February 7, 2017
February 7, 2017
Premier Boxing Champions

Esther Lin/Showtime

Feedspot followFeedly follow

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

WHEN Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn flirted with the boxing game, Bob Arum remarked, “The desert is strewn with bleached bones.”

Arum witnessed what happened to neophytes Josephine Abercrombie, MC Hammer and others when they dabbled in the Hurt Business. Many in the boxing media have suggested that a similar fate awaits Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), a well-funded televised boxing series created by Al Haymon and launched in January 2015.

Let’s not confuse Haymon with these well-heeled dilettantes. Although he hasn’t granted an interview since Bill Clinton first took office, Haymon is regarded among the most powerful men in the sport. His accomplishments over 16 years in the business include orchestrating the wildly lucrative latter half of Floyd Mayweather’s career and advising scores of other name fighters.

With this latest venture, however, boxing’s wizard behind the curtain was staging a coup. He had over 100 fighters under contract, and commitments from NBC, FOX, FS1, FOX Deportes, Spike TV, ESPN and Bounce TV. Some networks agreed to time buys—purchased time slots—while others paid rights fees. The goal was to expand viewership of boxing via free television and grow a sport that keeps shrinking in the US.

PBC represented a paradigm shift of how boxing was to be presented and consumed. Paul Gift, business writer for BloodyElbow, says that Haymon may have raised upwards of $925 million from investment manager Waddell & Reed. Yet it’s worth noting that Haymon has not collected any advisor commissions from PBC boxers.

Competitors like Arum’s Top Rank and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions have naturally gone on the offensive. But rather than dedicating themselves to delivering a better product, they’ve continued serving the same, while taking Haymon to court and claiming that he’s monopolising the market.

Top Rank has already settled their lawsuit. Golden Boy and Haymon are still in litigation but Gift, who has followed the court proceedings closely, believes Haymon’s positioning “seems to be on the stronger side.”

Based on their commentary, this displeases many of the most widely-followed members of the US boxing media. These voices note the old guard’s poor product but do so with a shrug, reserving their ire for PBC, which they either bludgeon with their cudgels or completely disregard.

The relationship between boxing’s power brokers and the US boxing media warrants examination, particularly how the latter appears beholden to the former and thus are unwilling to give a modicum of support for Haymon’s audacious move. Several of them claim PBC’s objective is to line Haymon’s pockets while delivering inferior shows. It’s as if at the sound of Haymon’s name, they become media versions of the Manchurian Candidate’s Sergeant Shaw, taking to various media platforms with a singular goal: Must Destroy PBC.

Some of the Haymon distrust is understandable. He is closely associated with Mayweather, the most polarising figure in the sport. And when he had influence at HBO (roughly between 2005 and 2012), their bouts hit a low point, as many fighters signed to Haymon were matched soft en route to gift-wrapped title shots. Post-Haymon HBO boxing is arguably worse. Along with a spate of showcase bouts, their frequent PPVs have never been more cynical. The apologists now cite HBO’s slashed boxing programming budget and friendships with certain promoters, informing their followers that they don’t have to buy it. But no solution is given. Maybe that’s because it’d mean acknowledging the elephant in the room: more than anything else going, PBC has the potential to cure what ails boxing. That is, if—and it’s a big if—the best fights possible were offered on a regular basis, for starters.

It would be disingenuous not to recognise the legitimate criticisms of PBC, from the matchmaking to fighters’ inactivity to weak ticket sales (more on this later). Still, this doesn’t explain the virulence directed toward it, considering its positives.

It’s unrealistic to expect PBC to return boxing to its Golden Age, when 70m listened to their radios during Louis-Schmeling in 1938. But is it unreasonable to think it could offer something akin to the 80s and early 90s, when names like Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez, Larry Holmes, and Alexis Arguello fought on free television?

Fighters who regularly appeared on the Big Three (ABC, CBS and NBC) became household names. This is impossible under the current model. Save for Mayweather and Pacquiao, boxers today are unknown to the mainstream sports fan. PPV numbers are trending down; fans are saying no mas.

Yet when PBC announced Andrzej Fonfara vs. then-unknown Joe Smith Jnr on NBC, it was roundly excoriated. The fight drew 1.3m viewers. These aren’t quite NFL numbers, but it would have made it the second most watched boxing card on HBO in 2016. Nevertheless, PBC’s critics imply that bringing boxing to a broader audience and not charging them for it is a punishable offense.

Thomas Hauser, in a May 2015 Boxingscene article titled, “Mayweather-Pacquiao: How Big a Winner Was Haymon?” closed the piece with a cautionary tale from the Bible where, “A wicked man named Haman [pronounced Haymon] set his seat above all the princes that were with him…Haman was hung on the gallows.”

Steve Kim of Undisputed Champion Network calls PBC a “multi-million-dollar welfare system” that “caters to the lowest common denominator of society.”

