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The Untouchables: How the Biggest Promoters Get Away With What They Get Away With

Posted on 02/15/2010

It looks like the Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey undercard is as “official” as anything in boxing can be at this point, so now is the right time to state, unequivocally, that the matches Bob Arum and Bruce Trampler have lined up to support the historic boxing debut at Cowboys Stadium on March 13th are ghastly. Arum has never been one to put on a decent undercard, preferring to cut costs and maximize profits by showcasing junior flyweights and sideshow attractions like Butterbean and Mia St. John, but the Pacquiao-Clottey undercard borders on scraping the bottom of the barrel.

A “Contender” reject, two completely shot fighters–Jose Luis Castillo and David Diaz–and an Irish clubfighter in Texas are among the highlights of the Cowboys Stadium super bonanza. It makes one think about the days when Don King once put Chavez-Randall II, McClellan-Jackson II, Ruelas-Leija II, and Norris-Brown II on the same Pay-Per-View.

Incredibly, the lineup as it currently stands is a vast improvement over what was originally planned: an undercard show featuring the return of the despicable Antonio Margarito, who, apparently, could not get past the high standards of Texas athletic officials.

For Arum to try to bring back Margarito without clearance from the CAC was bad enough, but to try to dump him on one of the biggest cards of the year in front of hundreds of thousands is astonishing even for a man who promoted bouts in South Africa during the apartheid era. Whatever one thinks of Margarito and his suspension, surely no one believed he deserved to reappear on one of the biggest boxing events of the year.

But the real issue here is how Arum can even think of doing such a thing with so many eyes watching. There is a certain “broad daylight” robbery quality to much that goes on in boxing these days and some of these strange or pitiful events occur with little backlash. Contemporary boxing coverage is most notable, with a few exceptions, for its cheerleading quality. Similarly, hardcore boxing fans seem incapable of being disenfranchised. In a sense, the loyal fan is complicit with the drab state of affairs in boxing. If worthless pay-per-views, celebrity bouts, and outright chicanery dominate the sport, it is likely because the hardcore fan is unwilling or unable to challenge the status quo in the way it matters most: with purchasing power.

This leads to free reign for promoters and their cohorts. What is really disturbing is that Arum needs no special skill in fleecing the public. In fact, his con is weaker than a poorly played game of badger. There is no finesse, no guile, no sleight of hand involved. Known scoundrels–Sean Gibbons, for example–have been linked to Top Rank; bribes have been paid; fixed fights alleged; FBI probes launched; and still Arum will sell you Butterbean, Mia St. John, and Antonio Margarito. Why? Because, somehow, these shenanigans are profitable. For Arum, the mark does all the work for him. But even without the skills of P.T. Barnum or Victor Lustig, Arum qualifies to have the following quote from the notorious Yellow Kid Weil embossed on his letterhead: “They wanted something for nothing, I gave them nothing for something.”

Arum and his peers are essentially playing without stakes. Golden Boy Promotions, for example, more or less subsidized by HBO, cannot lose money on any of the two-bit events they stage on premium cable. This is why so many random fighters, like John Ruiz, practically exiled from American boxing over the last few years, are signed by GBP—they can match any of its two fighters, no matter the significance, weight class, etc., and still remain in the black courtesy of their HBO Monopoly money. More importantly, this is also the reason they can package nonsense like Mayweather-Marquez, Hopkins-Wright, and Hopkins-Jones II.

No other legal business model in the world is as juicy as the one GBP currently has. What if someone came up to you, CEO of a relatively new promotional outfit, and asked: “HBO will give you blank dates on their network and overpay you for random bouts of varying quality, hype your prospects every chance they get, allow one bogus catchweight bout after another between fighters in your stable so that all the moolah generated stays in the GBP family, distribute middling pay-per-view events on your behalf, and allow you to use HBO as a lure to sign new boxers. Are you interested?” Add to that list the fact that the boxing media will fawn over every bout you stage as if it were the equivalent of the Super Bowl (notice all the fine BWAA prizeworthy articles on formerly universally ridiculed John Ruiz lately), and over a million gullible customers will pay nearly $60 apiece to watch Floyd Mayweather Jr. abuse a lightweight, and you have the makings of
a cash cow super industry.

Top Rank, at the very least, has to produce its own crappy pay-per-view cards, which carries a certain amount of risk, something promoters long ago eliminated by signing fighters to long-term contracts and having their cards underwritten by cable networks devoid of quality control personnel.

Still, when Bob Arum says, “I know what people want, and they can go fuck themselves,” it is not some kind of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” comic routine. It is real insight into the bleak mindset of a hardened cutthroat who, at nearly 80 years old and with the skull beneath the skin now prominent, still, like most of his peers in boxing, trembles in anticipation for the quick-money kill. That, unfortunately, will never change in this sport.

The Cruelest Sport

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