By Ronan Keenan
Photo by Ed Mulholland/FightWireImages
William Wordsworth once said to a friend, “I must apologise. If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.”
On the February 17th, HBO may find themselves in the same predicament.
In 2006 the broadcaster re-launched the previously successful Boxing After Dark series, but the quality of recent matchups has been subject to intense criticism from observers who remember the show that instigated legends like Arturo Gatti and Marco Antonio Barrera.
“I remember when Boxing After Dark debuted about ten years ago,” boxing writer Ted Bodenrader told BoxingScene. “The first bout was Barrera-Kennedy McKinney, which turned out to be one of the most entertaining slugfests of the decade.
“Then after the David Tua-David Izon war, it certainly found its niche. It seemed to be catered for the hard-core boxing fans.”
But last year B.A.D. lost its reputation as the home of competitive fights between talented prospects. Several main events involved fighters years past their peak such as Sharmba Mitchell and Stevie Johnston and those who’ll never have a notable peak like Timor Ibragimov and Jimrex Jaca.
It used to be a prerequisite that B.A.D. fighters were either highly-touted prospects or respected contenders near the top of their game. Unfortunately, such qualifications were scrapped in 2006.
“From the outset of the show's re-launch, when HBO chose to air Andre Ward's fight against Andy Kolle, it was clear that the network hadn't yet learned that their slogan – ‘building legends one round at a time’ – shouldn't apply to Boxing After Dark,” said BoxingScene’s David Greisman.
“The superstars who once called B.A.D. their home achieved recognition through the old-fashioned definition of super fights. For guys like Gatti and Barrera, fame came from taking chances and putting it all out on the line, not from beating down an aged Sharmba Mitchell.”
Still, the current state of B.A.D. is probably a reflection of boxing as a whole. When the series was at its zenith in the 1990s, superstars such as Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed occupied the upper echelon of HBO programming. This situation resulted in ultra-talented lesser known fighters slugging it out against each other on B.A.D. telecasts in desperate attempt to secure an appearance on HBO’s flagship show World Championship Boxing.
But today the number of stars has diminished and the number of vacancies at the top seems to have increased to the point where boxing fans would give their right arms to see past B.A.D. fights like Barrera-McKinney or Azumah Nelson-Jesse James Leija headline World Championship Boxing.
“Currently, once you get past Floyd Mayweather and Jermain Taylor, you're wearing very thin on superstars,” said Bodenrader. “I think many of the casual fans are no longer watching, since guys like Oscar, Roy and Shane are on their way out.
“The hardcore fans still need to be appeased. Boxing After Dark may be the perfect remedy to inject a little life back into the sport. That's why I think putting on the most riveting matchups is key here.”
This Saturday HBO will be breaking new ground in featuring three ten round fights for the first time ever on B.A.D. While the premise seems promising, two key characteristics of this weekend’s bouts are unclear: a) are the featured fighters capable of becoming superstars and b) are the bouts actually competitive?
In their uncertainty, HBO may be replicating Wordsworth’s letter by simply delivering quantity over quality.
Nonetheless, the promoter of the event, Lou DiBella isn’t complaining.
“To take three of my fighters (Paulie Malignaggi, Sechew Powell and Andre Berto) and graduate them to B.A.D. is a privilege,” he said.
“This is unprecedented to have a B.A.D. tripleheader. These three special talents will have their hands full on a card of great significance.”
But has DiBella’s card really earned the honor of an HBO date?
The headline bout sees New Yorker Malignaggi, 21-1 (5) in his first outing since a bruising loss to Miguel Cotto when he squares off against Edner Cherry, 21-4-2 (10).
The 26-year-old Malignaggi is by no means about to break into superstardom and his ability as a fighter is still ambiguous. His claim to fame is a points loss against Cotto last June, and while he showed admirable heart in absorbing a sustained beating, the fight was relatively one-sided.
The brash Italian-American is a well-schooled fighter with smooth boxing skills, but his style isn’t made for excitement and knockouts don’t usually follow him around.
