Mark Taffet has a wall full of college degrees.
Not to mention a resume that’s surely the envy of reunion classmates from his days at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
But to hear him tell it, the former head of HBO PPV began scaling a professional mountain that yielded roles in some of boxing’s biggest fights as just a kindergartener tagging along with his old man.
“As a kid I early on loved sports and loved history and thought a lot about how I could grow up and be a part of some sports history as an adult,” Taffet told BoxingScene.com. “My dad worked in restaurants, which meant I saw him on Mondays since he worked long hours the other six days of the week. Thus, in order to be with my dad, I had to go to work with him on weekends, holidays and during summer breaks.
“Even as young as 5 years old, I worked in restaurant kitchens and food prep rooms with men and women of dozens of ethnicities and nationalities. I learned to listen to them, speak to them, and develop a rapport that made the work more enjoyable. It was those experiences with people from all over the world that gave me my foundation to deal with boxers and their teams the world over.
“It also enabled me to understand and deal with promoters from all different backgrounds, personalities and styles and find the common thread that connected them all.”
Taffet got to HBO shortly after earning a master’s from Wharton and spent seven years in the finance department helping establish sound growth strategies across myriad divisions. His business acumen finally crossed into the company’s relationship with the sweet science in the early 1990s and changed its trajectory when he recommended launching a pay-per-view service.
Then known as TVKO, the new enterprise went live with the heavyweight title match between Evander Holyfield and George Foreman in April 1991 – generating 1.4 million buys at $35.95 apiece.
Fueled by that success, Taffet wound up spending better than 30 years at HBO before leaving in December 2015 and ultimately graduating to current roles both as president of his own media company and co-manager of unbeaten dual-gold medalist and three-division pro champ Claressa Shields.
“I had an empathy and understanding for the boxers, their often-difficult upbringings and backgrounds, their journeys through life and through boxing,” Taffet said. “With the boxers, trainers and promoters, I was able to connect with them, communicate with them, and develop a trust just like I did as a 5-year-old kid. Those experiences with my dad in those restaurants was even more important to my success as a boxing executive than was my education at Wharton or my experience at HBO.
“Because boxing brought me back to my roots as a kid and my experiences with my dad, it became a true and lifelong passion of mine to this day.”
And what better way to maintain the connection than with a Hall of Fame induction?
Taffet is on the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s ballot as an observer and will find out in December if he’ll be part of the Class of 2023 that’ll be inducted in Canastota next June. He sat down with Boxing Scene to discuss his boxing roots, his days at HBO and his transition to work with Shields, who recently took part in a women’s blockbuster with Savannah Marshall at the O2 Arena in London.
BoxingScene: You had a particular connection with your dad. Can you give me a little more detail on that? What is your first memory of boxing and how was he, or any other family member, involved?
Mark Taffet: My dad was the greatest sports fan I ever met. Genetically and experientially, I got my love of sports from him. He loved the baseball Yankees, football Giants and basketball Knicks. When we used to go to Yankees games in the early 1960s, he used to point out the massive forearms of Mickey Mantle in the on-deck circle. When we played football catch in the yard and I made a great long throw, he used to pretend he caught the pass from Y.A. Tittle. And when I made a hook shot, he covered it with a call as if I was Willis Reed.
My dad loved big-time boxing, particularly Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. We used to watch Ali’s fights on ABC Wide World of Sports when Howard Cosell was the announcer, and my dad talked to me in his best Howard Cosell voice when we watched the fights. Because of my dad, I loved watching big fights and calling them in my own Howard Cosell voice. To this day, I still think about that every time I watch a fight. When I started HBO PPV in 1991, no one in the world was more proud than my dad. He sat at the very first fight of mine – Holyfield vs. Foreman in Atlantic City – like it was his birthday party. When I was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, no one in the room had a bigger smile than my dad. My greatest joy in sports was seeing him beam with pride during some of my more important moments.
