The New 1-2: Boxing looks poised for breakout 2015

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Boxing is in the hyperbole business. The raison d’etre of the boxing promoter is to attract spectator eyeballs to an event, whether or not the former is separated from the latter by a television screen. Boxing commentators also benefit from having something of a hypeman element present in their genetic makeup. Once the viewer is on the couch, subtle encouragement or reinforcement can be necessary to prevent his/her mind from wandering. Sometimes, the in-ring combat practically oozes with explosive potential – animosity, history, complementary styles, unique skillsets – beyond the baseline interest inherent in watching two determined pugilists each attempt to separate the other from his senses. Corrales-Castillo II didn’t need hype when it had Corrales-Castillo I as a precedent, nor did Gatti-Ward II, or III, or Pacquiao-Marquez II-IV. Other times, the opinion-shapers have admittedly had turd-polishing a-plenty to do. 2014, by all but the most optimistic/agenda-advancing accounts, was among the more dismal years in the sport’s recent history, featuring no mega-events*, few enough positive storylines** and fewer still instances of the best fighting the best, due in large part to the ongoing “Cold War” between rival promoters Top Rank and Golden Boy (and, to some degree, rival premium boxing destinations HBO and Showtime), or, once Bob Arum and Oscar de la Hoya had their public reconciliation and began tentatively working together again, between Top Rank/Golden Boy/HBO and enigmatic power broker Al Haymon.

*Pound for pound top two Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao continued to ply their trades independent of one another, with Floyd suffering some rare, momentary discomfort in his first fight with Argentinian free-swinger Marcos Maidana before handling him easily in the inevitable fall rematch, and Manny avenging his previous year’s phantom loss to Timothy Bradley with a comprehensive and self-evident beating and then dropping elegant-boxing cardboard prop Chris Avalos six times en route to a unanimous (as in to everyone on Earth) decision. Elsewhere, PPV-level draws like Miguel Cotto and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez continued to chug along, imposing their wills on uninspiring opposition. The Cold War also impacted the rise of Russian mauler Sergey Kovalev, whose date for the lineal Light Heavyweight championship vanished when his preening co-star, Adonis Stevenson, suddenly switched networks during the lead-up, lured away by promises of Haymon money and lighter competition.

**I think the exploits of Kazakh destroyer Gennady Golovkin (now riding a 19-fight knockout streak) definitely qualify, as did the rise of Nebraskan boxer-puncher Terrance Crawford from largely anonymous contender to surprise local attraction to budding young star to fighter of the year. Also notable was 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins’ continued open defiance of Father Time, which began with him defending his Light Heavyweight trinket for the second time and ended with the year’s only high profile beating that rivaled Pacquiao-Avalos at the hands of the aforementioned Kovalev, who in the fearless Hopkins, finally found a top fighter who would meet him in the ring.

Part of what lends continued allure to boxing, even during low ebbs in the sport’s popularity, is its sense of, if not outright lawlessness, then of permeating outlaw spirit, the feeling that anything is just as likely to happen outside the ropes as inside them. Unfortunately, the reality of few rules existing among many masters inevitably leads to either chaos or gridlock just as often as it produces positive results. Because it has no central regulatory body, and answers only to television partners, state boards and fans (in that order), modern boxing is not only treated with its standard open scorn as organized barbarity or dismissed as irrelevant to the culture at large and therefore, by extension, irrelevant to everyone, but is rife with drug-taking and drug-testing issues, sanctioning body nonsense and all the internecine squabbling, petty and intractable personal grudges, and endless machinations that take place in business backrooms. In 2014, the hyperbole machine that is professional boxing appeared on some levels to be rotting from the inside out, to a dismaying degree that couldn’t help but touch or inform the in-ring product. I certainly noticed my attention involuntarily waning. Yet we remain. We defend. We keep coming back. To the dedicated boxing observer – the fan, the stakeholder, the caretaker – it can sometimes seem amazing that anything positive outside the ring happens at all. To them then, a gift, since 2015, at this early date, looks positively alight with reasons for unblinkered optimism and genuine enthusiasm.

