THE HAUSER REPORT: Three years ago, the eyes of boxing were on Premier Boxing Champions and what Al Haymon was (or wasn’t) going to do. Now the talk is about Top Rank and ESPN.
On August 9, The Walt Disney Company unveiled plans for an ESPN over-the-top streaming subscription video service that will debut in 2018. In 2011, ESPN was in 100 million homes. Since then, that number has dropped to 87 million as more and more customers cut the cable cord. Each lost home represents the loss of eight dollars a month in cable fees paid to ESPN by local cable companies. Thirteen million homes times eight dollars a home comes to more than $100 million a month in lost revenue for ESPN. Fewer homes also translates into fewer viewers, which means the amount ESPN can charge for commercials drops.
Meanwhile, the July 1 bout between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn marked the start of a new undertaking by Top Rank (Pacquiao’s promoter) and ESPN. No formal announcement of long term plans has been made. But reports suggest that Top Rank fights will be televised in the United States exclusively on ESPN, ABC, and the new ESPN streaming video channel.
It was also understood that Top Rank would have access to a third-party venture capital fund that would provide financial assistance for the signing and development of fighters. But the venture capital investor is believed to have pulled out of the deal at the last minute leaving Top Rank in the position of asking ESPN for more money (which might not be forthcoming), finding another investor, or digging deeper into its own pocket to finance its portion of the venture.
ESPN has televised two Top Rank cards since Pacquiao-Horn.
An August 5 telecast featured WBO 130-pound champion Vasyl Lomachenko (8-1, 6 KOs) vs. Miguel Marriaga (25-2, 21 KOs) with Raymundo Beltran (33-7, 21 KOs) vs. Bryan Vasquez (35-2, 19 KOs) in the opening bout.
The telecast began more than an hour late because ESPN chose to stay with the NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony (which ran long) and ESPN2 was occupied with what the network considered more important programming. Finally, Beltran-Vasquez began on ESPN2. Lomachenko-Marriaga was aired on ESPN after the Hall of Fame ceremony ended.
Beltran won a majority decision over Vasquez.
Lomachenko completely outclassed Marriaga, outlanding him 186-to-45 en route to a corner stoppage after seven rounds. That was predictable, since Vasyl is high on most pound-for-pound lists and ranked #1 at 130 pounds by ESPN while Miguel wasn’t ranked anywhere in any weight division by ESPN.
On August 19, Top Rank returned to ESPN with a three-bout offering headlined by WBC-WBO 140-pound champion Terence Crawford (31-0, 22 KOs) vs. WBA-IBF 140-pound champion Julius Indongo (22-0, 11 KOs),
In the telecast’s opening bout, 2016 Olympic silver-medalist Shakur Stevenson (2-0) boxed rings around David Paz (4-3-1) but showed a troubling lack of power. In Paz’s most recent outing, he’d lost to an opponent with 3 wins in 13 fights.
Next, Oleksandr Gvozdyk (13-0, 11 KOs) knocked out 30-to-1 underdog Craig Baker in the sixth round. Gvozdyk won a bronze medal for Ukraine at the 2012 Olympics and is a world-class fighter. Baker entered the ring with a manufactured 17-1 record. He’d stepped up in class once before, against Edwin Rodriguez in 2015, and been knocked out in the third round.
That set the stage for Crawford-Indongo.
The 29-year-old Crawford is near the top of most pound-for-pound lists, and deservedly so. He’s an accurate puncher with power and speed who looks better and better with each fight.
Indongo, age 34, had won belts in his last two fights, journeying both times to his opponent’s hometown: Glasgow for Ricky Burns (WBA) and Moscow for Eduard Troyanovsky (IBF). All of Indongo’s other fights had been in Africa.
Top Rank wanted to put Crawford-Indongo in Terence’s hometown of Omaha. But Lady Gaga had booked the CenturyLink Center for August 19, so the fight wound up in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Without the belts, Indongo would have been a ho-hum opponent. Depending on where one looked, Crawford was listed as a better than 10-to-1 favorite. But the fact that all four major sanctioning body titles were on the line gave the bout a certain cachet.
Top Rank president Todd duBoef did a nice job of hyping the fight.
