight in 2005 despite limited opposition. And although he beat Hopkins twice (controversially), that Taylor didn't look all that good didn't stop HBO from jumping into the Jermain Taylor business with both feet. After the disputed Hopkins fights, HBO sought legitimacy for Taylor and put him in with the next best middleweight it could find (Winky Wright). Taylor somehow escaped with a draw. Most had Wright winning the fight. Now the fighter was in need of some severe rehabilitation, so the network found a junior middleweight (Kassim Ouma) to shine against. Taylor won, but again, he didn't look overly impressive.
Still, the network was convinced that it really had something. So it kept featuring Taylor despite a run of iffy performances and no mandate from the boxing public. Next HBO brought in Cory Spinks, a junior middleweight titlist who had done his best work at welterweight. To my eyes, as well as one of the judges, Spinks won that fight. By now, Taylor was derisively referred to as Jermain "Bad Decisions" Taylor, instead of "Bad Intentions." It was cute name, but perhaps it also suggested the network's escalation of commitment with the fighter. He would go on to appear on HBO three more times, winning once more against a shot Jeff Lacy. In all, Jermain Taylor produced two excellent fights for HBO – Wright and his first fight with Kelly Pavlik. But was that worth his dozen appearances on the network or the millions of dollars invested? HBO really pushed Taylor on the public, but he never became a popular figure or an elite talent.
Berto may have provided even less value than Taylor did. He started to appear on HBO in 2006. Here were seven of his early opponents on the network:
1. Miguel Figueroa
2. Norberto Bravo
3. Martinus Clay
4. David Estrada
5. Michel Trabant
6. Miguel Rodriguez (a title shot!)
7. The Ghost of Steve Forbes
Not only had Berto faced woeful opposition but he didn't resonate with boxing fans. He couldn't draw anywhere and the only ones who seemed to think he was a star were the brass at HBO Boxing. Finally given a solid opponent with Luis Collazo, many thought that he had lost that fight (I actually had Berto winning by a point.) Yet HBO Boxing remained undeterred, giving him Juan Urango, Carlos Quintana (where he drew less than 1,000 fans for a home fight in Florida) and Freddy Hernandez. Now we're at 11 HBO appearances – many millions were handed out to Berto, and perhaps one quality opponent. Not until 2011 was Berto given another quality opponent (Victor Ortiz). Berto finished up his HBO career in 2012 with 14 HBO fights, three memorable matches (Collazo, Ortiz and Robert Guerrero) and only one big win (Collazo), which was debatable.
Williams was another hot Haymon property who also debuted on HBO in 2006. In 2007, he beat rugged welterweight titlist Antonio Margarito. He gave back whatever momentum he had in that fight by losing a listless decision to Carlos Quintana in a dreadful performance. Williams was so bad in that fight that the network didn't even pick up the rematch. Yet Williams was soon back in the HBO fold. He next went on a bizarre odyssey where he fought in different divisions (middleweight and junior middleweight) without facing anyone truly threatening (Andy Kolle, Verno Phillips and an ancient Winky Wright). Williams insisted that he could still make welterweight – the sport's glamour division – yet the network didn't compel him to do so.
Williams had now fought on HBO over a half-dozen times. He was given big HBO purses, but he still couldn't draw (notice a pattern here). For his next fight, he was in the small room at Boardwalk Hall against Sergio Martinez (capacity under 3,000). Williams won a truly thrilling performance against Martinez (Lederman and Kellerman actually had Martinez as the victor) but that was his last good performance on the network – four more followed. In short, for the dozen or so appearances on HBO, Williams had two memorable wins (Martinez I and Margarito) a memorable loss (Martinez II), a memorable robbery (Erislandy Lara) and a memorable stinker (Quintana I). That's not a lot of value for another one of its prized "Stars."
Keep in mind that HBO was functioning in a limited budget environment in these years. Thus, a large part of the HBO Boxing budget was spent on these (and other) Haymon fighters who lacked a substantial following and provided bad value in terms of entertaining fights. The whole HBO Boxing marketing apparatus – which is considerable – failed to produce bona fide stars among these fighters despite more worthy talents elsewhere in boxing.
This situation caused Bob Arum, a promoter who didn't do business with Haymon, to complain to the HBO brass and Time Warner (HBO's corporate parent) suits about Greenburg. Arum felt that his fighters weren't getting the same opportunities that Haymon's were and he threatened to take his fighters to Showtime. Important seeds of doubt were planted in Time Warner regarding Greenburg's stewardship and the inability of HBO Boxing to properly negotiate with Al Haymon or identify the right boxers to support with its marketing muscle.
