LONG before the announcement, we knew. HBO officially declared its departure from boxing on September 27, and completed its protracted and underwhelming goodbye on December 8, but the writing had been on the wall – in giant, luminescent letters – for months before. If 2017 had given cause for concern, with a slate of steadily declining quality, 2018 dawned with the warning signs flashing red and the claxons sounding until, suddenly, the end was no longer near but here.
Whether ultimately brought about by mistakes, internal sabotage or neglect (or some combination thereof), the demise of HBO Boxing after 45 years and 1,119 televised fights was catalysed by a perfect storm of events. Uncertainty about the merger of parent company Time Warner with AT&T was at least a factor in the tightening of purse strings at just the time when, after a couple decades of effective duopoly at the prestige end of boxing broadcasting in the U.S., the media landscape underwent a giant convulsion. Bob Arum, never slow to sense an opportunity or express dissatisfaction with HBO, saw an opening and took his Top Rank stable to ESPN, leaving a gaping hole in the network’s lineup; the departures of Terence Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko, who had risen to stardom on HBO to become arguably the two best boxers in the world, hurt especially acutely. Then, in rapid succession, some of the biggest names of HBO Boxing over the last several years announced their retirement and exited the stage: Tim Bradley, Juan Manuel Marquez, Wladimir Klitschko, Andre Ward, Miguel Cotto.
Internally, there was some hope that HBO might become the home of Matchroom USA, fuelled by the return to the network of Daniel Jacobs, Eddie Hearn’s first Stateside signing; but once Hearn hitched his company’s wagon to DAZN, the end was just a matter of time. It didn’t matter whether the merger would go through or whether AT&T wanted to pump money into boxing: no amount of money or commitment could alter the fact that 80 percent of the available talent had been signed to rival platforms. There were hardly any boxers left for HBO to show, and once the contracts of Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin were up, so too was the pretense.
The mood among HBO employees, production staff and crew at the Canelo-GGG rematch in September was funereal. We realised it was all but over, that this would be our last ever pay-per-view. The only unresolved issue was how long it would take for the death notice to be issued. Perhaps HBO Boxing could struggle on for a while, riding the Jaime Munguia train and hoping he continued to fight every two months, interspersing his appearances with a couple of Superfly cards, and stitching together the rest of the year’s slate with assorted Golden Boy and Main Events fighters.
It was not to be. Less than two weeks after the final bell rang at the T-Mobile Arena, HBO Boxing officially announced its intent to self-terminate. It struggled on for a couple months more, with an increasingly sad farewell tour that took in New York, Atlantic City, and finally a triple-header on a cold night at StubHub in front of a pitifully small crowd that looked to be no more than 750 or so. It was a dreadful way to go out, mimicking the sad and graceless exits that are so common in the cruel world of boxing.
Does it matter? At the end of the day, surely what’s important is the sport, not who broadcasts it, and the only thing that stays the same is the way things change. True enough, boxing will continue, and the options available to consumers now are so much greater than they were even a year ago.
Against that, boxing is now sorting itself ever more into silos; there is no longer one dominant peak that all boxers yearn to climb, one stage above all on which they aim to shine. It has long been a challenge for crosstown matchups to get made; it remains to be seen whether that challenge is now all the greater.
And while theoretically it makes little to no difference who broadcasts a fight, HBO consistently did so to a higher standard than anyone. Its production values were exceptional, and its shoulder programming and fighter profiles changed the game. And then there was the commentary, the exceptional calls from a stellar assortment of pros:
“How do you like it? How DO YOU like it?”
“It happened! It happened!”
“You’re going to watch Lou Duva go crazy now. You’re going to watch Lou Duva go absolutely berserk.”
“Ward nods as if to say, ‘Come on! Come on! Come on! Let’s fight’”
“He’s not getting up, Jim.”
It would take a heart of stone not to scroll through YouTube, watching old fight footage, realising how many great events were on HBO and listening to the commentary, without feeling at the very least a hint of melancholy at the departure of an old and trusted friend.
