Almost always, the place to be for a big fight card is in the arena. On the night of Saturday, March 7, the place to be was at home, watching on television.
Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner vs. John Molina were credible, not remarkable, match-ups. But they highlighted what, in some respects, was the most significant televised fight card in decades: the rollout of Al Haymon’s plan to “take over” boxing.
Writing about Don King in the September 15, 1975, issue of Sports Illustrated, Mark Kram declared, “Don King is boxing, the man with the show, the man with the fistful of dollars and the imagination to match.”
Haymon, like King, is from Cleveland. Unlike King (who graduated from the Marion Correctional Institute after serving four years in prison for manslaughter), Haymon graduated from Harvard Business School. Right now, Haymon is the man with the show, the man with the fistful of dollars and the imagination to match. If he has his way, he might soon be boxing.
HBO was Haymon’s first bank. Then it was Showtime. Now he has venture capital support that’s believed to exceed $100,000,000. He no longer has to cajole network television executives into giving him dates. He simply buys them.
During the past few months, Haymon has orchestrated a heavy schedule of time buys on NBC, NBC Sports Network, CBS, CBS Sports Network, Spike, Bounce TV, and Telemundo. A time buy on ESPN2 is expected to be announced shortly. Haymon Boxing will also have dates on Showtime on a more traditional license-fee basis.
The time buys allow Haymon to bypass normal media filters in delivering his boxing programming to the public. In a sense, they’re similar to the paid infomercials that run on television at odd hours asking consumers to buy a five-CD set of “Golden Oldies.” Only here, Haymon’s investors hope to recoup their investment through the sale of advertising, pay-per-view fights, and (possibly) a subscription package and/or public stock offering.
March 7 marked the first fight card televised on NBC in prime-time since Larry Holmes defended his heavyweight championship with a 15-round decision over Carl Williams on May 20, 1985. The match-ups weren’t great. But they were were as good as lot of what boxing fans have seen lately on premium cable and far superior to the standard “free” fare.
Broner (who weighed in one pound over the 140-pound contract weight) entered the fight with a 29-and-1 record and 1 no contest. There was a time when Adrien was considered a potential superstar. Now, after being beaten down by a one-dimensional Marcos Maidana and looking lethargic in two subsequent outings, he’s known in some circles primarily for X-rated videos of himself that he posts on the Internet.
Molina, who’d lost four of his last seven outings, had been brought in to make Broner look good. John’s last victory was in 2013 against Jorge Pimentel (who has been on the short end in seven of his last eight fights). Molina has trouble against speed and movement. That didn’t augur well for his chances against Broner.
Broner-Molina was an inauspicious way for Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions on NBC to start. Broner is a safety-first fighter who doesn’t take chances. He’s good at blowing out overmatched little guys and dancing rings around plodding opponents. But the latter has limited entertainment value, as evidenced by the fact that the crowd booed for much of the fight and also during Adrien’s post-fight interview.
Broner outlanded Molina 219 to 54 according to CompuBox and outpointed him on the judges’ scorecards 120-108, 120-108, 118-110. At the end of the bout, Sugar Ray Leonard (who’d been kind to Adrien in his earlier commentary) noted disapprovingly, “You have to close the show.” Broner didn’t.
Keith Thurman is an entertaining fighter who came into his contest against Robert Guerrero with 24 wins and 21 knockouts in 24 fights. Thurman’s power hasn’t had the same effect against credible opponents that it had against the men he fought earlier in his career. But under the tutelage of trainer Dan Birmingham, his boxing skills have improved significantly.
Guerrero began his career as a featherweight and has worked his way up to 147 pounds. Both men can be hit. Thurman hits harder.
The most damaging blow landed by Guerrero during the fight was an accidental head butt in round three that raised an ugly bump on the left side of Thurman’s forehead. Thurman avenged that affront in round nine with a right uppercut that put Guerrero on the canvas and opened an ugly cut over Robert’s left eye.
