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Boxing: HBO Reports pt. 1: Stop Pushing

By Anthony Coleman:

Introduction:

Over the past 20 years HBO has emerged from being a major player in Professional Boxing to become the most influential present in the sport. The cable outlet is responsible for putting on the most high profile fights with the biggest superstars in our sport. For the last 20 years HBO has done a lot of wonderful things, like introducing the original “Boxing After Dark”; and provided fans great fights and introduced us to new fighters. However, over the past decade HBO has done more harm than good for the sport. Instead of using their power to be one of the checks and balances for boxing, their decisions haven’t been in the best interest to their existing and potential audiences. I think that it is time for more fans to bring HBO to task and give constructive criticism and hope that they can make their programming better for boxing fans.

What is a push?

If you recall last year I wrote an article on then Middleweight Champion Jermain Taylor and the struggles that he needed to overcome in order to become a great fighter. In it I said part of the reason why fans resented him was that HBO was giving him a long and hard “push.” For those who are not familiar with professional wrestling terminology (and yes I am a smark for those who ask), a “push” is when a promoter tries to make a wrestler into a star by giving he or she tons of time on TV. They are allowed to have long promos, high profile matches and angles. The reason for all of this attention is because the promoter feels as if they have the potential to become extremely popular with the fans, they are going to give that person as many chances as possible to become popular (or get “over”) with the audience. Though Wrestling, unlike boxing, is fake it is pretty clear that HBO does the same thing with the boxers they sign to a long contract (or in the case of Kelly Pavlik, trying to sign to a long contract).

For the past decade HBO has spent a lot of time and resources in turning certain boxers into big stars. In 1998, Michael Grant was hyped by HBO to be the successor to Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. He was huge, even for a Heavyweight, was very athletic and had power in both hands. HBO thought he would be a huge star and Grant’s fights were featured on their “Boxing After Dark” cards (including his bizarre fight with Andrew Golota). He was the first attempt that I could remember of a boxer being “pushed,” but he almost certainly wasn’t the last.

After Grant, the Klitschko Brothers, Fernando Vargas, Edison Miranda, Miguel Cotto, and Jermain Taylor garnered pushes when they were contenders or before they won their respective titles. But it wasn’t just prospects that were given HBO’s full attention. Even fighters who were already title holders got huge pushes. It was often a combination of boxers who had a belt had not captured the public’s imagination or they were already superstars and HBO saw fit to make them even bigger stars. Shane Mosley had an excellent run as the Lightweight Champion, but once he won the WBC Welterweight title from Oscar De La Hoya in 2000, HBO signed him to an exclusive deal and he was hyped as an all-time great in waiting. De La Hoya was brought up by both Bob Arum and Bruce Trampler to superstardom, but in the last part of the ‘90s HBO attempted to make him an even bigger superstar by pushing him even farther. And of course the cases of Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. and their respective pushes has become infamous tales in boxing history.

The problem with pushing:

Pushing is the root of many of the problems with HBO programming. Instead of making fans more receptive to their stable of fighters, HBO’s mass marketing campaign has accomplished the opposite. The reasons for this are numerous and painfully obvious.

The first problem is due to that fact that many of these boxers got their pushes based off hype and potential instead of accomplishments in the professional arena (and I stress the difference between professional and Amateur). Michael Grant was pushed because of his physical tools, despite the fact that he had absolutely no amateur background. On the flipside of the coin Fernando Vargas and Jermain Taylor were hyped as future champions because of their success as amateurs. Because of this they weren’t allowed to work their way up on the HBO latter. Instead they were featured on HBO immediately, but not as prospects as potential, but as future champions and they treated them as such.

After a few fights all three were HBO contract fighters, which was a blessing and a curse. The blessing was the millions of dollars that all three fighters made and the instant fame among boxing fans. The curse was due to the fact that they weren’t allowed to fight more often because of the limited HBO air dates, and the fact that all three were given big fights that sent them into championship fights before they were ready for long term success.