Part 2. Golden Boy, the Loss of Manny Pacquiao and Ross Greenburg
After boxing exclusively on HBO pay per view throughout the '00s, Oscar de la Hoya shrewdly negotiated a return to the HBO World Champion Boxing platform. In theory, de la Hoya's appearance would be free for HBO's subscribers and the fighter (who really needed a win) and the network could benefit. For providing HBO with this service, de la Hoya, a nascent boxing promoter (under the Golden Boy Promotions banner), negotiated a three-year output deal for his promotional company on HBO Boxing. The deal granted his company a specific number of fights on the network over the duration of the contract. Steve Forbes was picked as de la Hoya's opponent and the fight was a non-competitive disaster; the ratings were only ho-hum. HBO Boxing sold off a lot of treasure in this transaction to get a measly return.
As a result of the deal, Golden Boy firmly established itself as "most favored nation" status on HBO Boxing, to the detriment of other promoters in the sport. Arum became increasing vexed by this deal and decided to test the waters with Showtime for Manny Pacquiao's 2011 fight against Shane Mosley. Showtime was (and still is) HBO's chief competitor, but in 2011, Showtime had been generally out of the pay per view game. Pacquiao’s sojourn to Showtime helped provide legitimacy for the second-place network and the pay per view numbers were in line with what Pacquiao had achieved with HBO.
Pacquiao’s odyssey to Showtime made the Time Warner brass apoplectic. Arum and Greenburg were no longer on speaking terms and there was a real concern that HBO would lose one of the clear faces of its boxing programming. Greenburg had already embarrassed the network by his firing and then rehiring of longtime broadcasting icon Larry Merchant (Greenburg was grooming Max Kellerman as Merchant's replacement. However, the backlash was so severe that Greenburg decided to have Kellerman and Merchant split duties on HBO Boxing.) By the end of the year, Greenburg was gone. HBO Boxing's reputation had already taken a hit with its lack of competitive matchups on its network, its generous allotment to Al Haymon fighters and its poor return on the Golden Boy deal. But the Pacquiao defection was too much for the network to continue on with the status quo.
Part 3. The New Regimes
In a surprising development, Ken Hershman, the head of Showtime Boxing, was picked to replace Greenburg. Hershman was an interesting hire in that HBO had a large bench of in-house boxing executives. That HBO (in conjunction with Time Warner) hired someone from outside the company was a clear sign of displeasure with network's current boxing performance. Greenburg was a wonderful documentarian and created mainstay HBO programming like "Real Sports," but he was fired for his failures with HBO Boxing. Hershman had a reputation at Showtime of doing more with less. He was loath to hand out long-term contracts. During his Showtime tenure, Hershman had a wonderful series of fights featuring Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez.
Perhaps Hershman's greatest innovation at Showtime was the Super Six super middleweight tournament, which featured a round-robin of most of the top fighters in the division. The Super Six was bold in its design with fighters from four countries, representing five promoters, trying to determine supremacy in the division. If nothing else, the audacity of the tournament highlighted Hershman as an out-of-the-box thinker and one who could get along with many of the top players in boxing.
Ultimately, the tournament's greatest buzz was when it was first announced. Three of the initial six fighters pulled out with injuries. Al Haymon negotiated step-aside money for Jermain Taylor to leave, as well as a future appearance on the network. Dirrell was also bequeathed a subsequent Showtime platform as a condition for his exit. I'm positive that none of these developments were what Hershman would have wanted in an ideal negotiating environment. (And these dealings with Haymon certainly colored his thinking as he took the reins at HBO.)
However bold in its execution, the Super Six limped along and could be qualified as a limited success at best. Although the tournament established the greatness of Andre Ward, Hershman made a number of strategic blunders. He failed to include one of the best in the division (Lucian Bute), he left it up to the promoters to select arenas and dates (many of the fights were thrown together without adequate promotion) and he insisted that the semi-finals and finals be in America, where crowds and interest were lukewarm to the tournament. The finale of the Super Six was held in Atlantic City, surely not the boxing media capital of the United States. The finals failed to sell 10,000 seats and ratings throughout the tournament were lackluster. Two years of marketing dollars and broadcast commitments were made for the tournament; however, it failed to captivate the American boxing public.
But at least Hershman was innovative and if the Super Six was not an unqualified success, at least it had its virtues. In addition, Hershman had a good nose for fights in the smaller weight classes, putting together a bantamweight tournament featuring great television fighters such as Abner Mares, Vic Darchinyan and Joseph Agbeko. Many of these fights were among the best of Hershman's Showtime tenure.
After losing Hershman, Showtime countered with its own bold choice, hiring Stephen Espinoza, a Stanford-educated attorney who represented Golden Boy. This move was surprising in boxing circles in that Espinoza was known more as a back-office guy and had a relatively small profile within the sport. Certainly Espinoza would use his connections with Golden Boy to help bring its talent over to his shop. Although Hershman worked with many promoters at Showtime, he rarely used Golden Boy fighters on his network (Mares was a chief exception). With these two hires, it was clear that the American boxing chess board would change significantly.
