Four years ago a dozen or so boxing writers were invited to a luncheon with HBO’s Ross Greenburg and other television executives in an Algonquin-type roundtable to thrash out the future of boxing.
One fighter’s name popped up more than a few times though most of the writers weren’t quite in agreement with his future.
That name was Floyd Mayweather Jr.
In those days his nickname was “Pretty Boy,” not “Money,” and a gambling person could have grabbed a heavy bag of loot betting that the Las Vegas prizefighter would emerge as the guy who would grab the baton from Oscar “The Golden Boy” De La Hoya.
One man did bet on Mayweather and that was Ross Greenburg the president of HBO Sports Entertainment.
“Floyd’s on another level now,” said Greenburg, who seems like Nostradamus now. “You cannot discount the star power of Mayweather.”
Three weeks ago Mayweather proved Greenburg right. Not by winning the fight, but by convincing more than 1 million people to buy the pay-per-view of his fight against Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez in a welterweight contest.
It was really no contest, but for the lop-sided match up to attract that many viewers on the same night that Ultimate Fighting Championship also had a per-per-view attraction only made the night more remarkable for boxing’s health and future prosperity.
Boxing virtually knocked out mixed martial arts. But like the boxing match it was a mismatch as UFC countered Mayweather-Marquez with Rich Franklin versus Vitor Belfort. It was not UFC’s best.
“We never really compare ourselves to the UFC. There are still distinctive fan bases. We have boxing fans they have MMA fans. There is crossover but it’s minimal. I think people were attracted by Mayweather-Marquez because of the status of the event,” Greenburg explained. “We don’t think we were up against the UFC. We were up against baseball, the NBA and NASCAR. When 1 million people are buying Mayweather-Marquez we’re grabbing the average people. Maybe 6 million people were watching.”
Promoters Bob Arum and Dana White both went on record saying that Mayweather’s return to boxing against the much smaller Marquez would be a flop.
Oh what a flop.
But prior to the fight Mayweather’s big numbers were with De La Hoya and Hatton. Most attributed the 2.5 million in 2007 to De La Hoya and in December 2007 to Hatton. On paper it looked like Mayweather’s drawing ability was about 400,000 strong.
At first it seemed Golden Boy Promotions, MGM-Mirage properties and anyone associated with the fight first proposed in May 2009 was running for cover. At the end of June with a few weeks left before the scheduled match up, tickets were still available and not going fast at all. It was reminiscent of the Ricky Hatton-Paul Malignaggi fight that did poorly at the gate.
An injury to Mayweather’s ribs literally giving the promotion breathing room. The added time allowed everyone space to configure how to attack the lack of interest. They came up with some brilliant ideas.
Richard Schaefer, CEO for Golden Boy, said they looked at how they could integrate other avenues to grab interest of the fans that do not normally watch boxing. Out went calls to various communication mediums including a telephone outfit and movie theaters.
“We were able to achieve 80 percent capacity,” said Schaefer of the more than 1,400 theaters showing the fight nationwide. “It was a tremendous success.”
HBO also contributed heavily with the now expected 24/7 series that began with De La Hoya’s fight against Mayweather in 2007.
“We obviously kicked in with another 24/7 and Juan Manuel Marquez brought in his fan base and created some interesting dynamics by drinking his own urine. All that added up and we had another gangbuster promotion,” said Greenburg.
Mayweather is now the big gun in boxing – though many including myself, still tab Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao as the best fighter pound for pound – not simply due to his prowess inside the ropes, but his prowess outside. Money makes money.
A main reason Mayweather has attained superstar status is not his safety-first boxing style, but his personality.
“You cannot discount the star power of Floyd Mayweather. I think a couple of years ago when he was retiring and was on Dancing with the Stars, WWE and the 24/7 series, I think he had become an established sports star,” said Greenburg. “He even appears in those computer commercials. People recognize him now.”
With Mayweather’s return to boxing the welterweight division has now hit super nova status.
“I think we definitely have a little lightning in the bottle in the welterweight division with Manny Pacquiao, Shane Mosley, (Antonio) Margarito, Floyd all in the same weight class. Your imagination can run amok,” Greenburg said a little excitedly. “That’s very similar to the 80s with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran. That can really set the sport off.”
Sports fans and casual sports fans are going to continue to hear that boxing is dying and that MMA has overtaken the sport.
Not quite. Not even close. The numbers don’t lie if looked at properly.
The HBO telecast of WBC titleholder Vitali Klitschko defending against California’s Mexican-American heavyweight Chris Arreola produced the best viewing audience for a HBO boxing telecast in 2009, even out-performing Mosley’s win over Margarito.
Greenburg says Arreola’s engaging personality and Klitschko’s stature proved a magical formula. The entire year has been magical for not just television but for the sport of professional boxing.
“We’re triggering something and elevating them to another level of familiarity,” Greenburg said. “That’s why boxing is going through this resurgence.”
Next in line
Picking the next heir apparent to lead boxing to the golden arches is not easy. Only Greenburg picked Mayweather years ago and Arum was able to pick De La Hoya a decade ago.
The number of young fighters that can attract the mega dollars is like picking a number on roulette.
Golden Boy’s Schaefer likes Jorge Linares while Greenburg likes Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero among others. According to one of the Golden Boy matchmakers a Linares/Guerrero showdown could occur next year.
“I’d love to fight Linares,” said Guerrero who just captured the IBF junior lightweight title.
Other fighters Greenburg likes: Alfredo Angulo, Chad Dawson, Paul Williams, Juan Manuel Lopez, James Kirkland and Victor Ortiz. One thing most have in common is one loss.
“There are a host of quality young fighters some of whom have lost. But I’m telling you Marvelous Marvin Hagler lost some early fights, and Leonard lost to Duran and you know what he did in his career” said Greenburg. “You never can tell. Some fighters lose and learn. I think one of these fighters is going to capture the public’s imagination.”
Producer Leigh Simons shot the preview show for Mayweather/Marquez and that was his 20th boxing promo documentary.
“It seems like yesterday I was shooting my first one,” said Simons, who lives in Florida.
That first boxing promo video was Marco Antonio Barrera’s title fight against South Africa’s Mzonke Fana in April 2005. It was shot in a snowy Big Bear Mountain and showed a flashy newcomer Dominic Salcido sparring the great Barrera as he prepared to defend his WBC junior lightweight title.
Simons showed that day a penchant for innovative tactics as he interviewed the fighters sparring while asking a boxing writer his take on the session and what each fighter was attempting to do.
The video promo was a success and Simon has since shot footage for boxing promos for various fights in the past four years including Bernard Hopkins, Ricardo Mayorga, Ricky Hatton, Joel Casamayor, Michael Katsidis, Manny Pacquiao and others.
Simons, a black belt in karate, knows the fight business and is often seen at big shows in Las Vegas and Los Angeles gathering intelligence and secret insight.
All in a day’s work for Simons.
Boxing fans are beginning to recognize the producer and expect his product. I know I am.