I'm probably more fascinated by the Showtime versus HBO war in the boxing landscape than most, but frankly it's by far the most intriguing fight out there at the moment to me. So how is this shaping up and shaking out, and what are the impressions being given by both sides at this time?
The Big Blow
Before we can get into it, let's take a quick moment and remember that this is all happening because Showtime scored the May 7 pay-per-view fight between Manny Pacquiao, who is by far boxing's most bankable star (with Mayweather on the sidelines indefinitely), and veteran star Shane Mosley. While it's true that Mosley is not who he used to be, I think a few things must be noted.
1. Almost nobody saw Mosley's September "fight" with Sergio Mora, which ended in a draw. That fight, as horrible as it was and as bad as Mosley looked, has next to no real impact on this fight's marketing potential.
2. Mosley did lose badly to Mayweather, but a lot of people paid to see it.
3. Outside of Pacquiao and the all-but-gone Mayweather, nobody in boxing really draws consistently. All that "he's not a draw" talk is comparing Mosley to Oscar or Floyd or now Manny. He doesn't draw as well as those guys, but he's a bigger draw than pretty much anyone else of his era, and probably close to the level of Miguel Cotto or Juan Manuel Marquez at this stage. This fight won't break records or anything, but I think it'll be fine. Pacquiao-Mosley will sell. It will sell for a lot of reasons, the biggest being that it involves Pacquiao. But getting CBS affiliation is big, too. Top Rank is pretty obviously trying to wrangle boxing back onto network TV, and Manny's the best shot they have. If he can open the doors, there are a lot of fighters I think can benefit from that.
What's Already Happened
HBO has had two shows so far in 2011. On January 29, Timothy Bradley beat Devon Alexander in what many termed a disappointing fight, and what others figured was exactly what should have been expected. Bradley-Alexander being called a superfight was silly -- they should never have tried to market it that way, because it made the reality of what the fight was look worse than it probably should have. No, they couldn't sell tickets in Pontiac, Michigan. What a shocker, huh? The fact that it looked and sounded pretty bad on TV -- look, if you were new to boxing and you heard that was a superfight, what would you think? That boxing is even more of a niche sport than it really is. I don't blame the fighters. Bradley and Alexander are both good young fighters with plenty of career ahead of them, and while their fight was no thriller, it wasn't likely to be, either. I really think everyone (HBO, Gary Shaw, Don King) did that fight a disservice by promoting it the wrong way and sticking it in a gigantic dome that sucked the life out of the TV broadcast.
The card last night in Las Vegas with Nonito Donaire drilling Fernando Montiel was pretty solid. It was a main event below 126 pounds, which is almost impossibly rare for HBO, and shows that at least someone over there is starting to think outside the box a little bit. HBO could have been featuring a lot of guys for years that they didn't, and in the meantime Showtime used a lot of those guys to build up a hardcore boxing fan audience. I really believe that Showtime's current product and fanbase was built largely on the backs of guys like Israel Vazquez, Rafael Marquez, Vic Darchinyan, etc.
With Ken Hershman so willing to go in different directions, featuring the action-packed fights of the smaller fighters and incredibly bold concepts like the Super Six, we've seen Showtime grow into a position where taking a money risk on Pacquiao-Mosley and Miguel Cotto's next fight is something they can do. HBO feels stale in comparison, and has for a while now. Showtime hasn't even run a major card this year, but so far they've dominated HBO overall.
Miguel Acosta v. Brandon Rios, Antonio DeMarco v. Reyes Sanchez
March 12 (PPV)
Miguel Cotto v. Ricardo Mayorga, Miguel Vazquez v. Leonardo Zappavigna, Yuri Foreman v. Pawel Wolak, Christy Martin v. Dakota Stone
Lucian Bute v. Brian Magee
Juan Manuel Lopez v. Orlando Salido
Joseph Agbeko v. Abner Mares, Vic Darchinyan v. Yonnhy Perez
May 7 (PPV)
Manny Pacquiao v. Shane Mosley, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. v. Jorge Arce
Tentative: Kelly Pavlik v. TBA, Humberto Soto v. Urbano Antillon II
Andre Ward v. Arthur Abraham
Carl Froch v. Glen Johnson
These last two are of course the Super Six semifinals, and if they do take place on these dates as scheduled (I always have my doubts about Super Six fights coming off as intended), can you name a five week period where one network put on a run of fights and big shows like Showtime would have been April 23 and May 21?
For the record, as much as I hope it does happen, I've never known Bob Arum to leave money on the table with a fight like Soto-Antillon II, which he could promote as a Latin Fury show and make a profit instead of sticking it on this show. Maybe for once someone is thinking long-term and they see the value of having a potential FOTY contender on the undercard of a major fight.
