Friday, February 6, 2015

The Return of the Golden Boy

Things weren't going well for Oscar de la Hoya in the fall of 2013. Instead of being front-and-center promoting the Floyd Mayweather-Saul Alvarez fight, which was one of the biggest boxing pay per views of all time, de la Hoya was in rehab for at least the second time. Far removed from boxing's signature event of 2013, de la Hoya was busy trying to piece his life back together. After retiring from the sport, he had lost battles against several personal demons, which included drugs, alcohol, infidelity and boredom. In addition, it was during this low period where de la Hoya's business partner and family member through marriage, Richard Schaefer, tried to wrestle Golden Boy Promotions away from him.  

This is a good time to stop and remember who de la Hoya was as a fighter. An Olympic gold medalist, de la Hoya had a fiery competitiveness that was often overshadowed by his easy smile and gregarious demeanor. However, you don't get to be the top amateur in the world at your weight class by merely being a nice guy. Not only was de la Hoya a first-rate competitor, he also was highly ambitious; he wanted it all. In his pro career, de la Hoya actively sought the biggest challenges, taking on Hall of Fame talents like Felix Trinidad, Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. Although de la Hoya didn't win all of these fights (or even a majority of them), his desire to test himself against boxing's best played a large role in becoming the sport's top draw.
Remember that de la Hoya was HBO's cash cow and he conceivably could have gone the Roy Jones route of fighter lesser talents for healthy and guaranteed paychecks. But de la Hoya didn't want that. He aspired to something much more – greatness.
During the back end of his career, de la Hoya established his promotional outfit, Golden Boy, and was determined to become a dominant player in the business of boxing. Again, this wasn't just another fighter setting up a promotional company as a tax dodge; de la Hoya truly wanted to be the best in another aspect of the sport.
De la Hoya and Schaefer proved to be a shrewd team at first. They negotiated a three-year output deal with HBO in return for de la Hoya fighting on a regular HBO broadcast, instead of pay per view. This deal engendered jealousy among other boxing promoters but Oscar had one significant advantage over his competitors: himself. He expertly leveraged his role in the sport to gain exposure for his nascent company. With three years’ worth of dates on the premier boxing network, Golden Boy had a fantastic platform to promote and expand its current stable.
The company, starting with de la Hoya, Mosley, Hopkins and Barrera as active fighters, branched out by signing younger stars and emerging talent. In time, Golden Boy developed and/or cultivated stars such as Victor Ortiz, Amir Khan, Marcos Maidana, Abner Mares, Saul Alvarez, Adrien Broner and many others. Eventually, Golden Boy created the largest stable of top boxers in North America.
Schaefer and de la Hoya wanted to dominate the sport. Signing an exclusive deal with Barclays Center in Brooklyn and expertly cultivating the white-hot Southern California boxing market, the company repeatedly flexed its muscles. Golden Boy was very successful in bringing in new sponsors to the sport and even set up a new boxing series on Fox Sports 1. Eventually, Golden Boy emerged as the de facto exclusive content provider for Showtime, after one its former attorneys, Stephen Espinoza, became the head of the network's sports division.
Throughout Golden Boy's rise, there was one major problem: it wasn't making money. Although the company was successful in extracting generous TV contracts for its events, Golden Boy had failed to build its fighters at the box office. With the exception of Saul Alvarez, Floyd Mayweather (who technically wasn't a Golden Boy fighter) and a few one-off events, the company wasn't able to connect with ticket-buying boxing fans. Known for papering its events with heavily discounted tickets and freebies, Golden Boy lacked the promotional savvy or experience to fill up arenas with paying customers. The company didn't consistently build up its stars in home markets. It had a weak ground crew and failed to build local buzz for its events (often, it subcontracted that function out, with varying success). More often, Golden Boy chased site fees from locations that often didn't align with the particular fighters on a given card.
As the company matured, De la Hoya functioned essentially as its figurehead, appearing at events and press conferences and giving interviews the week of big fights; however, Schaefer was the one doing the hard work and providing the company with direction. And as de la Hoya spent less time active in the company, Schaefer started to make some curious decisions, which eventually hindered Golden Boy's long-term viability.
The company had always been bedfellows with manager and power broker Al Haymon, who represented many of Golden Boy's fighters. Over time, Haymon's influence over the company continued to grow. Eventually, the company started placing a number of Haymon's fighters on its cards that didn't even have Golden Boy promotional contracts, for example, Gary Russell Jr., Andre Berto, Keith Thurman and others. This was not a case of Schaefer doing Haymon a favor by placing one of his fighters deep on an undercard to keep busy or finding an "opponent" for a slot. No, these boxers were becoming major stars in the sport. They were taking up slots on HBO and Showtime and yet they were not Golden Boy fighters. Essentially, Golden Boy was sacrificing its potential future profits to placate Haymon. In addition, Schaefer failed to renew the contracts of a number of Golden Boy fighters who were represented by Haymon, further reducing the assets of the company.
After exiting rehab in 2013, de la Hoya sought to reengage himself with the company and it’s clear that he didn't like what he had found. Major investors in Golden Boy, like AEG, were tired of sinking money into an unprofitable enterprise. In reviewing the finances of the company, de la Hoya and his supporters within Golden Boy were no longer pleased with Schaefer's stewardship. Golden Boy's supposed large stable of fighters was mere window dressing. Many of the presumed Golden Boy boxers were actually free agents or, in some cases, they never had official Golden Boy contracts.
