On Thursday, Sept. 27, HBO issued the following statement:
“Going forward in 2019, we will be pivoting away from programming live boxing on HBO. As always, we will remain open to looking at events that fit our programming mix. This could include boxing, just not for the foreseeable future.”
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In other words, HBO Boxing is officially dead. Yet, boxing is doing better than ever. Such a happening seemed unthinkable even 10 years ago, when HBO was the sport’s premier network.
So much has changed since. Today, there is more boxing programming available to viewers than ever before. For the first time in four decades, the sport is back on network television. This December, the first Premier Boxing Champions show on FOX will take place, part of its landmark four-year deal with the network.
Showtime remains the market leader, having usurped HBO in that role roughly five years ago.
ESPN and Top Rank Promotions have a seven-year deal.
Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing signed on with the Perform Group’s DAZN for eight years.
HBO Boxing, which led the pack for much of its 45-year run, fell behind and fell apart. In an interview with the New York Times, HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson said, “This is not a subjective decision. Our audience research informs us that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for subscribing to HBO.”
That may be the result, but Nelson conveniently sidesteps what led to this. Here are 10 reasons why bagpipes are being played for HBO Boxing:
10. Cletus Seldin
Ok, Seldin is a symptom, not the cause. Still, he never would’ve been featured on HBO Boxing at its peak. We saw him twice in 2017. Seldin just wasn’t that good, something HBO realized as soon as they brought him back a second time and he promptly lost in one-sided fashion. What did Chris Rock say? Here today, gone today.
9. Goodbye, Larry & George
Larry Merchant and George Foreman were the bookends that kept the histrionic Jim Lampley, and the HBO Boxing broadcasting team, together. Foreman provided good — usually unintentional — humor, a jovial personality and real insight, particularly when it involved heavyweight boxing. Merchant was the anti-company man, the articulate Philadelphia journalist who shot from the hip. He was typically reasoned in his opinions; a polarizing giant who might’ve been pushed out for the younger Max Kellerman, something many will never forgive the latter, or HBO, for.
Merchant left a crater-sized hole and we suffered dearly for it. Lampley became a house-fighter cheerleader; unofficial judge Harold Lederman lost his touch and the prodigy Kellerman never filled Larry’s loafers.
8. It’s Boxing, Stupid
HBO Boxing once championed … boxing. There was something for everyone. That changed right around the time of Floyd Mayweather’s 2009 return and Manny Pacquiao’s rise. HBO became all about the blood and guts warrior. Arturo Gatti was God and boxers, who adhered to the Queensbury rules, were considered boring. Jim Lampley even created something called the Gatti List. Larry Merchant deserves some blame here. He fawned over brawler Ricardo Mayorga yet needed Viagra whenever technician Corey Spinks was in the same area code. There’s one problem with touting the brawler: They almost all eventually lose to the better boxer.
7. The Merger
Some suggest that AT&T’s $85.4 billion acquisition of HBO parent company Time Warner forced the latter to pare their boxing budget to window-dress their valuation and, ultimately, cut boxing off entirely. Once the merger went through, there was pressure on HBO to overhaul its model with a focus on greater profits. With that, came a close examination of non-performing shows, like HBO Boxing with its declining viewership. No doubt, such scrutiny expedited its demise, although it was headed there regardless.
6. Where’s ’Murica?
Remember when nearly every region in America was represented on HBO Boxing? Roy Jones Jr, Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Johnny Tapia, Kennedy McKinney, Junior Jones … were all network staples. Not anymore. HBO Boxing went from that to needing more translators than the UN General Assembly. The lack of American representation hurt a network trying to market boxing to an American audience.
5. Unimaginative Matchmaking
Like all boxing fans, I enjoyed Superfly, the show pairing the best fighters in the talent-rich flyweight division. That said, I find it unsettling that after what I presume were countless conference calls and strategy sessions, this was the best HBO could come up with. Then, they ran it back over and over, like the Friday the 13th franchise going to the well one too many times. Some will cry that they had no budget. True — it’s hard to spread butter with a toothpick. But whatever was there should have gone to paring the number of shows (maybe six annually?) and making the best out of them.
