by David P. Greisman
The reason that boxing’s “cold war” between Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions has lasted so long is because there’s been little reason for it to end.
Yes, there are numerous big fights that cannot be made when the two biggest companies with the two deepest stables are unwilling to do business with each other. But we the boxing fans have still supported the fights they make, buying tickets and watching on television.
They don’t need each other. They work with different networks in the United States and Mexico and have different sponsors. It’s been easier for them to do business separately than to do business together.
That’s largely worked for the fighters, who still get television dates, still get built up and still get paid. While there are some big fights that remain unavailable to them, many fighters are able to find dance partners in deep divisions — or are in a shallow division where the opposing promoter doesn’t have much to offer them anyway.
That doesn’t mean the cold war doesn’t hurt. It has, and it still does. Of late, six fighters are being harmed more than anyone else: light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev, who actually isn’t with either Top Rank or Golden Boy; middleweight titleholder Peter Quillin; junior lightweight titleholder Mikey Garcia; and featherweights Nonito Donaire, Abner Mares and Gary Russell Jr.
Their situations are not utterly dire; all are actually in OK positions. Yet their progress is potentially being stunted due to their options being limited.
Let’s examine that, starting with the heavier weight class and then moving on down. (All of these come with the caveat that offers can always be made and accepted, and purse bids can be held so as to grease the wheels to make a big fight.)
It wasn’t too long ago that Showtime and HBO were doing business with both Top Rank and Golden Boy, even with the cold war between the promoters going on. The last Top Rank cards on Showtime, by my recollection, were in March 2012, when Orlando Salido won his rematch with Juan Manuel Lopez and, a couple of weeks later, when the promoter put on a “ShoBox: The New Generation” card featuring Diego Magdaleno in the main event. The last Golden Boy card on HBO was in March 2013, when Bernard Hopkins defeated Tavoris Cloud. The network announced about a week and a half later that it was no longer doing business with the promoter, which had already moved most of its fighters over to Showtime.
It’s acceptable, of course, for Showtime and HBO to be in competition with each other. Each wants to be seen as the No. 1 network for boxing. Where the networks come in with this article is with the fact that the cold war has led to the promoters sustaining themselves with separate alignments. And that has ultimately — and recently — hurt Kovalev, who is promoted by Main Events.
With Golden Boy and HBO’s split, HBO sought to build up a new generation of stars. Adonis Stevenson became part of that potential pool of talent when he stopped Chad Dawson in one round in June 2013, winning the lineal light heavyweight championship. In August, HBO aired a feed of Kovalev’s technical knockout of Nathan Cleverly and soon decided to feature him as well, hoping to build toward an eventual clash between him and Stevenson.
But Golden Boy has 175-pound legend Bernard Hopkins and titleholder Beibut Shumenov, who are scheduled to fight April 19 on Showtime. And Showtime saw a big business opportunity in Stevenson, paying more than 40 percent than HBO offered for Stevenson’s fight against Andrzej Fonfara this May, hoping to put Stevenson in with the winner of Hopkins-Shumenov.
Barring the possibility of litigation forcing Stevenson to fight Kovalev later this year, Kovalev will be left waiting for a chance to complete his ascent by meeting Stevenson, a wait that could last perhaps until early 2015. In the interim, he does not have much to choose from in terms of name opposition in the light heavyweight division. The best available foe, Jean Pascal, knows that he’s a desired opponent, which means his asking price is about to go through the roof.
It’s not all bad for Kovalev, though. HBO signed him to a multi-fight deal and will pay him well. And assuming that the winner of the Stevenson/Hopkins/Shumenov trinity truly does face Kovalev in a year, he could benefit from the storyline build toward complete unification at 175.
It’s been two years since Quillin, a Golden Boy-affiliated fighter, made his “Showtime Championship Boxing” debut with a win over Winky Wright, and it’s been a year and a half since Quillin won his world title against Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam.
His defenses since then have come against lower-level opponents: Fernando Guerrero, whom Quillin stopped in seven, and Gabriel Rosado, who gave Quillin a good test before being stopped on a cut late in the fight.
Quillin is in a holding pattern. He is a titleholder who is enjoyable to watch and shows promise. Yet he isn’t getting the big fights or top challengers. His next appearance, on the April 19 undercard to Hopkins-Shumenov, is against Lukas Konecny, a foe with no name recognition in the United States and lacking notable accomplishments in the 160-pound division. Two of his four losses came in title shots at 154 against Sergiy Dzinziruk (in 2008) and Zauerbek Baysangurov (in 2012).