“This is not an outlier,” duBoef said of Indongo at the final pre-fight press conference. “This is what happens with boxing. This is no different than Azumah Nelson coming over on ten days notice and getting in the ring and making a name for himself in the United States. People can change the tide very quickly in the sport of boxing. Indongo is a very talented fighter who has worked figuring out how to master a trade. The door of opportunity opens and he steps through it, and that is the story of boxing. People take advantage of those opportunities, and suddenly a diamond in the rough is discovered.”
Indongo built on that theme, telling the media, “I have been in boxing for a long time and not many people know me. I believe this is the time for me to show the world that a boxer from Africa, from Namibia, can beat a guy fighting in his home in front of his people. I know that my country and Africa is on my shoulders. I will travel the world with the four titles. I will take them back to Africa, to my country. I am going to be very very happy.”
But fighting Crawford is starting to look like running a race against a gazelle or getting into a one-on-one eating competition with a lion. It didn’t take long for Indongo’s dream to turn into a nightmare. Crawford dropped Julius in round two and closed the show with a highlight-reel straight left to the body at 1:38 of round three.
“He hit me hard to my body,” Indongo said afterward. “I couldn’t breathe, it hurt so bad. When he hit me that hard, not only did it hurt, it took my mind away. I couldn’t think.”
So . . . Where do Top Rank, ESPN, Lomachenko, and Crawford go from here?
The three-hour Pacquiao-Horn telecast averaged 3.1 million viewers on ESPN and ESPN Deportes (including streaming). It was ESPN’s highest-rated boxing telecast since 1995 and the highest-rated boxing telecast on cable television since 2006. The main event averaged 3.9 million viewers and peaked at 4.4 million. Those are good numbers.
By contrast, Lomachenko-Marriaga drew an average audience of 728,000 viewers. That’s 104,000 fewer people than watched Lomachenko one fight earlier against Jason Sosa on HBO. Also, keep in mind, ESPN is available in approximately 87,000,000 homes while HBO is available in only 32,000,000.
Numbers for Crawford-Indongo are unavailable as of this writing.
As for future opponents; when asked who he might fight next, Lomachenko responded, “For me, it doesn’t matter. My job is to work my best boxing in the ring. I will fight anybody. I want to fight, and I want to unify titles.”
Unlike many boxers, Lomachenko seems to mean it when he says he’ll fight anyone. That puts the ball squarely in Top Rank’s court.
Lomachenko’s most likely next opponent will be either Guillermo Rigondeaux or Orlando Salido.
Rigondeaux fights at 122 pounds, will be 37 years old next month, and has fought three rounds in the past 21 months. Lomachenko is 29 years old and now fights at 130. Vasyl put the matter in perspective after dominating Marriaga when he observed, “Rigondeaux, I think it looks the same as this one.”
Salido eked out a questionable split decision over Lomachenko three-and-a-half years ago in a fight in which referee Laurence Cole repeatedly allowed Salido to go low. Orlando is now 36 years old and has won one of four fights over the past 35 months. A Lomachenko-Salido rematch would even an old score for Vasyl but do nothing to entertain fans or enhance Lomachenko’s credentials.
Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia at 135 pounds would be a thrilling match-up and must see viewing.
As for Crawford, after beating Indongo, Terence declared, “Belts matter. I’m the only one who can be labeled a champion at 140, and that’s a big deal to me.”
But given the state of world sanctioning body politics, it’s unlikely that the 140-pound titles will be unified for long unless it’s through the mechanism of “super” world championships and other nonsense. Also, the 140 pound division is weak at the moment.
However, seven pounds to the north, the welterweight division is loaded. The hope is that Top Rank will find a way to match Crawford against one of boxing’s elite 147-pound fighters instead of putting him in one or more meaningless mandatory title defenses.
And by the way; Jeff Horn is not an “elite” 147-pound fighter.
Top Rank has two legitimate candidates for the pound-for-pound throne in Lomachenko and Crawford. The challenge now is to put them in fights that matter.
Over the decades, Bob Arum has developed some great fighters and given the world some great fights. But there are times when, fortified by a network output deal, he has presented fans with mismatches and predictably boring contests. Boxing fans aren’t stupid. They know the difference.
The ESPN-Top Rank alliance represents another golden opportunity for boxing. Time will tell whether Top Rank delivers the goods or falls short of the mark.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His next book – There Will Always Be Boxing – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in September. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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