Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
A lot of familiar sayings pop into a listener’s mind when Kathy Duva speaks out about boxing matters then and now. She has been in the business for more than 35 years, first as a publicist for her husband Dan’s promotional company, Main Events, and after his passing in 1996, as its president. She has been to the top of the highest mountain, when Main Events’ deep roster featured such stars as Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Mark Breland, and later as more of a secondary player with a depleted stable, scoping out less treacherous hills to ascend. But Main Events and Duva are staging a comeback of sorts, with WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev as the brightest hope for renewed relevance.
When Duva ruminates about her company’s and family’s oldest and most bitter rival, Don King, it is with a curious mixture of pent-up venom as well as what almost sounds like near-sympathy for a one-time giant of the industry who has tumbled far from his own glory days. What satisfaction is there to be drawn from victories at the negotiating table unless they sometimes come at the expense of the fire-breathing dragon that so frequently has made your life miserable? Remember, Kathy once dressed up her then-toddler of a son, Bryan, with a fright wig and a gold-glittered, cardboard DKP-logo pendant for a trick-or-treating tour of her neighborhood. It was a sight gag worthy of the best of Mel Brooks, and a reflection of the mother’s utter contempt for the electric-haired model for the Halloween caricature as well as a sort of grudging admiration.
King, at 82, is still around and harrumphing his heh-heh-hehs and “Only in America!” mantra. And while it might not be his last stand, win or lose, his fighter, Bermane Stiverne (23-1-1, 20 KOs) takes on Chris Arreola (36-3, 31 KOs) Saturday night in Los Angeles for the WBC heavyweight championship vacated by the now-retired Vitali Klitschko. Should Stiverne win – and, remember, he already holds a wide unanimous decision Arreola in their first meeting, on April 27, 2013 — King’s faltering operation could take on at least some of the trappings of its former status as one of the fight game’s major power brokers.
I interviewed Duva for a story I had planned to do for TSS a couple of weeks ago, but – she’d certainly hate to admit this – she did her own version of King’s rambling, stream-of-consciousness brand of verbosity, at such length and with such conviction, that she filled up eight legal pages with interesting quotes. What to do? Condense all that material into a Cliff’s Note single column? Or spread the wealth over a three-part series, the truth of which, or possibly the lack thereof, to be discerned by TSS’ knowledgable readers? I chose the latter.
What did surprise me was Duva’s frequent references not only to King as the head of a diminished Evil Empire, but as the main character in a cautionary tale that more recent wheeler-dealers – Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, adviser-to-the-stars Al Haymon and Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza –seem intent on reprising.
Main Events’ marquee attractions from the good old days almost exclusively appeared on HBO or HBO Pay-Per-View, and Kovalev has graduated from dates on NBC SportsNet, which has contracted for Duva’s company to furnish the matchups since “Fight Night” debuted on Jan. 21, 2012, to HBO. It’s no surprise that, in her assessments of the HBO business model in comparison to Showtime’s, she sees HBO as having the superior format. Make of that what you will. It’s only one person’s opinion and, well, it might be construed as more than a little self-serving. Remember, Duva filed a lawsuit in late April against Showtime, Golden Boy Promotions, WBA light heavyweight champ Adonis Stevenson, his adviser Haymon and promoter Yvon Michel. It is Duva’s contention that there is a legally binding contract between Main Events and Michel to promote a Kovalev-Stevenson bout, on HBO, which appeared to be quashed when Haymon took Stevenson to Showtime.
But that doesn’t mean that a perhaps biased point of view isn’t entirely without merit, and Duva makes no bones of her belief that Showtime’s make-or-break, multimillion-dollar bet on Floyd Mayweather Jr., Golden Boy and Haymon is reminiscent of a similar bet-the-house wager made by King two decades ago, with ultimately disastrous results.
“You can literally trace the decline of Don King as a major promoter to the day he made that deal,” Duva said of King’s jumping from HBO to Showtime, taking with him such ring luminaries as Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez. “His operation went straight down from there. It was a mistake on his part, I think it was a mistake on Showtime’s part. And now the same mistakes are being made all over again.
“Mayweather is being paid a tremendous amount of money (he’s three fights into a six-fight deal that potentially could bring him upwards of $250 million), and it’s putting Showtime at risk financially. It’s not just coming out of their budget that they’ve allocated to buy fights. They’ve got to make money every time he gets in the ring. Whether or not that was a good business decision on their part, I can’t say until the deal’s over, I suppose. They certainly got a lot of attention, and I’m willing to bet, a lot of new subscribers, at least initially.
“The problem, as far as I can see it, is that people aren’t watching Showtime because Floyd Mayweather is fighting on pay-per-view or because Canelo (Alvarez) is fighting on pay-per-view. Or Amir Khan or Adrien Broner. These are the people who are getting their highest ratings, and more and more they’re fight on pay-per-view now. They have a very different business model than HBO had back then.
“Clearly, their business model is to build fighters up to pay-per-view and that’s where they make their money, or not. That’s a perfectly legitimate business model. HBO’s is more – I think – to develop talent, to hopefully put on entertaining fights with that talent, which was what they were trying to do with Kovalev and Stevenson.”
To Duva’s way of thinking, HBO’s model is analogous to a baseball team – say, the St. Louis Cardinals – building through a strong farm system while Showtime taking the approach of the late George Steinbrenner’s free-spending New York Yankees, throwing wads of cash at big-ticket free agents. It’s a bold step for Showtime, which apparently is no longer content to play Avis to HBO’s Hertz.
