There was a time, not that long ago, when HBO and its pay-per-view arm were the undisputed kings of televised boxing. Paying exorbitant rights fees, by the mid-1980s they had easily pried away the top fights and stars of the always-controversial sport of boxing from the older broadcast networks of CBS, ABC, and NBC. If you wanted to see top-notch boxing, you had to pay in order to subscribe to HBO, and then for the biggest fights, pay again for pay-per-view. Instead of reaching almost everyone in America who had a TV, now the best boxing was only available to a fraction of the population.
For a few generations, and up until a few years ago, this all seemed to work. Among the stars who fought on HBO and its pay-per-views were Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and many others. In the 1980s, when Mike Tyson was at his fearsome best and the undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, he fought on HBO. Their marketing slogan was “The Best Fights are on HBO,” and it was not far from the truth.
But the long-time business model of getting the quick bucks from putting all the biggest fights on pay TV and PPV, and isolating the sport from the general viewing public, was a ticking time bomb that had to go off sometime. It finally did last week, when HBO announced that after 45 years, is done with boxing. After the Jacobs—Derevyanchenko fight on Oct. 27, there will be no more telecasts, no more pay-per-views, nothing except for scripted documentaries and maybe some unspecified special fight in the indeterminate future, which seems quite doubtful when they are closing down and defunding their boxing program altogether. HBO has thus gone from being the predominant boxing network in the world to essentially being forced out of the market. While a complete history of what occurred remains to be written, some initial no-holds-barred observations can be made now.
So what happened?
In the early 1980s professional boxing, especially in America, was beset by a snowballing series of scandals. These were not only due to the predictably sad eclipse of Muhammad Ali, who looked dreadful and obviously just fighting for money in his final two bouts—both losses— in 1980 to Larry Holmes and 1981 to Trevor Berbick. Some high-profile and nationally televised fights between fighters who were not woefully past their primes ended in fiascos and tragedies:
- The first fight between Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello, on November 12, 1982, in Miami, Florida, and promoted by Top Rank. This was the brutal battle where Pryor’s trainer Panama Lewis could be heard talking between rounds about his secret potion, instructing use not of the regular water bottle, but saying, “No, not that one, the one I mixed.”
- The very next day, also promoted by Top Rank and shown for free, live, and in living color on CBS, the tragic Ray Mancini–Duk-koo Kim fight took place. Kim, just 23 years old, died four days later.
- Two weeks after that, in Houston and promoted by Don King, the bloody Larry Holmes–Tex Cobb mismatch aired on ABC. It so sickened legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell that soon after he called for the abolition of professional boxing.
- On a Top Rank card on ESPN on June 16, 1983, from Madison Square Garden, the scandalous Billy Collins Jr.–Luis Resto fight took place, where Resto’s trainer, that same Panama Lewis, doctored Resto’s gloves, leading to a brutal beating of the previously undefeated Collins. This was the subject of Eric Drath’s award-winning 2008 documentary Assault in the Ring, which can be watched for free on YouTube.
Cable TV was still in its relatively early stages in the 1980s, but was rapidly becoming mainstream. The broadcast networks, with Fox joining the pack in 1986, were still dominant, but wanted to protect their position by avoiding unnecessary controversies and scandals. Most of the emerging non-pay cable networks were edgier than the broadcast networks, but also sought mainstream status and revenue both from cable subscribers and advertising. So they could only go so far.
At the same time, premium networks, especially HBO and Showtime, were building their brands as places where you could see what you couldn’t elsewhere: full nudity, uncensored profanity, and more violent programming that the non-pay networks. And they had lots of cash to throw around. It is in hindsight no surprise that boxing in the U.S. saw its best fights move to pay TV and pay-per-view, especially as access to those technologies became widely available. The pay networks needed original programming not found elsewhere to get people to pay for them on top of their cable TV bills, which were relatively new then, with a lot of people still vowing they would never pay to watch TV.
In 2009, I interviewed for my podcast the late Jay Larkin, who for many years had been head of Showtime’s boxing program and was once considered the most powerful person in boxing. Larkin said this rapid transition from broadcast to pay TV had a simple explanation: The premium networks offered boxing promoters four times as much as the broadcast networks had been paying. Since most boxing promoters would switch networks for four cents more, this was an easy decision for them.
The predictable happened. Instead of the top fights and top fighters being televised to virtually the entire country, they now at best reached several million. Truckloads of cash rolled in for the expensive pay-per-views, even though generations were growing up who never saw top-flight boxing on TV because they or their families couldn’t or didn’t get premium networks or pay-per-view.
I remember as a kid watching Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson, Emile Griffith, and so many others on TV at home. Now the numbers capable of watching boxing growing up, even if they wanted to, have dwindled. (You can make the same argument for another American pastime, baseball.) And except when a celebrity fighter like Mike Tyson came along, few people even knew who the top boxers were. I think even today Mike Tyson is more famous in America and maybe the world than any other living fighter.
Although Showtime had a robust boxing program which eventually signed Tyson after his release from prison in 1995, by the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century, most of the top fights and fighters were on HBO. And it was during this time that, even aside from the rising costs of and impediments to watching boxing at home, HBO began to ruin things.
