By Scoop Malinowski
HBO Boxing was once viewed as perhaps the most powerful entity in the sport. All the top fighters – Tyson, De La Hoya, Holyfield, Lennox, The Klitschkos, Pacquiao, Jones, Golovkin, Cotto, Canelo, Mayweather were all featured attractions on the pay cable television network. Many sports fans subscribed to HBO just to watch the thrilling boxing content alone.
The HBO commentators were the best in the business too – Larry Merchant, Jim Lampley, George Foreman, Emanuel Steward – with their veteran observations and intricate analysis, made the fights even more entertaining to watch.
But this week we have learned the once mighty HBO Boxing empire has fallen. HBO has concluded that boxing is no longer a determinant factor in attracting new viewership. So HBO is departing the boxing business and will no longer televise any ring action beyond 2018. 45 years of excellence and history making is about to end.
This is major news and an astounding and unexpected evolution for the sport which just three years ago produced the biggest pay-per-view event in history Pacquiao vs Mayweather.
It’s difficult to trace the moves which have triggered the HBO boxing downfall but a few do come to mind. In the prime years of HBO boxing, the network was viewed as a bastion of integrity and fairness and super fistic programming. There were no apparent agendas to hype up certain fighters or protect fraud fighters. Larry Merchant told it like it was.
However in the 2000s, a political agenda began to emerge to creep into the broadcasts. HBO boxing didn’t like the Klitschko brothers and made the unprecedented decision to ignore several of their world heavyweight title defenses. This was a strange move by HBO because in the past HBO always would show just about every world heavyweight title fight, the “theater of the unexpected” as Merchant said after Lennox Lewis was stunningly stopped by Oliver McCall. HBO was also there live in South Africa when Lennox was unexpectedly knocked out by Hasim Rahman. HBO also broadcast several “Night of the Young Heavyweight” programs featuring young heavyweight contenders. To snub the incredible, miraculous, and dominant Klitschko Brothers was a stupid move which disrespected the flagship division of the sport.
When the Klitschkos dominated, HBO boxing began to discredit and diminish the Ukrainian brothers instead of lionizing them with the praise and respect they deserved. Max Kellerman would tell us over and over the Klitschkos were just lucky, they were the best of a very bad lot of weak and inferior heavyweight contenders. These insults and cheap shots devalued and dishonored the richest, most prestigious title in all of sports and surely had a negative impact on the overall image of the sport. Plus it was pure nonsense. The heavyweight division is never weak, it’s always about mighty men training and working and fighting to get to the top of the mountain and the jackpot fortune that awaits the ultimate conquest. The only thing that ever changes in the heavyweight division is the names and faces of the contenders – and the way the media perceives and presents the division. The US media and HBO should have saluted the Klitschkos. If the Klitschkos were beaten by two black brothers from Brooklyn, you know HBO would have presented these two black brothers as super heroes, not the maddeningly insulting “best in a bad division.” HBO and Kellerman lost a lot of respect for this blatant bias against the Klitschkos.
Also, insider rumors persisted that Al Haymon manipulated HBO boxing to focus their resources on promoting Floyd Mayweather instead of the Klitschkos. On top of that, there was a report by Sports By Brooks that Haymon manipulated the HBO broadcast team to mouthpiece his agenda of being pro Mayweather and anti certain other fighters like the Klitschkos and Pacquiao. Ross Greenberg famously passed on buying Pacquiao vs Mosley which was later broadcast by Showtime and generated huge ratings. Some speculate Greenberg shunning Pacquiao vs Mosley – a move designed to devalue Pacquiao in the eyes of the public in order to prop up the preferred Mayweather – is the decision that cost Greenberg his job at HBO Sports. After Greenberg resigned (or was forced out), HBO once again joined forces with Bob Arum and Pacquiao and enjoyed enormous profits via the whirlwind Filipino franchise.
The superb commentating by Larry Merchant and Emanuel Steward kept HBO relevant and entertaining through all the boring Mayweather fights on HBO but eventually, sadly, Merchant and Steward both departed the network, Merchant at the end of 2012 and Steward when he passed away in October 2012.
Relying on Max Kellerman to be the lead analyst, the HBO telecasts floundered with his fanboy level observations which were juvenile, basic and shallow when compared to the worldly wisdom of Steward and Merchant. I have nothing personal against Kellerman, he was a breath of fresh air in his early gimmick days at ESPN, but at HBO he was out of his league and he is totally unequipped to handle a major role as an elite boxing commentator among the likes of Howard Cosell, Gil Clancy, Tim Ryan, Steward, Merchant, Bobby Czyz, Ferdie Pacheco. I never sensed Kellerman got any better in his role, he’s always been the same level, a pure featherweight compared to Clancy, Steward, Merchant.
Kellerman’s anti Golovkin and pro Canelo agenda which he expressed repeatedly two weeks ago was near the point of nauseating. “Canelo is winning the story of the fight,” he kept droning on. Awful.
Yes, HBO boxing has lost it’s golden touch. Once the beacon on televised boxing excellence in America, HBO boxing is about to go out of business. It was a wonderful journey filled with so many unforgettable electrifying moments through almost five decades.
Like an aging champion who loses a fraction of reflexes and dedication to the sport, HBO boxing has been caught with a knockout punch by Father Time and is about to take the ten count. But it was a glorious, thrilling, sensational run.