The day had finally arrived.
As sombre feet slowly shuffled into the arena, an ignominious sentiment lay hanging over the Stub Hub Center. In Carson, California, emotions were rife on both ends of the spectrum. For one, a celebration of the sweet science was going to be exhibited, fistic memorials being prepared for delivery in the squared circle. Conversely, there existed the feeling of desolation and sorrow, grief and sadness. As professional boxing matches were scheduled to take place in the ring, a casket encasing the dying body of HBO Boxing roofed the arena. Its last breaths were slowly being counted and as its strained heart pumped a beat closer to death, what those warriors who were booked to compete were about to do could not overshadow the life of the great 45-year-old presence that was on its way to a different world.
In front of around 500 witnesses aired the final HBO Boxing telecast in history. Fellow NYFights.com writer Abraham Gonzalez had the honour of being one of the not that many attendees at the historical funeral and penned a Ringside Review, a piece I implore you to read.
2-time Olympic medallist Claressa Shields and Belgian Femke Hermans opened up the formal proceedings. Shields, a Detroit native promoted by Dmitriy Salita, was defending her WBA, WBC and IBF championships against Hermans with grand designs of securing an ultimate unification showdown with WBO boss Christina Hammer next spring. After a tepid start, Shields exploded a left hook in the closing seconds of the 3rd round which rattled Hermans but Hermans was able to survive. The theme of that moment continued, with Shields consistently landing hooks at will and simply outworking Hermans. Shields detonated another left hook in the dying embers of the final round and pressed for the spectacular ending but the 2-minute quandary of women’s boxing once again cropped up, that problem being that the short nature of the rounds had repeatedly denied Shields time to complete her masterpiece. Hermans was able to survive the final round and although Shields won a comfortable unanimous decision, the cherry on the cake knockout finish was confirmed to be elusive. Shields’ sights will now turn towards Hammer, a bout for all the marbles which is no doubt the biggest fight in women’s boxing that can be made at this time.
The co-main event saw Mexican Juan Francisco Estrada secure the final stoppage in HBO Boxing’s history. It wasn’t a concussive knockout nor a torpedoing barrage against the ropes which enabled Estrada to make history but it was calm, precise and accurate boxing which broke Victor Mendez down. Mendez elected to take the fight to Estrada from the first bell, pressing by utilising his height and reach in an attempt to befuddle Estrada. But the man who so closely resembles countryman hero Juan Manuel Marquez stylistically, quickly adjusted and began countering with straight shots and overhand rights. Once the success of single shots was established, the combinations followed and although Mendez was trying, he was getting beat to the punch consistently. Estrada continued to force feed Mendez heavy body shots, a dish Mendez will not be wanting to eat again anytime soon. A left hook – right hand combination rattled Mendez in the 7th, who rallied back in a last stand attempt but ultimately, his attempt proved fruitless. Mendez’ corner pulled him, having concluded their fighter had nothing left to offer. Estrada left the stage with a stoppage win and will now monitoring the footsteps of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai’s movement, the Thai bulldozer who Estrada desperately seeks vengeance against.
A touching moment blessed watching eyes as a final on-air reunion between Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley took place. The commentating equivalent to Jordan and Pippen, HBO’s elder statesman lived through HBO Boxing in its good times, its bad times and the best of times. Merchant, making his first on-air appearance since leaving the network in 2013, was draped in a fitting black overcoat replete with a regal blue scarf. He thanked Lampley for being the ringmaster of this circus called boxing before Lampley reiterated his admiration for Merchant, stemming from the fact Merchant gravitated him and a generation of journalists towards the truth. Merchant even managed to quote Hemingway, stating “more fighters have been knocked out on Broadway than by any left hook”. Having highlighted the gravity of the occasion, Merchant poignantly concluded “it’s the last time families, fathers and sons have gathered. It was an historic run and one we should be proud of” before gracefully departing.
Then the time for the final fight in HBO Boxing history arrived. Boxing’s First Lady, the undisputed women’s champion Cecilia Braekhus was the first female fighter ever to be featured by HBO and also its last as she beat Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes en route to a comfortable decision. Braekhus immediately set the tenor for proceedings by establishing her commanding jab, from which it became ostensible that Lopes would be in for a long night. To her credit, Lopes rallied back to win the 3rd stanza on Harold Lederman’s card but Braekhus reasserted control and continued to dominate the action. With her jab pumping, Braekhus elected to unleash her overhand right and despite searching for the stoppage since the 5th round (something which she apologised for not being able to capture), the finish had eluded her just as it had Shields. The final combatant to ever box on an HBO Boxing telecast had said her final words and left the stage. The 10 bells had tolled, fitting given the main event was also scheduled for 10 rounds.