II. HERSHMAN TAKES THE REIGNS
Upon taking over at HBO Boxing in early 2012, Hershman made no bold moves that were visible to outsiders. He didn't fire boxing executives who were loyal to Greenburg and business was essentially the same. Certainly his mandates were to spend more wisely on talent than Greenburg did and make nice with Top Rank/Arum.
With those changes mentioned above, the network continued with few major new initiatives. It had its annual Floyd Mayweather fight. Manny Pacquiao was back in the fold. Younger talent like Tim Bradley, Adrian Broner and Saul Alvarez played more of a prominent role, while old stalwarts such as Bernard Hopkins and Miguel Cotto appeared on the network or its pay per view arm. Arum was successful in convincing HBO to make Julio Cesar Chavez and Nonito Donaire centerpieces of its boxing program. Interestingly, Berto and Williams each only appeared on the network once.
But a number of HBO fighters started to leave the fold. Victor Ortiz faced Josesito Lopez on Showtime. Alvarez later faced Josesito Lopez on the rival network (Ortiz and Paul Williams were originally scheduled as opponents). Cotto, now aligned with Golden Boy, met Austin Trout on Showtime. In 2013, the defections continued. HBO lost out on Alvarez-Trout and then a bombshell was dropped: Floyd Mayweather spurned HBO Boxing to sign a six-fight contract with Showtime, signaling a monumental shift in the boxing landscape. This was a major defeat for HBO, which decided not to provide the same sort of financial guarantee to Mayweather that Showtime and its CBS parent did.
Recriminations were fast. Within months, Hershman banned Golden Boy fighters from his network (as well as practically every Haymon fighter, most of whom were now aligned with Golden Boy). Hershman had gotten tired of being used as leverage for Golden Boy to get bigger deals at Showtime. He had also felt betrayed by many of the core HBO fighters who had left to go to Showtime. Shortly afterwards, Kerry Davis, the number-two man at HBO Boxing, and the one who had often been criticized as being too chummy with Al Haymon, left or was sent packing (depending on who was asked). Additional executives were shuffled at the network.
By the second quarter of 2013, Showtime had a true plan: it would be the network of Golden Boy, the promoter with the deepest stable of American boxers. But what was HBO's plan? What was its vision moving forward?
III. FRESH FACES
With Golden Boy at Showtime, HBO faced a real dilemma; who was left to build around? HBO's existing assets, Manny Pacquiao (recently knocked out), Sergio Martinez (injured), Andre Ward (injured) and Julio Cesar Chavez (suspended), spent most of 2013 out-of-commission. Juan Manuel Marquez showed no interest in getting back in the ring unless it was for a big fight. Thus, HBO needed to fill its programming somehow.
Through some design – and a fair bit of luck – HBO Boxing found four new fighters who were able to energize its boxing offerings in 2013. HBO first televised Gennady Golovkin, a Kazakh knockout artist, on Labor Day weekend in 2012 against Gregorz Proksa, who was a late replacement for Dmitry Pirog. Ratings were abysmal for that initial outing, but Golovkin impressed. A favorite of Max Kellerman, Golovkin was given a big promotional push in 2013, appearing on the network three times. By the end of the year, he was headlining the small room at Madison Square Garden and he quickly established his television ratings as among the best in boxing. Although his competition wasn't strong (Gabriel Rosado, Matthew Macklin and Curtis Stevens), he certainly was successful in captivating the American boxing public. HBO had "found one."
Canadian southpaw Adonis Stevenson was an unlikely face of HBO Boxing on many fronts. He wasn't young (35), he had been knocked out by a journeyman a few years back and he was brought in to lose to Chad Dawson. However, Stevenson, moving up to light heavyweight, destroyed Dawson in one round. After the win, HBO gave him two more appearances on the network, and he didn't disappoint – not losing a round in two knockout victories over former champ Tavoris Cloud and mandatory contender Tony Bellew. HBO was damn lucky in finding Stevenson, but sometimes when you roll the dice enough good things happen.
HBO's third new face, Sergey Kovalev, was a savvier pickup. Kovalev had quickly established himself on a number of appearances on NBC Sports Network. HBO picked up Kovalev's title-winning slaughter of Nathan Cleverly on tape delay and featured him on the undercard of Stevenson-Bellew against Ismayl Sillakh, where Kovalev scored a second-round knockout. Kovalev has yet to headline an HBO broadcast but the light heavyweight is clearly a building block for the network and promises a potential huge unification fight against Stevenson in the near future.
Its fourth new fighter, Ruslan Provodnikov (notice how none of these fighters is American), shined in a spirited loss to Tim Bradley (almost everyone's fight of the year) and a stoppage win over Mike Alvarado. HBO deserves credit for initially buying Bradley-Provodnikov in that Provodnikov was coming up from 140 to 147 and had recently lost in a fight on ESPN. But let's be honest, Provodnikov far exceeded expectations. He was expected to give Bradley rounds but lose. No one thought he was as good as he demonstrated in 2013.