BoxingScene: Who was your first favorite? The guy you couldn’t wait to watch or read about or whatever?
Taffet: As a kid, I loved watching the heavyweights. I loved Liston, Shavers, Norton, Quarry, Bonavena, Frazier, Foreman, even Jersey’s own Chuck Wepner. But the one that made me stop everything I was doing so I could watch -- that was Muhammad Ali. I loved the aura of Ali, his unique entertaining style inside the ring, and his huge larger-than-life personality outside the ring. I was amazed how it seemed like the world stopped and closed on the days he fought. It made an indelible impression on me – something I thought a lot about when starting HBO PPV in 1991 and during the promotions of many of the big HBO PPV events. Ali jumped through that TV screen during interviews, during fights, and in those memorable times with Cosell. In the 1990s and 2000s at HBO PPV, I often wondered how many PPV buys Muhammad Ali would have done if the technology was around in his day. I’m sure he would have set every record.
BoxingScene: Did you try the ring at all yourself, and if so when did you realize you wouldn’t be a world champ?
Taffet: As a kid I dreamed a lot about being a professional baseball or basketball player. I emulated so many Mets and Knicks when I was a kid, I slept with a radio under my pillow to listen to games while my parents thought I was asleep. But I have to say, while I never backed down from a fight on the basketball or football field, the few times I did get hit in the face with a punch quickly deterred me from wanting to be a professional boxer. I loved watching boxing, I loved the drama of the walkout, the ring announcer introductions, the deafening sound of fans in the arena, the mano-a-mano nature of the sport – true competition at its most fundamental core. But I knew my place was on the outside of the ring, not on the inside.
BoxingScene: Would you label yourself a TV guy who ultimately got involved with boxing, or a boxing guy who found himself involved in TV?
Taffet: More than a boxing guy or a TV guy, I am a people guy. All of my life-defining experiences involved environments where understanding and communicating well with people was at the core of skills for success. I love people, I love the cultural and experiential differences of people, and love to learn about customs, cultures and backgrounds of people the world over. I was a sports kid who grew up to be a sports guy, so having the opportunity to work in boxing was a dream come true.
When I got to the evaluation of HBO Sports, while the company was very successful in its monthly World Championship Boxing fights, I discovered that in six cities in America fights were being sold via microwave dish antennas on people’s rooftops and more money was being generated in those six cities than HBO was paying for national rights to fights. It became clear to me that if HBO didn’t get into the business which we labeled “pay-per-view,” it would lose its boxing franchise as microwave dish antennas spread from six to 60 to 200 cities. I recommended launching a pay-per-view boxing service, it got approved by the HBO and Time Warner boards, and they asked me to run it since it was a very different business than HBO was used to. I will never forget that day – the day that changed my professional life forever, and my broader life forever. I dove in, and never looked back. We launched to massive success with Holyfield vs. Foreman on April 19, 1991, and the rest, as they say, was history. So, if I had not been at a television company – HBO – I probably would never have gotten into the boxing business.
BoxingScene: Most fans have little to no idea of how a fight is constructed. Can you shed a little light on the process of one of the giant ones you worked on? What is the first domino that gets pushed over and what are the key moments in the process that allow a fight to get made and get on TV?
Taffet: I was fortunate to work on so many big and historic fights during my 25 years at HBO PPV – fights involving Holyfield, Foreman, Lewis, Tyson, Bowe as heavyweights; De La Hoya, Mayweather, Trinidad, Mosley, Vargas, Cotto at or around welterweight; Pacquiao, Marquez, Barrera, Morales at their common weights and Pacquiao as he marched through so many weight classes toward Mayweather and De La Hoya; Hopkins, Jones and Calzaghe at or around middleweight; Canelo, Golovkin and Ward in the later years of my HBO career. One-hundred ninety PPV fights in total. But the one which I found the most fascinating to make was Lewis vs. Tyson in 2002 because that had a huge new obstacle never before seen – the need to find a deal which would enable the two boxing powerhouses HBO and Showtime to work together to bring the fans the fight they wanted.