Grant was totally raw and unprepared when he fought Lennox Lewis for the Heavyweight title in 2000. For two rounds Lewis hammered Grant and then ended the fight with an uppercut. Taylor fought Hopkins for the Middleweight title even though he hadn’t fought one credible middleweight opponent (William Joppy was shot when he fought him in ’04) and won a disputed decision. Fernando Vargas won the IBF Junior Middleweight crown less than two years as a pro and after fighting in less than 20 career fights. That was excellent for him, but he was still too green for his unification bout with Felix Trinidad in December of 2000 (Tito had more Knockouts in his career than Vargas had fights). While Vargas gave a hell of a performance, and at one point actually had the lead in the fight, he was brutalized in the early and late rounds before getting knocked out. And all three were given those lucrative contracts that they didn’t have to fight as often to gain big paydays (unlike many of their contemporaries), so their chances to improve were greatly minimized.

Yet all three were so heavily pushed by HBO that the cable giant created huge demand for these fighters to take on greats like Lewis, Hopkins and Trinidad. Those fights were on Pay-Per-View, showing how much confidence that they had in them to put them on such a big events. However, it didn’t do these then young guns any big favors. Both Grant and Vargas were ruined after the Lewis and Trinidad fights, and though Taylor won the belt from Hopkins, he didn’t fight enough to improve his many technical flaws and it was clear to most that he wasn’t going to be a dominant champion (and his reign was ended by Kelly Pavlik last September). In the end for all three fighters the pushes they received from HBO gave them a fast track (or short cut) to millions and a world championship or title shot, but helped to obscure the flaws that they had until it was too late. But prospects aren’t the only ones who experienced the negative effects of HBO’s “pushes.”

Because of HBO’s hype machine, the general population was being told that established and respected world champions like Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. were actually among the best fighters who have ever lived. While both men were great fighters, they aren’t among the top ten or twenty or even thirty greatest fighters who ever lived (OK Roy maybe among the top thirty, but not Floyd). Yet it didn’t matter because HBO saw an opportunity to turn two of the most physically talented fighters of all time into superstars. Yet this strategy again backfired on them, but this time it wasn’t because both men weren’t ready for the big leagues. They were already all-stars on the big league stage.

By the time Jones’ push really began in 1996 he had already been featured on HBO numerous times (including his much hyped but highly disappointing mismatch with James Toney for the IBF Super Middleweight title), and was already arguably the pound-for-pound best fighter in the sport. But when he won his Light Heavyweight title from Mike McCallum in ’96 HBO hyped him as the second coming of Sugar Ray Robinson.

Floyd was an all-time great 130 pounder (I only put Arguello and Chavez ahead of him in the division), and from his first tile win to the present (and no he won’t stay retired) every fight he had was on HBO. But from 99-2002 he was always a second tier star on the network (trivia: his rematch against Jose Luis Castillo was the undercard fight to Wladimir Klitschko’s TKO win over Jameel McCline). His push really began when he destroyed Philip N’Dou in November of 2003.

The problem was that HBO’s excessive pushes inflated both men’s egos to the point that they honestly believed that they were bigger than the sport. For seven years Jones would repeatedly threaten to take his ball elsewhere if HBO didn’t pay him the money he wanted. Nevermind the fact that Jones chose to fight mismandatories of his Light Heavyweight title (and it was reported for years by Steve Kim that he would use his clout among HBO and the sanctioning bodies to continually cheat other deserving contenders from getting cracks at him). And HBO allowed him to do it because they spent so much time and effort in attempting to put him on par with Oscar De La Hoya in terms of popularity. This was despite the fact that Jones, arguably the most physically talented fighter we’ve ever seen, refused to take any real chances in the ring that his fights became so incredibly boring to watch that it eventually turned fans away from the TV.

Before 2003 Mayweather was the most respected young champion in the sport. He defeated Hernandez, Jesus Chavez, and of course Diego Corrales before facing Jose Luis Castillo for the Lightweight title. But after going 24 very close rounds against the Mexican native (I thought that Castillo won the first fight and Floyd won the second), he seemingly went for the road of least resistance. He only had one fight in ’04 against 140 pound gatekeeper Demarcus Corley, then he took on guys like Henry Brusseles, the overhyped Arturo Gatti (though that was a Pay-Per-View fight) and a shot Sharmba Mitchell. But it didn’t stop HBO from hyping him as the best fighter in the sport, and just like Roy the hype got to his head. He continually threatened to leave the HBO stable if they wouldn’t pay him the type of money he wanted to fight a soft schedule. HBO may cry foul, but it was their fault.

They were to blame for indulging the vices of these fighters and allowing them to get away with jacking them for millions because they built their boxing coverage around them. When you tell an ego-centered individual that they are the best and hype them as such on your telecasts, don’t be shocked to see them lose their minds and become delusional about their worth. HBO didn’t think things through before making these decisions.

