Twelve months ago, the thought of Floyd Mayweather fighting on Showtime pay-per-view would have been nearly inconceivable. HBO Sports, the leading boxing outlet in the United States for many years running, would always house the biggest fights and biggest fighters. While Golden Boy had started filtering rising stars over to Showtime last year -- among them Canelo Alvarez, Danny Garcia, and Amir Khan -- it seemed HBO would not lose its grip on the likes of Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, and another potential future superstar, Adrien Broner.
On February 19 of this year, the game changed. Floyd Mayweather signed a six-fight deal with Showtime and CBS Sports, leaving behind HBO and a stunned boxing industry that just didn't see the move coming. On March 18, HBO officially announced that they would no longer be doing business with Golden Boy Promotions or Al Haymon, meaning that the dividing lines were clearly drawn: Showtime, Golden Boy, Haymon, and Mayweather on one side against HBO, Top Rank, and the second-tier promoters on the other side.
So far, the move has worked out impressively for Showtime, in no small part because Richard Schaefer and Golden Boy Promotions seem to have decided to really go for the jugular. Years of crowing about offering the best fights, while offering essentially industry standard semi-mismatches sold as competitive fare, turned into Schaefer and Co. actually starting to work vigorously toward putting together the very best matchups that were available to them. Showtime has without question had their best year in memory, and to date, they've put on the year's biggest fight, when Mayweather fought and easily defeated Robert "The Ghost" Guerrero on May 4.
While Mayweather-Guerrero numbers weren't quite what anyone would have hoped to see, it was still the biggest hit of 2013, in terms of pure numbers. But there is little question at this point -- it's August, and there's never been an official numbers release, which in boxing history means that someone wasn't happy with the number and wants it hidden -- that the show underperformed, too, at least as compared to expectations. Whether it was the dramatic shellshock that some said it must have been to the division's finances is another matter altogether. Now, it may not even matter.
Because whatever money may (or may not) have been lost on Mayweather-Guerrero is going to come back and then some on September 14, when Floyd Mayweather faces Canelo Alvarez at the MGM Grand, live on Showtime pay-per-view. This will blow away any other event in terms of business this year, and that goes for both boxing and mixed martial arts. The UFC simply doesn't have an "it" fight that can draw the numbers of something like Mayweather-Canelo, and that is meant less as a knock on UFC than it is to demonstrate just how compelling and how big a truly big-time boxing fight can still be.
I think there's no question that the UFC is a better-run organization (in that it is an organization, and is organized), and that their sport, while no longer growing by leaps and bounds as it did for a few years, is the closer to the mainstream of the two most months out of the year. But not when Floyd Mayweather fights. He's a domestic sports star on a level they just haven't seen in MMA at this point in time. That's credit to Mayweather.
It would be dishonest, though, to say it's not also credit to HBO Sports. When "Money" Mayweather was still the "Pretty Boy," HBO pushed him despite complaints from some that he was boring, that he avoided tough fights, and that he lacked charisma and star quality. Once "24/7" debuted in 2007, though, we got to see another side to Mayweather, and it made him the biggest star in boxing.
The creation of "Money" Mayweather came about with Floyd's record-breaking win over Oscar De La Hoya, long the sport's top draw, who handed over that mantle to Mayweather over a few TV episodes and 12 rounds in Las Vegas on May 5, 2007.
Mayweather made the "24/7" vehicle, more or less, giving an immediate, unexpected, and huge boost to an interesting idea, which eventually became an award-winning, powerhouse docusoap that brought to human life the inconceivable physical and mental brutality of the boxing world, while also mixing in such nonsense as Mayweather screaming at his father and calling him a "faggot," throwing him out of his gym in Las Vegas. Today, his father is once again his trainer, a post that his uncle Roger had held since 2000.
How did we get here? How did Showtime Sports lure Mayweather from HBO, how did Canelo Alvarez become at age 23 the biggest opponent in the biggest fight in the sport, and where will we go after this?
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Mayweather's move to Showtime, we would come to see later as the hindsight took hold and every step became clearer, was not a spur of the moment decision, and didn't happen out of nowhere. When Stephen Espinoza was hired by Showtime to replace Ken Hershman, who left for HBO after Ross Greenburg was relieved of his duties, there was little known about Espinoza other than the fact that he had in the past worked as a lawyer for Golden Boy Promotions.
At one time, HBO and Golden Boy were extremely close partners. Greenburg gave Golden Boy a sweetheart deal years that enabled them to offer lousy fights, because HBO basically had to buy them. This went on for a long time. In fact, without HBO's massive support, there is at least a decent chance that Golden Boy Promotions would have been the Titanic it was supposed to be when the company started, and few in the boxing world saw them becoming a serious player, or competitive with the veteran Bob Arum's Top Rank.