Thus, with these four fighters, and a strong rematch between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado, HBO had a solid year. While Showtime showed marked double-figure ratings increases in 2013, at least HBO was able to maintain its existing numbers.
IV. HBO BOXING'S MURKY FUTURE
Although these four new faces helped HBO Boxing recover from the loss of Golden Boy, are they, along with the network's existing stable, enough for HBO to maintain its prominence in the sport? Showtime has clearly closed the gap in terms of its ratings in 2013. In addition, with Floyd Mayweather, Showtime is guaranteed to have the sport's largest platform twice a year, creating huge new marketing opportunities for its other fighters (the Danny Garcia-Lucas Matthysse fight was a prime example of this). From my perspective, HBO is in some real trouble.
The 2014 first-quarter schedule for HBO Boxing is as glum as glum can be. January started off with an overcooked all-Canadian matchup between Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute, a fight that would have meant something far more significant in 2012 rather than in 2014. Pascal won the fight by being more active than the hesitant Bute; however, it's not as if HBO is really in the Jean Pascal business. Sure, he could be a B-side to Stevenson or Kovalev but Pascal's ceiling has already been established by Carl Froch and Bernard Hopkins. He can be a fun fighter, but he lacks a true knockout punch and can be outthought in the ring.
Next for HBO Boxing was a matchup between Mikey Garcia and Juan Carlos Burgos. Garcia, identified by Top Rank and HBO as a future star, is a counterpuncher who fights in a weak division (junior lightweight). His best potential opponent, Takashi Uchiyama, fights in Japan, and then only sporadically. Burgos was a marking time opponent – a fighter who had fought to two draws in 2013; Burgos won no more than two rounds from Garcia in a lopsided fight.
The network will sit out most of February with the exception of a Miguel Vazquez-Denis Shafikov title shot on HBO2. This fight will be tape-delayed from Macau, China, a card headlined in the local market by Chinese fighter Zou Shiming. Vazquez appeared on an HBO platform twice in 2012, beating Marvin Quintero and Mercito Gesta. He's an extremely talented fighter but also awful to watch, a runner in the worst sense of the word. Shafikov is a come-forward, aggressive fighter, but there's a reason why this fight is on an HBO2 card and not live. Who knows? Maybe HBO gets lucky and finds something with Shafikov. However, I bet, win or lose, that Vazquez makes this fight look ugly. It will be tough for Shafikov to impress.
HBO's next main event will be in March with a rematch between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Brian Vera. Let's call a spade a spade here. The only reason why this fight is taking place can be attributed to HBO's commitment to Chavez. Vera clearly won the first fight but was robbed. In addition, Chavez's laughable refusal to make weight and give a shit about the first fight makes showing the rematch a bit of a dubious proposition. Chavez draws ratings – that’s why he's on the network – but this fight isn't really meaningful for the grand strategy of HBO Boxing. Whatever Chavez does in the rematch, he is still a name for bigger fish later in the year (such as Andre Ward or Carl Froch). To be fair, there is a tasty fight on the undercard between Orlando Salido and Vasyl Lomachenko.
On March 29th, Sergey Kovalev will face Cedric Agnew, a virtual unknown with a thin resume. This is part of HBO's strategy to build up to showdown later in the year for Stevenson-Kovalev. I understand the thinking of getting Kovalev a showcase fight before that battle but the Agnew bout screams "mismatch." What's the point of even broadcasting a fight if the opponent is an 8-1 or 10-1 underdog? Surely, there has to be someone more compelling than Agnew.
And as of right now, that's it for HBO boxing in the first quarter of 2014. The network will somehow broadcast five main events this quarter while only featuring one of the fresh faces that helped make 2013 a memorable year. HBO refused to televise Golovkin-Adama from Monte Carlo, citing logistical concerns. Ultimately, this fight slate isn't providing a lot of value for HBO's subscribers (in fairness, Showtime has a dogshit first quarter in its own right, but more on that later).
Sure, HBO pay per view will have its successes this year with Pacquiao-Bradley II and Cotto-Martinez, but for those who shell out dollars every month for the network, what will they be receiving? What is in store for Andre Ward? What will the network do with Provodnikov? Will HBO step up to ensure that Golovkin has a big fight this year? There are tons of unanswered questions about the network's future direction, both in 2014 and beyond.