4. A Star is Born … or Scorned?
HBO Boxing once reserved PPVs for established stars against worthy contenders. And when these stars fought lesser opposition, it was off-PPV. Then, they relaxed their standard. While rivals sought to expand their audience by keeping as many fights off PPV as possible, the network that premiered their boxing series with Frazier-Foreman, kicked off Boxing After Dark with Barrera-McKinney, and cultivated more stars than Dr. Dre, did its best to minimize their audience. With so many of their best fights headed to PPV, casual fans never got familiar with HBO Boxing’s new breed. Their ratings fell by 10 percent in 2016. The rest is history.
3. The Departed
Seth Abraham, Lou DiBella, Ross Greenberg, Kerry Davis, Mark Taffet, Michael Lombardo, Tammy Ross. Many HBO executives who were heavily involved in their sports programming at its peak are long gone from the network. Some of those names took a lot of heat for their decisions during the turn of the century — as HBO increasingly moved toward PPVs — but things got worse with each departure.
The last time an HBO Sports head was relatable was when DiBella manned the ship. Not a typical suit, the Brooklyn-born DiBella can walk both sides of the street…because he enjoys it. As HBO Boxing became more corporate, they fell out of touch with the fans.
2. Ta-ta, Top Rank
In June 2017, Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions crossed over from HBO to ESPN, effectively putting the final nail in HBO Boxing’s coffin. With that, HBO lost Manny Pacquiao, Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko and access to Top Rank’s budding prospects. The only draws left were Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, Andre Ward, Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev. Ward would stop Kovalev before retiring in September, killing two birds with one stone. And Alvarez and Golovkin fought twice. With this lack of power, HBO offered next to nothing off PPV. Jim Lampley attempted to advertise their obit when he did his top 5 pound-for-pound list on “The Fight Game,” which few watched. All the fighters on the list were non-HBO, save Canelo, who fights primarily on PPV.
1. Mercury in Retrograde on March 20, 2013
That was the day HBO announced they were severing ties with any fighters aligned with manager/adviser Al Haymon and/or Golden Boy Promotions. It all started in February that year, when Floyd Mayweather left HBO to Showtime, forever changing the sport’s landscape. HBO has always had a promoter-centric business model, based on signing fighters through their promoters. A recent example of this was their signing of middleweight Danny Jacobs. Jacobs latched on to Matchroom Boxing before joining HBO. There was even a time when some thought Matchroom head Eddie Hearn would become HBO’s de facto promoter. Obviously, Hearn had other ideas.
Once Mayweather departed, HBO faced serious competition for the first time in years, since the days of boxing on network TV. Now, they had to bid on fights involving Golden Boy/Haymon boxers or risk losing those shows to an increasingly aggressive Showtime.
So, what did they do? Change their model to align themselves with a sport undergoing reform? No, they took their ball and ran home by ending their relationship with Golden Boy and Haymon fighters. That meant no Mayweather, Canelo, Deontay Wilder, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, Adrien Broner, Erislandy Lara, Abner Mares, Leo Santa Cruz, Peter Quillin, and on and on.
HBO had the past five years to reconsider their position. They stuck with their philosophy of signing fighters through their promoter, meaning they couldn’t deal directly with Haymon, who wasn’t a promoter—nor could they deal with his impressive roster of fighters, many of whom don’t have one. If Top Rank’s departure was the final nail in their coffin, this was the decision that sent them to that box.
When I remember HBO Boxing, I’ll recall the Legendary Nights series, Boxing After Dark fights such as Barrera-Morales, Barrera-McKinney, Tua-Ibeabuchi, Morales-Zaragoza, Tyszu-Phillips, Maidana-Ortiz, Cotto-Torres and of course, Arturo Gatti’s many wars. I enjoyed watching Roy Jones treating champions, contenders and civil servants with equal contempt. The enjoyable, sometimes contentious, banter between George, Merch and Lamps. Heck, I’ll even miss the shrieks and screams that accompanied a De La Hoya fight.
That HBO ceased to exist long ago, and I reconciled myself with this at the beginning of the end. HBO Boxing may be officially dead, but like my hairline, those follicles were gone many moons back.
But fear not, fellow boxing fan — our sport is alive and kicking. We remember the past, but look to the future because the latter is looking bright.