Doug Fischer, editor of The Ring magazine website, calls PBC’s most ardent supporters, The Demographic. “Racially biased African-American fans that are uninformed jerks,” he explains.

“I’ve really never seen anything like it,” says respected trainer Stephen Edwards. “Even if [Haymon] puts on a good fight, people will bring up a mismatch he was a part of.”

Edwards notes the peculiar preoccupation with PBC’s finances. “It’s like going to a party and complaining that the host paid too much for the food and venue when everything is free and all you have to do is enjoy yourself,” he says.

One possible reason why Haymon is scorned by some of the US boxing media is because he himself refuses to do press or socialise with them. Few appreciate the travelling circus that is boxing for the beat writers. Long-held friendships (and beefs) are forged between the media and the powers that be. Treating reporters to steak dinners and many a generous pour, and being accessible to them, goes a long way to influencing the narrative they create.

“I’m a career long journalist,” says Steve Farhood, current Showtime analyst and former editor-in-chief of The Ring and KO Magazine. “A lot of writers don’t like to admit this but they tend to play favourites with people who give them access, whether fighter or promoter, etc. So, I think there’s been some unfair reporting that has gotten personal against the PBC because there isn’t that person to go to.”

“I think a lot of criticisms are because of alliances and allegiances from those hoping to keep their fiefdoms,” says Tim Smith, VP of Communications for Haymon Boxing and a former boxing writer for the New York Daily News. “Reporters have gotten used to picking up the phone and having people tell them lies to keep their companies in the news. Al has promoters that put on the fights and a logistical PR company to set up fighter interviews. He’d rather spend his time trying to make meaningful fights for his fighters.”

Haymon’s disengagement with the press has led to a certain groupthink within the media fraternity. Here’s a critical look at some of the arguments against PBC that are repeated ad nauseum:

PBC = QUALITY CONTENT, GARBAGE OR SOMETHING IN BETWEEN?

STEVE KIM mockingly shouts, “It’s freeeee!” whenever referencing PBC on his weekly podcast, The Next Round. But have you ever met anyone who’d rather pay for something when they don’t have to? In less than two years, PBC has aired many bouts as good or better than what’s appeared on HBO and, in several instances, better than HBO PPVs. Here’s a sampling, in chronological order, of arguably the top 30 PBC shows (on paper or in the ring), compared to those of HBO:

BN_19.01.17_p33

You be the judge of the qualitative difference between the two, mindful of the seven HBO PPVs and their $75 price tag.

“I’ve been to about four or five PBC shows and I think every show has been quality,” says former contender, trainer and overall boxing omnivore John Scully. “Usually, you go to shows and the undercard guys are matched easy. I’ve seen two prospects get beat on PBC shows. They’re developing the fighters and letting the cream rise to the top.”

“We try to present compelling 50-50 fights,” Tim Smith says. “Yeah, we missed on some. But guess what? Some weekends, you’re going to get the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cleveland Browns playing each other.”

It appears 2017 will be PBC’s strongest year. Whether this is due to necessity or choice shouldn’t matter to fight fans. But boxing critics will likely find a “Yeah, but” slant.

FOCUS ON THE FINANCES

IN a September 2016 article titled, “What has happened to Premier Boxing Champions?” ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael speculated that the lack of PBC cards last October was due to a “badly depleted” war chest. Countering that, Smith was quoted saying they wanted to avoid competing against the baseball playoffs and college football, which hurt their programming in 2015. Rafael dismissed Smith’s assertion and closed the piece thus, “Of course, that was not an issue last fall…PBC’s activity level has slowed as its bank account has seemingly dwindled.”

What Smith said aligned with what Spike TV President Kevin Kay told LA Times reporter Lance Pugmire several months earlier.

“We’re working on the 2016 schedule now,” Kay said. “We had some blips going head-to-head with college football, so the discussion is figuring out what to steer clear of.”

Smith says of the reporting: “I’m available to comment to any reporters that want to call and ask questions. But, in that article my quote was buried at the very end of it and that wasn’t even my full quote.”

Less than a month after the Rafael piece was published, PBC announced a 2017 schedule that could see upwards of 50 shows. Some scribes now point to the amount of PBC cards on Showtime – a premium channel that pays licensing fees to air boxing – as proof that PBC is in dire financial straits.

“I think there’s a bit of convenient amnesia from the critics,” says Stephen Espinoza, executive VP at Showtime Sports. “We had a very busy, high level early 2016, much like we’re going to have a very busy, high level early 2017. Nothing I’ve seen has signaled that they’re operating any differently than they had before.”

Espinoza’s point is well-taken. Showtime closed out 2015 and opened 2016 with a slew of PBC cards in that span. But with great power comes a great amount of…schadenfreude. Do boxing fans really care how much money is left in the PBC vault? The worst that could happen if they fail is exactly what was going on before it arrived.

