Matchmakers face tough task of protecting stars while filling up a major fight's undercard

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

If there is one undeniable truth in boxing, it is this: The bigger the main event, the more one-sided matches there will be on the undercard.

Promoters use the big shows, when the media attention is greatest, to showcase their up-and-coming talent. They're rarely willing to put their prospects in bouts in which they'd be even remotely challenged.

There were six fights on the undercard July 14 in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, a show headlined by a super lightweight unification bout between Amir Khan and Danny Garcia.

There were 24 rounds of those six fights in which the judges had to turn in scores. Accounting for three judges, that's 72 opportunities to score a round. The fighter in the red corner won 71 of those, with the blue corner earning just one. Golden Boy's prospects, naturally, were all in the red corner.

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Jose Medina won the 10th on one of three judges' cards in his fight against Fernando Guerrero, the final fight before the main event. The six undercard fights produced a first-round knockout, a second-round knockout, an eighth-round TKO and three decisions. There was never any doubt who would win those fights.

But just a couple of miles away, things were vastly different. A much lower-profile card, headlined by Anthony Mundine against Bronco McKart, featured far more competitive bouts. Three of the seven undercard bouts were majority decisions and the results weren't nearly as predictable as at Mandalay Bay.

Battling with the matchmakers over their choice of opponents is a fact of life Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, doesn't relish. In some cases, he repeatedly turns down potential opponents to assure somewhat even matches and the safety of the challengers.

Smaller promoters, who have far less invested in their fighters, are more willing, it seems, to put their fighters in tough matchups.

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"I know not every match on a card can be a 50-50 fight, but I hate to go to a show where I can look at the [bout sheet] and know before exactly who is going to win every fight," said Al Bernstein, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame's Class of 2012 and a Showtime boxing analyst.

At most major events, the arena is desolate until moments before the main event. That stands in stark contrast to mixed martial arts bouts, when fans fill the seats for the first match, hours before the main event.

Fans are accustomed to competitive undercards at MMA shows and know to show up early. Such is most often not the case with boxing.

"It's not just the UFC in MMA, it's most of the promoters," Kizer said. "Rarely do you see a fight worse than 60-40. You get a lot of 50-50 fights. Once in a while [in MMA], someone tries to slip a guy in, but for the most part, the MMA promoters make good matches."

Far too often, major boxing undercards are filled with complete mismatches. Managers don't want to risk putting their fighters in even competitive bouts because they fear a loss would make them unattractive to television.

Kizer said he had to turn down "two or three" potential opponents for Abner Cotto, a Golden Boy prospect who stopped Juan Montiel in the eighth round on the Khan-Garcia undercard. Cotto's management team kept suggesting poor opponents Kizer wouldn't consider.

He said after rejecting one opponent, he told Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez that Cotto would be off the card if they didn't come back with an acceptable opponent the next time.

It's not that matchmakers are doing a poor job or don't know the fighters. The biggest issue is they serve multiple masters.

They must appeal to the ticket buyers. For those who choose to sit through an entire undercard, the matchmakers have to give them something to enjoy. But that becomes difficult when the matchmaker also wants to help a fighter develop his skills. It's an even more challenging job when the fighter's manager is wary of putting his guy in against anyone with a pulse.

When Brad Goodman was making fights for Guilty Boxing in Las Vegas about a decade ago, he was something of a cult hero in town. There were legendarily entertaining fights up and down the card on those monthly shows, which routinely sold out.

Guilty didn't have a lot invested in its stable and wasn't worried about television. Its primary focus was to entertain customers who'd purchased a ticket. As a result, Goodman put on fantastic shows. The quality dipped dramatically when Goodman left for Top Rank and was replaced by Jimmy Montoya. The series died soon after.

But Goodman isn't doing the same thing at Top Rank, working alongside Hall of Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler. His job is vastly different.

His charge is to develop Top Rank's large stable of fighters and, hopefully, groom them not only into world champions but attractions. Aiding their development process is his first priority.

"I could go out there and get a guy beat [early in his career], but what is the point of that?" Goodman said. "We have a vested interest in these guys. In a lot of cases, we've put a lot of money into them and I have to protect that investment.