But … it wasn’t enough. There was still something missing. This wasn’t the way for HBO Boxing to die right? Sure, ‘Undisputed’ achieved what it aimed to – offer a final trio of fights consisting of the world’s best in a final hurrah, a last moment of celebrating the life HBO Boxing lived. But HBO Boxing, as it had done over the past 45 years, never ceased to surprise its fans and alas, the real main event arrived. If the fights and the card quality didn't live up to the standards set before by their pugilistic predecessors, then that which was to come after was worth the wait. Roy Jones Jr and Max Kellerman, led by Jim Lampley, gathered to deliver one final eulogy. The final time we fans would ever share our lives and eyes with them and the final time those illustrious 3 would ever speak to us.
Roy Jones Jr spoke first and each word was as graceful as every moment of gravity he defied in his prime. He thanked Jim and Max, calling them his brothers, his family and the 2 best people he has ever had the pleasure of working with. He thanked the dying body of HBO Boxing for giving him the platform to showcase his boxing and commentary career and from the casket, HBO Boxing smiled back, joyous towards its most prodigious son. Jones ended his part by thanking Artie Curry, the now departed yet loveable former Director of Boxing Talent Relations for HBO who made it his responsibility to ensure every single fighter was looked after when it came to fight time. Ultimately, the emotions were too strong to hold at bay and as Roy raised one of his symbolic fists before uttering a croaky “God bless y'all”, the rivers of emotion began to stream delicately down his face. A face which once rolled punches was now rolling tears. For a man who shared the joint number of appearances with Oscar De le Hoya and became an established powerhouse, the sentiment of finality overcame him. In truth, the sight of watching Jim Lampley cry was upsetting but seeing Roy Jones, a man so pure, so nice and so invincible in his prime, remain unable to maintain his composure was heartbreaking. We all felt the pain with Roy.
The burden of the penultimate speech befell upon Max Kellerman. Despite ESPN announcing 2 hours prior that Max had signed to them for next year and despite Max being unfortunately saddled with an ill throat, the once young upstart yet now HBO veteran was able to muster a few comforting words about his failing friend. Max noted that his relationship with HBO Boxing began since he was a kid, a relationship which drew young Max in because of its storytelling and how that ethos was championed across HBO in every aspect. He lauded Jim Lampley as the best to ever do it, Roy Jones as the best he ever saw and forever venerable Emanuel Steward as one of boxing’s greatest trainers before citing his profoundest privilege of working with them and calling them his brothers. The emotion might not have been as raw as Roy’s but Max’s eyes too glazed over, looking over through a window of tears at HBO Boxing’s supine figure.
And then came the final eulogy. The final prayers. The last rites before burial, the last voice before the heart stopped beating. The living and breathing embodiment of HBO, Jim Lampley emotionally thanked a Hall of Fame worthy line-up of everybody he had the pleasure of working with – Barry Tompkins, Bob Papa, Ross Greenburg, Rick Bernstein, Seth Abraham, Lou Dibella, Ken Hershman, Thomas Odelfelt, Jonathon Crystal, Jonathon Evans, Larry Merchant, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Andre Ward, Bernard Hopkins, Gil Clancy, Manny Steward and Artie Curry among others.
As HBO Boxing continued to wheezily inhale and exhale its last oxygen particles, Lampley urged those witnessing the moment to turn elsewhere to continue supporting boxing before thanking the fighters, describing them as hugely precious.
A final end of an era video package coupled with a special credits’ presentation aired for our memories, highlighting all of the memorable moments throughout the network's history. For one final time, HBO aired a look back on its storied history and chronicled the immortal champions it had either made or showcased. Ali, Tyson, Duran, Ray Leonard, Mayweather, Pacquiao, Lewis, Foreman, Gatti, Holyfield, Bowe, Chavez, Hagler, Hearns, Tapia, Hamed and many, many more all in their final glory for one last time.
The final shot of Gatti V Ward was beautifully poetic. If there ever were a series of fights that wholeheartedly encapsulated the magic of HBO, it was that trilogy. The screen cut to black before forming for the final time, the words HBO Boxing.
The final breath had passed. The heart stopped. The body went cold.
Tears continued to flow.
The final punchstats read as follows – 865 fighters. 1116 fights. 45 years.
The fights on the night may not have impressed or lived up to the historical stature of previous HBO bouts and the crowd may not have been as vibrant as it once used to be, but HBO Boxing died doing what it loved to do and died the only way it knew how to.
It went out fighting.
Like a champion.