Over time, HBO helped legitimize Golden Boy, and that's due in large part to Oscar De La Hoya, his standing in the sport, and the fact that he was HBO's number one fighter. To keep De La Hoya happy at HBO, it was the right move to make. And in the long run, HBO helping to make Golden Boy a success has been good for the sport. Without Golden Boy rising to prominence, it's hard to see any promoter out there competing with Arum at this point, almost by default. Promoters like Goossen, Shaw, DiBella, and Duva all do some fine work, there's no doubt about that, but they don't have the pockets that Arum does, and Don King had already begun to tumble into irrelevance by the time that Oscar and some guy named Richard Schaefer started up GBP in 2002.
Schaefer has proven a quick study in the boxing game, and the digs about him being a "Swiss banker" were old hat years ago. The guy is a power broker in the boxing world, and has been for about a decade now. De La Hoya did his part as a fighter and draw to establish the company, and also brought on board heavy hitters like Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, and Marco Antonio Barrera, giving Golden Boy an early core to build around.
All these years later, and Golden Boy and Top Rank are 1A and 1B in the world today. Their bad blood hurt the sport for years in terms of visibility and having the best fights as legitimate possibilities, but in a strange twist, the decision by HBO to "banish" Golden Boy fighters to Showtime and stand their ground has actually made the sport much stronger this year. HBO and Top Rank have put together some good fights, and HBO has also been able to reach out and do stuff with guys like Gennady Golovkin, who fights for K2 Promotions, and they're bringing on fights like Froch-Kessler II, Geale-Barker, and Cleverly-Kovalev, all of which may have not had a home at HBO before Espinoza was hired at Showtime and the obvious filtering process began.
In a radio interview just a couple of days after Mayweather announced his deal with Showtime, HBO Sports commentator Jim Lampley said, "This is something that CBS and Showtime have been working on for a long, long time and in the past year they have sharpened their knives and worked even harder than ever before to try to get into this arena.
"It's been no secret in the sport that over the course of the past year Showtime has done all or maybe 90 percent of their business with Golden Boy Promotions. They have catered favorably to guys who are managed by Al Haymon, Floyd Mayweather's manager. So this approach took place on a lot of different fronts, they worked as hard as they possibly could."
There is a tendency, and I'm as guilty as anyone, to look at the day Mayweather moved to Showtime as the day the game changed. It wasn't. It was the day that Stephen Espinoza, a total non-glamour hire, was named the head of Showtime Sports and their boxing brand. He wasn't a former HBO executive, someone like Kery Davis with a big name in the industry; he wasn't a veteran matchmaker or promoter; he wasn't even an internal hire. He was a guy whose credentials were that he once worked very closely with Golden Boy Promotions.
That, as we've learned, was the true key.
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
Saul Alvarez, better known simply as Canelo, turned pro on October 29, 2005, beating a guy named Abraham Gonzalez by fourth round TKO in Tonala, Jalisco, Mexico. He had turned 15 three months prior. One month later, a 28-year-old Floyd Mayweather Jr, still the "Pretty Boy," moved up to welterweight and dominated Sharmba Mitchell. The next year, Mayweather would add the welterweight crown to his legacy, having already won titles at 130, 135, and 140 pounds.
A little under five years later, the quiet build to Mayweather vs Canelo began when heads were turned by a 19-year-old, red-headed Mexican kid in the starring support role on the Mayweather-Mosley bill from Las Vegas. Alvarez, by then 32-fight professional with a 31-0-1 record, faced off against Jose Miguel Cotto, the older and less talented brother of superstar Miguel Cotto.
Alvarez had already begun to gather some hype in Mexico. His unique appearance combined with good looks, a natural charisma, an exciting style, and some pretty quality wins over guys like Lanardo Tyner and Brian Camechis had earned him a little bit of fanfare, and that was starting to filter into the States. He was selling tickets and was seen by some in the country as the future of Mexican boxing, certainly a more legitimate possibility than that of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, an undisciplined young man whose star came almost exclusively from his name and its connection to his truly legendary father, arguably the king of all Mexican fighters in history.
Though Alvarez showed minor nerves in the first round, he gathered himself to deck Cotto in round two, and from there on, it was an impressive sight. People stood up and took notice. I did radio from both Colorado Springs and Washington, D.C., in the following days, and both shows, we wound up talking as much about Alvarez as we did Mayweather and Mosley. The feeling then was that he had dollar signs all over him.
Little did we know how quickly this would come to pass. Wins over Luciano Cuello, Carlos Baldomir, Lovemore N'dou, Matthew Hatton, and Ryan Rhodes followed, the latter two bouts both HBO main events. Along the way, Alvarez started speaking boldly about challenging Mayweather in the near future. It was good copy, but still quite far-fetched. He had outgrown the welterweight division already, and besides, this was still an exceptionally young fighter with what figured to be a long, big-money career ahead of him.