I will let you in on a little tidbit – I never doubted my ability to find common ground between the two networks. That was my strength, and I relished the challenge. I knew we could overcome the exclusive contracts, the egos involved in the production issues, even the branding requirements of the two networks. I knew that if Lewis vs. Tyson was to get made, it would be because the fighters and the fans wanted the fight so badly that it would have been a colossal failure if the fight was not made. So, in the case of Lewis vs. Tyson, the first domino was the most important domino. Lennox Lewis came to us and eloquently explained that he devoted his career to HBO, realized all of his successes on HBO and to the benefit of HBO and its subscribers, yet he was unfulfilled as an athlete in his quest to be one of the best heavyweights ever because he had not gotten to fight Riddick Bowe or Mike Tyson – two of the heavyweight greats of that era along with Lennox and Evander Holyfield.
When Lennox said that I communicated it to Jeff Bewkes and Jeff said we had to help Lennox fulfill his destiny or we would not be living up to the standards of HBO. Jeff simply asked that the economic deal make sense in light of the fact that the two networks would be working together with each losing its “exclusivity.” So, my colleagues and I found a deal structure which fulfilled Jeff’s objectives and allowed Lennox to realize his destiny. The rest was history. Yes, there were many long days of arguments, negotiations and compromises, but we had our mantra and our mission and were not going to fail.
BoxingScene: Your resume speaks for itself in terms of the biggest events. Lewis-Tyson, DLH-Mayweather, Mayweather-Pacquiao. How satisfying is it to look back at that? How would you describe your roles in getting those ones made? And how close did any or all of them come to not getting done?
Taffet: When I wrote the business plan for HBO PPV, I knew we were going to make history and transform the economics of the sport forever. I knew we were going to create a path to encourage big fights to get made. I will admit, however, that while I knew it would be big, I did not imagine we would someday generate more revenue in a single day than the Super Bowl or the opening weekend of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history. Those numbers weren’t even on my spreadsheets.
Once the Holyfield vs. Foreman fight broke all previous financial records in just our first fight, I developed an almost insatiable drive to put together the biggest fights possible. I loved the challenge, and I thrived on the difficulties and nuances of the negotiation process with the big promoters, venues, fighters and distributors. I worked hard to develop the trust and confidence not only of HBO/Time Warner, but as if not more importantly the confidence of the promoters who controlled the contracts with the biggest fighters so they knew they would be treated fairly, with integrity, and with excellence to maximize the value of their fighters and fights on the biggest stage in the world.
I spent endless days, nights, weekends and holidays on the phone or in person with Bob Arum, Don King, Dan and then Kathy Duva, Richard Schaefer, Oscar De La Hoya, Al Haymon, the heads of the major casino and sports venues, and the heads of the cable, satellite and telco companies – all of whose participation was necessary to ensure a regular flow of the biggest fights. I made a lot of personal sacrifices along the way, but my wife gave me the love and support I needed to stay the course. I am very proud of the consistent flow of big fights which we delivered at HBO PPV from 1991-2015, and I am even prouder of the fact that other than the De La Hoya-Trinidad rematch virtually no fight of historical importance didn’t get made during most of those years.
Of course, many of the 190 big fights on HBO PPV in those years could have fallen by the wayside at many moments during negotiations, but I tried to have a stick-tuitiveness – one of my favorite Don King words – to see them to the finish line.
BoxingScene: What were the circumstances that led to you to separate from HBO? And how sad is it, if at all, that the “Network of Champions” is no longer involved with the sport?