I still find the Juan Manuel Lopez deal intriguing -- who'd have thought that about a year ago, when he jumped from HBO to Showtime, that it would turn out he was the first step in a huge story in American boxing? Brandon Rios also made his breakthrough on HBO and is now on Showtime. And with all the Pacquiao hoopla, I think the move to get Miguel Cotto under the SHO banner is being overlooked. Like I said before, there are two great draws in American boxing (Pacquiao and Floyd), and then you have a few more guys who are reliable draws, like Shane Mosley, JM Marquez and Cotto.
Saul Alvarez v. Matthew Hatton
Sergio Martinez v. Sergiy Dzinziruk, Andy Lee v. Craig McEwan
Yuriorkis Gamboa v. Jorge Solis, Mikey Garcia v. Matt Remillard
April 9 (PPV)
Erik Morales v. Marcos Maidana, Robert Guerrero v. Michael Katsidis, Winky Wright v. Matthew Macklin, James Kirkland v. TBA
Amir Khan v. Paul McCloskey, Andre Berto v. Victor Ortiz
Jean Pascal v. Bernard Hopkins II, Chad Dawson v. TBA
Free Agent Fights
April 30: Wladimir Klitschko v. Dereck Chisora
HBO has reportedly shown interest in picking up this fight, but nothing has been announced. If not, expect it to wind up on ESPN3.com. As for Vitali Klitschko's March 19 fight with Odlanier Solis, probably don't expect that to wind up on ESPN3.com, as a deal has been struck with the premium channel Epix to carry the fight. If you have no idea what that channel is, you're not alone, and chances are you don't have access to it. Anyway, Wlad-Chisora would be a nice pickup for HBO, but most of us would probably track down a UK/German stream and watch it live anyway.
As for HBO's set lineup, there's a lot of desperation in there. Khan-McCloskey isn't a fight I hate, but I didn't hate Lucian Bute-Jesse Brinkley, either. HBO passed on that fight last year and Bute wound up going back to Showtime. Khan-McCloskey is about the same level of fight,a nd will be aired on tape delay. The April 9 PPV is a good card for diehard boxing fans -- it really is. The Morales fight scares me, but I'm also certain he'll go out on his shield, because he's Erik Morales and he doesn't have bad fights. But that really sticks out. HBO pulled the plug on their association with Morales in 2007, after distributing his fight with David Diaz (they didn't produce). If they weren't backed into a corner, would they really be airing a Morales fight at this stage, especially on PPV, and especially against a non-draw like Maidana?
This also speaks to the current rough state that Golden Boy Promotions is in. Golden Boy largely works either on their own, or with HBO. They have very little dealing with Showtime in their history. Really the biggest fight Golden Boy has on the schedule right now is that little piece of Manny Pacquiao they own, and to stick the knife in a little more, Pacquiao's fighting a guy who left their company, which he helped build. You think maybe for the time being they're kicking themselves wishing they'd just manned up and made the deal with Top Rank for that fight? You think they're not worried about losing Juan Manuel Marquez in the exact same way? Golden Boy and HBO are both looking like they're in a bit of a pickle which might greatly affect the career of Saul Alvarez. Golden Boy might need a new flagship star immediately. He's got the most upside. If HBO doesn't get Pacquiao back for his next fight, whatever it is, they might need Alvarez to become their new star in the short-term, too. Alvarez does have flaws. He is still a kid. He can be pushed too fast.
Plus, if you keep featuring Alvarez in main event slots, you up the rate at which fans start demanding better opponents. Really, if you take away the hype and spotlight, Alvarez at his age fighting the likes of Lovemore N'dou and Matthew Hatton -- solid, capable veteran fighters -- is just fine, and really well ahead of schedule. But if he keeps beating guys like that on big televised shows, people are going to tire of watching him fight that same level of competition. A similar thing happened with Andre Berto, and his image has taken the hit.
The Impression That I Get
At the moment, Showtime has a clear upper-hand. They've got the biggest fighter fighting today, and with Marquez sitting out, they've got the next two biggest stars in Cotto and Mosley. They've got the Super Six. They've got the bantamweight tournament. They've got vision and they feel fresh.
HBO seems kind of desperate. Lee-McEwan being basically a #1 contender's fight is not good at all -- neither was Lee-Duddy, frankly. Martinez against any of those three (assuming Martinez beats Dzinziruk as expected) feels like a different flavor of Pavlik-Lockett. While Showtime moves and shakes and implements new ideas and new strategies, HBO trudges along. Hindsight being what it is, you can look back on the last two years and see the general attitude. "Hey, we're HBO. Whatever." They knew they had the money and the reputation to basically do whatever they wanted and wind up with the biggest fights.
Not anymore. Showtime is a real player. The only thing that can help HBO besides a serious and genuine look in the mirror and re-evaluation of their staff and their model is Pacquiao-Mosley floundering without HBO backing. I get the feeling that won't happen, but that's their ace in the hole. That would be the way that HBO can go back to being the clear #1 company without actually having to, you know, change a musty product.