The big names at 160 have been fighting on HBO: champion Sergio Martinez and titleholder Gennady Golovkin. As Quillin can’t make his name against them, he will have to build it up on his own, even while it’s likely he will be no better than No. 3 in the division in the meantime.
There are other potential foes. Quillin could face fellow New Yorkers Danny Jacobs (who also works with Golden Boy and adviser Al Haymon) or Curtis Stevens. He could meet one of the many foreign fighters at 160, a few of whom Martinez faced in recent years. Or it’s possible that David Lemieux, a stable-mate of Adonis Stevenson who will likely be appearing on the Stevenson-Fonfara undercard, could be built up to be a Quillin foe down the line.
And then there’s the possibility that some of the fighters in the deep 154-pound division could opt to move up for a title shot. Many of them work with Golden Boy as well.
Garcia is with Top Rank. He is a junior lightweight, and Golden Boy actually doesn’t have any truly major fighters at 130.
Garcia hasn’t been left with many significant options since his January 2013 win over Orlando Salido. He was a featherweight then, but failed to make weight when beat Juan Manuel Lopez last June. He moved up to 130, won a title over Roman “Rocky” Martinez and defended it this past January against Juan Carlos Burgos.
Neither Martinez nor Burgos were the kind of opponents who’d move the needle at the box office. The 130-pound division hasn’t had much in the way of domestic star power. There are the two Takashis — Uchiyama and Miura — in Japan. And then there are Rances Barthelemy and Argenis Mendez, who will likely have a title bout rematch in a couple of months.
There’s a reason why there’d been talk of Garcia already moving up to lightweight to face Yuriorkis Gamboa, though negotiations for that bout didn’t pan out. And so Garcia either needs a big name to step up from 126 or a big name for him to step up and meet at lightweight.
Top Rank has several at featherweight, none of whom seem likely to move up any time soon: Nonito Donaire, who will be facing Simpiwe Vetyeka in May, has been struggling more as he’s moved up in weight; Evgeny Gradovich has a belt at 126; and Nicholas Walters is still a relative unknown there. Vasyl Lomachenko also seems likely to remain at 126 for the time being.
Top Rank also has a number of lightweights, but again, they’re either being built up separately from Garcia and wouldn’t be paired together (such as Terence Crawford), or they don’t have the kind of name value that would be palatable to HBO (such as Ray Beltran).
Golden Boy has Abner Mares at 126, and then at 135 it has Omar Figueroa, Jorge Linares and Sergio Thompson. Mares is by far the biggest name of them all, followed by Figueroa and Linares. All of them could be good fights for Garcia. None of them will happen.
If anything, I imagine we could get Garcia against Juan Diaz sometime in 2014.
Nonito Donaire/Abner Mares/Gary Russell Jr.
Nonito Donaire and Abner Mares were both bantamweights. Then they were both junior featherweights. Now they are both featherweights.
A fight between them never got done, even though there was much salivation about who would win. Donaire is with Top Rank. Mares is with Golden Boy. Their promoters jawed at each other, and Golden Boy once sent an offer for a fight to be made. But again, the promoters would rather do business without each other.
And so Donaire, instead of facing Mares, stepped in with an incredibly talented but difficult opponent in Guillermo Rigondeaux, losing a unanimous decision in April 2013. Mares, meanwhile, got shocked in a first-round loss to Jhonny Gonzalez last year.
They could’ve met in a major showdown. Now they are rebuilding. Donaire struggled in a rematch with Vic Darchinyan before pulling out the win later. As noted above, he’ll face Simpiwe Vetyeka later this spring. It’s a far cry from when he was 2012’s Fighter of the Year.
Mares was supposed to have a Gonzalez rematch in February, but an injury postponed that bout. He mulled facing Takashi Miura, ultimately deciding that it wasn’t the right fight for him at this time.
And then there’s Russell, whose five-year pro career has seen him show signs of incredible talent, but only against incredibly outclassed opposition. Now he’s in a position to fight for the World Boxing Organization’s title at 126 — a title left vacant after Orlando Salido failed to make weight in his win over Vasyl Lomachenko.
The likely opponent should the title bout go up for a purse bid? Lomachenko, who’s promoted by Top Rank.
The purse bid would be the best way for that fight to happen, given that one promoter could win the bid and put on a show without the other’s involvement. The question is whether either promoter would be willing to put its undefeated Olympian up against the other, or would rather seek another opportunity.
Why list Russell here and not Lomachenko? Because Lomachenko is, depending on your perspective, either 1-1 or 7-1. There’s more patience for his development than there is anymore for Russell.