Guerrero fought back with the heart of a champion. He survived and, needing a knockout to win in round twelve, he went for a knockout. But there were few moments during the course of twelve rounds when when the outcome of the bout was in doubt. Thurman outlanded Guerrero 211 to 104, and outscored him 120-107, 118-108, 118-109.
But the fights were only part of the show. Virtually every aspect of Premier Boxing Champions on NBC was publicized and subjected to scrutiny.
Three iconic sports personalities formed the core of the announcing team.
Al Michaels implanted himself in the consciousness of sports fans at the 1980 Winter Olympics with his call of the United States men’s hockey team victory over the Soviet Union (“Do you believe in miracles!”). He’s one of the best in the business at calling sports, most notably Major League Baseball and NFL football. But that wasn’t his role here. Instead, he hosted the telecast from a glitzy in-arena set, following a script that didn’t do justice to his considerable acumen and persona.
Marv Albert handled the blow-by-blow chores. Like Michaels, Albert is sportscasting royalty. His resume begins with the NBA and covers every major sport, including boxing. Marv seemed a bit rusty on Saturday night, not having fully updated his encyclopedic knowledge with regard to the minutiae of boxing.
Ray Leonard, in addition to being one of the greatest fighters ever, is articulate and smooth behind a microphone. He and Albert haven’t fully jelled yet, but they will.
B.J. Flores is engaging but was one voice too many in the booth.
Kenny Rice tended to repeat official pre-scripted story lines. After his pre-fight interview with Broner, Rice informed viewers: “We’re seeing a calmer Adrien Broner.”
Laila Ali was there to provide a female presence and a bit of Ali magic. But for the most part, she did little more than state the obvious. After the first round of Broner-Molina (in which Molina landed one punch), Laila informed viewers that Molina’s corner was “not happy with his connectivity in that round.”
Referee Steve Smoger provided an occasional useful rules interpretation.
It would have been appropriate to have some editorial reference – perhaps by Al Michaels – regarding Al Haymon’s master plan. That was an obvious and calculated omission.
Haymon Boxing poured an enormous amount of money into production of the telecast. There was a huge floor set augmented by giant video screens. Twenty-seven cameras caught the action from every possible angle under enhanced lighting.
The telecast tried for a UFC-WWE feel. Academy-Award winner Hans Zimmer wrote the signature music. The Lion King, Gladiator, and The Dark Night Trilogy are among Zimmer’s screen-score credits. If the Premier Boxing Champions music sounded evocative of The Contender, it’s because he also wrote that music.
One of the production innovations was not effective. NBC had trumpeted the use of a 360-degree over-the-ring video rig with 36 still cameras to offer a moving panoramic view of the action. But when pieced together, the photos had the feel of a not-very-good video game from the 1980s.
In a nod to The Contender, the fighters walked to the ring alone. That seemed unnecessarily contrived. A fighter’s corner men should take that walk with him.
There were no round-card girls and no visible ring announcer. If Premier Boxing Champions is going to continue using a disembodied voice to impart information to fans, the voice should be more authoritative than the one heard on Saturday night.
I love the fact that Haymon Boxing eliminated the mob that pours into the ring before and after fights. There were no people in the ring shouting, “You da man.” No sanctioning body officials shamelessly draping T-shirts and phony belts over the combatants. No promoters, managers, commissioners, or mistresses jockeying for position in front of the camera.
Thank you, Al Haymon. I hope every network that televises boxing follows your lead on that one.
Now let’s return to numbers; only this time, the numbers revolve around dollars, not punches.
Haymon Boxing isn’t doing business as usual, but it is a business. The idea is to make money.
It was expected that advertising sales would be weak for the first NBC fight card, and they were. The promotion had difficulty selling ad time.