V. WHO ARE THE "HBO FIGHTERS" AND WHAT IS HBO'S STRATEGY?
To me, the following fighters have been established as HBO Fighters:
1. Manny Pacquiao
2. Sergio Martinez
3. Tim Bradley
4. Juan Manuel Marquez
5. Andre Ward
6. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
7. Gennady Golovkin
8. Adonis Stevenson
9. Sergey Kovalev
10. Ruslan Provodnikov
11. Brandon Rios
12. Mike Alvarado
13. Mikey Garcia
14. Nonito Donaire
From looking at this list, it's pretty clear that Rios and Alvarado will most likely meet up for a third fight in 2014. HBO is in negotiations as we speak for Stevenson-Kovalev for later in the year. The top-four guys on the list will probably appear on pay per view at least once. This leaves a lot of open slots for HBO World Championship Boxing and HBO Boxing After Dark.
But let's examine the list further. Pacquiao has natural opponents with Bradley and Marquez. The two light heavyweights have each other. Rios, Provodnikov and Alvarado could conceivably move up and fight the welterweights if they don't face each other. Maybe Golovkin gets a fight with Martinez and maybe he doesn't. Garcia and Donaire are sort of in no man's land, lacking viable opponents right now (Garcia may get a fight with Gamboa or a guy like Terence Crawford this year).
But ultimately, where is HBO going in 12 months? Maybe it pulls off Golovkin-Ward; that's a tasty fight. I'd like Bradley-Provodnikov II, although I doubt it happens. Marquez will probably have a last hurrah.
But where does Mikey Garcia fit in? Will Donaire even be relevant as a top fighter a year from now? Pacquiao might be a year closer to retirement. It's very possible that Martinez and Marquez will be gone in 2015. The winner of Kovalev-Stevenson will be left with what exactly? What long-term futures will Alvarado and Rios really have in 2015 and beyond with the abuse that they have taken in the ring and their lifestyles outside of it? In the next 12 months, Chavez may have very well eaten himself out of being a real factor in the sport.
Contrast HBO's position with that of Showtime, which has 12-15 fighters from 140-154 lbs. who are mostly television-friendly and have natural competitors. Danny Garcia, Lucas Matthysse, Keith Thurman, Adrien Broner, Marcos Maidana, Shawn Porter, Saul Alvarez, Erislandy Lara and the Charlo Brothers are all 31 or younger and have big fights ahead of them. (I could have included five or six more fighters on this list). Showtime could essentially sit back, mix-and-match and plan out most of its programming for the next few years. Sure, the network will have to find some opponents for Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Omar Figueroa (who could move up to 140 soon) Peter Quillin, Deontay Wilder and Bernard Hopkins, but most of its tough work is done. Showtime is well-positioned for some tremendous fights from its core 140-154 fighters over the next few years.
From a programming standpoint, HBO has some real work cut out for itself to better what Showtime already has lined up. But HBO's situation isn't hopeless. There are both short-term and long-term solutions for the network which could ensure that it maintains its position as American's top boxing network. Here are five recommendations:
VI. FIXING HBO
1. Extend an olive branch to Golden Boy.
Let's face facts. HBO's current quagmire is much of its own doing. Caught up in egos and slights, HBO expelled Golden Boy. Fine, Hershman made his point. But for a long-term strategy, ignoring the promoter with the deepest bench of American talent is completely foolish. Sure, Showtime most likely won't let many of the Golden Boy fighters from 140-154 escape to HBO, but what about the Golden Boy fighters from other weight classes? Who is a natural opponent for Hopkins after Shumenov? What's on tap for Peter Quillin or Deontay Wilder? These are excellent opportunities for HBO to bring good fights to its subscribers, if Hershman and Company could just get over themselves.
Obviously, Golden Boy and Top Rank won't work together, but there are many potential fights to bring Golden Boy into the fold without forcing a Bob Arum-Richard Schaefer pissing contest. Here are three opportunities they should pursue this year:
1. Gennady Golovkin-Peter Quillin
2. Stevenson-Kovalev vs. the winner of Hopkins-Shumenov
3. Deontay Wilder
These opportunities speak for themselves. None would need to be on pay per view and a lot of value, buzz and excitement would be created for its subscribers and those in the boxing community. As far as Wilder, HBO has already dipped its toe back into the heavyweight division. Wilder would help the network make a real push in the future (more on that a little later).
Sure, HBO still holds some grudges against Golden Boy and Al Haymon, but if Hershman is serious about doing the best job possible for the HBO Sports, he needs to act like a professional and ensure that he has the best product for its subscribers within his economic constraints. Currently, the quality of HBO Boxing programming is not as good as it could be, and this reality won't improve over the long-term if Hershman continues to shut Golden Boy out.
2. Pay for Some Real Opponents.
If HBO is really invested in Golovkin, Kovalev, Stevenson and Garcia, they should invest in these fighters by making competitive matchups for them. Let's face it: HBO hasn't had to break the bank for Gabriel Rosado and Curtis Stevens. Tony Bellew and Cedric Agnew were not major financial commitments. Juan Carlos Burgos and Roman Martinez didn't command a high fee. And while it's been fun to watch HBO's new faces, it would certainly be better to seem them tested.