Russell does have other options should a Lomachenko fight not happen, including Mares or Gonzalez.
And there are always options for all these fighters. As bad as the cold war has been for us boxing fans, it has yet irreparably damage the boxing business.
The 10 Count
1. It was announced last week that Sergey Kovalev’s first main event on HBO pulled in a little more than 1 million viewers for his win over Cedric Agnew.
It’s not the worst number. It’s not the best number. In general, ratings numbers should also be taken within the context of audience share — the percentage of the overall television audience for all broadcasts in that time slot — as well as any competing shows that might steal away viewers.
I don’t have that information. But in the grand scheme, it comes down to the specific rating to indicate whether a fighter is drawing and then building a fan base.
That’s what HBO and Kovalev’s team are hoping will happen, particularly if a bout with Adonis Stevenson doesn’t happen this year due to the usual politics of the sport. There are few name opponents out there for Kovalev that’ll help him pop a big rating.
Kovalev actually had a higher rating for his last fight, a win over Ismayl Sillakh that averaged about 1.25 million viewers. That was on the undercard to Adonis Stevenson’s win over Tony Bellew, a bout that averaged about 1.305 million viewers.
Kovalev’s rating might have been bolstered that night in November by being on the undercard to Stevenson, given that the build was already beginning for a Stevenson-Kovalev meeting. Then again, both live fights actually might’ve gotten a bump from the rebroadcast of the previous week’s pay-per-view between Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios. The Pacquiao-Rios PPV didn’t do as strong a buy rate as Pacquiao had done in the past, which means more people might’ve opted to wait for the rebroadcast.
All of which is a long way of saying that the verdict on Kovalev’s star power isn’t in yet.
2. Coming back to something I wrote last week:
“HBO and Kovalev’s promoter apparently believe that he can still be a star without facing Stevenson. There are two kinds of ratings draws in boxing. Sometimes fans will tune in for major fights. And sometimes they will tune in just to see an individual fighter. HBO has built up middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin, even if that year and a half wasn’t explicitly building toward a future match with 160-pound champion Sergio Martinez.”
Indeed, it’s interesting to look at Golovkin’s ratings rise:
Sept. 1, 2012 (Labor Day weekend): Golovkin’s HBO debut, against Gregorz Proksa, pulls in 685,000 viewers.
Jan. 19, 2013: Golovkin vs. Gabriel Rosado pulls in 813,000 viewers.
March 30, 2013: Golovkin vs. Nobuhiro Ishida isn’t aired on HBO, but rather on an independent pay-per-view.
June 29, 2013: Golovkin vs. Matthew Macklin pulls in 1.1 million viewers.
Nov. 2, 2013: Golovkin vs. Curtis Stevens pulls in 1.4 million viewers.
3. In the olden days, a 206-pound fighter wouldn’t be considered too small for the heavyweight division. Heck, you don’t even need to go back but two decades to see Evander Holyfield weighing in from 202 pounds to 218 pounds during his best years as a heavyweight.
Holyfield had been a light heavyweight when he captured a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics, and he was the cruiserweight champion in his earlier days as a pro. But that was back when the cruiserweight limit was 190 pounds and Holyfield was a younger man.
Steve Cunningham is 37 years old in an era when the cruiserweight limit is 200 pounds and when the best heavyweights are much taller and much heavier. His heavyweight campaign continues, though, with a unanimous decision win over Amir Mansour this past Friday.
I understand why he’s campaigning at heavyweight. Cunningham spent his entire career at cruiserweight, and he even traveled to Europe seven times and to South Africa once. Europe in particular is a place where the cruiserweight division is more active and potentially more lucrative.
But bigger riches are thought to be available against the biggest men. And Cunningham admittedly needs the money, particularly with his daughter battling congenital heart disease.
Cunningham was already no stranger to hitting the canvas when he was a cruiserweight, yet the possibility seems even more likely at heavyweight. Mansour is no technical marvel, but rather is a crude brawler who telegraphs his shots, and he was nonetheless able to floor Cunningham twice in the fifth round of their bout. Cunningham benefitted from a slow count after the second knockdown, and from time running out in the round just after he rose.
Cunningham deserves credit for the manner in which he boxed from there on out, stabilizing himself, making Mansour miss wildly, and picking up points on the cards. Yet as shallow a pool of talent as the heavyweight division has, there still are several decent-to-good prospects and contenders out there, and it’s difficult to envision Cunningham holding up to their shots.
His team needs to move him wisely, even though he needs the money. It’s better to cash out against a bigger name than to crash and burn against a lesser one.
