SBJ/April 21-27, 2014/In Depth

Some call it ‘the cold war,’ but boxing’s two top promoters call it good business

Photos by: Getty Inages
There is much to soak in when you enter the posh, new Las Vegas headquarters of boxing promoter Top Rank. Gleaming stone floors, embossed with Top Rank Inc. in block lettering. Autographed boxing gloves, encased and set atop museum-stye pedestals. An artsy black-and-white photo of Manny Pacquiao, matted in white and framed in black.

But what sets the space apart more than anything is the glass wall that dominates the reception area. Behind it, four large library shelves are filled with films, videotapes and DVDs, a testimony to the company’s 41 years promoting fights involving icons such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and now Pacquiao. Screens at the end of two of the shelves run some of those memorable fights in a constant loop.

When Top Rank President Todd DuBoef met with architects to draw up initial plans for the offices, they asked him what Top Rank was at its core, because they wanted to make the building scream that. He knew immediately it was the fight library, more than 10,000 hours of footage from every event that company founder Bob Arum has put on, all of it still owned by Top Rank.

And so they put the library — or at least a portion of it — here, for all who enter to see.

The point of bringing you here, to Top Rank’s glistening lobby, is not to tell you the story of how Top Rank became Top Rank. It is to help you understand why it is that Top Rank and its chief rival, Golden Boy, the two dominant promoters in boxing, have made only one fight together in the last five years, and done none together since September 2011.

This has been an oft-discussed topic in boxing, one that both companies have been beaten about the head repeatedly for by pundits and by fight fans. The fight that hasn’t been made — Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao — has generated more discussion in mainstream sports circles than any fight that has been made since the two companies entered this period commonly referred to as “the cold war.”

So why won’t they make fights together?

Press rewind on the last five years and you will find so much acrimony, such bitter exchanges of bile and bluster, you might think you’ve accidentally landed on a “Real Housewives” reunion. They’ve pointed fingers, called each other names and sued each other.

But that doesn’t really explain it. Not by itself. The explanation that is closer to complete may be that this is business as you should expect it to be.

Competing promoters have aligned with competing networks and competing sponsors. For the first time in decades, the tale of the tape is a balanced one. Golden Boy promotes Mayweather. Top Rank promotes Pacquiao. HBO and Showtime have similar budgets to buy fights and similarly sized audiences watching the best of them. Corona and Tecate are willing to make similar financial commitments to sponsor them.

A library of footage from past fights highlights Top Rank’s new offices.
Photo by: Top Rank
The default is not for competitors to work with each other. It is for them to work in spite of each other.

There are smart people in boxing who have been around for decades who disagree with that premise, who think that promoters’ shared interests should trump their competing interests, because expanding the boxing pie will make each of their slices larger.

But at Top Rank or at Golden Boy, at HBO or Showtime, at Corona or Tecate, that’s not the way they see the fight world, at least not today. All will tell you that 2013 was the best for boxing in many years by most of their metrics. Mayweather didn’t fight Pacquiao, but he fought Canelo Alvarez on a record-breaking night that sold $20 million in tickets and $150 million in pay-per-views.

“Not working together works,” Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer said recently when asked about the long-standing rift. “They usually say working together works. But in this particular case, the proof is in the pudding. Not working together works.”

So what does all this have to do with Top Rank’s reception area, with the library and the shiny floor and the boxing gloves under glass?

“You look around here and you know what this is? It’s my brand,” said DuBoef, who revels in bringing visitors to his company’s new digs. “We never thought of our brand as anything, because we were so fighter centric. We were consumed by the fighter. Which can be fine. But what happens when you don’t have the fighter anymore? Now I have my brand, which will always be there. And I will tell you, I’m not giving that up for anyone.

“This whole cold war thing is bullshit. Let me be very clear about that. But let me tell you what is real. We are a brand now. We are autonomous. And [Golden Boy] will say they’re autonomous, too. So tell me, why does that have to be such a problem for everyone?”

Building alliances

As the undercard fighters went to the scales on the afternoon before Golden Boy’s pay-per-view card featuring Canelo Alvarez last month, Schaefer sat in a makeshift office in the bowels of the MGM Grand Garden Arena, considering the gyrations that would be necessary to put on a big fight in concert with Top Rank.

The next day’s show would air on Showtime pay-per-view and be sponsored by Corona. Had a Golden Boy fight such as this occurred a couple of years ago, it would have been on HBO and been sponsored by Tecate.

These things change in business. What is important, as Schaefer sees it, is that they are representative of alliances, which are making a sport that for years has been criticized as being unruly more appealing for networks and sponsors.