Premier Boxing Champions

If you don’t know who Al Haymon is, rest assured that not only will you soon, but that a good percentage of boxing’s entrenched power structure actively envies you. Over the course of the last five or so years, the shadowy advisor has risen to a position of prominence/influence rivaled arguably only by larger than life boxing figures like Top Rank president Bob Arum and pound for pound king Floyd Mayweather. During that span, Haymon has steadily and stealthily amassed a staggering client list, featuring not just the requisite number of exciting up and comers but a great many of the sport’s bigger established names (the alpha, of course, being Mayweather), over 150 fighters by some reports. He has used his position to ruthlessly further his own (at times obscure) aims, often, objectively, at the expense of the sport at large, kneecapping promising potential matchups by expressly forbidding them, establishing a longstanding unofficial policy that precluded his charges from fighting one another, refusing to do business with certain promoters and television outlets while essentially forcing, and/or tying, the hands of others. His residual fingerprints could be found at the heart of Golden Boy’s 2014 shakeup, wherein founder Oscar de la Hoya fired CEO Richard Schaefer for what he saw as his undermining behavior, having cultivated a handshake relationship with Haymon – who is not both an advisor and a promoter because that would be illegal, but has been sued before for overly blurring the distinction – that forced GBP to promote his clients without technically even having them under contract. The Golden Boy fallout essentially ended boxing’s Cold War, as the emancipated de la Hoya and the famously prickly Arum publicly buried the hatchet and tentatively resumed co-promotions on HBO, the premium cable giant which, two years earlier, had severed its own ties with GBP entirely due to enmity over Haymon’s influence at GBP and rival boxing outlet Showtime, and his cut throat business practices in general.

Fans of The Godfather might imagine Haymon as consigliere Tom Hayden, except infused with the clout and influence of Don Vito Corleone, plus the intellect and drive of his son Michael. Through all these twists and schemes and powerplays, with single-minded purpose and near-inhuman patience, it turns out that Haymon has been building toward something grand indeed. Saturday night sees the debut of his in-house boxing league, named Premier Boxing Champions (PBC*** for short). Showtime parent company CBS has made occasional hay over recent years about returning boxing to its network television perch – from where it long ruled a much less fractured or complicated sports landscape as a staple of primetime programming – but that only resulted in one Saturday afternoon show in 2013. Al Haymon does not believe in half measures. A cadre of deep-pocketed, equally press-shy backers has helped Haymon finance PBC (at a great initial financial loss) as a giant-scale, multi-platform, largely free TV, direct challenge to the boxing supremacy of pay cable, though he’ll apparently also maintain his current agreement with Showtime, which I initially thought doomed to be the first casualty of this new world order. When I say multi-platform, I mean it. Haymon has struck multi-year deals for PBC programming to air on not just obvious guy-centric cable channels like NBC Sports and Spike TV but on two of the big four broadcast networks – arguably the two biggest – NBC and CBS, unleashing a carpet bombing campaign of boxing programming that, if successful, may irrevocably alter the boxing landscape to the good, and, whether successful or not, will expose the sport to its largest number of potential eyeballs since the heyday of early Mike Tyson, or of the four welter/middleweight kings – “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran – of 1980s pugilism. Leonard himself – alongside known commodities like Al Michaels and blow-by-blow man Marv Albert – has unsurprisingly already hitched himself to the PBC star.

***Note the no doubt unintentional similarity to The Ultimate Fighting Championship, that lazy piece of journalistic shorthand, nagging bane of boxing fans everywhere, and completely separate, comparatively competent, occasionally spectacular, combat sport full of its own independent merits and issues…which, of course, is abbreviated as UFC.

Boxing shows on cable are easy enough to produce, and are often embarrassingly slipshod in their construction. PBC, with the scope of its potential impact, announced contributors, and demonstrated desire, at least at the onset, to produce high profile, compelling matchups, seems tailor made to appeal to boxing fans of multiple generations and perhaps even cross over to new ones. CBS dipped its toe into the network boxing pool in 2013, putting on a barely promoted, Saturday afternoon mini-card featuring rising knockout star Leo Santa Cruz against nobody in particular, which garnered respectable but underwhelming ratings. By comparison, PBC’s debut show (NBC – Saturday, 8:30PM ET) has the decided feel of a mid to high-tier episode of Showtime Championship Boxing, full of talented, name fighters, matched competitively. I’ve paid my monthly subscription charge for much worse, certainly. PBC originates from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena, one of boxing’s established meccas, headlined by a 12-round Welterweight title fight between rugged Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero and polished Keith “One Time” Thurman, plus a strong undercard fight between mega-talented clown Adrien “The Problem” Broner and mega-tough hard charger John Molina. These aren’t “pick’em” fights, necessarily – I think Thurman and Broner hold noticeable advantages – but they are most definitely “watch’em” fights.

