by David P. Greisman
The 24/7 nature of boxing news has made it easier for fans to follow the fighters they support — and to be critical of those they dislike.
That’s because being a boxer is no longer just about being under the spotlight on fight night, but also includes being under the magnifying glass for many of the remaining 361 to 363 days of the year. Negotiations are no longer merely conducted in meetings and via phone calls and exchanges of contracts. Now the media coverage is co-opted for the sake of leverage.
Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara, fresh off the biggest wins of their respective pro careers earlier this year, had their promoters turn to the press and deride each for having styles that make them difficult to promote. Months after Rigondeaux topped Nonito Donaire, Bob Arum of Top Rank said he still didn’t have another appearance on HBO lined up for him.
“Every time I mention him, they [HBO] throw up,” Arum told ESPN.com scribe Dan Rafael. If you read between the lines, you could see two potential purposes for Arum’s words: Either he was trying to pressure the network into putting Rigondeaux on the air, or he was seeking to convince Rigondeaux that he would need to accept less favorable terms in order to get on television again.
These “trial balloons” are almost as common in pugilism as they are in politics. Talk of potential fights is leaked or discussed, the reader reaction is gauged, and that way the leaker or speaker can make a point about which way the wind is blowing.
All of which brings us to Andre Ward and the debates regarding who he should face in his comeback fight and how much he and his opponent should be paid for it.
Ward, a 29-year-old who won gold in the 2004 Olympics, had long ago been criticized for the deliberate pace at which his development was going. He and his team said they wouldn’t be rushed, though, and their approach turned out to be right. He entered Showtime’s “Super Six” tournament in 2009, nearly five years after turning pro, and promptly vaulted from undefeated prospect to undisputed champion. Last year he jumped to HBO, which featured him as a television commentator and also spotlighted his excellent technical knockout win over Chad Dawson.
But then Ward hurt his right shoulder while training for a fight earlier this year against Kelly Pavlik. He underwent surgery, Pavlik retired and Ward rehabilitated his injury and worked on coming back.
If only it were that simple. It wasn’t, and it still isn’t. Boxing — for all of the nuances of footwork and defense and skills and strategy — is rather simple when contrasted with the complicated and maddening nature of the business.
Ward, coming off an injury and an extended layoff, reportedly wanted lesser opposition for his first fight back and more money than HBO was willing to pay for. The proposed names included super middleweight contender Stanyslav Kashtanov, former 168-pound titleholder Dimitri Sartison, and middleweight Caleb Truax, according to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. Of the three, Truax was the only one who had appeared on American television.
Word of the proposal and HBO’s minimal interest leaked out. Then the criticism against Ward broke out. And then Ward spoke out.
“If you've never been punched in the face for a living...u don't have the right tell a fighter how much $$$ they should demand for a fight!!” Ward tweeted on Aug. 12.
Of course, boxers do have a right to ask for as much money as they can get. They are putting their bodies and lives on the line. It’s in their interest to maximize the profit and minimize the punishment.
But fight fans also do have a right to criticize. It is their money that goes to subscription fees and ticket sales. Unless they are spending solely to support a certain fighter, they want to get the best value possible. Bouts that are of lesser interest and come at a higher price will result in less airtime and budget room, limiting a network’s ability to make the fights that truly would energize the sport.
The word of Ward vs. the likes of Sartison or Truax came in July. Then in August, super middleweight prospect Edwin Rodriguez informed his hometown newspaper that he’d turned down a Sept. 28 fight against Ward, a bout that Rodriguez preferred for November in order to have more time before “the biggest fight of my career,” he told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. Rodriguez also said he’d signed with powerful adviser Al Haymon, whose fighters largely appear on Showtime.
Ward’s comeback fight has since been moved from the end of September to the middle of November, according to what Ward told Ben Thompson of FightHype.com. The Rodriguez fight still is a no-go, though. As is most often the case in boxing, the hang-up involves money.
Rodriguez feels he deserves more. Ward disagrees.
Mannix, reporting last week for Sports Illustrated, said that HBO offered a total of $3.15 million for the fight. Per the article: “Ward’s team, in turn, offered Rodriguez $800,000 of it,” an increase of $200,000 over what Rodriguez got for knocking out Denis Grachev in the finale of a tournament in Monaco this past July.
“We offered him more than he got in the tournament and he turned us down. That is ridiculous,” Ward told Mannix. “Look at his résumé. As far as HBO money, I have earned that. I’m not fighting for my minimum anymore. My team knows that. It’s not like we lowballed Rodriguez.”
