“Once upon a time we were a promising kid. Then a challenger. Then a champion. A great champion. A long-time champion. And then a has-been who finally retired. So long, champ,” Larry Merchant- HBO broadcaster on the end of HBO Boxing.
One didn’t need a telescope or a tarot card reading to see that the days of HBO as boxing’s banner bearer were numbered.
It was a painful blow to combat sports fans no matter how they braced for the hit.
The anemic budget, the unstable and lackluster viewership, and the ever restricting pool of talented and popular fighters, that has been years in the making actually, doomed the once dominant network.
We all knew they, as a player in the sport, were on life support and needed a miracle if they earnestly wanted to continue.
September 27th, the bell finally tolled as executive vice president Peter Nelson announced that the HBO Boxing franchise would end after 2018.
Starting back in 1973 with their debut fight, George Foreman knocking out Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica for the heavyweight title in the second round, HBO has televised on its cable network or pay-per-view platform over 1,100 fights over almost a half century.
Personally, the network was my first exposure to the sport. As I’m sure it was to a lot of other people.
We’ll all miss taken-for-granted trademarks, the pre-fight “24/7” programs, Jim Lampley’s pitch-perfect fight calling, the very colorful and sometimes comic commentary of Roy Jones (who holds the record along with Oscar De La Hoya at 32 appearances as a boxer on HBO) and the love-him-or-hate-him scorecards of Harold Lederman.
It’s going to be hard not to miss the men in black tie calling the fights at ringside.
Now it seems, the final fight will be at the Hulu Theater, Madison Square Garden when Danny Jacobs battles Sergiy Derevyanchenko for the vacant IBF middleweight crown on October 27.
Unless something else is scheduled, HBO Boxing fades away.
At one time being nearly peerless in boxing broadcasting, several changes occurred all around the network and seemingly (and disappointingly) they were unwilling to even put up a fight.
HBO’s inability to access top talent was most certainly the leading factor as boxers are exclusively signing to other networks.
Bob Arum’s Top Rank last year signed a seven-year deal with ESPN to air fights on the ESPN network and the ESPN+ streaming service.
Premier Boxing Champions, Al Haymon’s venture has signed extensions with Fox and Showtime and Matchroom Sport promoter Eddie Hearn signed a blockbuster billion dollar deal with streaming service DAZN (pronounced Da-Zone).
These alignments, along with HBO passing on the Sergey Kovalev-Eledier Alvarez rematch and its top two fighters becoming free agents, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, what would HBO do?
One of their last marks on the boxing world, besides the Golovkin-Alvarez matches, was the trio of “Superfly” cards.
The matchups, nearly all of them in the 115 pound super-flyweight division provided amazing action even amongst the lesser known contenders and gave a bigger profile to the lower weight classes to American audiences, where they’ve routinely struggled.
However, HBO’s bad luck continued even with these great cards.
The Superfly series, in the background, was really meant as a spring-board to another super fight.
Where then pound-for-pound king Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, was supposed to eventually match up against Japanese phenom Naoya “The Monster” Inoue.
Gonzalez lost and was brutally knocked out on the first Superfly card to Thai fighter and current WBC Super Flyweight champion Sririsket Sor Rungvisai.
Whereas Inoue has now moved up to the 118 pound Junior Bantamweight division to compete in the second season of the World Boxing Super Series.
Even with the praiseworthy prize fights which continued in Superfly 2 and 3.
The ratings were barely treading water and the dream fight between Inoue and Gonzalez has been now long-buried. Superfly 3 was one of HBO’s lowest rated boxing programs ever at less than 300,000.
The network’s last stand was at its inevitable conclusion.
The question not to ask is what of the state of boxing.
It had gone through some valleys within the past twenty years or so and a lot of that can be attributed to a variety of factors.
The sport, now, is on more networks in one form or another than I can remember in a long time.
HBO sadly, just couldn’t keep up or what many suspect, didn’t want to.
We all had high hopes for Peter Nelson who at his appointment to head HBO Sports had ostensibly been devoted to continuing the story of the sweet science at HBO rather than snuffing it.
Many have lamented the mismatches the network has not only put on but promoted as competitive within the last year, with the most ire reserved for the Lucas Matthysse-Tewa Kiram / Jorge Linares-Mercito Gesta doubleheader in January which Nelson notoriously labeled as “50/50”.
There’s money concerns as well which kept a once full schedule sporadic and soon to be no more.
HBO once boasted a nine figure budget that has reportedly dived to about $25 million. Big TV series shows like Game of Thrones are much more lucrative then boxing at the end of the day, in the grand scheme of things for a huge organization like HBO.
That hurts, no matter what.
With no budget to produce quality fight cards, it’s no shock to see Nelson get eclipsed in just about every way fathomable by Showtime and ESPN.
Notwithstanding Ill fortune, it is still unavoidable to call into question Nelson’s command.
His inability to work with other promoters, he passed on Bob Arum of Top Rank’s offer to showcase another doubleheader with Gilberto Ramirez vs. Jesse Hart coupled with Oscar Valdez-Miguel Marriaga in April of last year.
It was a missed opportunity that could have opened Top Rank fighters to perform on HBO with more frequency Arum has repeatedly criticized Nelson in public, calling him an “amateur,” while others have critiqued his nearsightedness to the sport and inflexibility in deal making.
What could be his biggest blunder, is the almost completely cold shoulder approach to who is now becoming if not already one of boxing’s biggest stars, heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, who was snatched up by Showtime and fought his first fight on DAZN this past week against Alexander Povetkin, who he knocked out in the seventh round.
It really shouldn’t be a pile-on on Peter Nelson, but there are a lot of sad, disappointed fight fans out there who wanted to see a weakening Home Box Office rise again, this humble scribe included.
His interest in the sport waned almost immediately after taking the controls and to see the once prevailing pugilist network die with a whimper, like many champions who perhaps stayed to fight too long, HBO Boxing certainly deserved a better finale.