The average boxing fan would not be able to pick Ross Greenburg out of a police lineup, but no one in the U.S. has more influence on the fights that person will see than the embattled president of HBO Sports.
Greenburg is a brilliant sports documentarian – witness the groundbreaking pieces he's produced on Joe Louis and Ted Williams, among many others – but he's under fire in many quarters for his handling of boxing on HBO.
Thomas Hauser, the biographer of Muhammad Ali and a persistent critic of Greenburg, wrote a withering attack at SecondsOut.com last month in which he alleged that Greenburg's boxing budget for 2010 will be slashed by more than 20 percent and that senior management at HBO is displeased with Greenburg's performance.
Promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank has made no secret of his disdain for Greenburg and said Hauser's Sept. 30 piece "is accurate in terms of everything I was quoted as saying."
Arum's long-time rival, Don King, is equally disgusted with Greenburg and HBO Sports. King noted he has 12 world champions in his stable, but can't get a date on the network.
King alluded to HBO Sports' favoritism toward Golden Boy Promotions – another major topic of Hauser's piece – and suggested that because of the sheer volume of dates given to Golden Boy, the network is forced to decline what would be quality television fights brought to it by other promoters.
"HBO is going down the tubes and it ain't good," King said. "You can't get any dates. They have their favorites, and they just want to play with their favorites. It's almost impossible to do business with them if you're not in that circle."
In an interview on Monday, Greenburg said he hardly feels under attack, said boxing ratings are up markedly on HBO in 2009, denied his budget has been slashed and said he believes HBO Sports has played a role in boxing's revival.
Greenburg said Hauser's frequent columns detailing problems in his regime are "something I'll never understand." He praised his staff and said he does not believe that his superiors are trying to undercut him. He said ratings on HBO's World Championship Boxing are up 37 percent in 2009 over 2008 and said "Boxing After Dark" has increased from 2008 levels by 19 percent.
He raved about HBO's upcoming schedule, including the Nov. 14 pay-per-view bout between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto. He deemed himself ecstatic that HBO Sports will broadcast a middleweight title fight between Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams on Dec. 5 and said he's eager to showcase light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson.
HBO Sports was blasted by many in the media after it made the incomprehensible decision earlier this year to buy a rematch between Dawson and former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver.
Dawson and Tarver fought their first bout on Oct. 8, 2008, in Las Vegas on Showtime. The bout was a dud in the ring, at the box office and in terms of ratings. The first bout sold less than 1,000 tickets at The Palms.
The rematch, which ended a series of outstanding fights on television, was little better in the ring or at the box office. The rematch, which HBO paid a $3.2 million rights fee to land, only generated 1,400 ticket sales at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas.
Greenburg conceded the license fee for the bout was too high, but insisted it was not a bad deal.
"We like Dawson and we believe he's a star in the making," Greenburg said. "We had to overpay a little to get him out from under his Showtime, first-last commitment. We were willing to do that, because we feel strongly about him. As I look back on it, we should have taken [the license fee] down a notch.
"But we're excited about the [Nov. 7] fight between Dawson and [Glen] Johnson. They had a thrilling first fight and this one should be really good. We're excited about Chad's future."
Dawson is a wonderful talent, but he's lacking in star power. He's also fighting in a division in which there aren't many significant matches to be made for him, either now or down the line.
Promoter Gary Shaw said Dawson would be amenable to fighting at super middleweight if there is a big bout for him at that weight.
Investing so heavily in a fighter without serious prospects is what knocked HBO's boxing program off track earlier this decade. HBO Sports under Greenburg has frequently sought exclusivity with a fighter and has lost out on potentially exciting bouts as a result of the commitments generated by its exclusive deals.
Greenburg, though, said he's more active in dealing with promoters and letting them know the bouts HBO would be interested in broadcasting. He said HBO Sports played a big role in the Pavlik-Williams fight finally coming together.
"We're not promoters and we're not out there calling managers and fighters," Greenburg said. "But we are working with the promoters and giving our input as to what we see as the biggest fights on the horizon. We're there to give advice and our take on the marketplace.
"Ultimately, Bob Arum and Dan Goossen had to sit down and hammer out a deal for Pavlik-Williams. I'm not going to sit here and tell you I wasn't part of that process, but they had to do the deal. But we let them know we really liked that fight and we put a substantial license fee out there to back our words."
He's convinced the results of the Pacquiao-Cotto fight and a potential Shane Mosley-Andre Berto fight the network would like to air in January will lead to a golden era of welterweight fights in 2010.
Everyone at or around welterweight is jockeying for a bout with unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Greenburg said he thinks 2010 could be similar to the 1980s when Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler were fighting each other.
But he was clear that he'll aggressively work to make a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in 2010 should Pacquiao defeat Cotto.
"There is no denying that if Pacquiao should beat Cotto that Mayweather-Pacquiao is on a scale all by its lonesome," Greenburg said. "You're matching the two regarded best pound-for-pound fighters in the world against each other. One [Mayweather] went into retirement for two years and had that signature. The other [Pacquiao] kept fighting and earned it.
"Now, the question is, who truly is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world? I'm not saying that Shane Mosley doesn't have a say in that, because I think that what could materialize in 2010 is that Pacquiao fights Mayweather and the winner has to fight Mosley. I think we're looking at a mini-early 1980s. Leonard, Duran, Hagler, Hearns. We're all sitting around waiting for these matchups to materialize."
Part of Greenburg's boxing legacy will be his ability to get fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao, Pacquiao-Mosley, Mayweather-Mosley and Mayweather-Cotto made. It hasn't all been Greenburg's fault, but the perception of boxing on HBO has declined under his stewardship. HBO Sports became the dominant force in boxing under the rein of his predecessor, Seth Abraham, as boxing on network television dried up and went away.
HBO has the biggest budget and offers the most viewers. So even though many promoters are unhappy with HBO and believe it shows favoritism to Golden Boy and to high-powered manager Al Haymon, they'll jump at a moment's notice in order to get a date on the network.
That gives Greenburg extraordinary influence in the sport. Yet, Greenburg insists that he's not looking to be a power broker nor does he feel like he's under siege.
"At the end of the day, what I'm thinking about is providing the best content I can for HBO subscribers and hopefully attracting new subscribers because they're interested in the kind of programming they can get from us," Greenburg said. "Boxing is a big part of what we do here, and people are clearly responding. Our ratings are proof of that.
"We have a very intriguing lineup for the rest of 2009, and we're set up to have an excellent year in 2010. I can't force guys who don't want to fight to fight, but believe me when I tell you, the fights you want to see as a fan are the fights I want to see on our network. We'll be out there doing our best to get those fights made."
HBO has had a solid year of fights so far in 2009, though it's declined after a hot start that included scintillating first-quarter bouts such as Berto-Luis Collazo and Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz.
Boxing could be in for another golden age if the right fights get made in 2010. The pressure is on Greenburg to be the catalyst to get it done.
His legacy as the head of HBO Sports will depend upon it.