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Getting Less for More: The Gradual Decay of Boxing on Premium Cable

By Tyson Bruce

For the last generation premium cable giants like HBO and Showtime have dominated championship-level boxing coverage. Fighters arduously work their way up on club shows, untelevised spots on bigger cards, and less glamourous shows on ESPN and Shobox for the chance to showcase their talents under the bright lights of a major network. It’s akin to going from playing in the minors to getting a shot in the major leagues. As a result, fans have come to expect and demand matches of the highest order. Anything less is a source of intense scorn from boxing’s notoriously jaded but loyal fans.

Recently, however, this trend is beginning to shift, as the boxing fans bitterly bear witness to the ‘premium’ fights on HBO and Showtime that are fast becoming the newest black eye of the sport. A fight/event on PPV – an echelon traditionally (and logically) reserved for only the most prestigious fights and fighters – is gradually becoming an excuse and the mainstay for showcasing any world-class boxing of any true value, regardless of the bigger picture.

When the official announcement was made that junior-welterweight champion Danny Garcia, one the best young fighters in boxing, would be fighting a guy named Rod Salka the proverbial shit hit the fan. That his logical opponent Lamont Peterson is fighting on the undercard against an equally dubious opponent only increased the boxing public’s sense of outrage.

Garcia’s last bout against the scrappy Mauricio Herrera was supposed to be his showcase fight after taking on such a steady dose of upper-echelon opponents. That the Herrera fight turned out to be more than Garcia and company bargained for (many thought Herrera comfortably won the bout) is incidental. Garcia is a world champion fighting on a premium cable network, therefore, is required to fight the best opposition possible.

Salka is so comically obscure that he probably wouldn’t rank among the fifty best fighters at 140. According to the online database Salka, 19-3-0-(3), is dubiously ranked 79th in the world. Salka has never beaten a world-class opponent and has lost to Ricardo Alvarez and a 39-year-old journeyman named Dorin Spivey—neither of whom are world-beaters. So what is this doing on Showtime World Championship Boxing?

One of the prevailing theories is that Garcia is following a pattern set by manager Al Haymon, whereby a fighter establishes himself as a name-brand fighter and then once at certain level proceeds to fight an increasingly dubious class of opposition until he ready for the PPV circuit. Critics that support this theory will point to the recent batch of questionable matches featuring Haymon fighters on Showtime, including Matthysse-Molina, Guerrero-Kamegi and Quillen-Konecny. That two of the bouts turned out to be rousingly entertaining can be viewed as luck as much as anything else.

Showtime president Stephen Espinoza will try to have you believe differently, but the truth is that all these matches featured established champions or contenders fighting opponents that weren’t ranked in the top-ten by any credible rankings board. If those bouts had gone as most predicted they would have been chastised for taking up valuable air space.

The second theory is that entire paradigm of televised boxing in changing. The fifteen or so dollars a month we pay for HBO and Showtime is supposed to give us the best boxing has to offer. PPV, which can cost up to $79.99 a fight, is supposed to be reserved for the two or maybe even three biggest bouts of the year. This clearly isn’t the case today, as at the halfway point of the year we’ve already had four major PPV cards, the total purchase of which would add up to nearly $400 dollars. Perhaps not surprisingly all of the PPV cards have underperformed at the box office.

But really, can we be all that surprised by this? Oscar De La Hoya who was every bit the star in 90’s and 2000’s that Mayweather is today would usually have his two major fights on PPV and third “showcase” fight on regular HBO if it didn’t meet certain standards of credibility or profile. Now, however, it’s unthinkable that Canelo Alvarez or Miguel Cotto would fight on regular cable regardless of the opponent.

Take for example a fight like Canelo-Lara; a regular Showtime fight if there ever was one, which is now dubbed worthy of a major PPV. This despite the fact that Canelo is just twenty-three, has beaten just a few world-class fighters and his opponent, Erislandy Lara, hasn’t even headlined his own premium cable card and couldn’t sell out his own backyard. Just because a fight is evenly matched doesn’t mean it’s fit for PPV – and treating it as such has long-term consequences on the sport. This many PPV cards undermines the success of legitimate PPV fights like Martinez-Cotto, which sold just 350,000 units because in a time of economic recession people can only go to the bank so many times.

HBO is not without its own guilt, as a great fight like Crawford-Gamboa, in Crawford’s hometown of Omaha, was opened up by a undercard match of such obscurity that even hardened ring scribes were left scratching their heads. What exactly were a Russian fighter, Matt Korobov, and an unknown Venezuelan, Jose Uzcategui, doing on the undercard? Predictably, the fight absolutely stunk and failed to hype the packed crowed, many of who were probably seeing live boxing for the first time, for the start of the main event. It was bush league stuff that made no sense. Wouldn’t it have been more logical to put an American fighter of some promise on the undercard?

Remember when a salivating matchup like Marco Antonio Barrera-Kennedy McKinney was a headliner on, of all things, Boxing After Dark? These days we’re saddled with matchups like Geale-Barker, two foreign fighters who battled in utter obscurity in front an estimated crowd of less than a thousand people in Atlantic City on HBO in 2013.

The days of dynamic matches between two prominent fighters on premium cable seems to be growing thinner by the day. Instead we are increasingly getting matchups that feature a star fighter against a hand-picked opponent, in what amounts to grooming exercise for PPV.

Traditionally tune-up fights have been an important part of boxing because staying busy helps keep a fighter sharp until something bigger comes along. However, in the days when most top fighters box just three times a year the means simply don’t justify the ends.

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