De la Hoya and his supporters attempted to oust Schaefer, who had been a major stockholder in the enterprise. They filed an eight-figure lawsuit against him. Although the case never made it to court, there were lengthy, private negotiations centering on esoterica such as which fighters actually had valid contracts. Clearly, de la Hoya et al. believed that Schaefer violated his fiduciary responsibility as CEO by not maximizing revenues for the company. (Letting contracts lapse and refusing to work with Bob Arum to make big fights are just two obvious examples of this).
Eventually, a multi-million dollar settlement was agreed upon, which according to reports was paid for in part by Al Haymon and his backers. The upshot of the settlement was that Haymon took almost all of his fighters away from Golden Boy and Schaefer now had a shorter non-compete than his original contract stated. However, De la Hoya was able to keep the name and run the company as he saw fit. Golden Boy was left with only a few assets, such as Alvarez, Hopkins (more on him later), Khan, Leo Santa Cruz, Lucas Matthysse, some fighters under manager Frank Espinoza and a couple of young prospects.
Golden Boy reemerged from this wreckage as a much smaller company but one that was singularly Oscar's. Since the dissolution of his partnership with Schaefer, de la Hoya has gone about the business of the company with a renewed vigor. Firing Schaefer loyalists and buying out AEG, de la Hoya set out to create Golden Boy in more of his image: Golden Boy fighters would be matched tough and fight for glory, not paychecks against undermanned foes.
Like a missionary, de la Hoya has worked with zeal for his reconstituted company. In a great coup, he convinced Hopkins to side with him over Haymon and/or Schaefer and remain part of Golden Boy's ownership group. Hopkins' retention was an important symbol, suggesting that de la Hoya's vision for the company was viable. (If you can keep the notoriously prickly Hopkins on board, you might have something.) De la Hoya also reached out to his former promoter and enemy, Bob Arum, and agreed to make fights together. Although Sadam Ali-Luis Carlos Abregu and Jose Benavidez-Mauricio Herrera didn't exactly revolutionize the sport, it was a start.
De la Hoya also went looking for new boxing talent, signing 12 young fighters, mostly of Mexican or Mexican-American heritage, as well as middleweight slugger David Lemieux (although this contract is under dispute from Lemieux's prior promoter). That de la Hoya would spring for a fighter like Lemieux is very informative. Lemieux most likely isn't an elite guy but he makes great TV fights and wants to face the top guys.
Over the last month, de la Hoya and Haymon essentially traded two fighters. Golden Boy now has full rights to Lucas Matthysse, without Haymon's involvement, and de la Hoya let Haymon buy out Leo Santa Cruz's contract. Again, these two transactions highlight de la Hoya's philosophy for Golden Boy. Matthysse had been an isolated example of a Haymon fighter who was displeased with how he was being moved and whom he was fighting. Matthysse already had great fights against some of the best talents at 140 and yet he was still appearing on an Adrien Broner undercard against an overmatched opponent. The fighter wanted a rematch with Danny Garcia or a shot at Broner; instead, he was given Roberto Ortiz. Matthysse fits de la Hoya's description of what a top fighter should be – he may not win every fight but he will take on all comers and entertain.
Conversely, Leo Santa Cruz was deemed expendable by de la Hoya. Although the fighter had won two title belts and possessed a fan-friendly style, he, and his handlers (Haymon, for one), refused tough matchups. He turned down an opportunity to unify against fellow junior featherweight champ Scott Quigg and he also wouldn't fight Guillermo Rigondeaux, the top talent in the division.
Clearly, Golden Boy is in a transitional period. Alvarez is its only pay per view attraction and a number of its other well-known fighters are either on their way out (Hopkins) or still have Haymon on their team (Khan). Golden Boy's next generation of boxers is relatively untested and still several fights away from the higher levels of the sport.
But let's give credit to Oscar for making some very tough and ballsy decisions. He could have succumbed to the Haymonization of boxing, where top fighters get in the ring infrequently often against inferior competition. Golden Boy could have remained one of Haymon's "front" promoters, eliciting a fee for putting on events but getting a much smaller percentage of the actual profits. However, this wasn't Oscar's desire. He wanted to build and develop fighters in his image, always accepting challenges and wanting to face the best. Oscar also repaired the company's relationship with HBO. Golden Boy had been previously banished from the network in 2013 but after returning Saul Alvarez to HBO, Golden Boy is back in good standing. De la Hoya can now negotiate with both sides of the boxing premium network street.
For Oscar, boxing is still about the competition and the glory. By all accounts, he has enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. However, the sport and all of its rewards still call to him. It's unclear how Golden Boy will look in another two years. Hopefully Oscar can stay on the straight and narrow path but with addicts it's always a challenge. For now, de la Hoya has done the sport and himself a world of good. His pride, both in his personal accomplishments and in his business, has led him to extricate himself from several tumultuous chapters in his life. It would have been easy for de la Hoya to relinquish control of his company or succumb to drugs and booze but he has chosen a tougher and nobler path. Yes, de la Hoya may not win all of his current battles. Golden Boy might never become the company that Oscar envisioned. Maybe Haymon's new enterprise will swallow up the existing North American boxing model. But de la Hoya is a fighter at heart. He still has that competitive fire and desire for greatness. Since exiting rehab, his resolve and resiliency in the face of such trying circumstances have been admirable. He deserves our praise.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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