HBO throws the towel in on boxing: A look at what went wrong

On Saturday night, HBO Boxing will put together its final boxing card (for the time) being featuring Cecilia Braekhus vs. Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes in the main event of a ten-round world title unification bout at The StubHub Center in Carson, CA. The event ends a 45-year tenure in the sport of boxing that over the past few years has fallen from grace.

HBO Boxing at its best reflected the highest quality of boxing in the sport as in the 1970s it drew people away from regular broadcast channels to watch the greats like Muhammad Ali, providing a telecast for the famed, “Rumble in the Jungle”. The network found its legs and probably created a large part of their legacy when it the 1980s when “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, and other future hall-of-fame fighters were regulars.

HBO, in essence, created the Mike Tyson machine that was the early nineties then did it again with Julio Cesar Chavez and again with Oscar De La Hoya. HBO for most of my life has been the golden standard of boxing, it even seemed to show in their gold logo, the absolute best fights landed on the network. The biggest pay-per-views happened on the network, in the late 80s and early 90s, HBO Boxing was where you went to become a star. 

In my young adulthood, I saw Arturo Gatti versus Micky Ward, the apex mountain of the network, Roy Jones Jr. rise into a star only for Antonio Tarver to shock the world and ruin the evening for all of the fans of Roy Jones watching at home their television set. It was HBO that brought us Floyd Mayweather in his pay-per-view debut against Oscar De La Hoya, as well as helped build Mayweather’s rival, Manny Pacquiao.

HBO created with the Floyd vs. Manny debate, the type of debate that runs boxing social media, a passionate, non-facts based, insult riddled argument, that both fanbase seemingly clambered for. As we had cliffhangers after each fight between the two combatants with Max Kellerman or Larry Merchant asking if the fighter wanted to fight the other, often results in further message board chatter.

It was the best sport had to offer, but also high drama, great production value, and quite enjoyable event viewing. If you missed an HBO telecast, you felt like you missed out on the sport of boxing.

Things did change though.

One of which being Ross Greenburg, who was the president of HBO Sports from 2000-2011, stepped down and in his place came Ken Hershman, who had been at Showtime and was credited with the success of the Super Six tournament that Andre Ward and Abner Mares won.

Conversely, Stephen Espinoza, an incredibly public figure despite being an executive, having an active Twitter account, took over Showtime Sports which mainly consisted of their boxing programming. The first major salvo was fired when Floyd Mayweather left HBO Boxing for Showtime as Espinoza pulled off three of the biggest Floyd Mayweather fights ever in the past five years pitting the star against Canelo Alvarez, Conor McGregor, and in a bi-network broadcast partnered with HBO for the Manny Pacquiao fight.

Hershman did a lot of good for HBO, but he made a bold line in the sand, he seemed to uninterested in having Al Haymon advised fighters on HBO, and the message lead to Showtime scoop up a lot of young talent HBO had been building such as Danny Garcia and Keith Thurman. 

In hindsight, people will look at it as though HBO died in this year, but that is not true at all. 2013 and 2015 were terrific years for the sport of boxing in which both networks were competing for the best content possible creating great programming.

The big thing was HBO went all in on the wrong type of fighters.

HBO fell in love with power-punchers, fighters who do not have a lot of longevity based on their fighting style and heavily invested in them. Focusing on Eastern Europeans prodominately with a major focus upon Vasyl Lomachenko, Sergey Kovalev and Gennady Golovkin, with some but not the same light on Terence Crawford and Andre Ward. HBO in its final years became a niche boxing market for “a certain type of boxing fan”, the one that wants to see someone get knocked out, and less about a fighter who might have to fight on his back foot the whole fight.

Now don’t get me wrong all of these fighters are good they invested in, but each of those fighters have their own flaws, but mainly Golovkin, Kovalev and “Chocolatito” Gonzalez were all older fighters when HBO became invested in them. We were being sold stars as the broadcast in the last three to four years became less about the in-ring action and more about the perception the viewer should be thinking, as if we were being sold on this is truly world-class boxing. HBO went from extremely competitive bouts to knockout artists and durable fighters slugging it out, in hopes of knockout.