There were a handful of commercials for Nissan, Mazda, Lincoln, McDonald’s, and Verizon-Fios, as well as some Corona spots. But the Corona commercials were part of a broader sponsorship deal that included logo placement on the ring canvas. Many of the commercials that aired in New York (where this writer watched the telecast) were local rather than national and were for fringe enterprises. There was also the oddity of seeing two commercials hawking tickets for Wladimir Klitschko versus Bryant Jennings (which will be televised on HBO) and two more commercials offering Time Warner Cable customers the opportunity to subscribe to HBO at a special rate.
In other slots where ideally there would have been commercials, viewers saw dozens of promos for NBC programming, PCB fighters, and future PCB shows.
Ad sales are dictated in large measure by ratings. There were full-page ads for the March 7 telecast in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and other publications. NBC ran promotional spots in advance of the show.
Interim ratings released on Monday indicate that the NBC telecast averaged 3,400,000 viewers. That trailed two CSI reruns and an episode of 48 Hours on CBS as well as a rerun of 20/20 and In An Instant on ABC. For purposes of further comparison, NBC as a network averaged 4,800,000 viewers on Saturday nights in 2014.
Haymon Boxing expects to lose money on many of its early fight cards. March 7 was considered a loss leader, and it lost. Factoring in undercard costs, the fighters’ purses totaled roughly $4,000,000. There were large production and promotional expenses.
Haymon is said to be looking at an initial term of three-to-four years before evaluating the overall success of his effort. He knows that hardcore boxing fans will watch Premier Boxing Champions in each of its incarnations. But his target audience isn’t boxing junkies. It’s the general sports fan that he needs and covets. That’s why Al Michaels and Marv Albert are part of the NBC package.
There will be more bells and whistles as Premier Champions Boxing unfolds. Viewers have been told to expect that, in some jurisdictions, referees will wear a tiny camera mounted on a headband. There’s also talk of a dubious technology that might accurately estimate the speed of punches but is less likely to accurately estimate their force.
All of that is window dressing. At the end of the day, it’s about the fights. It would have been nice if the fights on March 7 had been more entertaining. Neither Thurman nor Broner did much to implant himself in the consciousness of the general sports public. Next time out, it would be great to see Thurman vs. Broner; not Thurman and Broner vs. two more “B-side” opponents. Not only would that be entertaining and attract viewers; it would add millions of dollars to the value of the winner as a future Floyd Mayweather pay-per-view opponent.
Boxing fans and Haymon’s investors have different priorities. Haymon’s investors want to make money. Boxing fans want to see good fights. These goals aren’t necessarily irreconcilable. Ideally, they will coincide.
If Haymon succeeds in pushing boxing back into the consciousness of mainstream sports fans, it will be good for Haymon and good for boxing. Beyond that, one has to ask, will he use the power of his purse to honor the essence and best traditions of the sport? Will he make quality fights available to the public free of charge on a regular basis? Will he make a sincere effort to eliminate the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs from boxing? Or will he promote mismatches, find creative new ways to separate fans from their dollars, corrupt the sport’s already-inadequate drug-testing protocols, play an illegal shell game with dollars, and substitute one group of bogus beltholders for another?
Al Haymon interviews are scarcer than hen’s teeth. But twenty years ago, he sat for a Q&A with Ebony Men (an offshoot of Ebony magazine).
In that interview, Haymon spoke of his role as a music promoter and declared, “Promoters are viewed as shady characters. I had the opportunity to represent something fresh and new to the artists. I don’t imagine a lot of information is being provided about this industry because it’s not a conventional industry for people of higher education to pursue. Black people – if they knew how much money was in it and how much opportunity there was and how fertile the ground was and how successful and influential one could become by being in it – then perhaps more would be in it. The entertainment industry, and professional sports particularly, represent an area where we are basically the natural resource. When you have an industry that offers high returns, you’re going to have high risk. We have to be willing to take those risks because, believe me, the opportunities are there. I saw the potential. I saw, if done right, one could make a lot of money and control a good deal of commerce and have a business.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.