“The people who got the ratings on Showtime are the people who were built up on HBO,” Duva continued. “They only recently poached another HBO fighter in Stevenson. Their whole business model is, `We’ll poach some top guys from HBO and put them on pay-per-view.’ It was unthinkable that Showtime could do that back then (in the 1990s) because HBO’s budget was much bigger.
“King was able to make the deal he did with Showtime based on Mike Tyson being that sort of pay-per-view attraction. Chavez was a tremendous fighter who, frankly, was buried on Tyson undercards for years when he should have been a bigger star in his own right. But you can’t build a superstar on Showtime. You just can’t, no matter how hard you try.
“What’s interesting to me is how long can this continue? How many more HBO fighters can Showtime poach? At what point will they have too much inventory? I don’t know.”
The principals, of course, are different now than they were then. King’s role presumably is now being filled by Haymon and/or Schaefer, while Espinoza is sitting in the chair once occupied by his twice-removed predecessor as executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports and Event Programming, the late Jay Larkin. Mayweather is cast in the role of the new Tyson, the bell cow whom PPV customers are expected to follow no matter whom he fights or how well he fights them.
“This is so much what King tried to do in the ’90s,” Duva said. “He was saying, `I want my own network. I want to call all the shots. I want to do whatever I want.’ It was a situation that was very beneficial to him in the beginning, but in the end he isolated himself. Now, you can see the same thing starting to happen again.
“What stopped King from signing every fighter in the world was that even he had a limited budget and, let’s face it, he was Don King. People were wary of signing with him. It wasn’t that difficult to keep our fighters from going over to him. Generally, it went in the opposite direction.”
It all makes for a soap opera that, unlike actual daytime soap operas with story lines that go on and on and on, figures to have some sort of definitive conclusion. Whether that turns out to be sooner or later, who can say?
“I think the end game for Golden Boy and Al Haymon is to go back and get every date on HBO, too,” Duva said. “The lack of competition is not good in any business. I don’t think that Showtime’s interests should be so closely aligned with Haymon’s and Golden Boy’s. But they are. Ultimately, if HBO capitulates, it means that they give the HBO dates to Showtime, too. And where does that leave Showtime?”
What boxing needs, Duva said, is someone with the patience, persistence and clout to move mountains when necessary. Someone like, say, former HBO Sports boss Seth Abraham.
“Back then, Seth was almost like the commissioner of boxing,” she noted. “Think about it. He came from (baseball commissioner) Bowie Kuhn’s office. He had that mindset. The way Seth used to operate, because I went to a lot of those meetings with my husband, he’d put everybody in a room and not let them out until he had an agreement.
“Now, there was a time when Seth was accused of being way too cozy with Don King. There was an executive with his company who resigned over it, or perhaps he was pushed out. Well, there also was a time when King walked away from Seth, but, still, Seth worked with him when he had to. He didn’t welcome King back with open arms ever again, and there was a lot of bad blood. There always is when you say, `I’m taking my bat and ball across the street.’
“ We once crossed the street ourselves when we made Whitaker-Chavez on Showtime Pay-Per-View because that was the only way to get a fight our guy desperately wanted. To this day, I don’t know that Seth would say he’s forgiven (Whitaker’s manager) Shelly Finkel and maybe my husband for that. That was seen as an enormous affront and I don’t think it helped us in the least in our relationship with HBO. But that was one fight, and you could get past it.
“But to take your whole business across the street? Think about it. HBO enabled Golden Boy’s very existence. They literally pushed Main Events aside at a time after Dan had died and our stock had begun to dwindle. We were not in a good position. At the turn of the millennium when Lennox Lewis was heading into his last days, as was Arturo Gatti, and Whitaker had retired, those dates that used to go to Main Events started going to Golden Boy.”
So the combatants have changed, but the old battle rages on. It’s a war of attrition, with conflicting strategies and visions of how it will all play out, eventually. Maybe Showtime has the right answers this time. Maybe it doesn’t. To Duva’s way of thinking, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.
“HBO’s got a machine there,” she offered. “They can build more talent. It’s a rare fighter who comes along who is so valuable that he can’t be replaced. It happens maybe once or twice in a generation. Floyd Mayweather is one of those fighters, no doubt. But there’s nobody else over there who’s a Floyd Mayweather.
“How many guys like that have there been in the pay-per-view era? Tyson. Holyfield. De La Hoya. There aren’t too many of them.
“At some point I think HBO will buy fights from Golden Boy again. At some point I think Showtime will buy fights from other promotional companies. I really think that’s the only things that makes sense in the long run.”
For now, though, expect the status quo to remain.
“Richard gave an interview that was related to me the other day,” Duva said. “He said, `I don’t agree with (Bob) Arum’s idea that you go to China and Russia and bring back talent from there. But if they build up somebody that’s attractive to us,’ we’ll just take him.’ If a network wants to empower someone with that attitude, someone who sets himself up to put other people out of business, you will see the demise of the boxing as it exists today. Except that I don’t think (Golden Boy and Showtime) can put HBO out of business.
“I’ve been going to meetings at HBO for 10 years and I told them that this was going to happen. It got pooh-poohed every time. If I went to meetings at Showtime, which I don’t, I would tell them the same thing. They’re looking at boxing as if it observes the laws of economics, as if it obeys the laws of supply and demand. It doesn’t. It never has.”
Read the parts 1 and 2 here :