“People on the outside think it’s just because Richard doesn’t like Bob or Bob doesn’t like Richard,” said Schaefer,
Top Rank has a sponsorship with Tecate, while Golden Boy has an alliance with Corona. Having separate deals with major sponsors and networks makes it easer for the promoters to go it alone.
Photos by: Getty Images
whose verbal sparring with Arum is as close as the two companies have come to putting on a fight. “That maybe is part of the story. Let’s be honest. It is. But there are other dynamics that are big factors. When you have these partners and they do a certain number of fights with you, and you have a big fight, a mega fight, and you take that away and give it to one of their competitors — that is not the way to build relationships; that’s the way to ruin relationships.

“I think it speaks for us as promoters that we feel a loyalty to these partners. Regardless of whether I’m right or Bob and Todd are right, we each have our relationships and we value them. And I think that has contributed to the perception of the cold war.”

Those who are skeptical about all this will point to the fact that HBO and Showtime long have dueled in boxing.
When Arum and Don King were atop the promotional heap 25 years ago, King took a stable headed by Mike Tyson to Showtime in an exclusive deal that generated a similar rift. And yet, for the biggest of fights, King, Arum and other promoters managed to coexist.

But that was different. The fighters King had that mattered most, including Tyson, were fighting on pay-per-view, under deals based on what a fight was expected to generate in sales. Most of what Showtime did with King landed outside of its fight budget, which was dwarfed by HBO’s.

Showtime put on some exciting fights, but the truth is that when HBO wanted a fight or a fighter, it had the budget to blow away Showtime.

That began to change in 2011. With each year since then, the premium cable pendulum has swung closer to equilibrium. Many in boxing are convinced that Showtime will spend more on fights this year than HBO.

Kathy Duva is the CEO of Main Events, one of a few promotional companies on the next rung behind the big two. Duva, who supplies fights regularly to NBC, is an outspoken critic of the two large promoters’ refusal to work together, partly because it has muddied the sport but largely because the alliances that feed it can make it difficult for other promoters to chart courses for their fighters.

She recently thought she had light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev headed for the largest payday of his career in a fight against Adonis Stevenson. The two both had fought on HBO. But then Stevenson signed with influential adviser Al Haymon, who has aligned with Golden Boy and Showtime on almost all of his fights through the last two years. Stevenson’s next fight will be on Showtime and Kovalev’s chance at him now looks unlikely.

This is assumed because that’s how HBO has responded when fighters jumped to Showtime over the last two years. In fact, the network took an unprecedented stance a year ago when it issued a statement saying it no longer would air Golden Boy fights after the promoter moved several of its emerging talents from HBO to Showtime.

Of late, it sounds as if HBO has softened that stance, although nobody at the network is saying it quite that frankly.

“Our doors are always open. Our phones are always open,” said Mark Taffet, who heads HBO’s pay-per-view division and plays a key role on all boxing matters. “That’s the only way over the long haul that you can successfully run your business. You can’t look at this business with too narrow a filter over any particular day or month or even year, because there are always ebbs and flows in the business cycle. If you take a longer view, you’ll see that.”

So maybe that means HBO is ready to see fighters leave and then come back, or maybe it doesn’t. Taffet would only say that the network will continue to pursue “compelling fights,” and point out that some of the more vibrant spans for HBO Boxing have come when it was forced to take a “single-fight focus every day when you come into the office.”

Another promoter whose life may be complicated by the division is Tom Loeffler, managing director of K2 Promotions, which handles Gennady Golovkin, a popular fighter who has risen to prominence on HBO. In recent conversations with HBO about an extension, Loeffler has asked what to expect if he wants to consider matching Golovkin against a Golden Boy fighter, such as Peter Quillin.

“It almost feels right now like if you fight on one network, you can’t fight on the other network, and vice versa,” Loeffler said. “That’s one of the things we’ve brought up with HBO. Can we make an offer to a Golden Boy fighter to fight on the network? We don’t really get caught up in the disagreement. But we’re trying to do what’s best for our fighters, so we’d like to know.”

It always has been a trying position for a network. As head of Showtime Sports, Stephen Espinoza has used an expanding fight budget to wrest a cadre of established fighters — all of them promoted by Golden Boy or advised by Haymon — from HBO.

Like HBO, he has exclusive contracts with only a couple of fighters. With the others, he will rely primarily on their willingness to stay based on the way the network has treated them. His eyes flinch a bit when it is suggested that the tide that has come in might eventually roll back out.

“No network wants to be in a position of having built a fighter up in his career and seeing him go to another network for a big fight,” Espinoza said. “That is without question a major force in keeping the primary relationship in place at a network. And that in other businesses is called loyalty. For some reason in the boxing business it’s seen as something unnatural and to be abhorred.”

