The late John Lennon sang “Give peace a chance,” which is a wonderful concept in theory. But harsh reality has a way of regularly crashing into dreamy idealism, which is why some of boxing’s most contentious battles are not waged in the ring, where they belong, but in paneled boardrooms where the sport’s true power brokers – promoters, television executives and arena bosses – are loath to cede any control and influence to their opposite numbers.
During the height of the Cold War, the respective leaders of the United States and Soviet Union, powerful men with access to nuclear arsenals capable of incinerating the planet, always stopped short of pressing their red buttons because of something called “mutually assured destruction.” Which is to say, even if your side “wins,” you still lose. But in boxing, where any big cigar intent on wielding a larger stick than the other guy can get a testosterone rush greater than whatever can be wrung from sappy Lennon lyrics, the spirit of cooperation for the greater good is again on the endangered-species list.
Latest case in point: the March 3 conundrum faced by fight fans in New York City, where two attractive fight cards worthy of having the local stage all to themselves instead will be going head-to-head to the likely detriment of both. The HBO-televised main event from the Theater at Madison Square Garden pits WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs), from Los Angeles by way of his native Kopeysk, Russia, against fellow Russian Igor Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs), a slick-boxing southpaw now based in Hamburg, Germany. Just 5.4 miles away in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Showtime counters with WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (39-0, 38 KOs) defending his title against fellow power puncher Luis “King Kong” Ortiz (28-0, 24 KOs), he of the two failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs.
The live gates for the two shows might not be significantly affected because each appeals to a different demographic. Kovalev and Mikhalkin are both Eastern Europeans, as is Kyrgyzstan-born, Russia-based WBA light heavyweight champ Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), who risks his belt against Cuban veteran Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs) in the co-featured bout in midtown Manhattan. The New York metropolitan area has a significant Eastern European population and partisans with ties to their old country always come out in droves to support their own. One borough over, of perhaps wider interest to more standard boxing buffs, Wilder will attempt to demonstrate against his most formidable opponent to date that he is much more than an overhyped curiosity who has built his reputation as a human wrecking ball by starching a succession of used-to-be’s and never-weres.
For fans sitting back at home, they can have their cake and eat it too by selecting either the HBO or Showtime event and taping the other. Still, the question as to how and why such a choice should even have to be made comes down to this: is this Battle for the Big Apple simply a matter of limited available dates for boxing on each premium cable outlet, thus making the occasional conflict unavoidable? Or is the situation borne primarily of spite, with one side or the other willing to sacrifice part of its viewing audience to hurt a competing entity?
Top Rank founder and chairman Bob Arum, no stranger to down ’n’ dirty feuds – at various times the cantankerous 86-year-old has gone all Hatfields vs. McCoys with Don King, Oscar De La Hoya, Richard Schaefer and Floyd Mayweather Jr. – has no horse in this particular race, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an opinion, and as always is only too willing to share it.
“It is absolute stupidity,” Arum told former TSS editor-in-chief Michael Woods of boxing’s March 3 version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. “I think Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza is countering (HBO Sports executive vice president Peter) Nelson, and that’s not good for either one of them. Between the two of those channels there’s not a hell of a lot of watchers. They are fragmenting a small audience.”
Arum is factually correct; it is getting harder and harder for any boxing telecast to attract whale-sized ratings in an era of a hundred-plus available channels and the unbundling of cable packages, where non-sports fans can opt out of additional monthly payments to receive ESPN and similar channels. More traditional premium-cable outlets HBO and Showtime, meanwhile, are fighting a holding battle against competitors like Hulu and Netflix. As some broadcast universes expand, others contract, causing those charged with at least maintaining the status quo to circle their wagons ever tighter to avoid losing further market share.
With 90 to 95 million subscribers to ESPN, far more than those on board for HBO and Showtime, Arum claims his recent deal with the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” affords Top Rank the “big megaphone” that affords his company a larger and more accessible platform to grow interest in boxing, and more specifically TR’s stable of fighters. Still, Arum has complained of deliberate counter-programming on at least two occasions by HBO, with which he had a long relationship that seems to have turned frosty. Arum was not pleased, to put it mildly, when his ESPN-televised pairing of Vasiliy Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux last Dec. 9 from the Theater at Madison Square Garden went against a tripleheader on HBO topped by Mickey Roman’s slugfest with Orlando Salido.
