Something quite extraordinary happened on Saturday night during the Saul "Canelo" Alvarez-Amir Khan broadcast. Despite Alvarez's scintillating knockout, a shot which will surely be considered as a knockout-of-the-year candidate, the mesmerizing overhand right was a mere footnote to a much larger narrative: When will Alvarez fight Gennady Golovkin? Again, one of the true stars of the sport notched a highlight-reel knockout on a pay per view and by the end of the night the result seemed almost irrelevant. Alvarez got his expected win but more important things needed to be discussed. In the post-fight chatter, HBO's broadcast team didn't gush over Alvarez's myriad boxing skills or trumpet his prowess as a fighter – the standard plays from the network when the house fighter looks good. No, everything surrounding Canelo's performance against Khan was a mere prelude to Golovkin.
Breaking from recent tradition, HBO didn't function as the cheerleader for the A-side during the event. In fact, there was a palpable hostility toward Canelo and his previous public stances about fighting Golovkin. Before the main event, a fawning Jim Lampley interviewed Golovkin and gave the fighter the opportunity to state his case without any critical interference. Immediately after Canelo's victory, Max Kellerman quickly pivoted to the Alvarez-Golovkin matchup and that subject dominated Canelo's interview. Not since the days of Floyd Mayweather and Larry Merchant had HBO decided to hold one of its stars' feet to the fire.
With its middling place in the contemporary American sports landscape, boxing depends on big fights for its survival. There's too much competition from other sports and the overall entertainment dollar for boxing to thrive without marquee events. It needs its one or two times a year where the larger sporting world can focus attention on it. There's no Super Bowl in boxing. No finals. No World Series. Big fights are critical to the industry – networks, fighters, promoters, managers, hoteliers, cable operators, corporate sponsors, Wall Street conglomerates and others. It needs ESPN's SportsCenter to have live, on-site reports during a big fight week. Boxing has to capture the imagination of large media outlets, like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and have them cover its events, creating additional exposure for its stars, boxing's crucial currency.
And without stars, there isn't a viable U.S. boxing industry. In the U.S., the sport is undergoing a painful transition from the post-Mayweather and post-Pacquiao world. Stars make the turnstiles hum, force the media to take notice and create the sport's cultural relevance. With very few bona fide boxing attractions in North America, the sport runs the risk of losing even more cache among casual fans and its place in the crushingly competitive sports environment.
Although Canelo has become quite the attraction in his burgeoning career, at this moment, boxing requires more of him than the status quo. To become the centerpiece of the sport's marketing apparatus, the one who brings attention to boxing, he's going to have to take on Golovkin.
For Canelo, this era of the sport's history is both a blessing and a curse. With few fighters having the potential to cross over into the mainstream, a burden is being placed on him to represent the sport at its highest level; there just aren't too many other candidates. Should he somehow beat Golovkin, and, let's face it, he would be a sizable underdog in that fight, the spoils of the sport would all be his. He would be the undisputed number-one boxing figure in North America and would have tremendous leverage to dictate terms to his subsequent opponents. His future salaries would skyrocket. And most importantly, his notoriety beyond boxing would increase exponentially. If he loses, he will then create an additional star in the sport and Golovkin has already demonstrated the ability to captivate fans beyond his regional/ethnic origin. With the right push, he could become a popular figure in the greater sporting landscape.
Canelo perceives the risk that Golovkin presents and has already made bones about a 155-lb. catchweight for the matchup, which seems ridiculous to many boxing observers in that both fighters ply their trade in the same division (all of Canelo's middleweight bouts have occurred at the 155-lb. threshold). Like Mayweather and Pacquiao before him, Alvarez and his team are looking to exploit his position in the sport and garner all potential advantages for the matchup. However, the public isn't supporting Alvarez's gamesmanship in this instance; he hasn't earned that position in the sport yet – not against a fighter of the caliber of Golovkin, a fan-favorite, a middleweight killer, and one of the few boxers who has sold out arenas on both coasts.
For years, Golovkin has been searching for a big fight. Former lineal middleweight titleholders Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto wanted nothing to do with him. Daniel Jacobs, who holds a lesser version of a 160-lb. belt, has been in no rush to meet Golovkin. Titleholder Billy Joe Saunders passed up a fight by making ridiculous financial demands. Former titleholder Peter Quillin didn't take the Golovkin bout either. Since becoming an HBO mainstay in 2012, Golovkin has had to take on lower-level middleweights while the best in the division went in other directions. He's been able to accumulate two middleweight titles but the lineal belt, the one that descends from the former undisputed champion in the division, Bernard Hopkins, still eludes him. And at 34, the clock is ticking on his prime.