HBO can't fall back into the Berto/Taylor/Williams trap by propping up its new faces without providing compelling television for its subscribers. Unfortunately, HBO seems to be going down this route. If the network really wanted Daniel Geale to fight Golovkin in April (and Geale had an excellent fight on HBO last year against Darren Barker), was HBO ready to make that financial commitment to him? Has the network made a concerted effort to try Felix Sturm? These fights aren't necessarily easy to make but has HBO done all that it can in this area? Was Agnew the best opponent that HBO could find for Kovalev, or was he just someone who was affordable? Hershman has certainly stepped up to the plate for Andre Ward's opponents. Why hasn't he for others?
My issue with Hershman here is that he seems to be bargain shopping where a show of strength may serve him better. He works for the BMW of boxing networks but he spends like he has KIA finances. And although he made his bones at Showtime by being the scrappy underdog, being scrappy at HBO is a fast road to second place. Showtime has upped its boxing budget. Espinoza has gotten buy-in from CBS corporate to invest in the sport. Has Hershman been as successful with his HBO/Time Warner bosses? Do they continue to see the value of the sport? Does he have a plan to grow? Has he really made a good case?
So bring Takashi Uchiyama over from Japan for Mikey Garcia. End the Golden Boy tiff and give fans Golovkin-Quillin. Let's see Hopkins against Kovalev or Stevenson. Stop penny-pinching with B-minus fighters. Hershman's mandate should be compelling fighters in compelling fights. He is failing on one of those fronts.
3. Invest in competitive and untapped divisions like heavyweight and flyweight.
HBO has correctly identified that there are a number of interesting heavyweights on the scene, one or two of whom might go on to become something special once Wladimir Klitschko retires. In the past few months, the network has featured Mike Perez, Magomed Abdusalamov (which ended tragically for him), Bryant Jennings, Andy Ruiz, Artur Szpilka and Carlos Takam. That's a nice start and HBO might have something with Jennings, Ruiz, Perez and Takam. However, there are many others like Tyson Fury, Kubrat Pulev and Dereck Chisora who can make compelling television. You can see where Deontay Wilder, the undefeated knockout artist and American Olympian, would be a great addition to this group.
The network could certainly make a concerted push in this division, which traditionally has yielded significant interest and ratings. Yes, the division was historically weak from 2000-2010 but these new names may help it turn the corner. The network should bring back a "Night of the Heavyweights" card or two, featuring two or three matchups with these fighters. Hopefully, one or two boxers emerge and there will be a real buzz in the division. Fury is a natural self-promoter and fans will love/hate him very rapidly. Wilder's right hand will make all boxing fans stand up and take notice. He's currently languishing on Showtime undercards. Ultimately, HBO has the ability to be in the driver seat for the next wave of heavyweights. With some good investments, the division can provide a lot of dividends for HBO and its subscribers.
When HBO went to Macau last year, it showed a tremendous flyweight fight between Brian Viloria and Juan Estrada. With Estrada, they found a young fighter who clearly has pound-for-pound level talent. The network featured him again later in the year against Milan Melindo, another excellent scrap. Yet, HBO hasn't returned to the 112-lb. division since that fight. Flyweight may be the best weight class in boxing, featuring talents such as those mentioned above as well as pound-for-pound fighter Roman Gonzalez, Akira Yaegashi, Giovani Segura, Edgar Sosa, Hernan Marquez and others. I guarantee you that if HBO started showing these fighters in a co-feature on a Boxing After Dark card, the network and its viewers would get rewarded. Right now, HBO should consider a Gonzalez-Estrada rematch. Their first fight was excellent (won by Gonzalez) but Estrada has only gotten better.
In addition, none of these fighters would break the bank. Throw a million dollars at the division, similar to what HBO paid Edwin Rodriguez to be uncompetitive against Andre Ward, and you might have three or four really excellent fights. Sure, there is some bias against smaller fighters, but boxing fans have responded over the years to Barrera, Morales, Pacquiao, Juan and Rafael Marquez, Hamed and Arce. Gonzalez or Estrada could be the next smaller fighter to really resonate with the public. It's time for HBO to find out. Showtime has many of the best 140-154 lb. fighters in the world. If HBO corners the market on the scintillating 112 class, it could create some solutions to its coming programming void and provide some wonderful fights.
4. Develop a Pipeline.
Before Ross Greenburg was let go at HBO, he was in the planning stages for a new prospect series that would have aired on HBO2. After his departure, the series was shelved. (In fairness to the HBO brass, Greenburg already had continued a bad pattern with this proposed series by guaranteeing programming dates to promoters without having any fighters lined up.)
