By Tyson Bruce
This weekend, boxing makes it grand arrival back to network television on NBC. Unlike the more recent ventures into boxing on network TV, such as Main Events’ recent foray, Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions will feature some of the most preeminent talents in modern boxing.
The series will kick off at 9 PM this Saturday and will be headlined by the top ranked Keith Thurman, 24-0-(21 KOs), facing former two-division alphabet titleholder Robert Guerrero, 32-2-1-(18 KOs). The opening bout of the telecast will feature the always-controversial Adrien Broner, 29-1-0-(22 KOs), against veteran brawler John Molina, 27-5-0-(22 KOs).
The deal between NBC sports and Haymon Boxing was achieved under highly unconventional standards. Usually networks purchase time from organizations (like NBC does with the NFL), but in this case, Haymon made a bold move by purchasing more than 20 million dollars worth of airtime out of his own pocket. This puts the network in a virtual no-lose financial position.
Haymon has since purchased additional airtime for his PBC series on Spike TV and CBS with a war chest that is estimated to be in excess of 100 million dollars. It is speculated that ESPN may be next in Haymon’s master plans to make boxing his sole possession. In other words, boxing is making its way back into the living rooms of mainstream America, whether it wants it or not.
This plan, which must have taken many months to put into action, may help to explain why Haymon was responsible for putting on some of the worst televised cards in recent boxing history in 2014. His integrity, which is praised at every turn by his fighters but seems highly sinister to almost everyone else, has to be questioned in that he was completely willing to throw his benefactor Showtime under the bus while masterminding a deal that will see the majority of his talent move to a rival network.
The Haymon fighter who may stand to gain the most from the move from premium cable to network TV is none-other-than Keith Thurman. Thurman is one of boxing’s most explosive young talents, but has struggled to gain name recognition in a marketing model that is highly dictated by racial and geographical distinctions. Thurman is not a Latino American, boxing’s largest North American fan base, and comes from a state, Florida, that isn’t a boxing hot bed.
Boxing is a tribal game, and capitalizing on ethnic pride and racial tension (such as the sporting rivalry between Puerto Rico and Mexico) dominates in an industry that has long suffered from lack of ingenuity. As a result, Thurman has largely been frozen out of big fights and spent the majority of the last twelve months fighting relics like Julio Diaz and recovering from nagging injuries.
Thurman, exciting in the ring, is also one of the most articulate and engaging figures in the sport. Just watch him in a post-fight interview or a media workout if you doubt this assertion. Put a microphone in front of this kid and he will steal the show. Who can forget when he thanked the San Diego fans while actually fighting in San Antonio? Fighting on network TV will expose Thurman to a much wider demographic of fans and will give him a much greater chance of becoming a crossover star than he ever would have had on premium cable.
The man standing in his way is Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero, a man who in the not so distant past got his own taste of what things look like in the spotlight. Guerrero was hand-selected as Floyd Mayweather’s debut opponent on Showtime. The fight was his first following after a brief jail stint for domestic assault. Like many other B-side opponents in PPV productions, Guerrero’s experience was bittersweet.
During the promotional build up to the fight, the usually truculent Mayweather was curiously absent. This left the majority of the media pressure on Guerrero’s shoulders, and let’s just say the reaction was mixed at best. Guerrero’s near-constant ramblings about his position as an evangelical Christian was seen as a turn-off to the majority of Catholic Mexican-Americans, and his bone-headed attempt to illegally transport a firearm into New York State left the door open to a blizzard of media criticism. Combine this with the utterly tasteless verbal antics of his father Ruben Guerrero, and Mayweather was for once actually seen as a sentimental favorite going into the bout.
The fight, which was, perhaps foolishly, viewed as competitive going in, turned out to be an utterly one-sided affair in favor of Mayweather. Like so many of his fights, Mayweather took away Guerrero’s aggression and punished him with counter-punches. From about round three onwards, the bout was as predictable as any major fight in recent history.
When a fighter gets whitewashed in a major bout, there is usually two different reactions: he or she can either use it as a galvanizing force to be better, as Tim Bradley and Canelo Alvarez have done, or go into a bizarre tail spin of poor performances and unusual behavior, such as happened to fellow Mayweather opponent Victor Ortiz.
Guerrero has boxed just once since losing to Mayweather in 2012, where he went life and death with unheralded Yoshihiro Kamegai. Guerrero got the victory and reinforced his reputation as an entertaining fighter, but absorbed tremendous punishment against an opponent he was supposed to dominate. If he gets hit as much against Thurman as he did against Kamegai, he’s going to have some problems.
One of the other Haymon fighters expected to capitalize greatly from boxing on mainstream TV is the hated and controversial Adrien Broner. Broner was once viewed as Mayweather’s heir apparent, because of his precocious talent and his attempts to duplicate the champ’s fighting style and personality in nearly every way conceivable. After feasting on smaller opponents at 130 and 135-pounds, Broner made the bold move of jumping straight into the shark tank that is the welterweight division. After winning a less than convincing decision over the feather-fisted Paulie Malignaggi, he was manhandled by the brutal and clubbing fists of Marcos Maidana.
Since that point Broner has been in the rebuilding stage. He moved back down to 140-pounds and has scored two victories against modest competition that perhaps left more questions than answers about his potential ceiling in the sport. Broner has continued his bizarre and troubling behavior outside the ring–making sex tapes, musing in an inebriated fashion on his possible death, gaining tons of weight between fights, going on party tours–while doing little to acknowledge the role of such behavior in his lone defeat against Maidana.
Still very young (just 24-years of age) and possessing unquestionable athletic talent, Broner still has the chance to become the fighter so many people thought he could be.
His clownish and extravagant personality isn’t for everybody, but in a society obsessed with controversy and materialism, he’s more mainstream than some of us might like to admit. Part of the way hardcore boxing fans keep themselves engaged with a sport that so frequently lets them down with terrible fights and controversial decisions are through the near constant stream of comedic gold it provides. Seeing how middle America reacts to the antics of Adrien Broner should be worth the price of admission all by itself.
Broner makes his debut on NBC against one of the most honest and entertaining fighters in boxing in John Molina. Molina has five losses on his record and is not a world-class talent by any stretch of the imagination. However, he is often more than the sum of his parts, scoring some of boxing’s most memorable upsets and comeback victories in recent years.
Molina was twice on the receiving end of boxing lessons against the much more talented Hank Lundy and Mikey Bey (who has since become a belt holder at lightweight) only to score dramatic late round knockouts. Molina is never out of a fight because he has a never-ending supply of courage and game-changing knockout power in both fists.
Molina’s humble, every-man personality is the perfect foil to the flash and braggadocio of Adrien Broner, and he will certainly enter the fight as the sentimental favorite. The effort and honesty with which Molina practices his craft has resulted in him continuing to get big TV assignments despite the fact he has lost three of his last five fights.
A cynic can criticize this bout as a mismatch, but Molina will be dangerous as long as he remains standing against Broner.