DuBoef has what sounds like a reasonable path to the two promoters resuming business, at least to some extent, while remaining aligned with their primary network homes and sponsors. He doesn’t want the stars he has developed fighting on Golden Boy’s cards. And he doesn’t expect Golden Boy to cede its stars to him. But he said he can’t understand why they can’t make bouts among their other fighters.

The two companies are so large, there always are appealing matchups. The latest one to rise is one that would put featherweight Gary Russell Jr., who is promoted by Golden Boy, against Vasyl Lomachenko, who is promoted by Top Rank. The winner would become WBO champion. The two promoters had a month to negotiate the fight, but chose instead to allow it to be put up for bid by the WBO late last week.

“Does [Top Rank] want to do the fight?” Schaefer asked rhetorically. “Yeah, they want to do the fight. Does HBO want to do the fight? Yeah, they want to do the fight. Do we want to do the fight? Yeah, we want to do the fight.
Does Showtime want to do the fight? Yeah, they want to do the fight. So in theory, it sounds great. So, now what? Now what? You’re Top Rank. I’m going to say: ‘Here, you take this one. Now what are you going to give me? You going to give me some crumbs?’ The only way this works is if there is a dialogue where I give you this and you give me that.

“Look, I could say there’s this we could do and that we can do and this sounds good and that sounds good. But let’s be honest here. Let’s call it what it is. The likelihood of that happening? C’mon. I’m being realistic. They might say it could happen. But they’re full of shit.”

When you start talking about the two major sponsors and their multifight, multiyear contracts, it gets even trickier.
“Those didn’t exist when we worked together before,” DuBoef conceded, considering what the fallout might be if the two promoters asked Corona and Tecate to bid for a big fight. “I don’t know how that would work today, because we’re all pregnant with compromises. If you want to end this whole — I don’t say cold war, but whatever it is — I can write you a check and your fighter can come into my environment. And I’ll give you my guy for your stuff. But I don’t think either of us should compromise those entities that support us, because it’s too valuable for the sport.

“I don’t want somebody to feel they got burned. I don’t want Tecate to feel they got burned or Corona to feel they got burned or Showtime got burned or HBO got burned; that they got screwed by their supposed partner when he walked across the street and gave up everything for one night. That to me doesn’t work. It’s not healthy for the sport. It’s going to be one more person saying we’re a bunch of money-driven, greedy guys — and forget it.”

Feuds continue

On the morning before his rival’s recent pay-per-view, Arum settled into a chair with a view of the terrace outside his new office, thinking about what an appealing spot it will be once the furniture and foliage come in.

He explained that he was supposed to be in Moscow this morning, drumming up money for an event featuring the Russian Olympic gold medalist he signed last year, but then things turned ugly in Ukraine, so he canceled. These days, Arum is all about emerging markets, particularly Russia and China.

It’s reminiscent of the direction he took a decade ago, when things weren’t going his way making fights in the heavier weight classes that traditionally drew the largest U.S. audiences. Arum took Top Rank to the lighter divisions, focusing on Hispanic fighters and signing a little-known Philippine talent who grew up to be Manny Pacquiao.

Worked out pretty well.

But along the way Arum not only has changed horses, he has turned his guns on them. These days, he is feuding not only with Showtime parent CBS, which still is chafed that he brought Pacquiao to them for one fight and then took him back to HBO, but also the MGM Grand, which he tweaked by taking Pacquiao to Dallas and Macao, and by going forward with a pay-per-view at the Thomas & Mack Center on the same night Golden Boy had Alvarez headlining at the MGM.

The problem isn’t so much that Arum divorces, it’s that he keeps fighting with his exes. Then he expects business to be business.

With a second major promoter in play, and two major networks and sponsors to do business with, the dynamics have changed.

“King and I made fights together because there were no impediments, other than that I called him a sonofabitch and he called me a sonofabitch,” Arum said. “But at the end of the day, two sonofabitches can sit down and whack up money. Right?

“This is a lot more complicated.”

Espinoza has held a ringside seat for all that has transpired between Top Rank and Golden Boy for the last 15 years, first as a Golden Boy attorney and now as head of Showtime Sports. He said that while both the business hurdles and bitter feelings could be overcome for the right fight, the combination of the two make that likelihood something he wouldn’t bet on.

“I think it’s more business and less personal than people may believe,” Espinoza said. “There are a number of factors which make it completely logical from a business perspective to align primarily with one network or the other. But, having said that, there also are some very strong emotions, long histories of conflict, and just a complicated history which really muddied the waters.

“Put all this together and it’s like a tangled ball of yarn that you’re never going to undo.”

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