Getting the major players on the business side of boxing, which can be as ruthless and cutthroat as gang warfare, to come together and play nice happens about as often as the appearance of Halley’s Comet. Even on those rare occasions when it does happen, and the rival parties pledge through gritted teeth that more cooperative efforts will be forthcoming, it isn’t long before the in-fighting resumes. Kathy Duva, the Main Events president who now finds herself embroiled in another such contretemps as Kovalev’s promoter, recalled the excruciating journey for all concerned that led to the staging of the June 8, 2002, pay-per-view megafight in Memphis, Tenn., that pitted Lennox Lewis (an HBO fighter promoted by Main Events) against Mike Tyson (a Showtime fighter promoted by Don King). There has been only one other such HBO/Showtime joint effort, the much-anticipated (and long delayed) May 2, 2015, pairing of Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
“During that Lewis-Tyson promotion, they had to have a weekly conference call with all the lawyers that were involved,” Duva said some years ago in describing an ordeal unlike any she had experienced in more than three decades in boxing. “Those calls would last two or three hours every Tuesday. You had lawyers literally arguing over who would bring the stool into the ring. I mean, crazy stuff. The Tyson and Lewis camps were trying to screw each other in so many ways. I can’t even begin to count them all.”
So what, if anything, has changed and what has remained constant? The highly charged competitive atmosphere has a familiar feel, but some of those at the top making the calls have taken the place of predecessors who were at least somewhat amenable to having social contact with representatives on the other side.
The late Jay Larkin, Showtime’s point man on boxing for 22 years, chafed at the notion that for much of that time his company was Avis to HBO’s industry leader Hertz, whose haughty attitude was that Showtime was little more than a minor annoyance. Like Avis, Larkin fought harder, and he won his share of skirmishes as the feisty underdog, but he was staunchly resistant to the notion of even a temporary affiliation with the enemy at the professional level. Once, when asked if it might be possible for Showtime to join forces with HBO to make Lewis-Tyson happen, Larkin famously said, “Pork chops will grow on the palm trees in Tel Aviv before that happens.”
But those pork chops miraculously sprouted later, when Larkin’s corporate bosses dictated that they must for the sake of the bottom line, giving hope that the premium-cable Cold War might be thawing a bit. Perhaps even more surprising, Larkin, who was surprisingly fired by Showtime in November 2005, later did some piecemeal work for then-HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. “The irony is people don’t realize how much personal history we have with each other,” Larkin, who was 59 when he died on Aug. 9, 2010, after a courageous but doomed fight with brain cancer, said of Greenburg. We’d (rip up) each other in public, but at the end of the day we’d go out drinking together.”
(Note: for the past several college football seasons, Greenburg has produced a weekly half-hour show for Showtime following the exploits of the U.S. Naval Academy team.)
As is the case with, say, the football teams at Ohio State and Michigan, the faces constantly change but the rivalry remains at fever pitch. Larkin was replaced at Showtime by Ken Hershman, who gave way to Stephen Espinoza, while at HBO the transfer of power went from Seth Abraham to Greenburg to Hershman, who came over from Showtime, and now Nelson. How often Espinoza and Nelson get together for cocktails and small talk, if in fact they do at all, is not a matter of public record, but all evidence points to each man fiercely protecting his own turf when a deal needs to be done.
Nor are HBO and Showtime the only arch-foes slugging it out in a realm increasingly sub-divided into walled-off fiefdoms. There is the powerful but seldom seen Al Haymon with Premier Boxing Champions pulling his share of strings, as is Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, who collaborated with Arum on the four-year deal that was finalized in September 2017, bringing Top Rank back to its TV home from 1980 to 1996.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the reconfigured landscape is the struggle for dominion over the again-fertile New York City boxing scene, the key figures of which are Brett Yormark, CEO of Barclays Center, and Joel Fisher, the executive vice president at Madison Square Garden. To couch that rivalry in terms New Yorkers of a certain age can easily understand, the Garden, which bills itself as the “Mecca of Boxing,” is like the lordly Yankees of the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig/Joe DiMaggio/Mickey Mantle era, its PR flacks citing its 138-year rich history, which encompasses four venues, the current one having opened on Feb. 11, 1968. The Garden has history on its side, having staged some 1,500-plus fight cards, dating back to the three-round draw waged by heavyweights Jem Mace and Herbert Maori Slade on Feb. 2, 1883. Barclays Center, which opened on Sept. 21, 2012, is more akin to the less regal but lovable Brooklyn Dodgers of Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, never backing down from any challenge. Both venues claim to be No. 1 in a fight town for fights and fighters, a distinction that perhaps is best left to individual interpretation.
Maybe, in the end, determining who is who and what is what also is contingent on what customers want on a given night. No matter which fight card is the more exciting or better attended on March 3, the jockeying for an advantageous position among all interested parties is apt to continue well into the future. It’s just that, well, it might be better if a primed-and-ready audience – hey, 2017 was a terrific bounce-back year for a sport that desperately needed just such a resurgence – wasn’t forced into having to making a choice that won’t make everybody completely happy.
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