A painful lesson was learned last week in Pontiac, Mich., where Timothy Bradley won a technical decision over Devon Alexander in the first meeting of unbeaten American world champions since 1987.
Putting the two best fighters in a weight class – or, to be fair, the two perceived best fighters in the class – in the ring together and throwing a lot of money after it isn't going to be the answer to what revitalizes boxing.
Promoters Gary Shaw and Don King had to give away nearly all of the tickets to the World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization 140-pound title unification bout on Jan. 29 in order to attract just 6,247 fans to the cavernous Silverdome. Then, they spent nearly a half-hour at the postfight news conference patting themselves on the back for essentially utterly failing at the promotion. They allowed Bradley to sit quietly for 30 minutes, waiting to speak, with blood dripping down his face from a cut that had yet to be stitched, while they tried to ignore what a colossal failure the promotion had been.
King, at least, has an excuse, given that he's nearly 80 years old and that his wife had passed away in the fight promotion's early days.
But it was stunning to hear Shaw before the fight pooh-pooh reports of horrendous ticket sales – which turned out to be highly accurate – and then boast that a great 2005 fight he promoted had sold only 2000 or so tickets, as if that was somehow a badge of honor.
HBO paid a massive license fee of around $3 million to land the fight. In addition, it guaranteed the loser a comeback fight at a very high fee of $1.25 million.
HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg has rightfully taken a lot of heat in the media in the past for failing to pit the best fighters against one another, so it seems unfair to put his head on the chopping block again for having invested heavily in Alexander-Bradley.
The media, with perhaps the very vocal exception of MaxBoxing's Steve Kim, universally praised HBO Sports for making the match.
There are, though, several problems that are very evident in the wake of what was less than a scintillating bout. First, it's obvious that neither Bradley nor Alexander were well known by the public at large. For as talented as he is, Bradley has never sold tickets, not even when he's fought near his Palm Springs, Calif., home base. Shaw papered the house for his July fight with Luis Carlos Abregu at the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, Calif., just in a bid to get around 1,800 fans in the arena.
Yet, HBO paid a fee of $1.375 million to get Bradley to fight Alexander, with the guarantee of a comeback fight in the event of a loss at $1.25 million.
Bradley received $1.1 million as his purse to fight Alexander, which is too high considering his inability to sell tickets or deliver television ratings. He was being paid handsomely, solely with the intent of building a star.
The plan, though, backfired. Bradley is a world-class talent – He's eighth in the Yahoo! Sports rankings and I have personally voted him fifth – but he remains largely unknown to all but the most fervent boxing fans. And those who do know him are becoming frustrated by the prevalence of head butts in his fights.
The real problem turned out to be the safety net that HBO provided. It had a rematch clause, at its discretion, which it will clearly not exercise. Shaw has already spoken with Greenburg and Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer about making a match with once-beaten World Boxing Association super lightweight champion Amir "King" Khan.
Alexander will likely wind up making $1.25 million to fight Marcos Maidana, a great consolation prize if ever there was one. Alexander also did nothing to boost ticket sales or HBO ratings in Detroit, but he had a fallback position knowing the comeback fight was guaranteed.
There was no incentive for him to try to argue with referee Frank Garza and ringside physicians when they were trying to determine whether to stop the match after he was cut by an inadvertent clash of heads in the 10th round. He had the comeback fight and its $1.25 million payday already assured and had no need to plead for the chance to finish.
Most revealing, though, is that just putting two unbeaten world champions in against each other, as many had been calling for – Guilty as charged, your honor – isn't the panacea it may seem.
In retrospect, the styles of the fighters clearly didn't mesh. A Bradley-Maidana fight would be explosive. A Khan-Alexander fight would be an exhibition of technical excellence. But the Alexander-Bradley match didn't offer the meld of styles to guarantee a pleasing fight.
One of the lessons of Alexander-Bradley is that, from a television perspective, it is much wiser to put together fighters whose styles promise to be combustible rather than putting two fighters with great records together without regard to style.