PBC’s current published schedule includes an ambitious eight fights across five events (four primetime), spread among three networks, including CBS on April 4. Though the bloom may eventually fall off the rose, it seems plausible that Haymon isn’t going to run out of compelling matchups anytime soon, even walled off completely from any whiff of cooperation (or coexistence) with Top Rank or Golden Boy. All of PBC’s fights announced so far are worthy of a premium cable spot. Instead they’re on NBC and CBS in primetime, which is, boxing’s ever-present hyperbole acknowledged, at least a potential paradigm shift. Despite generally respectable and, on a few occasions, record-shattering PPV numbers in the modern era, and the production of worldwide icons like Oscar, Manny and Floyd, nothing approaching this scale, this kind of investment over a sustained period, has happened to the sport in decades. Might PBC prove the bellwether for a larger boxing resurgence? Might its hypothetical success force HBO to work even harder and smarter than have its turbulent recent years, or else cede its crown? No one can even know if people will watch in significant numbers Saturday night. Boxing has been periodically pronounced dead or dying for longer than I’ve been alive. I haven’t felt this mixture of anticipatory excitement and trepidation going into a fight card in years. Al Haymon may be nobody’s favorite person (except his well-paid fighters), but with the launch of PBC he’s taken a big, bold, laudable step into the piercing unknown, one with serious and fascinating potential repercussions for the sport at large.

The Heavyweight Scene

In forecasting the 2015 boxing landscape, there is unequivocal good news, like Alabaman Olympic bronze medalist Deontay Wilder becoming the first American to hold a piece of the Heavyweight title since Shannon Briggs dropped the WBO strap in 2007. Wilder, of course, is most assuredly NOT the Heavyweight champion of the world, an honorific that goes to Ukranian renaissance beast Wladimir Klitschko, the long-reigning lineal championship who, for good measure, unified his half of the predominant alphabet trinkets in 2011 with the WBA strap vacated by the retirement of his big brother, Vitali. The next person to beat Klitschko – a 6’6” anthropomorphic sledgehammer currently riding a streak of 18 consecutive title defenses – will assume his lineal mantle, joining a procession of immortals that contains Lennox Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, and Jack Dempsey, among others. No matter how boxing’s big wheels sometimes try to cheapen it, history matters. We’ll see if Wilder is the man to eventually make it, but the fact is that his one-sided January victory over well-regarded Haitian-Canadian bruiser Bermane Stiverne, along with his demonstrated power and, frankly, obnoxious athletic gifts – at a chiseled 6’7”, he’d be that rare Klitschko opponent to be technically taller than the champ (not to mention nine years younger) – and growing flair for self-promotion, makes him the most noteworthy American challenger of Klitschko’s already historic reign. Remember, in (potentially) beating Klitschko, we’re not talking about Wilder picking up some negligible alphabet title but rather the lineal Heavyweight championship of the world. Dempsey-Louis-Marciano-Ali-Frazier-Foreman-Holmes-Tyson-Lewis-Klitschko…Wilder? Don’t discount the positive attention that would be heaped upon the sport if its Heavyweight champion was a charismatic young American Olympian with devastating KO power. The stories practically write themselves.

For his part, the savvy Wladimir still knows how important recognition stateside is. He’ll fight American contender Bryant Jennings in New York’s Madison Square Garden in April, returning to the U.S. for the first time in thirteen fights despite being a walking cash register in Germany. Jennings is big and determined but offers little for Klitschko to realistically chew on, and should be a solid, convincing win, quite possibly by knockout. Wilder next faces the dreaded “t.b.d.”, though fans already anticipate his eventual tangle with Klitschko. There’s no need to rush the two together, however. Wilder proved more against Stiverne than in the rest of his professional career combined. He will benefit from a fight or two more of seasoning, this time as a titlist. At 38, Klitschko is still one of boxing’s best conditioned and most active champions. He has a keen awareness of history, a nose for making it, and has probably forgotten more about being a fighter than Wilder knows. He certainly won’t duck Wilder as a perceived “threat”. Honestly, it’s a fair and open question how much Wilder would bother or test Klitschko in the ring, even given his exceptional athleticism and explosive right hand. Even non-boxing fans instinctively understand the rudimentary punching combination known colloquially as “the ol’ 1-2”. Well, Klitschko’s “2” is a historical scourge, and still for my money the most ruthless in the sport. If and when the fight happens, no matter the outcome, it’ll be a big deal, and worthy – history further written, or a new page turned.

Mayweather-Pacquiao

With all respect due the aforementioned business and physiological heavyweights, there remains only one boxing story of any consequence to the larger sporting public. It’s the same old story, begun in 2009 and obsessed over ever since, except now containing a shocking twist to end them all: Pound for pound #1 and world boxing icon Floyd Mayweather will finally – FINALLY – fight pound for pound #2 and world boxing icon Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on May 2, 2015.**** No boxing match has so forcefully captivated the public’s attention in decades, and I daresay it’s on the elite shortlist of highly coveted sports events over the course of my entire life (the 1971 “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier happened before I was born, whereas Ali met George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” when I was 2.5 months old). For a change, the hyperbole is at once inescapable and altogether unnecessary. Pacquiao and Mayweather spent the final years of the 2010s at 1-2 on the mythical pound for pound list, then flipped spots soon after the new decade began and dug in, cementing their positions against waves of lesser opposition as ego, circumstance, and a legion of lesser impediments probably native only to boxing conspired to keep them from ever settling their lingering question of in-ring supremacy. Boxing politics being what they are, it can seem a rare enough thing to see the two best fighters in a weight class square off. When those two fighters happen to be the two best of their generation, all bets are off. Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war. Also, hyperbole.

****Though Floyd has, in recent years, seemingly co-opted it as an adjunct holiday weekend for his own indulgence (he there outpointed Mexican rock star Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in 2013 in what, between PPV sales and the live gate, became one of a handful of the most profitable sporting events in history), we’re essentially talking about Cinco de Mayo, which is traditionally a huge deal and date for the Mexican and Mexican-American boxing fans who do so much to keep the sport thriving in the face of larger America’s perceived indifference.

ESPN’s Dan Rafael has a pretty interesting look at what it took behind the scenes to bring Money-Pac from longstanding pipe dream to frustrating near miss to hard fought fruition. Basically the cocktail was missing a crucial ingredient little known in boxing circles – that of the “cooler head” – in this case, CBS president Leslie Moonves. Between PBC long term and Money-Pac in May, Moonves is finally in the position to help affect the widespread positive change, in both public attention and, with any luck, public perception, he has actively sought in the past. The fight is conservatively expected to break every financial record in boxing history, so at a baseline level it’s already historic, but the questions are still worth asking: Will it be any good? Will it be competitive? Even when it can’t exceed the hype, will it still meet it head on? Styles make fights, as they say, and though Mayweather, an all-time defensive wizard and sniper-precise pot-shotter, has only been tested three times in the last five years – for 2-3 rounds apiece against Marcos Maidana and Miguel Cotto, and for twenty seconds early against Shane Mosley – Pacquiao, despite his sharper decline of late – having been robbed of a decision victory once against Tim Bradley and of his senses by a perfect Juan Manuel Marquez short right hook, thrown just as Manny was seemingly assuming control – might just have something for him. The 36-year-old Pacquiao’s meteoric rise through the weight classes***** was predicated on speed and power, two factors that have seemingly diminished the longer he’s fought against strictly welterweight competition. Look a bit deeper though, and the deficits don’t seem quite as stark. Pacquiao’s power is enhanced by his handspeed and by the jarring angles from which he often unleashes combinations. That power clearly discouraged Bradley, actually dropped Marquez, and shot Avalos full of holes. Floyd’s chin sometimes seems made out of Kevlar but, in reality, it’s closer to Teflon. He simply doesn’t get hit enough for his resilience to be tested. Speed, of both foot and hand, remains Pacquiao’s game, and despite Floyd being his easy match in those respects, it remains to be seen how he might react to someone objectively dangerous who can theoretically force him out of his comfort zone. Mayweather’s defense is a given, so Pacquiao’s offense is the story of the fight.

*****From blitzing his way to a flyweight title (112 lb) still only a few steps removed from a hand to mouth street urchin’s existence in the Philippines, to defending his welterweight strap (147 lb) at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, Pacquiao remains the only boxer in history to win prominent titles in six different weight divisions. If it seems he’s fallen off of late, he has, but only comparatively. At super featherweight, in 2007, say, he was a boxing dynamo with few precedents and fewer explanations. At the time, I thought his veins pumped nitro glycerine.

The key for Pacquiao therefore is to start quickly and to attempt to disorient Mayweather early and often. This doesn’t have to be a byproduct of overt physicality. In fact, it possibly shouldn’t. Ricky Hatton once essentially mugged Floyd for 29 minutes straight, only to be rewarded with a knockout loss in the tenth (FWIW, Pacquiao obliterated Hatton in two). It would also behoove him to continue showing Floyd new looks instead of settling into discernable patterns and maybe even drop him for a knockdown, both of which are far easier said than done. Though his once preternatural reflexes have slightly dimmed in recent years, forcing him to stand toe to toe more often than he’d probably prefer, Floyd remains the consummate boxer as chess player, capable of not only comfortably thinking ahead while warfare rages around him but diagnosing and defusing his opponent’s strengths as the rounds pile up. So often in the second halves of fights, Floyd is hardly even annoyed by his opponents, so it is imperative on Pacquiao to own the early going conclusively. His power is also going to at least have to make an appearance, in the form of a timely knockdown or something that definitively forces the perpetually course-correcting Mayweather off his game. Conventional wisdom is that the battle-hardened Pacquiao will be the worse for wear – Floyd has twenty+ fewer fights, and scores fewer wars – but both men have passed the hump on their ways to forty, are ostensibly nearing the ends of their tremendous careers, and far from the powerhouses they would have been had this match been made in 2009 when it should have. Ironically, that may well contribute to a better fight overall. Both men are hungry for history, and glory, and bragging rights, and have proven their ability to shine both when the spotlight is the brightest and when the battle is at its most desperate.

I haven’t seen any official promotional materials for Mayweather-Pacquiao leak out yet, but I can’t imagine the event won’t at least be called some variation of “The Fight”. Simple, direct, unequivocal, a moniker worthy of both the fight’s pedigree, historical weight and long-simmering anticipatory cache. Of course, Hagler-Hearns (I suggest youtubing it sometime) was originally called “The Fight” before it was later modified to the even more appropriate “The War”. Money-Pac won’t be either of those in the ring, but I think it also can’t be help but be special. If Arum and Haymon (or their proxies, since even this kind of payday won’t move the two to speak directly) aspire to stratospheric boldness, Mayweather-Pacquiao could actually be called “The Fight of the Century”. We’re technically in the right century for it. I’m looking forward to it, in part because people I know who aren’t really boxing fans on any level are looking forward to it. Conditioned by years of waiting and disappointment, pessimistic handwringing and resignation, part of me probably won’t believe Mayweather-Pacquiao is happening until round one begins. But I’ll be watching, and I won’t be alone. Whether or not the in-ring combat reflects or even approaches the hype, a mega-fight of this magnitude, or, for that matter, a period of potential new competitiveness in the Heavyweight division, or a multi-faceted, wide-ranging return by boxing to network television, stars in tow, can’t help but move the needle in the right direction. Inveterate naysayers will still say nay, as is their wont, and I anticipate bemused shrugs by the many thousand. That’s okay. Pop music is not the only music, summer blockbusters are not the only game in town, and boxing is still a niche sport. Boxing will remain a niche sport, but the new millennium is kind of replete with both niches and passionate fans. Anyone who says it’s not, that boxing must by necessity demonstrate super-wide appeal or risk being consigned to irrelevance forever, is advancing his own agenda, engaging in his own sort of tone deaf hyperbole, and, in my considered opinion, living in the past.

I sincerely hope he’s watching this weekend. I know he’ll be watching May 2.

grateful h/t to BoxRec.com

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