So Long, HBO…



So Long, HBO…

“Sometimes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” 

Dr. Seuss


I started watching HBO, specifically for boxing, when I was about 10 years old. 

I could watch boxing on CBS, NBC or ABC on any given Saturday afternoon, but there was a dark lore about an impending HBO boxing telecast later that felt like magic. My young mind knew that the likes of Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez, Mike Tyson, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr, Lennox Lewis, Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Andre Ward, Gennady Golovkin or Canelo Alvarez ascended from the underground ranks to become immortal on the “Network of Champions.” 

The best of the best. HBO was special, and only wanted to showcase special fighters. 

And we had a premium cable subscription to the network, which means I felt special, in the tough neighborhood where I grew up in Plainfield, NJ. My mom would trust HBO to guide me sleep after a fight telecast, tucked in by the eccentric eloquence of Larry Merchant and the enchanting elegance of Jim Lampley. 

Between those two and Bryant Gumbel, I figured out how to talk “white.” 

I would run to the State News shop on Watchung Ave and Front St to get my KO and RING Magazines religiously throughout the 80's and 90's. As we progressed into the 2000's and beyond, HBO remained the standard by which all other fight telecasts or documentaries should be judged as the absolute nonpareil in major fight production bar none. Try as they might, SHOWTIME could never carry HBO's jockstrap pound-for-pound. I'd seen all of the above Hall of Fame fighters and so many more future stars “make it” via HBO, that I really didn't take a fighter seriously unless or until I saw them on HBO.


Who the fuck is Cletus “The Hebrew Hammer” Seldin…

..and what is he doing on HBO?

Why are we freezing our asses off inside of an empty Nassau Coliseum for Daniel Jacobs V Luis Arias and a fairly pathetic co-feature bout pitting New York's own charismatic Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller v Mariusz Wach? It's November 11, 2017 and hundreds of tickets have literally been given away to pad what feels like a nondescript game featuring Daniel Jacobs vs the New York Islanders. I'm talking to a candid Eddie Hearn about Matchroom Boxing's plans, the potential of Anthony Joshua V Deontay Wilder and a host of other topics that goes on well past 2 AM. Then suddenly it hits me– he's here for something much bigger. He's studying the brand of HBO and gauging its future relevance in concert with a DAZN idea that's already been hatched. There was a bevy of fight card activity in New York City last fall and winter that felt like more than the changing of seasons. No, this was the changing of the guard. During a memorable ride back to Gotham with NYF's editor Michael Woods and Fight Chronicles David Yi, I'm telling them both that it’s about to snow at HBO and their extensive talent pool of production is going to get shoveled. On hand for Miguel Cotto v Sadam Ali last December 2, Max Kellerman and Lampley look like disjointed brothers experiencing their parents ongoing divorce and don't want to talk about it. Theirs is a style in complete contrast to the relaxed, mom n pop store nature of Steve Farhood and Al Bernstein on SHOWTIME that's beginning to feel nostalgic. That night at Madison Square Garden was different; it started to feel like the culmination of an anthology.    

That Vasyl Lomachenko v Guillermo Rigondeaux was a Top Rank extravaganza on ESPN just a week later brings perspective. 

A rare fight involving decorated Olympic gold medalists and ring legends that isn't featured on HBO. But we knew this was coming, didn't we? Everyone knows Pacquiao combined with Mayweather to produce damn near 5 million PPV sales in May 2015, just as we know that those two killed PPV as we know it. Less than a year later, Pacquiao v Bradley III does only 450K PPV in April 2016. That number needed to be much higher to purchase the type of quality we'd grown accustomed to seeing on HBO. It was just a matter of time. Almost trying to gauge exactly what they had in Terence Crawford, “Bud” does a little over 50K in PPV buys for Viktor Postol in July 2016. Then, they got creative, by using its other star creation, Gennady Golovkin (who essentially replaced Floyd Mayweather in September 2012) to do a reported 500K in PPV buys for his September 2016 scrap with the U.K. product Kell Brook. But by generating only 170K PPVs for Daniel Jacobs in March 2017, it proves the U.K. product Kell was “the draw” in that fight. Prior to that, we saw the great Andre Ward produce only 160K in PPV sales for his instant classic with Sergey Kovalev in November 2016, which was followed by a paltry 125K in PPV for the June 2017 rematch. HBO, in retrospect, was always designed as a model built around its PPV success, with the resulting revenue stream to fuel its standard programming. With only Canelo Alvarez left to hold the superstar baton by the time we arrived at September 2017, his 1.4 million PPV with Gennady Golovkin was a million shy of what Oscar De la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather had done a decade prior. 

Canelo V GGG 2, a damn good fight and far better than the first, only brought in 1.3 million PPV buys. Just before that we learned Sergey Kovalev, an HBO institution with the old school Main Events, was taking his rematch with Eleider Alvarez to ESPN. Michael Buffer started getting ready to rumble on DAZN for Anthony Joshua V Alexander Povetkin. 

The writing was all over the wall: HBO was officially dead because of greed. And Gordon Gekko be damned, it ain't good. 

When AT&T completed its $85 billion purchase of Time Warner in June, I just knew HBO Boxing was on life support. Tough to say whether this wasn't done slowly and deliberately over time, as far back as 2012, when HBO dismissively allowed Floyd Mayweather and Al Haymon to form a real rivalry with SHOWTIME. It parlayed public angst into the record breaking PPV ensemble with Pacquiao while fanning the flames of racial bias or divide. HBO execs used the same model of maxing Mike Tyson as a PPV star before jettisoning the last vestiges of him to SHOWTIME, just in time to cash in on an over-baked bout with Lennox Lewis. But hey, that's Capitalism, which can only thrive through fresh consumption and HBO was made to be stale. You'll have to wonder now about the validity of Al Haymon's deal with FOX and the overall viability of SHOWTIME going forward. It followed HBO as a brand in boxing, and is closer to what HBO was in the 80's or early 90's when it still synced with network TV to showcase its stars and appeal to the common fan. Pound-for-pound fighters like Errol Spence Jr. and Mikey Garcia, savvy businessmen themselves who heavily influence other fighters, are likely to affect boardrooms in ways fighters never have in the past. This generation of fighters was never going to be featured on HBO PPV in this new international climate of streaming. Good on them.

***   ***   ***                 

Which brings us all to October 27 and Madison Square Garden. Daniel Jacobs v Sergey Derevyanchenko will take place that evening in the swan song. It'll be the last time I'll see the HBO production trucks outside of MSG and I'll probably get a little misty eyed. Images of Aaron Pryor v Alexis Arguello will flash through my mind, as will Buster Douglas and the destruction of my hero, Mike Tyson. It wasn't until that unforgettable St. Patrick's Day War between Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez did I get over that defeat. They gave us George Foreman's historic moment and I still miss Emanuel Steward the man, in as much as I miss his voice. So many moments. There was a certain class about HBO Boxing that makes goodbye difficult to process. It hurts, actually. But there always comes a time when we believe everything is finished only to see the beginning again.

I don't know about you, but HBO Boxing will always remain a huge part of my life… Thank you so much and take care.     

Senior correspondent for NY Fights and author of upcoming book, "The Fist Club." Conscious indie recording artist "T@z" and humanist advocate for the Green Party.