Yet the worst part about HBO’s pushes is due to the fact that they fail with the public. When a fighter is given excessive hype for a long period of time, it will also be a matter of time before fans turn against him when they realize the attention they are receiving is unwarranted. This causes long term damage to a fighter’s credibility. I think that Shane Mosley is the best example of this phenomenon.

After defeating De La Hoya, HBO gave him the same type of “all-time great” push as they did for Jones and Mayweather. But when he lost to Forrest, fans came out from everywhere to say that he was overrated and didn’t deserve the moniker of “Sugar.” It was unfair because Shane, while not on par with Leonard or Robinson, was still a great fighter in his own right. While he finally rebounded in the last two years, he didn’t deserve to be hated on like he did. Same thing happened to Jermain Taylor. I was so annoyed by the constant fawning he received on HBO telecasts that I, and so many other boxing fans, began to dislike him. If HBO didn’t try to push him so far the backlash towards him wouldn’t have been so severe. This should give HBO pause to reconsider their course of action. If your actions produce the opposite effect of your goals then it stands to reason that you shouldn’t be doing them in the first place. Plus HBO’s actions towards the fighter’s failed pushes are also in bad taste.

The cable outlet would spend a lot of their efforts in “burying” their hyped fighters. Remember the De La Hoya-Mosley rematch and the ultra biased commentating by the HBO commentating crew? I knew you would. But that wasn’t the worst example of HBO’s two facedness.

In his KO loss to Dominick Guinn, Lampley and Merchant took times denigrating Grant (though it must be said that Merchant does in fact think for himself during telecasts and I think that is one of the reason that his role on the network has been severely diminished over the past two years). It was wrong for them to do that when the powers that ran the network spent so much time trying to make him a star. I felt like the same thing happened to Jermain Taylor.

During the build up to Pavlik-Taylor I, many, including myself felt that the Countdown special was their way of distancing Taylor if he lost and hyping up Pavlik. Previous to that fight, only fights featuring big name stars were given Countdowns. Pavlik was relatively unknown until his KO win over Edison Miranda. Indeed when Pavlik won the first and second fight it was the beginning of HBO’s burial of Taylor and the beginning of Pavlik’s own push.

At this very moment there are two men who are receiving their own mega pushes: The aforementioned Pavlik and Andre Berto. Berto is much like in the mold of Fernando Vargas and Taylor; a highly touted amateur with great physical tools who is still too young and inexperienced to take on the sport’s super-elite. But HBO, specifically Max Kellerman, has given Berto major props on his amazing speed and power and it will only be a matter of time (I’ll give it less than a year) that he will be graduate to HBO’s Championship Boxing headliner. I’m just hoping that he will be ready by that point.

Meanwhile Pavlik’s Midwestern roots and underdog story is being hyped up on HBO telecasts. They (and Arum) are really hoping that he will become the next big box office star. This would explain why Jim Lampley and Kellerman would go as far to say that he is becoming the “face of American boxing.” I think they are taking it too far with that comparison (plus the idea of a 6 foot 3 power puncher being thought of as an underdog is a stretch to me). I’m hoping that Pavlik won’t take the Floyd and Roy route of fighting crap competition and threatening to take their ball home if HBO wouldn’t bow down to their every command.

Solution:

The cures to these problems are actually pretty simple. They should show the fighters who are making a name for themselves and let them progress on their own. If a fighter is any good, just let them continue to develop and if they become a star, feature them more on HBO television. But don’t try to sell the audience of a boxer’s destined pound-for-pound stardom or a current day star’s pantheon among history’s all time best pugilists. We can make that decision for ourselves.

If HBO needs to find a blueprint on how to accomplish this goal (and I think they obviously do need one) they should turn to the progression of one Manny Pacquiao. He was an HBO undercard fighter who was given credit early for his talent by HBO commentator Emmanuel Steward during their telecasts. But when he blew out Marco Antonio Barrera in November of 2003, he was the clear B-side of the fight and very few picked him to win the fight. Even when he fought guys like Juan Manuel Marquez and Erik Morales he wasn’t looked upon with superhero awe and they weren’t selling us on his greatness. They simply commended him as one of the pound for pound best and showed him fight tough fight after tough fight. Hopefully HBO will take this approach to the future big time prospects because their needless an undeserved pushes do little to help the sport.




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