By Jake Donovan
The opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of headlining his own HBO World Championship Boxing telecast meant everything to Dmitry Bivol.
Unfortunately, neither his accomplished goal nor the nostalgic sidebar of it being the network’s last ever edition of its flagship series meant much very much to the boxing public.
The WCB series officially signed off with its lowest-ever rated telecast, as the November 24 main event live —where Bivol scored a wide unanimous decision over faded former lineal light heavyweight champ Jean Pascal to defend his light heavyweight title—averaged just 467,000 viewers according to Nielsen Media Research.
The co-feature attraction—featuring the network debut of unbeaten super bantamweight Murodjon Akhmadaliev, who stopped Isaac Zarate in nine rounds—drew an average of 440,000 viewers.
Last Saturday’s telecast marked the third network appearance in 2018 for Bivol (15-0, 11KOs), but by far the least watched of the trio for the unbeaten light heavyweight titlist. Each of his prior two HBO slots came on the undercard of telecasts headlined by Sergey Kovalev, a longtime network staple but whose own drawing power has waned.
They appeared on the same telecast in March, with Bivol’s 12-round win over Sullivan Barrera playing to an average of 512,000 viewers as the lead-in to Kovalev’s knockout win over Igor Mikhalkin, which carried an average of just 599,000 viewers, his lowest-ever HBO primetime performance.
Expanded viewership was enjoyed by both boxers in their August 4 doubleheader, although providing very mixed in-ring results. Bivol outpointed Isaac Chilemba over 12 rounds, with the uneven but winning performance drawing a personal best average of 583,000 viewers, with Kovalev suffering his third loss in the span of five fights as his knockout defeat to unbeaten Eleider Alvarez carried a Nielsen average of 731,000 viewers.
The difference in interest between that summer telecast and the network’s latest offering, needless to say, was significant. The opening to the August 4 telecast before any boxer even stepped into the ring drew a larger audience (470,000 viewers) than Bivol’s actual main event with Pascal on Saturday.
The lack of buzz is a direct result of boxing fans turning its back on a cable giant whom has abandoned the sport.
The announcement earlier this fall to close up its boxing division by year’s end after more than 45 years in service was immediately met with nostalgia but has quickly dissolved into disdain. Its lone other offering prior to Saturday came in late October, with longtime training stablemates Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Derevyanchenko throwing down in an instant classic only for the bout to average a disappointing 500,000 viewers.
As was the case with Bivol this weekend, the figure was also by far the lowest of Jacobs’ three HBO headliners since coming over from Showtime and the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) circuit last November. The now two-time middleweight titlist will likely next land on sports streaming service DAZN, given his relationship with promoter Eddie Hearn who serves as the platform’s primary content provider.
Where Bivol next lands is anybody’s guess, as the still young and unbeaten boxer from Russia by way of Kyrgyzstan—who will only turn 28 in December—remains a highly sought-after free agent for available networks and platforms. Representatives from DAZN (who—along with Hearn’s offerings—has also entered a lucrative pact with Golden Boy Promotions), ESPN (in a long-term deal with Bob Arum’s Top Rank, Inc.), Showtime and Fox (the latter two whom primarily carry PBC-branded events) have all been in contact with his team, which includes promoter Main Events and manager Vadim Kornilov.
No matter where he lands, the next step of Bivol’s journey comes on the heels of at least living out a moment he’s dreamt of since following the sport as a child.
Meanwhile, HBO’s swan song comes in the form of a Boxing After Dark tripleheader which will air live from the famed StubHub Center in Carson, California. Reigning pound-for-pound queen and undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus faces Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes in the main event, which will mark the only time in the network’s 45-plus year history where a female boxer headlined an HBO boxing telecast.
Braekhus was also the first female to appear in front of HBO cameras, making her network debut in May on the undercard of Gennady Golovkin’s two-round destruction of Vanes Martirosyan. Both legs of that show provided HBO’s two most-watched bouts of 2018, with Golovkin’s win witnessed by 1.249 million viewers while Braekhus’ 10-round victory over Kali Reis averaging 904,000 viewers.