In September 2011, Alvarez was again the co-feature to a Floyd Mayweather main event. This time around, while Mayweather closed the pay-per-view broadcast at the MGM Grand against Victor Ortiz in perhaps the most infamous fights of the new decade, Canelo was stationed at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he headlined his own bill and was fed onto the television show via satellite. That night, he faced Alfonso Gomez, a tough veteran, and won via sixth round TKO. Two months later, he destroyed Kermit Cintron in five.
The hunt for Floyd, as it were, was starting to become a little more real, and in 2012, Alvarez began pacing himself as a modern world-class fighter instead of a prospect trying to prove something. After fighting five times between December 2010 and November 2011, Canelo fought just twice in 2012. On May 5, on the Mayweather-Cotto undercard, Alvarez dismantled Shane Mosley over 12 rounds.
And then, The Curse of Canelo began. Paul Williams, the former welterweight and junior middleweight titlist whose career had hit a bit of a rough patch, was signed up to face Alvarez in his Showtime debut, which was to be Alvarez's first pay-per-view main event. That fight was reported as done on May 22, 2012. Five days later, Paul Williams was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in Georgia.
Business had to go on, though, and Golden Boy made the decision to put Victor Ortiz across the ring from Alvarez on September 15, a year after his loss to Mayweather. All Ortiz had to do was win on June 23 in Los Angeles, where he would headline on Showtime against Josesito Lopez. With Alvarez and De La Hoya watching ringside with terribly concerned faces, Lopez offered far more of a challenge than most expected, and when he broke Ortiz's jaw and won the fight, again, Alvarez needed an opponent.
It turned out to be Lopez, an overmatched and undersized fighter who wasn't supposed to beat Ortiz, and sure as hell wouldn't be expected to beat Canelo, as Josesito would once again be moving up a division to face Alvarez, the WBC junior middleweight titlist (a belt he had handed to him on a silver platter even after missing a catchweight against Matthew Hatton).
The fight went as anyone could have guessed: Alvarez, too big and too strong, pummeled the brave Lopez in a farcical mismatch that Joe Cortez mercifully stopped in the fifth round, in what turned out to be the final fight of Cortez's long and controversial career as a referee. That night, he absolutely made the right call, having allowed Lopez to continue after being floored in the second, third, and fourth rounds. Canelo was even awarded the "Knockout Kings" bonus as a result of fan voting.
Golden Boy once again had a big idea in mind, though this time they didn't sign any contracts to jump the gun. Miguel Cotto, coming off of his competitive loss to Mayweather, was to face Austin Trout on December 3 at Madison Square Garden, on Showtime. Cotto had never lost at the Garden, where he had become the biggest (really the only) regular boxing attraction since the building's glory days in the sweet science had faded, and was the favored man. Trout, a technically awkward matchup for anyone, figured to be a scalp for Cotto, who would then go on to face Alvarez in a big money fight on May 4, 2013, in a pay-per-view headlining role.
Trout beat Cotto over 12 rounds, again with Alvarez watching at ringside as his big fight bit the dust. Though Schaefer tried to salvage the Canelo-Cotto idea, Alvarez admirably stood his ground and ruled that fight out, not wanting to again face a "leftovers" sort of veteran opponent who had just lost two straight fights. Instead, he turned his attention to and then insisted upon facing Trout, an unusual move for any star fighter these days -- seeking out the perceived toughest challenge in your weight class just doesn't happen all the time with cash cows in their early 20s.
Canelo beat Trout at the Alamodome on April 20 in front of an official attendance of 39,472 fans, the biggest boxing crowd we're going to see in the United States this year, and quite possibly in the entire sport for 2013. It was a loud, passionate crowd, the sort we don't often see at the casinos and the other familiar haunts, in part because the location was right, and in part simply because Alvarez has garnered a very organic following that truly enjoys their fandom of the fighter. That's another thing we just don't see all that often anymore, and relatively few guys in the sport can say they have a legitimate following.
Canelo is one of them. Floyd Mayweather is another. When Mayweather beat Guerrero on May 4, the stage was set. It didn't take long. With just under eight years as a professional fighter, and just over three years on the real path to this moment, Canelo Alvarez was tabbed as Floyd Mayweather's opponent for September 14.
This time, there will be no numbers letdown.
Into the blue again, after the money's gone...
Floyd Mayweather's own path to this fight has been a lot more direct. As he has said several times, all roads in boxing lead to Floyd Mayweather, and for anyone between 140 and 154 pounds who does not fight under the Top Rank banner, he is correct. Mayweather, the biggest money player in all of sports, is the ultimate goal for everybody. Alvarez talked about taking this fight for a couple of years, even when that was just brushed aside as the confidence of youth.
