Cheer Up Ross, Dan's A Fan

BY Dan Horgan ON January 12, 2009
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It’s easy to tell someone how to do their job, and it’s easy to play Monday-morning quarterback.  Hindsight vision is, after all, 20-20.  But what isn’t easy is to run a network that serves as the largest forum for an ever-changing sport – all while no one is thanking you for your services.

Over the past few years, there has been copious criticism of HBO – world-class boxing’s home since the late 70s – and its executives for hurting the sweet science through poor matchups and unwise budget spending.  Fans and pundits alike continue to complain about HBO’s boxing program, and lower ratings indicate that some fight fans are going as far as cancelling their subscription to the network.

“HBO’s boxing program is crap,” said one Internet blogger in October.  “Serve people crap and they’ll find other things to eat.”

In terms of numbers, 2008 was an up-and-down year for HBO’s boxing program.  Despite the low Nielsen ratings, many of which fell between 1 and 2, HBO’s pay-per-view station did manage to hype and sell the third biggest non-heavyweight pay-per-view fight in history this December when Oscar De La Hoya met Manny Pacquiao in a welterweight bout.  And that was during an economic crisis.

But in terms of the quality and quantity of HBO boxing programming, 2008 may have been the best year boxing’s seen since Mike Tyson’s glory days nearly twenty years ago.  Call me crazy, but as a die-hard boxing aficionado, I’m finding the “crap” HBO serves us to be quite delicious.

We live in a new, on-demand world where if one wants something – be it information, entertainment, or even a romantic partner – a click of the mouse is all that’s required to obtain it.  What impresses me most about HBO is how the network has kept up with the times.  No longer is HBO a place where fight junkies can get their boxing fix only through the occasional Saturday-night fight; the channel has warped into a multi-media powerhouse that delivers quality fight programming on a slew of forums.

HBO On Demand, which is available to HBO subscribers for a small monthly fee, features recent HBO fights, fighter profiles, past fights, fighters’ “greatest hits” (quick clips of the significant matches of a fighter’s career), and much more – all at the click of a button.

Much of what HBO features On Demand is on HBO’s YouTube channel, Youtube.com/HBO, which, needless to say, is free to even non-HBO subscribers.  The site features over 70 top-notch boxing videos, and the number grows by the month.  Videos range from the first episode of “De La Hoya-Pacquiao: 24/7” to actor Mario Lopez and De La Hoya talking about whether sex before a fight weakens legs.

2008 also saw HBO debut their new online series “Ring Life” which follows the lives of world-class and journeymen fighters in and out of the ring.  The heart-warming and inspirational tales of boxers like Edvan Barros, the 9-6-1 Brazilian who fights to support his sick mother thousands of miles south, remind fans of boxing’s essence.  And they’re free on HBO.com.

The aforementioned “24/7” series, which follows and spotlights fighters and their personal lives throughout training camps, is breathing new life back into pay-per-view fights.  The two-year-old show allows fans to see their favorite fighters spar, run, and most importantly talk about their opponents before mega showdowns.  Nothing gets me more fired up for a fight than seeing the combatants preparing for battle.

HBO’s upgrade into the 21st century has made me, along with countless other fight fans, love boxing more than ever.  So much of the sport stems from within the fighters’ personal battles, and seeing into those battles through HBO’s new programming brings fight nuts closer to the sport they love.

So why the hell is everyone complaining?

The current criticisms of HBO are unwarranted and, quite frankly, a bit whiny.

Recently, boxing scribe Thomas Hauser expressed his concerns about HBO and its methods of televising and promoting boxing.  He condemned everything from the fights the network televises to the promotional shows hyping them.

 “De La Hoya-Pacquiao: 24/7, while pretending to be sports journalism, was primarily an effort to engender pay-per-view buys and, secondarily, an exercise in image-building for Oscar coupled with a product placement tool for Ring sportswear,” said Hauser.  “The issue of De La Hoya trying to lure Pacquiao away from Top Rank and signing him with Golden Boy by giving him a briefcase filled with US$300,000 in cash and the ugly recriminations that followed were never discussed.”

While offering suggestions to improve boxing is something all fight scribes should do, disparaging “24/7” is unnecessary.  Boxing is a business that makes its money off of entertaining people.   Fans watching “24/7” aren’t concerned about sports journalism; they watch the show to get amped for fights.   Aaron Cohen, who writes the shows with beautiful, captivating prose, isn’t a journalist; he’s a wordsmith, and a damn good one. HBO televises the show to generate hype and buys, which subsequently raises boxing’s popularity.  And it works.  I brought two of my best friends from college to my house to watch “De La Hoya-Pacquiao:  24/7,” and despite the fact that neither had ever watched boxing before, both were anxious to watch the fight after seeing the countdown.  Had something as mundane as the promotional battle over Pacquiao been discussed, I can’t say my friends would have had the same excitement.

