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In Memoriam – HBO Boxing 1973 – 2018

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All good things must come to an end.

The cycle of life is such that nothing lasts forever, even if you believe it will. The sweetest of joy can instantly be replaced with bitterness. Every fleeting moment of happiness is prone to being robbed by the thief known as sorrow. When something has been around for over four decades, we begin to take things for granted. 

“It’s been around for ages” we say, and that “it’ll be around forever”.

But in an age of developments occurring at an exponential pace especially in the technological realm, nothing lasts forever and that includes HBO Boxing. A veteran in the sport who pioneered boxing on cable television and pay-per-view (PPV), death beckons this Saturday on the 8th of December 2018. Not many expected the end to come so soon but perhaps it is fitting that this is the way it will end. 

With parental network HBO publicly making aware the impending moment of death, it gives us time to reflect. Us being the fans, the media, the journalists, the promoters and everyone who helped assembled HBO Boxing into the titan it once was. The reflection being a look back at the life it lived, the path it travelled, the journey it covered. 

That journey began on January 22nd 1973 when HBO Boxing laced up the gloves and made its debut with undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman yo-yoing former kingpin Joe Frazier 6 times en route to a 2nd round stoppage.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKUIoqWEw8I

Foreman’s sensational win helped to rapidly propel the young upstart up the rankings and led to them airing two fights forever enshrined in history. Bouts which not only transcended boxing due to their historical nature but transcended sports, triumphs as awe inspiring as any heaven-sent miracle. Muhammad Ali’s improbable win over George Foreman defied logic. Ali’s win over Joe Frazier gave new meaning to the phrase ‘will to win’ and it was HBO who televised both the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila. Although Ali’s gargantuan presence overshadowed the 70s, the network was setting up its future by showcasing future icons such as Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes and Alexis Arguello.

The 80s dawned and it was throughout the decade where HBO Boxing established itself as a legitimate contender to the network throne. The public’s interest in boxing had declined following the departure of the Greatest but proceeding those moribund years was a resuscitation thanks to four unlikely men – Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran. Four men diametrically apart characteristically yet together, formed an inseparable bond. Four men who individually are ranked no less than top 5 all time in their respective divisions yet collectively, formed a quartet which saw them engage in the most riveting of duels, duels which not only elevated their legacies and bank accounts to new heights but defined a decade. Christened as the Four Kings era, HBO Boxing spoiled fans by airing at least four of the nine fights waged. 

Ray Leonard was “blowing it son!” until a late rally saw him stop Hearns in perhaps the welterweight divisions’ greatest title fight ever. Duran proved the old dog still had some bite in a losing effort against Hagler. Hagler and Hearns engaged in the most violent sprint ever ran, one routinely considered to be the greatest fight of all time. The Superfight between Leonard and Hagler was years in the making and resulted in perhaps the sport’s most controversial decision. Beyond the Four Kings, HBO showcased Larry Holmes stopping Gerry Cooney in a fight stoked by the fires of racial tension. The consumption of a mysterious bottle’s content revived Aaron Pryor en route to stopping Alexis Arguello, a war nominated by The Ring Magazine as its fight of the decade. 

Wilfredo Gomez and Lupe Pintor brought the roof of the Orange Bowl down and light heavyweight kingpin Michael Spinks controversially beat Larry Holmes. Before the decade culminated, a 21 year old from the streets of Brooklyn, saddled with a lisp and a youthful pitch, emerged as the new face of boxing. Mike Tyson’s coronation from prodigy to champion and then to kingpin was televised by HBO, with the network airing Tyson’s destructions over Trevor Berbick and Michael Spinks.

But it was in the 90s where the network graduated from contender to world champion. HBO Boxing would rule the decade with an iron fist in what were undoubtedly great times. The best of times in fact. It was home to the second greatest era of heavyweights in history, spearheaded by the forever intertwined trio of Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield and further supported by a cast whose talents would be the envy of any other era bar the 70s. The axis of the world was thrown completely out of sync when 42 – 1 underdog Buster Douglas upset Tyson. Richard Steele cruelly denied Meldrick Taylor his greatest victory. Andrew Golota took one trip too many down south and precipitated the sport’s most infamous brawl with Riddick Bowe. Fan Man paid a visit and then “IT HAPPENED!”. Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman took turns stunning Lennox Lewis, before Lewis repaid the favour and flattened the pair in revenge bouts. The little guys finally kicked the door down and got the recognition they were seeking, a charge led by ‘Mi Vida Loca’ Johnny Tapia. Prince Naseem Hamed invaded America and following his masterclass over James Toney, it became ostensible that the future Fighter of the Decade Roy Jones Jr really was Superman. 