I did not know much of HBO until I moved to the States in 1994, and when I first arrived, I sought to avoid paying the extra monthly fee for the premium cable package. In those days, TV signals were analog, and the channels to which you didn’t subscribe were a scrambled, wavy contortion, through which the cheap and creative might try to discern some semblance of an image. I attempted to do just that when Lennox Lewis first faced off against Oliver McCall, and succeeded in doing so just enough that I soon realised that whatever HBO was showing now, it wasn’t boxing. The fight must have ended early, I calculated; I presumed that Lewis had scored an early knockout. Once I realised what I had missed, I resolved then and there to bite the bullet and subscribe.
For the first 10 years or so, my involvement with HBO Boxing was purely as a fan: these were the years of early and classic Boxing After Dark, of Naseem Hamed attempting to conquer America, of the glory days of Oscar De La Hoya and the early days of Floyd Mayweather Jnr, of Lewis being robbed against Evander Holyfield and beating up an old Mike Tyson. In late 2003, I began to cover boxing and, in the process, to gain a nodding familiarity with some HBO folks. Among them was Bert Sugar, the fedora-wearing, cigar-chomping old salt who was earning a trade by doing the rounds of the country’s sports radio stations to pitch pay-per-views. He and I struck up an instant relationship, and after a few years, a producer by the name of Chris Vivion decided he needed to capture our double act on camera.
Thus was born my HBO career, making digital videos in which Bert and I – sitting variously in a Vegas casino bar, in a Vegas casino blackjack room, or at a Vegas casino pool (you’ll notice there was a theme of sorts) – exchanged bad jokes and broke down upcoming fights. After Bert’s death, I wrote for the newly-minted HBO Boxing blog, and at the start of 2014 began the twin roles that I occupied until the network pulled the plug on its coverage: as co-host with Eric Raskin of the HBO Boxing Podcast and as the HBO Boxing digital reporter, a role that took me around the world – to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, London, Montreal, Monaco, Macau, and even Yekaterinburg, to name but a few. And I can happily and honestly report that it was the best five or so years of my professional life.
I was honoured to work for HBO. I liked the different relationship with the fighters that my role afforded me – less adversarial, more symbiotic. I enjoyed the opportunities the position presented, particularly in terms of being granted more intimate behind-the-scenes access in training camps.
And I loved my colleagues, including those with whom I didn’t work directly. It was my tremendous good fortune to befriend so many of the crew, the production team, the unseen folks who made the broadcasts happen and made them look so good. We were a traveling circus, an extended family, and I looked forward every time to going to a fight because it meant that I would be back among my friends. As well as being, to a man and woman, great people, they were all, from audio and camera operators to directors to producers, not only good at what they did, but the best. They would joke around, they would laugh, but when the rubber hit the road, they would work hard and to a standard of excellence.
I came to particularly savour the final minutes before each broadcast started. Folks at home would be opening beers and making themselves comfortable on their couches; journalists ringside would be checking their WiFi or writing their ledes. They didn’t see what I saw: my friends taking their positions, on the ring apron or at the commentary table, in the production truck or patrolling the arena, their game faces in place as they readied themselves for the work that lay ahead.
By the time the final broadcast rolled around, it felt as if we had already all died a thousand deaths. We had read the countless obituaries, consoled each other over the phone and in person, toasted 45 years of history at numerous parties and dinners. That evening, a couple of hours before we went on the air, we posed for a series of group photographs in the all-but-empty arena, the significance of the moment accentuated by the number of others – media and fans alike – who filmed the occasion for their own posterity.
It seemed oddly appropriate that Max Kellerman arrived at the venue having lost his voice, a final dose of snakebite for a dying franchise, forcing him to bravely croak his way through the broadcast. That aside, he, Jim Lampley and Roy Jones called the three fights with their usual distinction, and then took their customary places to deliver their post-fight thoughts. If the routine was familiar, the circumstances were unique and historic: for the first time that I could recall, the credentialed ringside media all gathered around to listen to the trio’s parting words.
Roy went first, losing his composure only at the very end, in the process prompting tears from the watching HBO team ringside – myself included. Jim, who has never hidden from his emotional side, just about made it through his remarks, and as he ended and threw to the highlights package that concluded the broadcast and HBO Boxing, the ringside area erupted in applause.
There were hugs – and more tears – ringside, and yet more back at the production truck. We milled around, all of us, none of sure what to do, what to say or where to go, none of us wanting to leave or say our goodbyes until finally, slowly, one by one we peeled off and went our separate ways.