By Mitch Abramson
Nearly two weeks ago, Roc Nation Sports, the agency founded by Jay Z, announced its presence to the boxing world with the authority of a jackhammer.
It was a two-pronged blitz:
A day after revealing its existence on Aug. 18, the company’s new boxing front man, David Itskowitch, trekked to Puerto Rico, armed with a check.
His mission: to win a purse bid at WBO headquarters in San Juan for the rights to promote the middleweight title clash between Peter Quillin and challenger Matt Korobov.
Itskowitch easily outbid the second highest offer of $1.2 million by Golden Boy, which handles Quillin. Itskowitch ponied up $1,904,840.
And with one fell swoop, Roc Nation Sports made headlines and stole the boxing news cycle for several days as people tried to make sense of what was happening.
Here was a new player in boxing, overbidding for a title fight even though it didn’t have rights to either of the boxers involved.
But that was beside the point.
The move was more about buzz, chatter, conjecture, word on the street, etc. than it was about providing a sound business model.
“It’s rare that a promoter can come out of the gate and announce that they exist and win a purse bid within the same day,” Itskowitch said in a phone interview with BoxingScene.com. “We understand that we don’t have any future rights for any of the fighters but this is our coming out party.”
It was an audacious and spectacular start to the firm and judging by the strategy used with the purse bid- may have provided a hint of the way the company will do business in the future.
“I think it delivered the message that we’re here,” Itskowitch said. “We’re serious. We mean business. We’re here to make an impact on the sport and we’re here to make an immediate impact.”
Yet, with no fighters under contract, no boxing staff to speak of with the exception of Itskowitch, a respected boxing insider, the company is already talking big, of changing the sport, of creating a new paradigm for how boxers are promoted and marketed.
Itskowitch, who formerly worked for Golden Boy and Lou DiBella, didn’t waste any time distinguishing Roc Nation Sports from everyone else.
“We’re not looking to become Golden Boy,” Itskowitch said. “We’re not looking to become Top Rank and have 70 to 80 fighters under contract. That’s not a goal. We’re following the model that Roc Nation Sports has used which is signing the right fighters and not necessarily 30, 40, 50.”
The objective is to turn boxers into celebrities through the company’s vast marketing arm while running a conventional promotional company.
“The model is that [we] want to be a traditional promoter in that [we] promote events, sign fighters to promotional agreements,” he said. “But it wouldn’t stop there. We would promote fighters 365 days a year. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to stop promoting when a guy steps out of the ring on Saturday night and we’re not going to start promoting when we announce a fight. Our fighters are going to be promoted all year.”
Of course, it’s easy to sell an athlete like Kevin Durant, the reigning MVP of the NBA, and a client of Roc Nation Sports, not so much a world champion in boxing, a sport that has traditionally struggled to bring about endorsement opportunities.
But Itskowitch expressed confidence in the company’s ability to market its athletes, with the plan to expose fighters to the same contacts that have allowed Durant and others to reap lucrative sponsorship deals.
“We want to brand, market and promote and publicize our fighters all year long,” Itskowitch went on. “No other promoters really do that. They promote their fighters when they fight and then that’s it.”
Itskowitch didn’t rule out pulling another stunt like the one he did in San Juan in the name of creating buzz, though “it hasn’t been discussed explicitly,” he said of ambushing another purse bid.
He expects to announce a date for the Quillin-Korobov fight perhaps next week, including a venue, which he said has already been locked down. Carl Moretti of Top Rank told Boxingscene the fight will land at Barclays Center Nov. 1.
“We’re working on it,” Itskowitch said of the pending announcement.
He also anticipates creating another media firestorm with the signing of the company’s first fighter.
“We’re in the process of talking to several [boxers],” he said, while declining to provide names.
He wouldn’t confirm or deny rumors he’s trying to recruit super bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, who’s no longer tied to Top Rank but is still working with Caribe Promotions.
“I don’t want to comment on any fighters that specifically we’re in negotiations with,” he said. “We haven’t set a deadline that we want to sign X amount of fighters by X date. I would say we’re probably looking at a matter of weeks before we announce our first signing.”
But he intends to make a splash with the initial signing, whomever that may be, since it’s essential that Roc Nation keep the momentum of its first few announcements going.
“We’re conscious of we’re kind of under the microscope and people will look at our first signing and they will look at our first signing a lot closer and harder than they would look at any other promoter’s first signing,” he said.
Itskowitch said he expects Jay Z to play a role in recruiting boxers to the agency.
“I expect he will be, absolutely,” he said of his involvement.
However a spokesman for Roc Nation Sports, Ron Berkowitz cautioned on how involved Jay Z will be, saying the strength of the company lies in the chain of command.
“The beauty of what Roc Nation and what Juan Perez [president of Roc Nation Sports] are building is that it’s not reliant on Jay,” Berkowitz said. “The company is not built around Jay Z. I mean, Jay is obviously involved in many decisions and discussions and certainly it helps people are going to talk because [it’s his name]. But the talent of the company with Juan Perez and Michael Yormark on the marketing and branding side and David and all these people- that’s really at the end of the day why people will come here because they get the job done.”
Itskowitch has not yet met with Jay Z, since the rapper has been on the road touring but he did meet him at a Broadway Boxing show back when he was still working for DiBella and walked away impressed.
“He’s a big boxing fan and he was a big part of the push to do this,” Itskowitch said of creating a boxing division at Roc Nation Sports. “He is, of everyone that was here before I got here- he was probably the most knowledgeable boxing person in the building.”
Itskowitch has already gotten licenses to promote in New York and Washington, DC and “we’re in the process of getting more licenses,” he said. “I don’t want to get into specific jurisdictions, but we’re in the process of getting additional licenses.”
Itskowitch provided details of what he intends to build with the boxing division. Rather than just cherry-pick established veterans with name recognition, he hopes to develop the company from the floor up, with a mixture of young and experienced boxers on the roster.
“If we’re going to have a successful promotional company you really need guys that are at every level of their career,” he said. “You need guys who have 0-10 fights, 10-20 fights, and guys that are established that are fighting on premium cable. Our intent is to sign guys from each of those groups. I know that’s how you build a company.”
“It’s not going to be 75-100 fighters,” he added. “It’s not going to be two or three either.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for The New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.