4. From ringside in Philadelphia, I felt that the referee had stopped the bout between Curtis Stevens and Tureano Johnson too soon. After watching the replay — again and again and again — I’m less upset.
I hate to see referees jump in during a flurry when many of those punches aren’t landing, or at least aren’t leaving fighter on the receiving end in bad shape. But I also recognize that referee Gary Rosato saw Tureano Johnson leaning forward with his head down, and it also looked like Johnson only realized what had happened until a few moments after Rosato had stopped the fight.
It’s easy to be upset about this, given our natural love for underdogs. Johnson was the lesser-known opponent, and yet he was winning the fight, ahead on the scorecards and just one minute away from scoring the upset when Stevens landed the big left hook that proved to be the beginning of the end.
This doesn’t at all approach the worst stoppages we’ve seen in recent years.
5. Tureano Johnson and his promoter, Gary Shaw, called for a rematch after the bout. Kathy Duva of Main Events, which promotes Stevens and put on the fight on Friday, said she thinks a rematch would cost more, and she doesn’t know if she’d receive enough money (presumably in television license fees and arena site fees) to do it.
In reality, I feel we’re more likely to see Stevens either go right into a higher-profile bout or face a lesser opponent so that he can stay busy until another big payday comes. Stevens himself named two wish list foes: middleweight titleholder Peter Quillin and junior middleweight James Kirkland.
Johnson raised his stock in defeat. But we’ll see if any of the bigger promoters are willing to risk their investments by putting them in against Johnson on one of their cards.
I doubt it, and that’s a shame, because Johnson does deserve another opportunity.
6. Boxing writer Ryan Bivins floated an excellent question after Friday’s fights in Philadelphia, wondering what the difference would’ve been if the two televised fights had switched referees.
Gary Rosato had felt Tureano Johnson wasn’t defending himself against Curtis Stevens and shouldn’t continue. Would Steve Smoger, who’s known for giving fighters a little longer, have allowed Johnson to keep going?
Steve Smoger said he felt that Cunningham was lucid after both knockdowns against Mansour. Would Rosato have given Cunningham the hook?
Both referees’ decisions brought dramatic conclusions. Stevens got the come-from-behind win, and Cunningham recovered and left five rounds later with the decision victory.
7. A couple weeks back, I noted a tournament taking place in New Zealand called the “Super 8” in which the competitors named so far were exclusively old and/or past-their-prime heavyweights, including 44-year-old Kali Meehan, 33-year-old Samuel Peter, 42-year-old Martin Rogan and 39-year-old Michael Sprott.
It got worse.
Added to the list is Hasim Rahman, now 41 years old, last seen in the ring in September 2012 getting blown out in two rounds by Alexander Povetkin. His sad loss to Wladimir Klitschko? That was more than five years ago.
8. “Grudge Match,” a fictional movie about a third fight between retired boxers played by Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, grossed just $29.8 million in United States theaters and another $12.1 in foreign revenue, according to Box Office Mojo.
The “Super 8,” a real-life tournament involving eight boxers, many of whom were retired and others who perhaps should be, is just gross. And in this case, there’s only half a million dollars in prize money to be split up.
9. The other week, Timothy Bradley told HBO’s Jim Lampley that his foot/ankle injuries in the first Manny Pacquiao fight were due to him not wearing socks.
“I’m a big fan of Mike Tyson, and I was reading some of Mike Tyson’s stories, and I read in one of the stories that he didn’t wear socks. And I was puzzled by that, so I tried it out in training camp, and it worked out very well,” Bradley said during an interview on the March 29 broadcast of Sergey Kovalev vs. Cedric Agnew. “It felt really natural. So I figured, hey, let’s try it in this big fight, and it ended up backfiring on me. The ring was spongy. The ring was very soft and very bouncy, and it really allowed my feet inside of my shoes to really move around. I didn’t have the support that I actually needed to be able to hang with Pacquiao’s speed.”
According to ESPN.com scribe Dan Rafael, Pacquiao’s camp jokingly sent Bradley a box of socks with a teasing note.
Then again, Manny Pacquiao once had his own issues with footwear. Here’s an excerpt from an article he wrote for Yahoo! Sports several years after his first fight with Juan Manuel Marquez:
“Toward the latter rounds, because I was wearing socks that were very thin, I had developed blisters on my feet, making it very difficult for me to move as effectively as I had during the earlier rounds. I had to fight more flat-footed than we had trained. After the fight, when I took my boots off, my socks were worn through and they were very bloody.”
10. The triumph of victory…
(Bad joke warning)
…the agony of de-feet.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org