Boxing is done on HBO. Last night, with three mismatch fights that turned out no real highlights or memorable in-ring moments, the bell tolled for the once-proud brand, which for much of the last 45 years had set the standard in boxing broadcasts across the world.
Claressa Shields kicked it off with a routine middleweight title defense against overmatched Femke Hermans. Juan Francisco Estrada stopped overmatched Victor Mendez in a rout. And then Cecilia Braekhus shut down — you guessed it — overmatched Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes.
None of this is really meant as a criticism of the fighters — particularly not of the A-side fighters.
After all, Braekhus is the best women’s fighter in the world, pound-for-pound; Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-division pro world champion; Estrada is one of the best super flyweights in the game. And their opponents, though out of their depth, were game and surely tried their best, and put their bodies on the line just the same as everyone else does when they enter a boxing ring.
But the card had nothing to offer in terms of entertainment. We’ve been here on BLH since 2006, and covering HBO fights all that time, just a fraction of their overall history. But even just going inside of that timeframe, I remember fondly when HBO live threads were hopping, even if there was competition.
Last night, it wound up pretty much just me. Everyone else, after all, was watching the ESPN card, where Vasiliy Lomachenko beat Jose Pedraza to unify titles, Emanuel Navarrete upset Isaac Dogboe, and Teofimo Lopez scored a highlight reel KO.
With HBO, I watched and listened as Jim Lampley struggled a bit to carry a pretty dead broadcast. I heard Roy Jones Jr do his best to make these fights sound interesting. Poor Max Kellerman had no voice, but soldiered on trying to get in some analysis through cracks and obvious discomfort. Harold Lederman scored along, as always. Even Larry Merchant stopped by to bid farewell to the fight fans.
I was hoping, despite the obviousness of the outcomes of these fights, that there would be something special to remember. But outside of saying goodbye to old TV friends and some terrific video packages to open and close the show, there was really nothing.
The show was a funeral, and it was a quiet one, at that.
When the news hit earlier this year that HBO was leaving the boxing game, I was among the many who couldn’t even really feign surprise. It was a bit weird that it was made official, but this clearly had been in the works for a while.
I remember when HBO still greatly cared about promoting their cards. Outside of a show here and there, that had enormously faded over the last couple of years. HBO had lost most of their deals with major promoters, the budget had been cut substantially, and boxing just clearly wasn’t the priority it once had been at the network.
After the Canelo-GGG rematch in September, though, it was truly all over, and nobody pretended differently. Daniel Jacobs and Sergiy Derevyanchenko had a good fight in October, but even that didn’t feel like an HBO event anymore. November’s Bivol-Pascal card flew under the radar, and frankly probably should have. And then the December finale set a new record for lack of interest in HBO boxing.
It was, frankly, all a bit depressing last night. This was a pale imitation of what the brand once meant, and it felt like everyone knew it.
After it was all over, Lampley recounted his long career in broadcasting, most of it spent calling fights for HBO. He was emotional, as expected.
“To have the right to be the person who stands here and says goodbye for this particular institution, is a privilege that is beyond indescribable,” he said. “I have no right to be anything other than overwhelmingly grateful, and overwhelmingly thrilled by what happened to me in my life, professionally.”
“It’s like seeing somebody die,” he remarked. “You know they’re going to heaven which is a better place than being here, but you hate that they gotta leave because you’re gonna miss them. You become selfish, almost. We hate that it’s gonna end, because we’re gonna miss them, but sometimes it’s for the better.”
If what HBO boxing had become was an indicator of what the future held, maybe it really is for the better. If the effort was no longer going to be there, if the network wasn’t going to invest and be the torch bearer anymore — or even try to be — what was the point of carrying on any longer?
But after all these years, saying goodbye to HBO boxing does hurt, at least a little bit.
I wish the final show had been something greater. It just wasn’t. It happened, it ended, and those who watched and cared that this was the end probably spent most of the night remembering how it used to be.
The sport, though, goes on. In six days, Canelo Alvarez is back, in his first fight on DAZN. It’s a new world for televised boxing. Hopefully, it’s a good one, and we won’t miss HBO for too long.