HBO also needs Canelo-Golovkin to happen post-haste. Amid budget cuts at corporate parent Time Warner, the network has relegated the tantalizing matchup of Terence Crawford-Viktor Postol to pay per view, a decision that will ensure a much smaller viewership and impact in the sport than it would've if it were televised on HBO's flagship World Championship Boxing program. And unlike most large pay per views, that fight won't bring more eyeballs to the sport. Both fighters aren't well known outside of boxing's core fans. Bob Arum, the promoter of the fight, hopes that the pay per view will generate the buy rate of 75,000, a paltry figure but one that might even be a struggle to meet.
In addition, the HBO Boxing brand has taken some hits. The network has failed to broadcast competitive main events in 2016, continuing a trend from the previous year. Although its ratings have remained stable to this point, with the general trends of cord-cutting in the industry and disappointment from its boxing fans in particular, how long can the status quo remain? Yes, the network has excellent talents like Alvarez, Kovalev, Golovkin, Ward and Crawford – all fighters who would rank in the top-20 for best in the sport, but the right matchups haven't been made for them. Due to the aforementioned budget cuts, estrangement with other promotional and managerial entities within the sport, and its fighters not being compelled to take more difficult assignments, HBO hasn't given its best the challenges needed to fully test them, leading to an inability to create buzz for its talented roster and grow its television ratings (its ratings still far surpass those of its chief rival, Showtime).
As long as HBO remains resolute in its desire to broadcast Canelo-Golovkin, Canelo might be out of other options. He left Showtime in 2014 and his promoter, Golden Boy, hasn't headlined a card on that network since the dissolution of its relationship with boxing magnate Al Haymon. And Haymon's own Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) brand is suffering under the largess of its inaugural season. Fighter purses have been cut. Television dates have been inconsistent and networks like CBS and ESPN have yet to air a PBC fight in 2016. Haymon has been embroiled in lawsuits with Top Rank and Golden Boy and its hedge fund bankroller, Waddell & Reed, has also been sued by investors unhappy with the firm's commitment to the PBC. The trend lines aren't looking too strong there.
For Canelo, it seems like HBO-or-bust for the time being. Yes, boxing can make for strange bedfellows and perhaps Golden Boy can initiate a new broadcast platform for its star fighter but as for the immediate future, it appears as if all parties will continue its present broadcast relationship.
In the next few months, expect fierce negotiations between the Canelo and Golovkin camps. I don't expect it to be easy. Purse splits, site venues, weights and officials will all be bargaining chips. But for those doomsayers out there, consider that boxing has successfully produced the mega-fight far more than not over its recent track record. When the public demands a big fight and a network is motivated to comply, the stakes become too high for these events not to get made (and yes, of course there have been a few exceptions).
At 25, Alvarez doesn't have to take the Golovkin fight. He'll still draw his faithful following and a big network will broadcast his matches. But he'll lose a lot of respect and pecuniary rewards by passing up this opportunity. Short of an unnecessary rematch with Mayweather (who might yet come out of retirement), there are no other realistic big fights for him besides the Golovkin bout. If Canelo wants to be considered the preeminent star in the sport, which he surely does, he'll have to take the risks needed to ensure that lofty status.
Facing a knockout machine is no one's idea of a good time but all Alvarez has to do is follow the example of his promoters, Oscar de la Hoya and Bernard Hopkins, who took on the toughest guys in the sport during their careers. De la Hoya and Hopkins didn't win all their big fights but the public responded to their desire to take on the greatest challenges available. Even after their losses, they still made great purses and remained at the top level of the sport. And Canelo himself could look to his own experience in the Mayweather fight. He lost a non-competitive bout but the public didn't turn on him. He challenged himself and was rewarded by the public; despite his lopsided defeat, he retained his following. Golovkin might not be the bout that Alvarez wants but for the good of the sport, and the overall health of his career, I expect him to take the fight.
The powers that be need this matchup to happen. Boxing must remain in the limelight. There are jobs on the line here, network investments to consider, promotional companies to maintain and a fickle sporting public to engage. Boxing is not in a strong enough position to see big fights fail to materialize. With so few marketable stars in North America, the stakeholders will apply tremendous pressure for this fight to get finalized.