Still, his extroverted personality and heritage have garnered him attention on the East Coast, enabling him to get opportunities at the big time despite not having a single significant victory. His most impressive win came via technical decision in 2004 against Sandro Casamonica – a fighter I saw getting stopped by Britain’s Billy Schwer in 1999 and then again three years later when he was sparked inside three rounds by the mediocre Jason Cook.
While Cherry hasn’t received the same levels of attention as Malignaggi, he outdoes the Brooklynite when it comes to excitement. ‘Cherry Bomb’ has been in numerous wars recently, but does a fighter who was in a life-and-death struggle with Daniel Alicea really deserve to be in a B.A.D main event?
Even Malignaggi seems to be having trouble believing this matchup is on such a lofty platform.
“On Feb. 17, I may be fighting ESPN’s fighter of the year,” he said. “But we are on HBO, so the stage is much bigger.”
Malignaggi isn’t alone in questioning Cherry’s stature.
“This fight should be on ESPN2,” sports writer Calvin Watkins told BoxingScene. “Cherry is a decent fighter, but not HBO quality. If Malignaggi is any good he should blow him away easily.”
But not everyone believes the bout will be so one-sided.
“Malignaggi is a boxer seeking to rebound from the Miguel Cotto beatdown, but Edner Cherry is a puncher who looks to dish out punishment with every landed blow,” said Greisman.
Still, even if the main event proves to be a washout, fans may get their money’s worth in the form of Sechew Powell’s intriguing clash with Ishe Smith. Both men have shown genuine potential in their careers and while neither is likely to be remembered as a legend, that doesn’t mean they can’t put on a great fight.
“Now that’s a proper contest,” Watkins said. “I like Smith, he can really fight and Powell is good too. Both guys have only lost once in their careers and this could be a real tough fight.”
The third bout on the telecast was originally intended to be a legitimate crossroads meeting between highly-touted prospect Andre Berto and the gristly Ben Tackie. However, the Ghanaian’s late withdrawal has resulted in Berto being fed Norberto Bravo of The Contender fame.
While Berto, 16-0 (14), has been tearing his way towards the big stage, Bravo, 23-12-3 (12), appears to be at the tail-end of a tough career, having apparently suffered from a bad dose of stage-fright in his last Contender bout with Cornelius Bundrage. Most pundits view the fight as a pure mismatch.
“No doubt about it,” agreed Watkins. “Bravo doesn’t have a chance on Saturday. That should be an early night for Berto.”
Even though two of the three B.A.D. fights appear to be blowouts from the start, the card may provide a valuable glimpse at some of boxing’s brightest talent.
“Sure, some of the fighters – Berto, Smith and Malignaggi – could have bright futures,” said Watkins. “But why is a showcase card on a premier outlet like HBO? What do these fights mean? There’s not even a title at stake.
“HBO should scrap Boxing After Dark altogether and use the money to put on real meaningful fights. Coming up there is an HBO card featuring Wladimir Klitschko and Shannon Briggs in separate fights against unknown opposition in Ray Austin and Sultan Ibragimov. Why doesn’t HBO just spend their money on one fight – Klitschko versus Briggs in a unification bout?”
But is quality always better than quantity?
“Three fights on one card is a real treat,” countered Greisman. “As so many of today's top stars are either close to retirement or are generally only seen on pay-per-view, this weekend’s B.A.D. needs three good fights.
“The winners are essentially guaranteed to appear on the network again. But if HBO is both lucky and smart, the losers will also earn a return to television.”
What does this say about the Boxing After Dark series? Is it supposed to be a vehicle for showing-off the sports up-and-coming contenders or should it be a home for the best matchups that aren’t quite million dollar standard?
Ross Greenburg, President of HBO Sports, gave a decidedly vague explanation when he described Boxing After Dark as a medium for “creating and nurturing stars.”
With such ambiguity surrounding the sport, one thing is for certain; Saturday’s triple-header must somehow deliver competitive fights. Unfortunately, the likelihood is we’ll be left with fight reports that even Wordsworth couldn’t flesh out.
Ronan Keenan can be contacted at: email@example.com