HBO will broadcast Sergio Martinez against Sergiy Dzinziruk on March 12 in an example of exactly the kind of match that fans will ignore. Dzinziruk is completely unknown in the U.S., even to the boxing media, and has a defensive, jab-oriented style. There is almost no way to imagine it turns into a compelling fight.
That same night, Top Rank will stage a pay-per-view card featuring a main event between Miguel Cotto and Ricardo Mayorga. Mayorga is long over the hill, but he's an aggressive fighter who will attack Cotto. Cotto, of course, is an attacking fighter himself. And so, while Cotto should wind up knocking out Mayorga, it will be an entertaining scrap for as long as it lasts and not a yawn-inducing bout likes Martinez-Dzinziruk, where one guy will be chasing the other around the ring.
Alexander has a lot of questions to answer in light of his desultory performance and his decision to meekly accept Garza's decision to stop the fight.
Bradley still needs to be built, but he has options. The giants of the industry, Golden Boy and Top Rank, are circling what is soon to be Shaw's carcass. There's a better chance the Republican Party will nominate President Obama as its candidate in 2012 by acclamation than there is of Shaw re-signing Bradley. Bradley has one more fight on his contract with Shaw, but he's almost certain to leave when he fulfills it and head to either Golden Boy or Top Rank.
Bradley manager Cameron Dunkin and Shaw despise each other and Shaw clearly knows that Dunkin is already working behind the scenes to bring Bradley elsewhere later this year when he's a free agent.
Top Rank, which has Manny Pacquiao to offer, and Golden Boy, which has Khan and, perhaps, Floyd Mayweather Jr., as potential opponents, are each very interested and can afford to stay above the fray while Shaw and Dunkin battle and finish off their deal.
Asked if he would be interested in Bradley upon Bradley becoming a free agent, Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said, "Absolutely. We would love to promote him with the idea of perhaps bringing him to a point where he could do a really big number with Pacquiao. But we wouldn't be interested in him solely because of Pacquiao, but because he's a very talented guy who can be built."
Schaefer said much the same thing. He noted that a Mayweather-Bradley fight would be a huge event, pitting a superstar with an unbeaten record against an up-and-comer like Bradley, who is 27-0.
Schaefer said he has had talks with Shaw already about making a Khan-Bradley fight, but also would not rule out the possibility of signing Bradley if and when he hits the open market. Schaefer said Khan will fight April 16, probably against Lamont Peterson, but then would be available to face Bradley in the summer, assuming he won.
"The fact is, with great emphasis on the word when, absolutely, any promoter would be interested in someone like Timothy Bradley," Schaefer said. "He's the total package and when you have someone who is the total package, there are definitely opportunities. He has a great personality, he comes across very well and he seems to be a very good person, from what I can tell.
"As a fighter, he finds a way to win. He's like Mayweather that way. Mayweather is a guy who just knows how to win. A Mayweather-Bradley fight could be an absolute mega-fight, because obviously Mayweather is the biggest attraction and Bradley has a lot going for him. It would be a big fight today, tomorrow and the day after. It's a matter of how you promote it. I haven't thought about it one iota and I'm talking about it because you called me and asked me, but that's definitely a major fight, if it ever comes together."
There could be more major fights like that made if boxing promoters and television executives heed the lessons of the Silverdome. It's not just about glittery records and athletic ability.
It's about the fight and it's about fighters taking a risk.
Make the most entertaining fights possible and make them high risk. Don't give a fighter a safety valve, at least not before. If the loser performs well in the fight, of course, bring him back against someone he figures to make an interesting fight against. But enough of guaranteeing Fight B before we know what happened in Fight A. No one wants to see a guy who doesn't show that winning means the world to him.
As it turns out, making the Alexander-Bradley fight was a good, if misguided, try by HBO. It heeded the calls of those who have been hammering it for not putting the best against the best. Greenburg shouldn't lose the determination he has to continually make those kinds of fights, but he just needs to make sure he picks the right ones.
If the lesson taken away by Greenburg is that he'll pursue style matchups over matchups of glittering records, than a failed promotion in a city where the fight should never have been held may well have been worth it.