By Jake Donovan
Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez enjoyed a triumphant return to HBO in every conceivable way. The 24-year old former 154 lb. titlist registered what presently serves as the leading contender for Knockout of the Year after flattening James Kirkland in the third round of their May 9 meet at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.
The bout was Alvarez' first fight back on HBO following a nearly three-year hiatus. Absence truly made the heart grow fonder among HBO subscribers, as the live main event drew a staggering 2.146 million viewers, peaking at just under 2.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
With the moster ratings pull, Alvarez-Kirkland becomes the most-watched cable fight of 2015, a mark established just two weeks ago with HBO's April 25 event topped by Wladimir Klitschko's 12-round win over Bryant Jennings.
The May 9 event is also the best performing boxing event on cable TV since June '06, when an exclusive rebroadcast of Bernard Hopkins' career-resurrecting win over Antonio Tarver drew more than 2.4 million viewers. The Hopkins-Tarver replay accompanied a live broadcast of Jermain Taylor and Winky Wright fighting to a draw in their middleweight championship bout in Memphis.
Those who either tuned in or attended were treated to a bout targeted by many as one to help remove the bad taste left behind from the May 2 PPV event, where Floyd Mayweather scored a 12-round win over Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The May 2 event will go down as by far the most lucrative in boxing history, but was mishandled every step of the way from tickets being withheld until a week before the fight, to the disorganization of media assignments to the event itself being anything but "all about the fans" as its handlers insisted was the case from the moment the fight was signed in late February.
What took place in Vegas simply couldn't remain in Vegas given the impact the event had on the sport. Still, fans hoping for a good old-fashioned brawl last weekend were given just that, as well as confirmation that Alvarez - still two months shy of 25 - has a very bright future ahead.
Kirkland's only chance in just about any given fight is to inflict as much harm as possible on his opponent. The southpaw slugger never had a chance to get going, as Alvarez was merciless in his attack. Three knockdowns came of the night, one in the opening round and two more in a decisive third round closed out by an overhand right that put Kirkland flat on his back.
The win was Alvarez' third straight, and his first HBO-affiliated fight since a May '12 win over Shane Mosley in a bout that aired on HBO PPV.
Originally slated as a televised tripleheader, Alvarez-Kirkland wound up as the only live fight of the evening. The brutal slugfest was supported by HBO's first-run replay of Mayweather-Pacquiao. A junior welterweight battle between Frankie Gomez and Humberto Soto was to serve as the live lead-in. The fight was scrapped when Gomez showed up well beyond the contracted 141 lb. limit, not even coming close to make the modified limit of 145 lbs. during Friday's weigh-in.
It simply meant more of the spotlight focused on Alvarez, who has clearly established himself as the future of the sport in and out of the ring. The May 9 event drew more than 31,000 fans into Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. His strong showing in the ring and at the box office continues to demonstrate his drawing power in Texas. The superstar from Mexico brought in 40,000 fans to the Alamodome in San Antonio for his April '13 win over Austin Trout in a battle of then-unbeaten junior middleweight titlists.
The showdown with Trout was his last non-PPV appearance, and also his second straight headliner on Showtime. His network debut came seven months prior, a 5th round knockout win of Josesito Lopez on a night that saw Alvarez and Showtime go head-to-head with HBO's PPV offering of Sergio Martinez' off-the-canvas win over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., with both events taking place in Las Vegas.
The night was symbolic of the bad blood brewing not only between rival networks, but the lengthy Cold War at the time between Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer and Top Rank founder/Hall-of-Fame promoter Bob Arum. HBO and Golden Boy were slowly on the outs, with Schaefer and powerful boxing adviser Al Haymon slowly transitioning all of its clients from HBO - with whom they previously enjoyed a lengthy output deal - to Showtime.
Alvarez is not advised by Haymon, but was among the first major fighters from Golden Boy to switch networks. His wins over Lopez and Trout both drew well over 1 million viewers, landing among the most viewed bouts on Showtime since 2004, when Nielsen began tracking data on Showtime's flagship network separate from its affiliate channels.
The move to Showtime also included a Sept. '13 showdown with Mayweather, which - until May 2 - generated more money than any event in boxing history. Mayweather-Alvarez surpassed the live gate and PPV revenue generated by Mayweather's May '07 win over Oscar de la Hoya, although the night also resulted in the lone loss of Alvarez' career.
His lone two fights of 2014 were also staged on PPV, scoring wins over Alfredo Angulo and Erislandy Lara. The events served their purpose, faring better than the break-even point, but minimzing the audience Alvarez had developed in years past leading up to his clash with Mayweather.
Upon Golden Boy's implosion and Schaefer's forced resignation, Alvarez and Golden Boy founder Oscar de la Hoya made the command decision to return to HBO, where he was being groomed as the sport's next big star beginning with his HBO Latino debut in 2010.
Alvarez' lone three appearances on HBO's flagship station all came in 2011, beginning with a March '11 win over Matthew Hatton, whose brother Ricky was a former two-division champ and among the most famous fighters in England's rich boxing history. The bout netted Alvarez a title at junior middleweight, although he came in above the contracted catchweight limit. It hardly mattered with the home audience, as the bout registered just shy of 1.4 million viewers.
Three months later, Alvarez scored a stoppage win over England's Ryan Rhodes. The first defense of his 154 lb. title was also his most watched non-PPV headliner, with 1.55 million viewers taking in the summer scrap.
A knockout win over Alfonso Gomez served as a co-headliner of a Sept. '11 split-site PPV broadcast topped by Mayweather's 4th round knockout of Victor Ortiz. Despite the majority of attention and focus on Mayweather and the Las Vegas portion of the event, Alvarez carried enough star power to where he could serve as the headliner at Staples Center, drawing more than 9,000 fans in attendance for his portion of the show.
The bout was Alvarez' only PPV appearance of 2011, which ended with a Nov. '11 stoppage win over former welterweight titlist Kermit Cintron. Nearly 1.47 million viewers tuned in for what was the final card of Golden Boy's output deal with HBO, and also Alvarez' last live network appearance prior to his return on May 9.
As the ratings indicate, he is most certainly back in a very big way.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox