Ceremonial Ten Count: A Requiem for HBO Boxing

HBOBOX

The other day, while discussing boxing in detail with a knowledgeable co-worker – and there’s a opening I never would’ve thought I’d possibly write five years ago – I casually reminded him that Saturday night’s Boxing After Dark card would technically be the final telecast of HBO Boxing after 45 years of standard-bearing quality and omnipresent, sport-influencing significance. He professed mild disappointment when hearing that the best card the network could apparently assemble as its swan song was a triple-header featuring two matches from the nascent and still relatively obscure realm of women’s boxing. I found myself neither particularly surprised by his knee jerk response nor my general agreement with it. Boxing fans are always hungry, after all, rarely satisfied, and can be exceedingly hard to impress. No matter how young or old, they have borne witness to humbling, truly exceptional displays of athletic determination, and carry within the depths of their memory so many amazing images and transcendent moments collected and archived over time. Authentic boxing fans were inevitably galvanized at some point early in their personal journeys by the unexpected and extraordinary climax to an otherwise ordinary night. They have as much say in choosing to love and follow the sport thereafter as does a person who miraculously survives being struck by lightning. I actually first got into boxing because of the stories – century-spanning, spellbinding tales of blood grudges and grudging respect, fathers and sons and lifelong brothers, larger than life characters and pugs who simply aspired to be “somebody” – but I stayed for the moments, and the memories.

Those abundant stories, those flashpoint moments, and all those spine-tingling memories were provided me, expertly and with not only skill and care but obvious affection, by HBO Boxing, at first exclusively and, as my worldview expanded, in a way that, by prizing the nourishment of my love of the sport over any strict allegiance to a given provider, ironically rendered it my de facto destination on a map increasingly dotted with imitators. The suggestion that HBO didn’t ever leverage its prestige or prominence to elevate its Boxing division at the cost of its competitors is, of course, absurd, but I never noticed all that much, or, more to the point, cared. From my own hazy beginnings, as a child on the floor of my mother’s bedroom watching Leonard, Hagler, Tyson, and Holmes in the 1980s, to my true boxing awakening, thrilling to Gatti, Pacquiao, Cotto, Marquez, and Pavlik in the mid-2000s, to today’s drastically different, practically alien, landscape, where broadcast venues are plentiful and streaming services look to supplant the primacy of pay cable and pay-per-view once and for all, I always thought the choice was self-evident, and so I made my own, time and again. Now that it’s over, I honestly still do. It is altogether appropriate that this final broadcast was less about the six fighters it showcased – who certainly don’t take any fewer inherent risks or somehow deserve less respect for not being global superstars – than it was about HBO itself, because, on the whole, I just don’t remember HBO often taking those sorts of bows, however much it might’ve deserved to.

HBO Boxing’s downhill slide has proceeded, apace and unimpeded, for years now, almost as if toxic public sentiment directed toward the sport en masse in the wake of the high profile anticlimax that was the 2015 Mayweather-Pacquiao mega-fight had manifested as cleansing fire in search of a sacrifice, or a half-acre of quicksand hungry to take down an icon. During that doldrum period, longtime promotional ally Top Rank shockingly defected for a syrupy sweet deal as primary content provider for ESPN’s reinvigorated, cross-platform boxing program. Golden Boy Promotions, whose namesake CEO Oscar De La Hoya fought his entire legendary career on HBO, eventually followed suit. Though it weathered its own violent, hubristic storms, Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions outfit appears to have since somehow found its footing, flitting between homes on FS1 and HBO’s ancient enemy Showtime, although boxing’s permanent return to network television, after a couple of dalliances, does seem a collateral damage casualty. What’s interesting is how little the demise of that dream – long considered the holy grail to boxing reclaiming some semblance of its former glory as a national sport – now seems to matter in the grand scheme of things. Having siphoned off pound-for-pound stalwarts Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko, names HBO invested in for years, ESPN has made high profile boxing the cornerstone of a wide-ranging streaming service. Upstart streaming platform DAZN has inked exclusive rights to middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and is on the verge of doing the same for Kazakh destroyer Gennady Golovkin. The two last shared headlines three months ago, meeting in the main event of HBO’s final ever pay-per-view.

Boxing is a brutal, unforgiving business, outside the ropes as well as in. It also doesn’t always cost that much to program, assuming certain things – influential partners and, especially, sponsors; a receptive, reachable audience; a thoughtful mixture of value-priced action fights and value-providing action fighters – fall into place. Many have tried and failed, and whether this current crop thrives or even endures is a question that can only be answered with time. HBO floundered post-May-Pac as a market it had once not only set but lorded over as a tyrant both flourished and diversified. Beset with external criticism and declining ratings, the subscription service found itself having to actively trim costs and rethink purse guarantees for the first time in years, then improvise strategy as its friends deserted for the promise of greener pastures. We’re squarely in that “new investment” phase now. PBC was fine promoting smallish cards on Showtime, Spike TV, and, later, FS1, but dramatically flamed out when it tried to muscle into bigger tents. ESPN shuttered its own longstanding “Friday Night Fights” series in order to become strange bedfellows with Haymon, but the fallout from their resulting, shall we say, conditional successes together only inspired the “worldwide leader” to redouble its efforts apart. I don’t know where this alleged influx of new or newly interested fans comes from, whether it’s some legit, organic groundswell, an especially persuasive figment of some power broker’s imagination, or an industry-afflicting delusion from which the crash and resulting hangover will be epic.