Although it is certainly possible that Greenburg would have muffed up the execution, his instincts for the series were correct. HBO had let its Boxing After Dark series become a weigh station for its fighters to face unheralded and cheap opponents. It continues to be the HBO star-grooming laboratory. And while there's value to that for the network and fans, HBO isn't doing enough to find and cultivate young talent.
There should be a place where Felix Verdejo, Errol Spence, Oscar Valdez, Eddie Gomez, Jose Benavidez, Jesse Magdaleno and Anthony Joshua can fight on HBO airwaves. There is an exciting generation of young stars that are coming up the ranks and HBO is missing an opportunity to get in early with these talents.
HBO has done a wonderful job of building its boxing brand over the decades. It stands for quality, the bright lights and, of course, the best. So why not get the best prospects in the sport and put them on twice a year? Forge relationships early. Putting them on primetime does that, talking to them at 5:30 p.m. after they have fought on the sixth undercard fight of a pay per view doesn't achieve the same end. The compelling fighters of the future are there for the taking; HBO should jump on this opportunity. And remember, HBO has almost a dozen stations to program. I'm sure that the network can find somewhere in its universe of channels for a new prospect show. Put it on HBO Latino, put it on HBO2, but put it on.
5. Time to change its broadcast personnel.
Unfortunately, the Max Kellerman experiment isn't working, and as someone who used to be a big Kellerman fan, it's difficult for me to say that. Kellerman was so good on Friday Night Fights with Brian Kenny. The banter that the two hosts had was as good as you will see in the sport. But on the live fight broadcasts, Kellerman does boxing fans several disservices.
1. He fails to call the action
2. He makes unfair and often ridiculous comparisons
3. He is too busy playing matchmaker
4. He fawns over Andre Ward and Roy Jones
Kellerman seems to be in a big hurry to provide context and significance for every fight. He overhypes fighters such as Paul Williams and Yuriorkis Gamboa. (This pattern may be continuing with Golovkin and Kovalev. We haven't really seen them in tough yet.) He compares Jorge Linares to Sugar Ray Robinson just rounds before Linares gets knocked out. When a fighter makes his debut appearance on HBO, Kellerman immediately makes a determination on air as to whether or not HBO audiences should want to see the fighter again. None of this really addresses the actual fight at hand.
Kellerman can sometimes come across as an overhyped fanboy with a microphone. He lacks critical detachment, patience and dispassion. He has never developed a decent on-air rapport with Jim Lampley or Roy Jones. He can be cloying in his praise of Jones or Andre Ward. In fact, he significantly reduced the fight experience of Froch-Kessler II by repeatedly bringing up the fact that Ward is the "real champ" at super middleweight. Where Merchant would spar with George Foreman or Jones after they said some gobbly-gook, Kellerman seems too differential to the former fighters, or sometimes he will go after Jones on some really bizarre bit of fight minutia. In short, he hasn't figured out when to put Jones and Ward on the spot and when to back off. I'm not sure what he accomplishes on the broadcast.
The current HBO broadcast reeks of too much homerism. Lampley is passionate and has always had his favorites – including De la Hoya, Trinidad, Taylor, Pacquiao and others. His natural enthusiasm was magnificently counterbalanced by Merchant's skepticism; it was a wonderful combination. Now, with Lampley waxing on about Golovkin and Kellerman marveling about GGG's historic power, no one is there to say, "Hey, let's calm down. He really hasn't beaten anyone yet." This effect creates a distance between the viewer and the action. Most boxing fans are excited about Golovkin and Kovalev, but they aren't ready to anoint them yet as anything more than fun knockout artists. A sense of perspective on the HBO broadcast team is certainly lacking.
Finally, HBO needs to revamp or end "The Fight Game with Jim Lampley." Upon its launch, I was incredibly excited to see HBO give an additional platform for the sport. There is certainly enough to talk about. However, either live or in the studio, the show has been a disaster at almost every term. Lampley, with the solemnity of an undertaker, tries to squeeze too many topics into a half-hour with very little depth. Although I have commended him for his stance on performance enhancing drugs, the rest of the show is a hodgepodge of shallow fighter interviews, unnecessary segments with Jones and Kellerman, and the trumpeting of future HBO fights.
The show epitomizes sterility and doesn't fully capitalize on Lampley's interviewing gifts or investigative chops. It also wouldn't hurt if someone told Lampley, "Hey, boxing can be fun. You aren't reporting on hostage negotiations or impending wars. Lighten up." Hershman needs a new producer for the show and some fresh ideas. Absent that, he should can it. It was a wonderful idea just poorly, poorly executed.