Fresh faced Oscar de la Hoya and Puerto Rican icon Tito Trinidad became superstars, having emerged from a pack of sterling welterweights. HBO Boxing continued to innovate sports by birthing two ideas still present today. The first being a PPV platform via TVKO (then later HBO PPV) inaugurated by the resoundingly successful Holyfield V Foreman bout. The second was the creation of Boxing After Dark, the brainchild of vociferously loyal mastermind promoter Lou Dibella. The series was designed to showcase two prospects or lesser heralded fighters with the hope of them then eventually soaring to greater heights. Marco Antonio Barrera and Kennedy McKinney set the bar for the series and that standard continued well into the next decade.

The king remained the king and continued to add to its legacy well into the 2000s. Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, hand in hand, emptied out the bare embers of their souls across an emotionally pulsating trilogy and ultimately became the best of companions. Ukrainians Vitali Klitschko and Vasiliy Jirov left an indelible mark on viewers following their wars with Lennox Lewis and James Toney. Superman crashed back down to earth after Antonio Tarver sensationally KO’d Jones and Bernard Hopkins spent the decade continuing to defy the odds. The decade’s answer to the Four Kings – Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera – engaged in sensational thrillers across featherweight and lightweight. Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto engaged in La Battalia, a thriller which resulted in serious ramifications across the sport. Oscar de la Hoya assumed the mantle of PPV king, engaging in significant bouts with Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins and Fernando Vargas until a date with Floyd Mayweather beckoned. With Mayweather’s ascent being aided by 2 further innovations, Face Off and reality show 24/7, his victory over the “Golden Boy” launched him into a different stratosphere and with it, he became the network’s biggest star.

But the legs buckled and for the first time in its illustrious career, HBO Boxing found itself in a position more relatable to the fighters it had shown – on the canvas. On 19th February 2013, Mayweather dropped the bombshell that he had penned the largest 6 fight deal in history … with SHOWTIME. With the boxing world agape, an inquest immediately opened chiefly questioning how had HBO allowed this to happen. Why was Mayweather going over to SHOWTIME, considering he had spent his entire career on HBO? Who could he realistically face to satisfy the $32 million guarantee per fight? Was the superfight with his rival Manny Pacquiao fight officially dead? What did this mean for HBO Boxing going forward?

The network wearily beat the count but found itself taking a second trip to the canvas. A month after Mayweather’s departure, HBO boss Ken Hershman permanently exiled Al Haymon and Golden Boy Promotions from the network citing “philosophical differences”, a euphemism to mask HBO’s staunch refusal to accept the mismatches being offered. The directive resulted in Hollywood Hulk Haymon defecting to SHOWTIME to start his own new Boxing order with Stephen Espinoza and Richard Schaefer. 

Stumbling back to its feet, it became ostensible the network needed to execute a different gameplan in order to survive. An acrimonious lawsuit between Oscar de la Hoya, Schaefer and Haymon resulted in the “Golden Boy” regaining control of his promotional company in 2015. But the company had been reduced to a shell of itself, given the mass exodus of stars wanting to follow Haymon to SHOWTIME out of loyalty. Only megastar Canelo Alvarez and contenders Lucas Matthysse and David Lemieux possessed any name value. Armed with Golden Boy Promotions 2.0 in conjunction with Bob Arum’s Top Rank, HBO battled back by further seeking the help of other promotional outfits such as Banner Promotions, Roc Nation Sports and 360 Promotions among others. The roster reduction forced the network to dip into international markets, with a strong Eastern European invasion helping establish the likes of Vasiliy Lomachenko, Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev as stars and thereby granting HBO Boxing temporary reprieve in the fight.

