HBO/Top Rank vs Showtime/Golden Boy war could be big win for boxing fans

Josh Hedges

With the American boxing war reaching new levels of animosity, many are worried about both major U.S. boxing networks being "brands" for certain promoters. But the dividing lines could bring genuine competition, and more great fights.

Boxing in the United States has had some nasty relationships for years now, as rival promoters Top Rank and Golden Boy have been stuck in their "Cold War," and with HBO recently announcing that they would no longer do business with Golden Boy, the animosity has reached a new level, as it extends to a real rivalry and battle between the two big networks in American boxing, HBO and Showtime.

Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado didn't make it to the post-fight press conference last night, as the commission ordered both to the hospital to get checked out after their vicious 12-round encounter, but Top Rank promoter Bob Arum used the time to rip into his business enemies:

"For years we were fed a steady diet of this kid Berto with fights against [opponents] who nobody remembers their names - that cost millions of dollars to one of the networks and what did they get for it - [nothing]. What did the subscribers get? The finger! And some guy, who used to be in the music business [Haymon] raped HBO and hoodwinked the public and that hopefully now is over - except maybe at [Showtime]. But they are second so who cares about that? Nobody watches them anyway."

On Twitter, where he's a proven genius with only the most genuine thoughts and statements, Oscar De La Hoya made a dramatic little show of not watching last night's fight, saying he'd canceled his HBO subscription. He probably hasn't, but Arum responded to that, too:

"[He] probably did that when he was putting on some of those leggings. ... Who the hell is Oscar De La Hoya? He's a moron!"

After the fight, De La Hoya tried to placate everyone by saying something like, "Broner-Alvarado, anyone?" which he knows full well is a fight that can't be made, but if he does that, then the gullible will think he's going to try to make that fight happen, when it's just not an option at all anymore, and everyone with any sense knows it.

This is not to paint Arum as the good guy, which I have been accused of doing in the past, because yes, to be honest, I criticize Golden Boy more than other promoters. Let me be clear: Arum plays the same game that they do. Eventually, he's going to sell HBO some stinkers, and they're going to have to buy them, because, well, Top Rank is their chief business partner in boxing now. Yes, they'll work with DiBella and Goossen and Shaw and anyone else besides Golden Boy, but those promoters don't have the stables to really carry a brand. We're inching closer to a world where Top Rank and Golden Boy are going to control the sport entirely on American soil.

The reason that Golden Boy -- Oscar and Richard Schaefer -- get so much guff from me is that there's this bizarre belief out there that they're telling the truth, that they really have more than "most profit, least risk" in mind when they promote fights. Because they say, "the fans, the fans" all the time, there are actually some people who have started to see them as something other than boxing promoters. It is common knowledge that promoters embellish, exaggerate, and flat-out lie. This is accepted, more or less. Yet somehow, Oscar and Schaefer have been able to convince some people that there is something more pure and loving, more for "them," on their agenda. There is not. They are Arum, just younger and without decades of obvious lies and cute quotes in their wake. They have survived their entire run as a promotional company with the generous help of TV networks, first a rotten bad business deal with HBO that gave boxing fans repeated garbage, and now they're the house promoter at Showtime, with their former lawyer running the sports wing of that network.

It just boggles my mind that people who are so quick to blame Arum, blame DiBella, blame Frank Warren or Eddie Hearn or Don King or any other promoter, can sometimes be so quick to take Schaefer or De La Hoya at their word. Tricky Dick and Oscar are not worse than anyone else. The point is, they aren't better, either, other than having more money and a great stable of fighters. They are very good at what they do, but what they do isn't fundamentally different than what any other boxing promoter does.

When the dust starts to really settle on all of this, the hope is that the very clear dividing lines -- HBO & Top Rank, SHO & Golden Boy -- will result in two sides doing their damnedest to top the other guy. HBO/Top Rank have struck first this year with a pair of remarkable fights (Rios-Alvarado II, Bradley-Provodnikov), and Showtime/Golden Boy have some good stuff on tap, too.

Yes, this could all boil down to the networks getting stuck with crappy fights, as the promoters could say, "Well, you buy this or you don't have a fight." But Espinoza has bosses to answer to, too. If it starts looking like Showtime's product is lacking in comparison, he's going to have to account for that. And if HBO falls behind, Ken Hershman will have to answer for a lot, too: Why did he totally split from Golden Boy? Why did he give Top Rank so much power?

The big hope is that the two sides are going to dig in and give us fights that we want to see, fights that will produce action. Boxing is a business, yes, but boxing does its best business -- apart from your "mega-fights" with Mayweather or Pacquiao -- when it's more about boxing and less about "business." As a boxing fan, I am sick of hearing about "business," and I imagine I'm not alone in that. Obviously the sport will always be and always has been about money, and it's a unique venture. It's not baseball or football or basketball; but at the same time, it is a sport, and people do have some understandable desire to see a sport run like a sport at least a little bit.

Disappointingly, Rios-Alvarado II had only about 5,400 in attendance last night. Figures like that are a problem, and the "heads" and "freaks" who constantly go, "Oh! Boxing isn't dead! Something trended on Twitter!" first of all don't really understand how Twitter trending works, and beyond that, they ignore plain realities to apologize for boxing, to kiss the existence of the sport's ass, because they enjoy boxing. But if you think it's even acceptable that something like Rios-Alvarado II can't even get 5,500 people into the Mandalay Bay, you're crazy. The market has to be re-educated. The fighters have to become more than names on the 3,000th JPEG poster of the year that says "world championship fight."

That's going to take time. It's also going to take sincere effort from the promoters to do more than sell a fight to a network, and effort from the network that goes beyond just buying the fight and making some 30-second commercials that are pretty much only seen by the people who already know when the fight is taking place.

This could all go bad. It could be a mess. But if this is getting as personal as it seems, if the animosity is really boiling over, and the networks are looking to trump their rival (HBO proving superiority, Showtime proving they're at least an equal), then this could all be a big win for boxing fans, too.

No fights that were really possible are now off the table. More didn't change than did, really -- Golden Boy and Top Rank weren't working together to begin with. But now the allies are recruited. The battle lines are clearly and publicly drawn. And we've got potential for some serious oneupsmanship that breeds a new mindset in boxing, where promoters actually try to make the best fights that they can.

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