Trainer Virgil Hunter says, “What’s funny is that some of these other companies are one loss away from going down. Now that PBC dropped their 2017 schedule, I think it’s time for the press to stay quiet because they clearly didn’t know what they were talking about.”

ANALYSING THE RATINGS

DO you remember back in the day when fans passionately argued over which network had better ratings? Neither do I. PBC’s are heavily scrutinised. True, their ratings have been inconsistent, but there have been undeniable successes that go disregarded: Errol Spence vs Leonard Bundu on NBC drew 6m viewers; 3.4m tuned into NBC to watch Thurman-Guerrero; CBS’ Thurman-Porter drew 3.1m; 2.3m watched Garcia vs Guerrero on Fox. Naysayers will point out that these numbers on free television are to be expected, missing the obvious: When is the last time SIX MILLION people watched a boxing match? “Now the press wants to announce the viewership on channels like Spike and Bounce,” Hunter says. “Well, if you want to do that, then fine. Just make sure you do that with stations like Unimas and the others.”

Hunter is referring to Unimas’ Solo Boxeo shows which are promoted by Top Rank. The show’s ratings are never a topic of discussion.

“There does seem to be something uniquely cannibalistic about boxing media and fans,” says Espinoza. “I think some of it comes out of passion for the sport and a desire for it to be at its best as much as possible. At the same token, there has been a prevailing negativity that has worsened lately. But I think relying on media as an indicator of public opinion would be a mistake. Social media, as popular as it is, still only really communicates a small fraction of the overall audience.”

In the past decade alone, gay marriage has become widely accepted across the country, a black man became president and then a former reality TV show with zero political experience replaced that black man. If these things can happen, might it be possible that boxing can transcend its niche status? Does such a thing defy imagination? Fight fans ought to start questioning the source. Just as Barack Obama is not a Muslim, Al Haymon is not the wicked Haman. He’s just a highly successful businessman that keeps a low profile.

“Boxing on network TV is what a lot of us who came up in the 80s have hoped for,” John Scully says. “Now we get that back and still people complain. You read some of what the media writes today and you begin to wonder if they even like boxing. There really isn’t any other way to describe it than to say, it’s just crazy.”

FAR FROM PERFECT

Some of the justifiable criticisms of PBC, such as the matchmaking and fighter inactivity, can be applied to their competitors as well. The best fighting the best is a step in the right direction, but is it enough to restore boxing to its once hallowed place? The corrective needed is deeper than this, otherwise Kovalev-Ward (for supposed pound for pound supremacy) would’ve done a million buys instead of the reported 160,000. If the man on the street doesn’t know who they are, it won’t matter.

Russell Peltz has been a fixture on the East Coast boxing scene for 47 years. Peltz has promoted shows with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Bennie Briscoe among others, and is synonymous with the Philadelphia boxing scene.

“PBC needs real promoters,” he explains. “Not these guys who come in and set up the hotel rooms and airport transportation. They need to start building up fighters in their hometowns, like Ray Mancini in Youngstown, Ohio. Vinny Pazienza in Providence, Rhode Island. Arturo Gatti in Atlantic City, New Jersey. You’re never going to develop a fan base if you let promoters use casinos with no connection to the fighters on the card because it’s just easier to do that.”

This might explain the lacklustre attendance at certain PBC events and suggestions of their papering arenas. Peltz, however, believes the problem extends beyond this.

“They’re making it difficult for a lot of promoters to be successful because they’ve overpaid fighters,” he exclaims. “I’m not talking about top fighters; they’re overpaid as it is. I’m talking about the opponents they were bringing in. It may not have been intentional, but they’ve made it impossible to compete.”

Promoter Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing says that while PBC has artificially inflated market prices, he’s seen a recent drop in purses that indicates they may be changing course. But the sport’s disorganised structure is still a hindrance to all parties involved.

“Right now, boxing is a bunch of different promoters promoting events, all individual and fragmented,” DeGuardia states. “We need to operate as an industry, with some collective interests that we can recognise and have somebody speak on that. We need an industry spokesperson.”

Haymon, boxing’s answer to J.D. Salinger, isn’t that guy. Nevertheless, PBC is in a position to bring different factions together. Haymon does co-broke; naysayers say he only sacrifices his pawns but with PBC’s Danny Jacobs vs. Gennady Golovkin, he shows a willingness to risk a rook.

Gone are the days when Americans were glued to their TVs to see the pro debut of a Ray Leonard. Boxing hasn’t cultivated new fans since Iron Mike popularised black shoes with no socks.

“The PBC came along, with apparently bottomless pockets, and gatecrashed a scene full of established players,” says Matt Christie, editor of Boxing News.

In trying to explain the excessive critique PBC receives from some of the US boxing media’s most well-known names, Christie says it speaks to our psychology.

“There was almost a sense that [Haymon] was showing off,” he says. “That kind of thing rubs people up the wrong way, including certain members of the media who have their own loyalties. And let’s face it, it’s human nature to want to see show offs fail.”