“I offered Edwin more money than he’s ever made before,” Ward told Thompson. “He’s just asking for ridiculous money. He’s priced himself way out with something that’s not realistic.”
In a separate interview with Thompson days later, Ward added: “That’s significantly more than I made in my first title fight and more than I made in my first defense of the WBA title. We took the number that was given to us for [Mikkel] Kessler because we believed in ourselves and we believed in our ability. If they want this fight as bad as they do, then take the $800,000 and step up. If not, then they gotta go try to fight whoever they’re gonna fight, but they’re not gonna get that $800,000 nowhere else.”
Speaking on Rodriguez’s behalf is his promoter, Lou DiBella.
“We’re not looking to be pigs,” DiBella said in an interview with Matthew Paras of MaxBoxing.com. “We just expected what we believe is [a] fair share of the revenue.”
Both camps are wrong. Both camps are right. I’ve never been punched in the face for a living, so you can discount my opinion if you so choose. I do make a living, however, and so that’s the prism through which I see this situation.
A few years ago I returned to my hometown, unemployed and living temporarily with my parents, a strategic backward step that hopefully would bring me the opportunities I was seeking.
I returned because there wasn’t any chance of advancement in the rural New England area where I had been working as a newspaper reporter. I was spinning my wheels, using what little spare time I had to try to hunt for jobs in a struggling industry. It made more sense to come back to the Washington, D.C., area, to save some money and seek out work in a far more bustling region.
It had to be temporary. My father laid down the terms: I had two months, and then I would take anything up to and including an overnight shift in fast food, if it came down to it. I agreed. Instead, I ended up back in journalism, earning a much healthier income than before.
While pride dictates that you don’t take a backward step in income, capitalism and the rules of supply and demand mean you sometimes have to take what you can get. Ward told Mannix that he wanted “to make a solid fight, similar to what” HBO is doing with its upcoming bouts featuring Miguel Cotto against Delvin Rodriguez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. against Bryan Vera. He believes he is enough of an attraction as the A-side that a lesser opponent should be acceptable as the B-side.
He’s absolutely the A-side. It’s a given HBO will eventually air a bout featuring Ward and some opponent. Rodriguez doesn’t have another payday of this size or opportunity of this type being offered to him right now.
Yet Ward is sitting on the sideline because of his financial demands. It’s his prerogative to get as much money as he can if he’s going to step into the ring. But he’s not fighting, and he’s not getting paid. If the Rodriguez fight doesn’t happen, it’s possible that HBO’s next offer for a different foe could pay less than what Ward would have received otherwise.
He’s in a far different situation than I was in a few years ago, though. He’s financially secure and can wait to inject another lump sum into his bank account.
While pride dictates that you get much more money to face a super middleweight champion who is more talented and more popular than anyone else you’ve fought, it’s dangerous to take a hard line in negotiations when there’s no guarantee that a similar payday or opportunity will surface again soon. Rodriguez could go on to win other fights for decent but lesser paydays, building more demand for a Ward fight than presently exists. Or Ward and the super middleweight division could go in a different direction, and Rodriguez could be left wishing he’d taken this fight.
It’s also possible that Rodriguez’s new baseline number is too high, that he’s overvaluing himself based on the Grachev payday. If this Ward fight were one that involved a titleholder and his mandatory challenger — and had the negotiations failed and the bout gone to a purse bid — then the split would have been 75 percent for Ward and 25 percent for Rodriguez. And 25 percent of $3.15 million is $787,500. (Of course, it wouldn’t have been a network bidding, but rather a promoter, and the promoter might have based his bid on other revenue streams beyond the television license fee.)
I recall two different approaches fighters took:
Zab Judah, for his rematch with Cory Spinks, took just $100,000 while Spinks got $1.2 million and hometown advantage. Judah got the knockout and cashed in on his gamble.
Curtis Stevens, meanwhile, said he turned down the initial offer he received for a fight this November with middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin. While it’s possible Stevens reconsidered the initial offer, it’s likely that the pot got sweetened as a result of his denial.
The 24/7 nature of boxing news has made my job as columnist and reporter possible. But it isn’t always pleasant. The science of the sport is sweet. The politics of it is dirty. I’d rather focus on covering the fights that have been signed than occasionally opine on those being negotiated, particularly as the information out there can be incomplete or tinted by its source.
I want to see Andre Ward fight. I want to see Edwin Rodriguez fight. I don’t care who wins in the negotiations — we spent years arguing about what Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao couldn’t agree on. I just want to see what happens in the ring.
The 10 Count will return next week.