In spite of the revised approach, it was clear that the network was badly rattled and surviving largely on instinct. A fruitful 2014 and 2015 was followed by a beating against the ropes. Supplanting Ken Hershman on December 1st 2015 as HBO Sports President, Peter Nelson went about conducting business in a manner so erroneous that many consider him to be the sole reason regarding HBO Boxing’s demise. His refusal in 2017 to air a Top Rank promoted card headlined by Oscar Valdez, prompted Arum to sign an exclusive deal with ESPN instead, with added benefits such as extra dates, a bigger budget and a wider platform to showcase pound for pound calibre talents Lomachenko and Terence Crawford. Nelson was also at the helm when the network declined purchasing rights to televise the World Boxing Super Series tournament, an innovative boxing revolution powered by European promotional powerhouses Sauerland Brothers which pits elite fights against each other in knockout competition. Charismatic British supremo Eddie Hearn flirted with the network in an effort to find an American home for his Matchroom Boxing stable, one led by heavyweight juggernaut Anthony Joshua. Despite Hearn’s ambitions and Joshua’s appeal, Nelson also disregarded the proposition without any interest. Nelson’s lack of interest in partaking in any boxing related programming led to severe criticism being levied at him by many in the industry, with a significant number grousing that he didn’t care about boxing in the slightest in contrast to his vested interest in producing and airing documentaries. 

But the arrival of Peter Nelson was merely one of many fatal blows absorbed. A budgeting decline over the past decade became evident that HBO Boxing could no longer fund the best fights. Estimations indicated an 80% plummeting of what the budget once was in 2000 and whilst no definite figure exists pertaining to the amount allocated, it became clear that the available funds were no longer as gaudy. Further rumours suggested HBO was intentionally devaluing its boxing franchise by siphoning off the allocated budget to fund other ventures in an effort to stave off an aggressive takeover by Rupert Murdoch but that suggestion came to pass as moot given AT&T acquired Time Warner in June 2018 and had no intentions of initiating a revival. 

Nelson would later cite a decline in ratings as one of the key drivers in HBO’s decision to cease boxing, especially in comparison to some of its successful original programming such as Game of Thrones. Although ratings were significantly lower than average in 2018 (200,000 avg. for Estrada V Orucuta, 500,000 avg for Jacobs v Derevyanchenko), perhaps that could have been explained by factors such as budget cuts preventing big fights being made, lack of investment in top stars and the decision to terminate boxing leading to many simply cancelling their subscription prior to its formal death. 

The beating continued and ultimately, it was all too much for the once proud champion to take with the Canelo Alvarez V Gennady Golovkin 2 PPV being the final major show the network would air. The bout concluded with an air of finality for it meant that not only was HBO Boxing stopped for the first time in its career but it proceeded to announce its retirement from major competition thereafter. It was a world champion no more.

Shortly following its retirement, Nelson publicly announced what the boxing world knew was coming but did not want to hear – HBO Boxing had only months to live. A press release issued to the New York Times on the 27th of September 2018 stated “going forward in 2019, we will be pivoting away from programming live boxing. As always, we will remain open to looking at events that fit our programming mix. This could include boxing, just not for the foreseeable future. We’re deeply indebted to the many courageous fighters whose careers we were privileged to cover.” 

The network further confirmed the extent of its declining health by releasing stars such as Canelo Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin, Roman Gonzalez and Daniel Jacobs from their exclusive contracts. Since that fateful announcement, HBO Boxing has been laying peacefully on its deathbed, occasionally being frequented by visits from Jacobs and Sergey Derevyanchenko and Dmitry Bivol and Jean Pascal, each paying their final visits and departing their final words. 

Two months following the press release and NY Times story by Wallace Matthews, it is fitting that the network will cease on the 6th year anniversary of one of the greatest fights it has ever showed – Juan Manuel Marquez’s stunning yet redemptive knockout victory over Manny Pacquiao. With a technological landscape radically changing at pace, HBO couldn’t keep up and given the influx of other competitors such as DAZN and ESPN, as well as storied rivals SHOWTIME upping their game, HBO wouldn’t keep up. 

In Carson, California, an assembly of fans, media, old and current employees and fighters will gather around at the Stub Hub Center for one final farewell. Six fighters have been chosen to give fistic eulogies – Claressa Shields, Femke Hermans, Juan Francisco Estrada, Victor Mendez, Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes and Cecilia Braekhus. These chosen combatants will dance under the lights once more but truthfully, their performances will merely be overshadowed by the casket coating the arena, containing the dying body of a sporting legend and highlighting a grim yet unshakeable truth – that these will be the final set of fights televised by HBO ever. 

Even with death imminent, the network continues to innovate, with this Saturday’s card not only being the final Boxing After Dark card but the first to ever feature two televised female bouts. 

It is not just the significant moments we yearn for when those dearest to us depart but also the smaller things, those little memories which tug the strings of our souls. No longer will we be able to step into their lives before they step into the ring with Liev Schreiber. No longer will be able to see Max Kellerman adjudicate verbal hostilities using unconventional seating. There’ll be no more boxing after dark and no more post fight monologues. Harold Lederman will never tell Jim Lampley it’s OK anymore and immortalised soundbites such as “OHHHHHH MA GOODNESS” and “I wish I was 50 years younger so I could kick your ass!” will never be duplicated.  