The countless mismatches and dud fights that people have had to pay to see on HBO have been well-documented all over the media. HBO really hasn’t had boxing people in quite some time who knew how to book exciting fights on a regular basis and build stars. But remember that many viewers get their boxing news and form their opinions based on what the announcers say. It became common for HBO announcers, usually a bunch of aging white men wearing tuxedos or dinner jackets, like at a 1950s Bar Mitzvah, to disrespect fighters all the time. The meltdown by Larry Merchant in his bizarre postfight interview with Floyd Mayweather Jr. after his controversial 2011 knockout of Victor Ortiz is Exhibit A of this devolution. Mayweather told Merchant that he didn’t know shit about boxing, to which Merchant replied that if he were 50 years younger he would kick Mayweather’s ass. Merchant later apologized, but the damage had been done.
Even when HBO used former or current fighters as announcers, the non-fighters or wannabe fighters would interrupt them. The announcers, particularly Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman, would talk over knockdowns, either about something that happened decades earlier, or to tout the latest HBO show. Instead of calling the action in the ring and explaining it to the viewers, they rambled on about some other HBO fighter who had a big pay-per-view coming up. While this was not unique among boxing networks, the announcers acted like publicists or pitchmen, or the infomercial hosts who were often the fight’s only competition at that hour, often not starting until after midnight in the east.
The confrontations with Mayweather had repercussions. Ken Hershman, who had moved from Showtime to HBO in 2012, soon banned all of Al Haymon’s fighters from his new network. It had already been widely noted that many of the HBO fights involving Haymon’s clients were just purposeful mismatches. So Haymon and his fighters, including Mayweather, the most popular star and consensus top pound-for-pound fighter in boxing at that time, moved to Showtime. In 2016 Hershman would become head of the World Esports Association, moving up the technological ladder into the booming field of those quasi-sport video games, and this year moved to Vuemix, a cloud-based video platform.
HBO missed opportunities during and after Hershman’s tenure. While there had been professional women’s boxing for many years, when it finally became an Olympic sport in 2012, an internationally known crop of women boxers really started to develop, with many of the top fighters turning pro after achieving Olympic medals and winning name recognition. But the braintrust at HBO Sports, led after Hershman’s exit by Peter Nelson, refused to show any women’s boxing, and even as women’s sports worldwide grew by leaps and bounds.
HBO even refused to show the Katie Taylor–Victoria Noelia Bustos fight on the Daniel Jacobs–Maciej Sulecki card from Brooklyn in April of this year, even though they were already there televising that fight; Taylor–Bustos turned out to be the best fight on the card. Only the following week did they finally show a women’s fight, featuring top pound-for pound-fighter Cecilia Braekhus. But I am told by a source familiar with the decision that the Braekhus fight only aired because a scheduled bout—a men’s fight—had been canceled.
This was years, mind you, after competing networks like Showtime had been featuring women’s boxing, including two-time Olympic gold medalist and now two-division champion Claressa Shields. (Shields’s manager, with some irony, is Mark Taffet, who formerly ran HBO’s pay-per-view program.)
As HBO boxing’s ratings and influence cratered over the years, their arrogance with the boxing press grew. HBO’s publicists made sure to limit as much as possible access to press releases and conference calls. While HBO was certainly not alone in these practices, they were by far the worst. And they will not be missed.
Technophobia is also nothing new or unique among boxing dinosaurs, but HBO was the leader in this as well. Their anti-internet bias was so great that even though HBO had industry-leading streaming services for its films, scripted shows, and documentaries, they did not stream their live fights. They thus were unable to reach younger audiences, many of whom exclusively use HBO Go, and thus once more failed to introduce their fighters to a wider audience.
So you could have seen it coming when Peter Nelson told the New York Times last week that “our audience research informs us that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for subscribing to HBO.”
Even without HBO in the picture, there is a burgeoning cornucopia of cards available to American viewers. The new streaming service DAZN, fights on the ESPN network and its ESPN+ app, and the regular Premier Boxing Champions shows on Showtime and soon Fox, mean that there will not be many fight-free Saturday nights or even Fridays for fight fans who want to take it all in. ESPN, Showtime, and even Fox are said to be taking over the role of putting on those odiously priced pay-per-views, while DAZN is just a 10-dollar bill a month for all you can watch of Matchroom Boxing from the U.S. and U.K. and the World Boxing Super Series.
Some top-level cards are still on free TV, most notably PBC’s monthly telecasts on Fox beginning next year. Some of the Top Rank shows on ESPN reach almost as many as the broadcast networks do even with their declining subscriber numbers. But the days when kids, like I had done, could watch regular championship boxing on free TV have gone the way of Texaco Star Theatre, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Captain Kangaroo. And that means that today’s kids may know all about LeBron James and Odell Beckham, but not about Canelo, Golovkin, Joshua, Fury, and Wilder.
So good riddance to HBO Boxing. It presided over a decades-long and steady decline in the sport, and led its increasing isolation from the general sporting public. We are constantly being told that boxing in America, without and despite HBO, is in a resurgent phase. But that can only be sustained if the people making decisions at these outfits are more concerned with the sport than with their short-term bottom lines.
Eddie Goldman is the host and producer of the No Holds Barred podcast and the publisher of the No Holds Barred blog, at eddiegoldman.com.