By Robert Morales
Boxing is a sport that seems to have more imperfections than most others. One can deal with that and stay strong, or cry about it and go home.
Ken Hershman, the two-year president of HBO Sports who previously was head of Showtime Sports, chooses the former. And since business was so darn good in 2013, he certainly has nothing to cry about.
We spoke to Hershman at length via telephone Tuesday morning. One of the first things touched on by HBO spokesman Ray Stallone, who was also on the call, was that in spite of rival Showtime's push, HBO still had the five highest-rated boxing shows in 2013 in terms of audience performance.
An email provided by Stallone showed the numbers. And here they are: Miguel Cotto vs. Delvin Rodriguez - 1,555,000 viewers (1,706,000 peak viewership); Julio Chavez Jr. vs. Brian Vera - 1,416,000 viewers (1,542,000 peak); Gennady Golovkin vs. Curtis Stevens - 1,410,000 viewers (1,566,000 peak); Adrien Broner vs. Gavin Rees - 1,398,000 viewers (1,551,000 peak); Adonis Stevenson vs. Tony Bellew - 1,305,000 viewers (1,358,000 peak).
There were several other numbers given us, including one that shows HBO had 21 of the top 25 shows on cable in 2013. Stallone referred to all of these numbers as "analytical and indisputable).
"Clearly, what Ray just outlined in terms of maintaining our leadership position in what we telecast along with this sort of added hurdle of having to build these new names ... the ratings stars that left the network had to be replaced and I think we did that and then some, and over-delivered in that area," Hershman said to BoxingScene.com.
"So if I'm most proud of anything, it's really that. Just identifying these new guys with tremendous fan-friendly fighting styles, great personalities, putting them on and seeing the audience respond so favorably."
Broner, of course, is one of those stars that left for Showtime. The fight with Rees on Feb. 16 was his last with HBO.
Hershman mentioned building the newer guys, so we asked him which of them was the brightest star on the horizon.
"Tough question to answer," he said. "We have a number of them. It's a good dilemma to have. I think, obviously, Golovkin has tremendous potential. His ratings growth has been the largest of all the newcomers. His personality outside the ring, his persona inside the ring gives me tremendous optimism for his future. His willingness to take all comers at varying weight classes, there are just so many positives."
Hershman was just getting started.
"It's hard not to talk about Mikey Garcia, who just as a boxer, a technician, is so incredibly skilled and gifted," he said of the undefeated and ultra-talented super featherweight champion from Oxnard, Calif. "I just don't see anyone being able to compete with him, and there are so many attractive options as he moves up in weight that will test that theory. So I'm really stoked about Mikey and what we can look forward to in 2014 with him.
"And (Sergey) Kovalev and (Adonis) Stevenson are right in that mix as well. We love those guys. Ruslan Provodnikov as well. It's so hard to pick one."
No HBO fighters vs. Showtime fighters
One of the ongoing complaints is that big fights aren't being made between boxers who fight for HBO and those who fight for Showtime. We asked Hershman his thoughts on that, and what can be done to change it.
"I think in boxing, all these impediments and challenges to making fights, whether it's based on promoters, managers and networks, alliances, agreements, where people want to take their careers, that's just been a part of the sport," Hershman said. "You have to live with it. And we do. And I'd rather focus on all the great fights that we can make because I think if you're a boxing fan and you look back at 2013, it was a spectacular year.
"Fights were made that the fans clamored for. They enjoyed them. We had spectacular programming on HBO. The ratings support that the fans really enjoyed it, really tuned it in and wanted to see it. I focus on that."
But, Hershman conceded, "There are going to be some consequences, some fallout that you can't make a particular fight. That would make sense. But again, we don't rule anything out. We're open to any kind of idea. It just has to make sense for us from a business perspective."
Hershman doesn't care much about Golovkin-Peter Quillin
We mentioned to Hershman that one such fight that seemingly can't be made is Golovkin against fellow middleweight champion Peter Quillin, a Golden Boy Promotions fighter who toils on Showtime. Interestingly, Hershman said that fight is not near the top of his list of fights he'd like to make for Golovkin.
"As far as Gennady Golovkin and Peter Quillin go, I wouldn't put it in the top threefights that I want to see Gennady Golovkin get in," Hershman said. "So I'm not that motivated to talk about it. Yet, I'm open to any ideas that people have."
Hershman said that from his viewpoint, there are several other fights in which he'd like to see Golovkin.
"I'd like to see him fight Sergio Martinez," Hershman said. "I'd love to see him fight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., I'd love to see him fight Andre Ward, I'd love to see him fight Stevenson, I'd love to see him fight the winner of (Jean) Pascal-(Lucian) Bute. All of those fights I'd like to see before Peter Quillin. Just from a style standpoint as a fan, not even as a network executive."
Three of those fighters - Stevenson, Pascal and Bute - are light heavyweights. They would have to move down to super middleweight and Golovkin would have to move up there, something he has always said he'd do for a big fight.
For now, it's status quo with Golden Boy
Hershman was asked if he regrets severing ties with Golden Boy in March, telling the company it would no longer buy any of its fights. Hershman was quick to note that he never said this would be forever.
At the time of this decision, HBO gave a statement that basically said it wanted to work with companies who were on the same page as it is. It came on the heels of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez leaving HBO for Showtime. Golden Boy helps Mayweather promote his fights, and Alvarez is under contract to Golden Boy.
"All we did and all we said was that we were going to have a break and focus our attention on places where we thought the return on that investment could be greater for us," Hershman said. "I respect Richard (Schaefer) and what they've accomplished this year and in years past."
Schaefer is CEO of Golden Boy.
Hershman intimated that if things change from a business standpoint, he could see HBO once again doing business with Golden Boy.
As for losing Mayweather
It might not have been easy, but Hershman admitted that there was at least one Mayweather fight in 2013 in which he would have liked to have been involved.
"To be honest, on one night during the year I would have loved to have had HBO be a part of that, but that's business," Hershman said. "He made a business choice that was better for him and we've moved on."
The one night? That would be Mayweather-Alvarez on Sept. 14 at MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Is Mayweather-Pacquiao still possible?
Manny Pacquiao is coming off a wide decision victory over Brandon Rios last month in China. Immediately, people started renewing talks about a possible fight between Pacquiao and Mayweather, a fight that has been long discussed, but has never come to fruition.
Hershman is not optimistic it will ever be made.
"I don't think that anything I see in the landscape has changed on that front that's going to lead to that fight," he said. "We are thrilled that Manny (an HBO fighter) did well in his latest fight and really looked like the Manny of old in terms of speed and power and ring prowess. ... But I don't see anything on the landscape that would suggest Manny Pacquiao needs that fight to continue his career and the same holds true for Floyd."
Proud as a peacock
Before we let Hershman go, he wanted to make sure he told us how proud he is of HBO's "Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward," that aired this year.
"Our team worked so hard on that, it just came out in such a perfect way," Hershman said. "It reinforces our commitment to story telling in a very HBO-like way, and paid tribute to Arturo Gatti, who was such a big part of HBO for so many years. A very memorable presentation."
Robert Morales covers boxing for the Los Angeles Daily News and BoxingScene.com.