Missed opportunities abound as HBO exits boxing with a whimper

HBO announced in September it will stop broadcasting the sport of boxing after a 45-year run. (AP Photo)
HBO announced in September it will stop broadcasting the sport of boxing after a 45-year run. (AP Photo)

For 45 years, HBO has been the one constant in a boxing fan’s life. The premium cable network took a while to get rolling after it entered the boxing space by airing the 1973 heavyweight title match between Joe Frazier and George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, and it’s kind of chugged to an unnatural death over the last five or so years.

But for 35 of those 45 years, you couldn’t be a boxing fan without a subscription to HBO. It kept the sport alive, when network television turned its back on boxing, and when basic cable channels didn’t have the budget to obtain the rights to mega-fights.

The final episode of HBO’s once-iconic “World Championship Boxing,” franchise will be on Saturday in Atlantic City, when Dmitry Bivol defends the WBA light heavyweight title against Jean Pascal. There will be one more HBO show after Saturday, a “Boxing After Dark” card on Dec. 8, but HBO’s reputation was built on its WCB series, so in many ways, Saturday’s show is the end.

It’s this kind of show — a one-sided mismatch — that has pushed HBO to this point. Bivol is one of boxing’s best young fighters, and has big-time star potential. Instead of showcasing him in a compelling bout that will force him to display his many skills, HBO has green-lighted a long over-the-hill Pascal as the opponent.

Odds range as high as 20-1 in Bivol’s favor. If this was the Bivol of 2018 against the Pascal of, oh, 2010, maybe this would be a date you’d circle on the calendar. Pascal is long past his use-by date and it figures to be an easy win for Bivol.

Instead of this kind of dreck, HBO would have been far better producing a 90-minute, or two-hour, retrospective looking back at the last 45 years. HBO does plan to do a look back on its final show, on Dec. 8, but it won’t be a separate program and won’t go into the depth that it should.

This was an opportunity for HBO to pass the baton in a meaningful way. It’s a no-brainer to show highlights of the hundreds of incredible fights HBO broadcast in its nearly half-century in the boxing business, but it could and should have done so much more.

How about a show that convened experts to look at the state of boxing and assess where it is going? It could have examined what went wrong that led to boxing’s decline, how it has responded to the growth of MMA and what it needs to do in the future to regain some of its lost stature.

It could have dispatched its “Real Sports” team to examine boxer safety, and exposed holes in the system that need to be patched.

Certainly a countdown of, say, the 10 or 25 greatest fights in HBO history would have been merited.

But no, instead of any of that, “World Championship Boxing” goes out with a whimper, with a fight which has little competitive interest and without a nod to a sport that literally helped build the network.

Saturday’s “World Championship Boxing” card is headlined by Dmitry Bivol defending his WBA light heavyweight belt against Jean Pascal. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Saturday’s “World Championship Boxing” card is headlined by Dmitry Bivol defending his WBA light heavyweight belt against Jean Pascal. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Its final show will get next-to-no ratings. Fight-wise, it will go head-to-head with ESPN’s offering of Vasiliy Lomachenko against Jose Pedraza and UFC 231, which features an incredible main event between Max Holloway and Brian Ortega.

Boxing seems to be on an upswing. Top Rank’s super lightweight title fight last week between champion Maurice Hooker and challenger Alex Saucedo did shockingly well in the ratings. The bout started just before midnight ET, and averaged 950,000 viewers, peaking at just over a million.

In recent years, that’s the kind of bout that would have gotten an audience of maybe a half-million, likely less. Its lead-in was an NBA game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls, which averaged 1.7 million viewers. But the boxing card maintained more than half its audience despite starting at 11:51 p.m. ET, and it fared well with men 18-49 and 12-34.

It shows there is an appetite for the sport. It needs to be promoted and marketed far better than it has been, but what has become abundantly clear over the last year or so is that A) boxing isn’t simply an old man’s sport; B) fans aren’t inherently turned off by boxing; and C) a compelling match will get, and retain, a considerable audience.

HBO made a business decision to leave the sport, and no one can quarrel with that.

But it owed the many fans who subscribed to the network for years only for its boxing coverage more on its way out the door. It could have put on a far better, more compelling fight, for starters, but it could have used its institutional knowledge of the boxing business and its great team of reporters to dig into where the sport has been, where it is and where it is heading.

Instead, we see up-front why boxing failed on HBO and why it is succeeding at rival Showtime: Showtime has a passion and a commitment to the sport from the top down that is missing at HBO. It’s hard to imagine that if Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza were forced to quit airing boxing, he’d try to slip away like a thief in the night instead of doing a grand send-off.

HBO was a boxing fan’s best friend for years — Who can forget Ali-Frazier III, Arguello-Pryor, Barrera-Morales, Leonard-Hearns, Tyson-Douglas and Gatti-Ward? — but its demise is the result of self-inflicted wounds.

P.T. Barnum is alleged to have once said “Always leave them wanting more,” but let’s be honest: HBO is going away because it chose to air bouts like Bivol-Pascal far too often over the last decade. Enough is enough and on Saturday, it will come to a merciful end.

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