The HBO boxing brand is not at a high point. Showtime has the best fighter in the sport and a clear vision of where it wants to be in the next few years by showcasing the 140, 147 and 154-lb. divisions. HBO has assembled a list of impressive fighters on its network, but currently has no real solution of how best to feature most of them. Yes, Pacquiao and Bradley have a couple of obvious fights in the next few years and Stevenson-Kovalev will most likely happen, but I don't know where HBO will be in 2015. The network is running out of younger, compelling fighters. It also hasn't been willing to invest in real opponents to showcase how good its current collection of fighters really is. The network's refusal to work with Golden Boy has removed many exciting options for its current boxers and limits future growth. In addition, its broadcast team, with its reliance on hype and aggrandizement, now significantly trails that of Showtime.
Ken Hershman might be facing budgetary pressures from the Time Warner/HBO brass or maybe he is used to bargain shopping, but he clearly isn't making the big moves that are worthy of the HBO Boxing brand. Where is his vision? Where is the enthusiasm? Where is the creativity that he demonstrated at Showtime?
In 18 months, the future of HBO Boxing could be very bleak. It's quite possible that Marquez, Martinez and Pacquiao could be gone from the sport by then. Chavez and Donaire might no longer be a factor in the upper echelon of prizefighting. Alvarado and Rios may see a precipitous decline in their abilities from all of their wars. Andre Ward doesn't seem to be too eager to get in the ring these days. The network will be facing a huge programming void and I'm not sure if its decision makers realize how perilous its position is atop the boxing landscape.
HBO still does significantly better ratings than Showtime. Much of that can be attributed to HBO's superior subscriber numbers to Showtime and the network's historical success in boxing – it is still trading off of its boxing brand. But how long will that good will last among boxing fans?
Ultimately, fight enthusiasts want to see the best in compelling matchups and HBO has not delivered the compelling part of that equation and many of its core fighters haven't proven to be among "the best" yet – I would put Garcia, Golovkin and Kovalev on this list. Rios, Alvarado and Chavez provide good value when matched appropriately but their ceilings are pretty well established by this point. Who knows how good Provodnikov really is or can be?
But HBO has a way out of this morass. It can attempt to revive relations with Golden Boy. Wilder, Quillin and Hopkins would be natural additions to HBO; these fighters also fall out-of-line with Showtime’s core weight classes and may be ripe for picking.
The network can also be opportunistic with divisions like heavyweight and flyweight. These weight classes should bring a lot of value to its subscribers and maybe the network finds a new star or two. Plus, none of these fighters would command overwhelming purses. This is both a good short-term and long-term play for HBO.
In addition, HBO has to test its current stars and identify the next ones. The network lost its way with how it matched Berto, Williams and Taylor (to say nothing of its matchmaking history with Roy Jones and Floyd Mayweather, at least those were pound-for-pound talents). Golovkin is a fun fighter, but at a certain point, fans will resent his lack of quality opposition. HBO currently has a plan for Stevenson, Kovalev and Garcia (I guess Gamboa as an opponent counts) but what happens after those fights? Is the network willing the spend money to bring in real, live opponents, or will its fighters continue to get umpteen showcase fights?
The young talent pipeline is out there for whichever enterprising network wants to take advantage of it. HBO should be investing in the young, good prospects of tomorrow. By identifying and airing the next wave of elite fighters, the network will create far more recognition and enthusiasm for them. A new prospect show would help showcase these young guns and help the network establish valuable connections with them.
Finally, HBO needs to improve its boxing broadcasts. Max Kellerman needs some real work. Someone must tell him that his role is not HBO's on-air matchmaker (especially during fights) and that he's not paid by the silly. He shouldn't compare Gregorz Proksa favorably to Sergio Martinez; he should be calling the action. Kellerman's purpose isn't to remind Roy Jones and Andre Ward how good they were or still are in the ring. He should provide some real insight to the fight at hand. If he can't, get someone new.
In addition, if Steve Weisfeld is on a show, use him. Figure out how to make him work on a broadcast. Weisfeld knows more about current judges and referees than Harold Lederman does; he should be the one telling us about them. If he's redundant, then only have Lederman or Weisfeld on the broadcast.
And please, fix or gut "The Fight Game." The show isn't advancing anyone's interests except Jim Lampley's. Make it more hard-hitting or go the other way and, god forbid, add some lightness to it. But right now, it's a mess of a broadcast and it insults the HBO Boxing brand. The network that has won hundreds of Sports Emmys can certainly do a better job than this show in its current form.
Across the board, HBO is symptomatic right now of a lack of vision. The fighters and broadcast talent are cobbled together without a clear sense of purpose or intent. Showtime, so often the younger brother who was happy to have a seat at the adult table, now wants to be the one to carve the turkey – and HBO. Will HBO fend off its rival or will it shirk from the new competitive environment? Will it coast like Roy Jones did throughout much of his career before being knocked out in an unforeseen fashion, or will it rise up from disappointments and setbacks to remain on top like Bernard Hopkins? It's up to HBO Boxing to decide its fate. Its next 12 months are absolutely critical.
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Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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