Sunday, September 30, 2018

HBO Boxing: A Recollection

For me it was Jim, Larry and George, elegantly clad in tuxedos, broadcasting from a glamorous location and arena: Madison Square Garden, Caesars in Las Vegas, the Forum, which was home to the Showtime-era Lakers. When HBO Boxing was there, it was an event. And the fighters were the biggest names of the era – Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Julio Cesar Chavez (when not fighting on rival Showtime), Oscar de la Hoya and Roy Jones. But it wasn't just the superstars. If a boxer headlined on HBO, he was somebody. So I took notice of Pernell Whitaker, Michael Nunn, Terry Norris, James Toney and dozens of others.

That era represented a magical time. At 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, the TV was turned to HBO. The promos in the week leading up to the fight had me counting down the days. The HBO theme music at the start of the broadcast created a Pavlovian sense of excitement and anticipation. 

Boxing wasn't part of my household growing up, but over time the sport grabbed a hold on me and never let go. The HBO Boxing commentators were my earliest teachers. From Jim Lampley I understood the magnitude of the event taking place. George Foreman provided meaningful perspectives on fighter psychology and what went on in the trenches. Harold Lederman taught me how to score the action. 

But the broadcast crew didn't necessarily fawn over the action or the fighters; they maintained an important critical distance. If a fight turned out to be a dog, or if a mismatch was about to be shown, Larry Merchant would let me know it. Often speaking for the fan, his cynicism cut through fighter braggadocio and cynical matchmaking. When a boxer had the goods, such as Chavez or Shane Mosley, for example, Jim and Larry would sing his praises, but if one failed to perform or refused to challenge himself, it was made abundantly clear on the broadcast.

Lampley's perfect elocution and statesman-like demeanor lent an official air to the proceedings. Whole rounds would sometimes go by without a comment from Merchant, and then suddenly he would offer a piercing quip that spectacularly captured the action (or often inaction) of the fight. Foreman was lovable but could turn deadly serious when he sensed an impending dramatic moment. Larry and George always seemed to get into some sort of argument on-air, often revealing, sometimes frivolous, but it made for good television. HBO's commentators were not just there for a gig; HBO Boxing was where they wanted to be. Overall, there was a sense of pride that imbued each and every broadcast.  

HBO Boxing's production values were far superior to their competitors, and in many instances have yet to be surpassed. Their camera angles, lighting and sound quality were top-rate and remained the best in the business until the end. They took you into the corners to understand what was happening between rounds. If the fighters or trainers spoke a language other than English, they had an interpreter to communicate what was occurring. The network's ability to conjure up the right replay in the seconds between rounds was wizardly. They incorporated punch stats in a way that provided an additional perspective on the fight. 

Many of these innovations have now become the standard for every network, but HBO's broadcast was always trying to find another way to educate the viewer and further enhance the drama. I could probably list a dozen significant innovations that HBO brought to the presentation of boxing; I would struggle to name more than one or two for their rivals.

But the Golden Era didn't last. As early as 2005 or 2006, I remember cornering Ross Greenburg, then the head of HBO Sports, at a conference in Washington D.C. I had taken the train down from Philadelphia and wanted to voice my displeasure about the slippage of HBO Boxing. The overall quality control of their boxing content was not what it once was. Mismatches were becoming more and more common. Their Boxing After Dark series, so promising when it started, had devolved into a weigh station for "name" fighters taking on sub-standard opponents. Promoters were given output deals and other "make good" network slots as part of back room negotiations, which would have been less of a problem had HBO Boxing not relinquished its understanding of strong matchmaking.  

To my eyes, HBO Boxing was deteriorating, and I was unhappy. This was the New York Yankees becoming the Chicago White Sox. I talked with Greenburg after his speech and he nodded politely to my points of discontent. After listing a few things that I felt could be improved, he begrudgingly admitted that the HBO Boxing website could use some sprucing up. No other point was entertained. And he thanked me for my time. 

HBO Boxing's decline was long, slow and steady. Budgets went from $90 million in the late '90s to less than $30 million in recent years. As a network, HBO was making money hand over fist, but their boxing program was being starved. Perhaps the sport had successfully marginalized itself. Maybe HBO had better options for its capital. For whatever the litany of reasons that caused this disinvestment, the downward trajectory of HBO Boxing was easy to see. Fights that were once routinely shown on the network were forced to go to pay per view. Ratings dropped. Influential boxing people were banned from the network. The loss of Larry Merchant hurt the quality of the broadcast. Rival networks were becoming more competitive. And more than any one of these factors, there seemed to be no coherent plan to restore HBO Boxing's glory. 

Last week's announcement that HBO was exiting boxing was a sad day. It felt like losing a family member. For over a generation, the network was the primary conduit between boxing fans and the sport that they love. Sure, we can all highlight mistakes that were made, bad hiring decisions, the ridiculous politics of the sport and all sorts of other factors. But today won't be a time of accusation and finger-pointing. 

I wish I didn't have to write this article. I wish that HBO Boxing was still puffing out its chest. We have lost a loved one. And there's a gnawing feeling that the loss was avoidable.  

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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