Despite being born and raised in the UK, this scribe has indelible memories of HBO. I was fortuitous to access the channel, albeit through nefarious means, and witness the network’s greatest moments from across the past decade. The Floyd Mayweather V Manny Pacquiao civil war which waged across several years before its damp conclusion. The continued cultivation of not just American but international stars, from Amir Khan to Vasiliy Lomachenko, Gennady Golovkin to Canelo Alvarez, Ricky Hatton to Sergey Kovalev. Remarkable upsets such as Tyson Fury freeing the heavyweight division from Wladimir Klitschko’s iron grip to witnessing dreams come true, evidenced in Darren Barker beating Daniel Geale. History being made when Miguel Cotto stopped Sergio Martinez to curdling away at concussive knockouts such as Nonito Donaire crushing Vic Darchinyan. Witnessing Terence Crawford break out in 2014 to Bernard Hopkins constantly making me question whether we shared the same taxonomy or whether he was indeed extra-terrestrial. Fight of the year candidates such as Vargas V Salido, Matthysse V Provodnikov, Rios V Alvarado, Berto V Ortiz and Bradley V Provodnikov delivering heart-stopping drama and then yelling in delight at 5:45 AM when Marquez dropped THAT right hand on Pacquiao, the best fight I’ve ever stayed up for.

Peter Nelson. Mayweather. Al Haymon. SHOWTIME. DAZN. ESPN. Budget cuts. Documentaries. Takeover bids. Mergers. Ill-advised rejections. Declining ratings. 

Perhaps it was all of the aforementioned factors responsible for the demise of HBO. Perhaps it was only some of them. Perhaps it was none of them. No one except those with the requisite knowledge will ever truly be able to pinpoint what exactly precipitated the network’s downfall. But all good things must come to an end and as we mourn, the thought of whether HBO Boxing could have been saved will linger. Given the vast riches being lavished in the sport at this very time and the level of quality fighters present, the thought will doubtless hover but it is too late now. No mortal can rewind the hands of time and no being can salvage that which will come to pass, the death of HBO Boxing being a reminder of our own mortality and that no good thing truly lasts forever. 

The bravest voice this Saturday is expected to be Jim Lampley’s, the man whose vocals became synonymous with the sport since his HBO debut in 1988. From making memorable calls to witnessing history, he has seen it all. He breathed HBO, he bled it, he sweat it, he lived it. It is Jim Lampley who will be tasked with reciting the last rites before the clock strikes, the final voice HBO Boxing will ever hear before the moment arrives. High stakes drama and sombre emotions, no doubt affective towards not just Lampley but to every one of those who in some way, shape or form contributed to HBO Boxing.

Instead of dwelling on what could have been, perhaps it’s fitting we instead reflect on what was. The good times, the bad times, even the shit times. The hope is that this written memoriam will elicit strong memories of those wonderful times and evoke emotions in those were a part of the journey. The latter years of HBO Boxing’s life will no doubt leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many but nothing will ever erase 45 years of greatness. That’s 45 years. Four and half decades of unequalled brilliance and unrivalled magic. A legacy that will never be matched. Untouched like the prime of the man who made the most appearances on the network, Roy Jones Jr. 

The network which once showcased the greatest of champions will die peacefully knowing its legacy is up there with those great champions. When the final bell rings and the final frames of the telecast begin to finish, the heartbeat will stop. A life lived in glory will be met by a serene death.

It’s not outlandish to envision that at a point after 25 years, an elderly HBO will walk into a bar and take refuge on a worn stool next to several others. It’ll began recounting the tales of its celebrated yet fallen progeny, with young folks listening eagerly and old heads being blazed with the rush of nostalgia. 

The nostalgia of what was, the pain of what could have been.

But the good times, the memories…

The memories never die.

                                                                  Rest in Peace HBO Boxing 

                                                        January 22 1973 – December 8 2018

Thank you to every single HBO Sports president, promoter, matchmaker, production crew member, commentator, analyst, referee, fan and everyone else who made HBO Boxing into the colossus it once was.

And a special thank you to every single fighter who fought in the preceding 1113 fights and those six who will and thereby, complete the history at 1116 fights. Us fans are forever indebted to you courageous and special beings, who fought and bled on the network for without you, there would never have been a HBO Boxing.

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