How HBO's cutting-edge ideas helped make boxing what it is today

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/30300/" data-ylk="slk:Mike Tyson">Mike Tyson</a> was a superstar for HBO. (AP)
Mike Tyson was a superstar for HBO. (AP)

The headline in the June 23, 1979, edition of The New York Times told the story: “The tuneup TV didn’t want.”

It was a piece by Dave Anderson, the Times’ brilliant sports columnist, about the heavyweight title fight the night before between champion Larry Holmes and challenger Mike Weaver.

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Boxing at that time was the province of network television, though there were plenty of subtle signs that its interest in the sport was waning. All three major networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – passed on the Holmes-Weaver fight.

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At the time of the Holmes-Weaver fight, Michael Fuchs was the 33-year-old president and CEO of HBO. He joined HBO in 1976, the year after HBO had won the bidding to broadcast Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier III, the epic heavyweight title fight known as “The Thrilla in Manila.”

Broadcasting that fight gave HBO a foothold, and Fuchs recognized what boxing could do for the fledgling network. When the three networks passed, HBO bought the rights to Holmes-Weaver for $150,000.

It was a pittance for a fight of that stature, even though at the time it was believed to be a significant mismatch. It turned out to be anything but. Holmes won by a 12th-round knockout, but not before Weaver put a huge scare into the champion.

The next morning in The Times, Anderson wrote: “The television networks didn’t think it was appealing enough, and Larry Holmes didn’t think it was anything more than a tuneup. Not many people had heard of Mike Weaver and even fewer cared. Only 14,136 customers bothered to buy tickets at Madison Square Garden last night. But those that did got their money’s worth, even at $150 top [ticket price].”

Greenburg said the audience that got such an entertaining fight, and so many more in the future, owed it to Fuchs.

“You have to give Michael Fuchs a lot of credit for boxing becoming what it became at HBO,” said Ross Greenburg, who worked 33 years at the network and was president of HBO Sports from 2000-11. “He figured out that boxing was vacating the networks and that there was an opening and that we should try to seize the day and get promoters to look at HBO as an alternative.”

Don King was promoting Holmes-Weaver, and he was at a loss as he pedaled the bout to the networks. Holmes was making his third title defense and slowly escaping the considerable shadow cast by Ali.

Weaver wasn’t well known at the time, but he would go on to win a version of the title and was among a group of excellent heavyweights who were looking to make it to the top.

HBO had roughly two million subscribers at the time and nowhere near the financial might that ABC, CBS and NBC had. If one of those networks wanted to air the fight, they would have easily been able to outspend HBO and get it.

Greenburg believes that Fuchs’ decision to green-light the purchase of the fight was a seminal moment in HBO become the boxing powerhouse it became for the next four decades until Thursday’s announcement that it was leaving the business.

“Holmes-Weaver was incredibly important in establishing HBO as a player for major fights,” Greenburg said. “Don was kind of in a bad position because he had nowhere to go with the fight. [Dave Anderson] wrote that story in The Times the next day indicating that HBO had wrested this fight, this significant heavyweight fight, from the networks. That was what I think was one of two really important moments to establish us as a player in that space.

Larry Holmes, right, trades with Mike Weaver in New York in a fight that helped HBO solidify its boxing rep. (Getty)
Larry Holmes, right, trades with Mike Weaver in New York in a fight that helped HBO solidify its boxing rep. (Getty)

“The other was when we signed Marvin Hagler to a three-fight contract for a million dollars. Marvin had just come off a win over Alan Minter [on Sept. 27, 1980] and [promoter Bob] Arum came to HBO to see if he could get more money for Hagler than the networks were offering. That was a savvy move by Arum, and we constructed a three-fight deal. Those two deals launched the HBO boxing program, but it was Michael Fuchs who had the vision that we could have an impact and take off in the world of boxing.”

In short order, many of the sport’s best fights — Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello, Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns and Holmes-Gerry Cooney — were on HBO.

It had taken root and, with a fraction of the audience and financial might of the over-the-air networks, moved at worst shoulder-to-shoulder with them when it came to prominence in boxing.

Greenburg arrived at HBO as an eager 23-year-old producer in 1978. He would become the senior vice president and executive producer in 1985 before replacing the legendary Seth Abraham as president of HBO Sports in 2000.

It was Greenburg who made a decided imprint on the boxing business and not just at HBO. Everyone who covers boxing now does it, but Greenburg was the one who came up with the idea to mic trainers so viewers could hear the between-round instructions. He also pioneered the idea of having a translator in the corner to interpret non-English speakers.

He felt it was important to bring a qualified judge on to give fans an idea of who was winning a fight, and he hired Harold Lederman. He had many other innovations, including placing a camera directly above the center of the ring that could shoot down on the action.

“I saw that iconic photo of Muhammad Ali and Cleveland Williams that [Neil Leifer] shot from above, and I thought that would be an amazing shot for viewers to see,” Greenburg said. “In the picture, Williams was on his back with his arms splayed out, and Ali was walking to the corner with his arms raised. That was a shot that wasn’t out there on televised boxing, and I felt it would add a lot to the broadcast if we could get a camera there to get that.”

Greenburg said he was influential in bringing CompuBox statistics to the broadcasts and hired the announce teams. He admitted he was influenced by the success of the “Monday Night Football” team of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith when he put Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and George Foreman together to call HBO fights.

“Cosell had a big impact on my life, not only as a viewer but in production,” Greenburg said. “I plucked Larry Merchant as kind of a potential Cosell-type character in the booth with his kind of creative wordsmith attitude. He also had a great, historic background in the sport.

“I think the pairing of Lampley, Merchant and Foreman turned into a little bit [of an attraction] for boxing, though not on the same level as Cosell, Gifford and ‘Dandy’ Don Meredith were with ‘Monday Night Football.’ But it was a good, eclectic mixture that worked really well.”

In 1986, HBO was cemented as the premier boxing network when it landed Mike Tyson. Jimmy Jacobs, one of Tyson’s original managers, sent Greenburg a VHS cassette tape that included highlights of Tyson’s early victories.

Greenburg watched the tape and couldn’t believe what he’d seen. He drove to Troy, New York, and sat with Jacobs to watch Tyson fight Jesse Ferguson. After the fight, Tyson said, “I wanted to hit him one more time so his nose went up into the brain. I wanted his nose in his brain. I always thought about that punch. I listened to the doctors on television and they always said that when the nose goes up into the brain, the consequences of him getting up are [nil].”

Before long, Tyson was a staple on HBO, drawing by far the biggest ratings in network history.

“I sat there with Jimmy at ringside and when I went back to the office, I said, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Greenburg said. “At that time, he was coming to the ring with no robe and he was so intimidating and there was this aura around him. I knew, given the feeling the crowd had and the attraction and charisma Mike had, that he was going to be something really special. When I got back, we hastily put together a three-fight deal with Jimmy Jacobs for Mike because we were all convinced this guy was going to be massive.”

And he was, and he helped fuel HBO’s rise to power within the boxing industry.

Greenburg said the news that HBO was leaving the business was difficult and hit him hard.

“Of course, it’s a very sad day,” he said. “There were so many great moments and big fights. HBO and boxing were synonymous. No one can take away those memories of those three or four decades we gave our viewers of nights that are etched in the history of this sport. Boxing was very important to HBO and to all of us who worked on it, and it’s just tough to see this day finally come.”

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