For the last 25 years or so, the major leagues, when it comes to boxing, is fighting on either HBO or Showtime. That is not going to change at any point in the foreseeable future.
Though the two premium cable networks reach a vastly smaller audience than basic cable or broadcast network channels do, they pursued boxing programming with vigor and spoke with their wallets. Because they were willing to pay promoters literally millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast fights – and because nobody else was offering a tenth as much – they have repeatedly over the last two or three decades landed the biggest fights.
The problem with that, though, is that the fighters began to compete only twice or, at max, three times a year, because the cost for their services got so high.
The biggest stars in boxing over the last 10 years have been Floyd Mayweather Jr., Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao. None of them has fought on a broadcast network or on basic cable in that time. They have each fought a handful of times on premium cable, but mostly have existed on pay-per-view.
Fighting on pay-per-view means they are competing in front of the smallest possible audience. It's never a good thing for a sport when its biggest stars are rarely seen by the fans it is courting.
Imagine how big of a star Mayweather would be had everything else been the same but he had fought the bulk of his career on NBC, which has a reach of more than 100 million homes, instead of on HBO, which has a reach less than a third of that.
But beyond the stars, the middle-class fighters who have the ability to develop into stars need a breeding ground, a place where they can meet other quality fighters and gain the experience that is critical to high-level success.
Much has been made in recent times over the differences between modern boxing and the fight game of 40, 50 or 60 years ago. The biggest difference, though, is that fighters in the bygone era fought more often than the bulk of current fighters do.
In the 1980s and 1990s, USA Network's Tuesday Night Fights provided that forum. USA Network rarely had championship bouts, but it gave exposure and experience to guys like De La Hoya, Mayweather, Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones Jr., James Toney, Arturo Gatti and Fernando Vargas, among others.
In much the same way, promoter Kathy Duva's "Fight Night" series on the NBC Sports Network (and twice so far on regular NBC) is doing the same job.
It has largely provided quality fights and served as a launching pad or a recalibration point for a series of fighters, who have gone on to find a new life on the premium cable channels. A great example of that was the Jesus Soto Karass-Gabriel Rosado bout that was the co-main event of the series opener on Jan. 21, 2012.
Soto Karass lost that fight via a fifth round stoppage, but it was an entertaining back-and-forth slugfest. Significantly, though, it earned him a ticket back to the major leagues. His knockout of former welterweight champion Andre Berto last Saturday was his third appearance on Showtime since the Rosado fight.
Rosado's last two fights have been against Gennady Golovkin on HBO and against J'Leon Love on Showtime pay-per-view on the Mayweather-Robert Guerrero undercard.
Duva has promoted 10 cards on NBC Sports Network and two on NBC. In the 18 months since, Soto Karass, Rosado and Zab Judah have already appeared on either HBO or Showtime after being on those cards.
Antwone Smith and Siarhei Liakhovich are scheduled to be on Showtime on Aug. 9. Sergey Kovalev will be on HBO against Nathan Cleverly for the WBO light heavyweight belt on Aug. 17. And Duva is in talks with HBO about fights for Curtis Stevens, Bryant Jennings and Tomasz Adamek.
All in all, it's a solid record and one that only should get better.
Duva is promoting a tripleheader on NBC Sports Network on Saturday beginning at 10:30 p.m. ET from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., that has the potential to ship more boxers off to premium cable land.
Oh, and the card also figures to be first-rate.
That all stems from the philosophy Duva brought when the concept for the Fight Night series was first born. Once upon a time, Duva's company, Main Events, was one of the country's three top promoters, along with Top Rank and Don King Productions.
It had then, as Golden Boy and Top Rank do now, dozens upon dozens of fighters under contract and great relations with HBO and Showtime.
But after husband Dan's tragic death, and a court fight with her in-laws over the rights to the company, things changed dramatically.
The boxing landscape was changing and managers were maddening. Duva finally came to believe that, at least for the way she liked to promote, it made no sense to have 50, 60 or 70 fighters under contract.
"Our selling point to NBC when we were competing with the mega-promoters, which is what I'll call Top Rank and Golden Boy now, was, 'We don't have to give a win to anybody,' " she said. "I said, 'We're going to put on fights that are [evenly] matched and entertaining and you're going to want to keep us because the fights are good, and not because I tell you I have more fighters under contract than the next guy.'
"One of the criticisms I hear about what we're trying to do is [a lack of big] names. Well, we're here to create names. If I have a bunch of names, quote-unquote, … frankly, it's harder to put those guys in a competitive fight. When you get locked into a contract where you have to give the guy a fortune every time he gets into the ring, now you're locked in tough negotiations with your own fighter because the managers don't want them to fight anybody [significant]."
In Saturday's main event, Stevens will meet Saul Roman in a 10-round middleweight bout. A win will likely get Stevens an HBO date in early 2014. Roman is coming off a darkhorse Fight of the Year contender against Jose Pinzon.
Former heavyweight contender Eddie Chambers has dropped to cruiserweight and will take on South African Thabiso Mchunu, while Adamek will open the show against Dominick Guinn.
Duva pointed to the Adamek-Guinn fight as one that shows the expertise of matchmakers Russell Peltz and Jolene Mizzone. Guinn, who signed as a replacement for the injured Tony Grano, has been in plenty of dismal bouts, but Duva is certain his fight with Adamek will be anything but dismal.
"Russell had a [promotional contract] with Rosado, but when he was putting together that first show, he wasn't looking for a look-good win for him," Duva said. "He wanted him in the most competitive fight possible. He wanted a barn-burning, knockdown, drag-out brawl, which is exactly what he delivered.
"If that is your guiding principal, even the losers benefit and come out better, because they were in a fight and people want to see them again. This idea of building up a prospect by putting him in with one guy after another who has no chance of not only winning, but even putting on a competitive fight, ultimately means you don't develop a thing. You're teaching your guy it's easy to beat up on stiffs. But we're developing fighters and not handing out guaranteed wins.
"The way you do that is, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you're always competitive, with someone whose skills are close to yours," she said. "The matchmakers are supposed to know whose style fits with whose. Dominick is a great example of that. He's had some disappointing fights, but if you watch him, if he fights someone who is aggressive, he's in exciting fights. He's not in exciting fights if the other guy expects him to dictate, but we don't have that problem with Adamek."
The fights are replayed often on NBC Sports Network, and by the time they're through with their run, the bouts have been viewed by more than a million people, not much different than the viewership HBO and Showtime draws.
If the series catches on with the public, then it's going to have the promise of leading to more fights on NBC, which in turn should lead to increased sponsorship dollars.
Boxing is in a sort of renaissance, with a series of great fights on and off television this year.
If it continues, think of Kathy Duva and thank her for demanding that fighters actually work for their money and put on compelling television.
It's the one way to guarantee boxing's long-term success.
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