It seemed like tension between Top Rank and HBO got fairly bad as HBO seemingly rejected a very entertaining bout between Oscar Valdez and Miguel Marriaga which landed on a Top Rank PPV instead of HBO. This was odd when they had green lit similar fights with Orlando Salido and Francisco Vargas prior. This saw Top Rank leave the network and eventually end up on ESPN. 

What impact did this have?

Well, Terence Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko, two fighters HBO heavily invested in were gone and the network had nothing to show for it.

The last great stand for HBO was an enjoyable Gennady “GGG” Golovkin run in which he was built into Kostya Tszyu-type monster fighting limited opposition partially because no one wanted to fight and partially it was best for business to sell him as a juggernaut brute who could stop anyone. The build from 2013 went until 2017 when Golovkin stepped in and faced Daniel Jacobs in an extremely close and hard fight that the result of Golovkin is disputed to this day. After that bout he fought Canelo Alvarez twice, once to a draw and losing the second bout by decision.

Prior to this, “Chocolatito” Gonzalez was brutally knocked out by the uncharismatic Sriskat Sor Rungvisai, an outcome it appeared HBO nor the promoter expected. Rungvisai fought once more on the network against Juan Francisco Estrada, but took two defenses in his native of Thailand explaining he was heartbroken and didn’t want to travel to America, but you could tell, Runvisai wasn’t the ratings draw HBO was looking for.

In short, HBO gambled their future on Sergey Kovalev, “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Gennady Golovkin, and all of them lost and two of them, Kovalev and Gonzalez, badly.

The white flag for boxing at HBO appeared to get waived in 2015 when Hershman left the network starting January 1st, 2016. It was an apparent victory for their rival Showtime as well as a chance for new blood as HBO hired Peter Nelson.

Nelson, a former writer, and fan of boxing, seemingly saw people above him make calls to shrink the once enormous HBO budget to a small scale, as the show became more and more club show-ish.

What we then saw was the network move away from the mega-fight and focus more towards catering to the hardcore Twitter type boxing fan, which saw cards like “Super-Fly” as well as the sloppy, but enjoyable Francisco Vargas vs. Orlando Salido fight. It went from being the distination to go to in the sport of boxing to a destination in boxing.

The final two years of HBO Boxing were forgettable outside of their four fantastic pay-per-views two with Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev and two with Canelo Alvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin. The rest of the fights never seemed to matter much, not that they weren’t good, but it just felt stale. HBO was an innovator in television production and in new media production with shows like “2 Days”, etc, and towards the end, we saw less and less of that behind-the-scenes videos. 

It felt more like they had some fighters under contract, lets put on the second Canelo vs. Golovkin bout and then move on, since the rest of the roster they had built around didn’t pan out.

The biggest loser in all of this is sadly, Tom Loeffler, the head of 360 Promotions, and Gennady Golovkin’s promoter, who seems like a genuinely nice guy. Loeffler stayed loyal to HBO Boxing to the end, but sadly HBO didn’t return the favor as Loeffler tried his hardest to make good to great cards with what he had for the network, but it simply couldn’t quite work out.

As the final major promoter looking for a network, Loeffler now has an uphill battle, and being a seemingly nice and kind promoter, something that is uncommon in this sport, sadly.

The end to HBO in the sport of boxing will end abruptly, somewhat like how they abruptly cut back on their budget from a terrific 2015 to 2016, and each year there after. HBO left a legacy in the sport of boxing that will forever be remembered, but lets not be nostalgic about the past and remember the present, in the present, HBO was not very interested in the sport of boxing besides a certain group of fighters and picking the wrong ones which lead to their demise. 

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Lukie Ketelle

Lukie Ketelle