Now it's here. And Floyd Mayweather is the man in control, from the negotiations to the press conferences to the weight (a catch of 152 pounds) to everything else. To say he'll make the lion's share is understating everything; as always, the event is built to Floyd Mayweather's specifications. Canelo Alvarez is already a rich man and will leave September 14's fight much richer, no matter the outcome. But Mayweather will leave with a hell of a lot more.
Maybe that will not matter once the bell rings, and it's just the two men alone in the ring. There are so many cases where you can say, "Well, it changes once it's go time, all that outside the ring stuff doesn't matter." But for as clever and groundbreaking a businessman/fighter as Mayweather has become, he is still more brilliant inside the squared circle.
Mayweather is the A-side. He's the No. 1 star. He's the pay-per-view attraction. He calls the shots. And he's here because he clearly beat Oscar De La Hoya in 2007, and followed that with decisive wins over Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley, Victor Ortiz, Miguel Cotto, and Robert Guerrero. Most of them are headed to the Hall of Fame, more likely than not.
Floyd Mayweather snatched the scepter from King Oscar six years ago, and he's never let it go. He's been the biggest pay-per-view attraction in the world, even with hiccups (so to speak) like a "retirement" between Hatton and Marquez, and a short jail stint after beating Cotto last year.
But he's never quite come close to equaling the sort of business he did with De La Hoya, and it was Oscar as the A-side in that fight. Mayweather's "24/7" performance was certainly a factor in getting people interested, as was his standing as the best fighter in the world at the time. But Oscar was still the star, and Floyd used that opportunity to make Money Mayweather a household name.
As the main man, with a formidable drawing card in the opposite corner, on an advantageous date, with an unprecedented hype machine behind the fight, can Mayweather-Canelo break the records? The gate number has already fallen. This fight will draw more live gate revenue than De La Hoya-Mayweather did. The pay-per-view revenue figure may also fall, as this fight will be priced at $75 in high definition, $65 in standard definition.
Will the total buys break the record? There is an outside shot. You have to remember that two million for De La Hoya-Mayweather wasn't exactly expected, either, let alone the 2.4 million they produced. Is Mayweather a more relevant sporting figure in 2013 than Oscar was in 2007? That's possible. Can Canelo in 2013 match the business-unproven Mayweather from 2007? That may be more of a stretch, because it's unlikely Alvarez raises the sort of media hell that Floyd did building up to that fight. He hasn't done it thus far. On the other hand, I don't recall Mayweather selling almost 40,000 tickets for his pre-Oscar fight against Carlos Baldomir.
There is no question that this is going to be the biggest fight of 2013, only a question of just how big that will be. In some ways, what this fight does in terms of pay-per-view numbers will reflect how healthy the sport of boxing is right now. Without any bias as a boxing fan, my personal belief is that 2013 has been a pretty excellent year for the sport. The network/promoter split has proven to be beneficial for fight fans, as we're getting significant matchups and good fights pretty much every month. The fact that this card will have a featured undercard bout between red-hot talents Danny Garcia and Lucas Matthysse is remarkable -- it's the best pay-per-view undercard matchup in recent memory, and by far at that. It speaks well of what Showtime and Golden Boy are doing right now.
We are barely over one month out from fight night. The anticipation will soon reach a fever pitch. Training camp whispers should start to flow. Showtime's hype will go into overdrive. Passionate backers will spur on their chosen one with a vitality that, again, we just don't see all that often anymore.
This fight and this event are very special, and there is just no reason to play the curmudgeon. The sport's fastest-rising star and its long-cemented main man, and still the world's best boxer, are going to collide on September 14. This is a worldwide major event. Boxing doesn't get many of these, and we could be into the 2020s before we see another event of this magnitude. In the words of the great Gorilla Monsoon, it's a happening, and they'll be hanging from the rafters.
If Mayweather vs Canelo is as successful as it could be, we are looking at a truly historic event, and this time, maybe not just a one-off sort of thing. This fight is a longtime boxing network reaching a new peak in its modern form, with the biggest possible fight in the sport coming not from HBO, but from its lone true rival. The sides have been chosen, and a long, determined process from Showtime, CBS Sports, Golden Boy Promotions, and many others who have played a part in leading us to this event. In an ever-changing (if often slow-evolving) business, the tide can turn very quickly. Is Showtime on the precipice of overtaking HBO as the premier boxing outlet in the United States? Will Mayweather-Canelo be the true dawning of a new age in American boxing?
In one month, we find out just how big this fight truly is, when the bluster and the hype and the picks and previews are out of the way, the bell rings, and somewhere between one and 12 rounds later, we find out if there's a new king, or if the Mayweather reign will continue on after facing its most intriguing challenge to date -- a young, unbeaten, fresh fighter with the future of the sport at least partially on his shoulders at the moment. That wasn't Berto, and this ain't Guerrero.
One month. Settle in, because it's all just getting started.
(Photos by Esther Lin/SHOWTIME)