I want boxing to grow not fail – indeed, I was once an evangelist of the highest and, admittedly, most insufferable order – but I’m having a difficult time disguising my current ambivalence toward the sport’s upswing, which edges over at times, unbidden, into something closer to contempt. I mentioned before a childhood misspent in large part watching HBO from the floor of my mother’s bedroom during summer while she was at work, or on weekends after she fell asleep. I still remember razor-thin controversies like Leonard-Hagler and Holmes-Spinks, not to mention how the young and terrifying Mike Tyson decimated those latter two established heavyweight champions in close succession, pulverizing one and blitzing the other. All I know, love, and have ever cherished about the sport of boxing springs directly from HBO. It was there, through a sterling docuseries called Legendary Nights, that I first began to comprehend boxing’s impossibly deep and colorful history, and through seminal post-millennium fights like Pavlik-Taylor (the personal flashpoint moment I mentioned earlier), Pacquiao-Marquez I (there would be four total, all tremendous), and Ward-Gatti I (the genesis of an all-time great trilogy, including two consensus fights of the year), authentically tasted the vicarious thrill of watching gloved combatants risk life and limb to challenge one another while also plumbing the depths of their own souls, thrilling to what ringside commentator Larry Merchant termed the “Theater of the Unexpected.” Irrational as it is, “business-as-usual” as it is, there is a part of me deep down that can’t yet outpace the feeling that this new order cannibalized HBO Boxing in order to secure its spot, and, frankly, I’m angry even as I mourn.

After a second’s reflection, I told my coworker that final HBO card would be worth watching because, as we both already knew, it would surely feature interesting remembrances and stirring retrospectives recounting the sort of rich history that I’m not sure has ever before existed between a sport and a broadcaster, and that I am absolutely certain never will again. As is so often my problem, I should have been more succinct: It would be worth watching because it was HBO Boxing. For forty-five years, HBO Boxing was not only destination television for dedicated lovers of the Sweet Science, it was often the only destination that mattered. Name a significant fight since the mid-1970s and chances are at least reasonable that it was carried on HBO: Ali-Frazier; Foreman-Frazier; Pryor-Arguello; Gomez-Pintor; Hearns-Benitez; Leonard-Hearns; Holmes-Cooney; Hagler-Hearns; Leonard-Hagler; Holmes-Spinks; Tyson-Berbick; Douglas-Tyson; Chavez-Taylor; Holyfield-Bowe; Foreman-Moorer; De La Hoya-Trinidad; Ibeabuchi-Tua; Lewis-Tyson; Morales-Barrera; Gatti-Ward; Lewis-Rachman; Trinidad-Vargas; Barrera-Hamed; Pacquiao-Marquez; Mosley-De La Hoya; Lewis-Klitschko; Toney-Jirov; Pacquiao-De La Hoya; Pavlik-Taylor; Pacquiao-Cotto; Cotto-Margarito; Martinez-Williams; Mayweather-Pacquiao; Bradley-Provodnikov; Cotto-Alvarez; Joshua-Klitschko; Ward-Kovalev; Alvarez-Golovkin; Plus dozens of other obvious candidates I’m either shamefully forgetting or else willfully omitting because Floyd Mayweather, great as he is, only deserves so much unsolicited press. Hell, two and a half months after my birth, Muhammad Ali outthought then outfought George Foreman in the famed “Rumble in the Jungle”, emanating from Kinshasa, Zaire and brought to you by HBO. At the very least, an era has ended. At worst, I worry about the end of something else, something more elusive yet altogether more consequential.

I came to boxing for the stories. Boxing is a storyteller’s medium, whether you electrify on canvas to the cheers of spellbound throngs or paint with words and pictures, reaching each reader or viewer in his/her time. For longer than I have been alive, and certainly for as long as I have been a boxing fan, HBO has been the trusted keeper of those stories, equal parts troubadour and custodian. Who tells them now? Who cares as deeply, about them or the sport? Everyone tries to emulate the HBO approach to one degree or other, because of its proven track record and because boxers are inherently fascinating human beings, but presenting the 360-degree image is tricky. That requires passion, and depth, and credibility. HBO’s final boxing telecast originated, as had many memorable nights before it, from Carson, California’s StubHub Center. It featured, in Danish headliner Cecilia Braekus and two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, the two biggest names in women’s boxing, battling overmatched opponents to, as we’d foreseen, serviceable but only mildly impressive victories. My favorite ever boxing broadcast team – peerless Jim Lampley on play-by-play; encyclopedic Max Kellerman on commentary; former pound-for-pound king Roy Jones providing expert analysis – were loose yet professional in their task, approaching the lame duck card as an appealing potpourri of real time reaction, reminiscence, plaudits, digressions, and informed speculation. Self-evident fans of the sport, the jovial trio seemed rightly less interested in the in-ring action than all the amazing places they had been together, and where things might go from here, keeping their respective composure until finally crumbling somewhat at the end. They weren’t alone there, on any count.

45 years. 1116 fights. 865 fighters. 9447 rounds. If those statistics are themselves impressive, then the images behind them are overwhelming, pregnant with deeper meaning and personal resonance for each longtime viewer and oozing with weapons-grade raw emotion that connects directly to the heart and gut, superseding experience level. Do yourself a favor and watch all twenty+ combined minutes of the retrospective that closed HBO Boxing’s final broadcast, including the end credits and heartfelt goodbyes. I’ll miss Lampley’s keen fan’s eye and heart-on-sleeve eloquence most of all. Let those images really sink in. Maybe even imagine the greater piece, as I did, as a deconstructed mosaic broken down into over a thousand component parts, some of which (if you’re reading this) I’m sure you remember so well, and then reassembled into something different, something towering and shattering, something somehow even better than your memories. There was nothing else in the history of sports broadcasting like HBO Boxing. There never will be again. Treasure it. Burnish those memories instead of letting them fade. And keep telling the stories of these extraordinary athletes, and the sport to which they gave everything, for nothing and everything in return.

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