"What I would like to see from those [undercard] fights is for them to go rounds. They need to get rounds, to be in there gaining experience. I hate having early knockouts, because how much is he learning?"

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Top Rank's Bob Arum knows the danger of putting too many one-sided fights on one card. He's been promoting fights for almost a half-century and has tried just about every tactic to build a show.

In 1976, not long after the U.S. won five gold medals at the Montreal Olympics, Arum put together a card for CBS which featured several of the Olympians.

That team was arguably the best in the country's history, and Arum felt the public would be desperate to see them fight.

So, he put together a lineup that featured Leon and Michael Spinks, Howard Davis and John Tate. Davis won a gold and was voted best fighter at the Olympics. The Spinks brothers, too, won golds, and both would go on to become professional heavyweight champions. Tate brought home a bronze. And to make the card a bit more interesting, Arum included Gerry Cooney, a heavyweight of some note who hadn't made the Olympic team.

The card turned out to be a disaster. Leon Spinks' opponent chickened out and the guy who drove him to the stadium stepped in, Arum said. Fight after fight ended early, with little to no competition or drama.

"You'd bring one fight to the ring and, boom, the guy was out, then we brought another in and it was the same thing," Arum said, laughing.

CBS executive Barry Frank, who bought the card from Arum, wasn't laughing, though. When the show ended, Frank called and angrily demanded Arum come to a meeting in his office Monday at 9:30 a.m.

Arum knew he couldn't skip the meeting, not if he ever wanted to put a show on CBS again while Frank was around. But he knew he was going to get a tongue-lashing and he didn't relish that. So, to buy himself some time, he said he'd come in, but that he had things scheduled and couldn't meet until noon.

What neither Arum nor Frank knew was that the Nielsen ratings would come out about 11 a.m. When Arum showed up at Frank's office, a gregarious Frank greeted him with an embrace.

It turns out that despite the one-sided nature of the card, the ratings were stellar. Arum had been right: The public was very much into that group of Olympians.

"I didn't know the ratings were out when I got there and I saw Barry grinning with his arms out and I said to myself, 'What the hell is going on here?' " Arum said. "I thought he was going to ream me out like mad. It was really lucky for me that he got those ratings before I got there."

Today, though, there aren't many fighters beyond the Big Two – Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao – who can draw on name value alone. It takes quality matches, as well as diligent promoting and marketing, to attract a crowd.

Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer was ecstatic after the Khan-Garcia fight was a rousing battle that ultimately saved the show. Because the main event was so good, the crowd forgot about the one-sided nature of the undercard and went home happy.

Schaefer said his matchmakers are first-rate, despite the nature of Saturday's undercard, and that Golden Boy strives to make a competitive card top to bottom.

"We're trying to combine the best of both worlds," Schaefer said. "I don't want to put fights together that, going in, I know for sure who is going to win. Who likes to see that, irrespective of what sport it is? A one-sided matchup – whether it's college football or basketball or in boxing – doesn't capture an audience.

"What kills the sport is when people sit through a series of bad fights. People lose attention and they're not going to come back."

Bernstein pointed to the philosophy held by Frank Luca, a promoter of small shows mainly in Las Vegas. Luca's cards are reminiscent of the Goodman-Guilty cards from the late 1990s and early 2000s, with a series of entertaining, and evenly matched fights on each.

Luca sets up a series of four-round fights. He knows that there will be an upset in at least one. Most will be close, but he knows there will be at least one blowout. The significant part is, he doesn't know going in which fight will be the blowout.

"Some guys are going to step up and perform and show they're ready to move up to the next level," Bernstein said. "Other guys, they're just not going to perform. They'll have a bad night for whatever reason. But the way Frank makes the matches, he doesn't know how any of them is going to turn out.

"If we saw that more consistently, it could only help the sport. You'd bring the fans back out to see the undercard fights like you see in MMA. Fans never leave one of Frank's shows unhappy. If you're a promoter, that should be exactly what you want no matter who won the fights."

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