Hauser continued his bashing by criticizing the relationship between HBO and Golden Boy Promotions.

“It’s hard to shake the belief that HBO is tilting the playing field in Golden Boy’s favor to the detriment of other promoters,” he said.

Hauser quoted Top Rank President Todd DuBoef to corroborate his statement.  DuBoef called Golden Boy Promotions “stealers and poachers.”  Hauser also quoted Top Rank Chairman Bob Arum saying how he would change HBO’s boxing program if in charge of it.

“Right now, it’s idiotic,” Arum said of the network’s pay-per-view system.  

It’s hard to blame DuBoef and Arum for bashing boxing’s biggest network, especially considering Top Rank’s bleak future in comparison to their rivals at Golden Boy Promotions.  While Golden Boy continues to sign hot fighters like heavyweight David Haye and (less recently) light-welterweight star Ricky Hatton, Top Rank’s stable of stars is diminishing year after year.  Erik Morales retired in 2007; Jose Luis Castillo was blown away by Hatton in June of 2007; and superstar hopefuls Humberto Soto, Zahir Raheem, and Hasim Rahman have all been beaten or parted ways with Top Rank.  Golden Boy, run primarily by Richard Schaefer and De La Hoya, is young, new, and exciting.  Arum is 77 years old and not getting any younger.

Here’s a wakeup call to the boxing world:  Golden Boy Promotions is the strongest promoter of today and tomorrow.  They’re the ones with the best champions and prospects, and their collaboration with HBO will bring those world-class boxers to fans.  Instead of viewing HBO’s relationship with Golden Boy as a conspiracy, fans should view it as a partnership between two boxing superpowers.  Arum had the Versus network reserved for Top Rank fighters for more than enough time to prove the worth of his company, and the fights he put on were uncompetitive, insignificant, and boring.  I sure as hell would rather see Golden Boy fighters on HBO than suffer through Top Rank battles on boxing’s biggest network.

Further criticism towards HBO lies in the quality of fights it broadcasts, both on regular cable and pay-per-view.  Mismatches that feature prospects vs. no-hopers and mediocre fights being put on pay-per-view, fight critics say, are bringing boxing down.   While some of this denigration is indeed called for, the boxing world is a bit too harsh given the sport’s modern state.  Unlike five years ago, boxing doesn’t have a stable of stars and prospects to match against each other.  Marco Antonio Barrera, Jose Luis Castillo, Erik Morales, and several others are no longer worthy of significant HBO matches, and exciting upstarts like Rocky Juarez have run their course been replaced by less talented pugs like Chris Arreola.  Boxing’s depth is not the sport’s strong point.  HBO is working with limited resources.

The unfair criticism is again evinced in Hauser’s article.  In it, he asked:  “Did HBO really need Paul Williams vs. Verno Phillips paired with Chris Arreola vs. Travis Walker?”

The answer is an emphatic ‘yes.’  Williams is one of the sport’s brightest young stars.  But at 6’1 and with a extraordinary punch output, the world’s best 147 and 154 pounders want no part of him.  Phillips, though a limited opponent, was willing to take the challenge.  So should HBO not televise one of boxing’s best and most exciting fighters just because his opponent isn’t dynamic?  That would be unfair to the sport’s fans.  And Williams can’t wait around until someone like Miguel Cotto decides to fight him.  He has a family to feed, a living to make.  Regardless of who he is facing, I want to see him make that living.

Arreola, though flawed, is one of boxing’s hottest prospects, which, admittedly, isn’t saying much. But   he’s exciting, big, and heavy-hitting, meaning he’s a perfect fit to be on television.  Walker, a one-loss hard hitter who had beaten prospects Jason Estrada and Jorge Garcia, was a worthy opponent for a stepping-stone bout.  And the fight was actually exciting.

Granted, putting fights like Roy Jones Jr. vs. Felix Trinidad on pay-per-view is unfair to fans, but every sport has flaws, and if boxing’s biggest flaw means putting extra cash into the pocket of a soon-retiring ring legend, then $50 for a fight every now and then is okay by me.  And it’s not like HBO and Golden Boy aren’t making an effort; in 2008, they collaborated to bring us De La Hoya vs. Steve Forbes, Bernard Hopkins vs. Joe Calzaghe, and Ricky Hatton vs. Paulie Malignaggi for free.

In the past four months, boxing suffered two major programming setbacks.  Telefutura cut their “Solo Boxeo” series, and ESPN2 ridded “Wednesday Night Fights” of their airwaves.  The reduction in televised boxing will make HBO’s role within the sport even bigger.  My advice to the network:  market your multi-media features more, and continue to hype your fights.  Your online and On Demand programming are a fight fan’s dream, and your “24/7” series deserves all the praise in the world.  And hopefully, with more advertising, the boxing world will realize what a great job you’re actually doing.

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