Taffet: I worked very long and hard for 25 years at HBO Sports. I got to see and be a part of a lot of boxing history. It was a dream come true. But as I began to see management’s interest in boxing begin to wane amidst some new regimes and philosophies, and with my own passion not diminished, I realized that everything in life and work has its time and place, and it was time for me to think about a new chapter. I was sad to leave, because I had grown up professionally at HBO and knew I would never again experience a journey like that special one.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that amidst today’s splintering of promoters and networks which has made it difficult to deliver a steady flow of the biggest and best fights, I didn’t wish that one morning I would wake up and see that HBO was back in boxing. But HBO’s era in boxing was one for the ages, built on the backs and abilities of some of the best boxing minds in history. Its time and place in boxing are behind us, and the challenge will be for someone to rise to the levels reached by HBO and all of the promoters, fighters and executives that made it happen.
BoxingScene: You speak glowingly of your relationship with Claressa. What do you think is so unique about her? And what do you think her legacy will ultimately be when she’s done with combat sports life? On what level will she be considered?
Taffet: If anyone would have told me that after the history I was a part of for 25 years at HBO, I would have another chapter in my career which would be equally meaningful, historic and game-changing, I would have said they were crazy. But in 2016 I met a young woman named Claressa Shields who had just won her second Olympic gold medal in boxing for the United States and was deciding whether to turn pro or continue her Olympic history through 2020.
After spending many hours with Claressa on the phone, in person and in the gym, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. This young lady had immense skills, never before seen from a woman in the sport. She had a back story that was as shocking as her skills, having overcome impossible obstacles to not only survive but to thrive. I immediately saw that her in-ring skills were like Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones, and her out-of-ring impact could be like Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali. I couldn’t believe that Claressa had a level of wisdom only associated with hundreds of years of spirits and experiences, yet she was just in her early 20s.
I had spent my whole career doing great commerce, and now I had the chance to do something so much bigger for Claressa Shields the woman and boxer, for women’s boxing, for women’s sports, and for those who are less fortunate and need a role model to show them that anything is possible. Sometimes I cry when I think about where she came from and who she has become. And I pinch myself that I have been so fortunate to be a part of her journey and to be able to plan and execute the journey with her as she changes the game and the world forever. As much as I was able to do at HBO PPV, when all is said and done it may be that the work with Claressa Shields and women’s boxing will be the proudest and most impactful of my career.
Claressa has the shoulder of Charles Atlas, the wisdom of generations of spirits, the fortitude of the biggest social changers I have ever seen, and God-given abilities like no one before or after her in women’s boxing. There’s a reason MGM Studios is releasing a theatrical film on her life in 2023 and she’s just getting started. Because of Claressa Shields, I can now say I have been part of the biggest men’s fight in history – Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, 2015 – and the biggest women’s fight in history, Shields vs. Marshall, 2022. I can’t thank Claressa enough for the opportunity.
BoxingScene: I’m guessing having the words “Hall of Famer” associated with your name would be a perpetually knee-buckling experience. How did it come about that you made it onto the ballot this time? How did you find out? And if you can imagine getting the call that you’ve made it, what have you envisioned your initial reaction to be?
Taffet: One of my dearest friends in boxing is Dan Rafael. Dan and I have the same passion for the sport, the same insatiable thirst to make an impact and be a part of history, and that drive for excellence at all times. When I left HBO Dan called and said he’d like to write the definitive story on my work at HBO, and I was honored. I remember the first time Dan walked into a boxing press room at Madison Square Garden, and it didn’t take long to see he had the ingenuity and integrity to be great at his chosen field. So, when Dan called me to tell me I was on the ballot for the 2023 class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, there’s no one else I would have wanted to get that call from.
I’m proud to be nominated and included on the ballot – that in and of itself is the greatest satisfaction from me. I’m thrilled to be there because it reflects the feelings of so many of my peers and colleagues in the sport today and over the years, and the IBHOF is a place I hold in the highest regard. My only regret is that my dad isn’t here to share this nomination with me, as he would have been the happiest and proudest dad on the planet, and I would have been honored to bring him those feelings. If I am fortunate enough to be elected to the IBHOF in 2023 or in any year in the future, I know my reaction would be to look up at the heavens, smile and wave to my dad, and shed a tear that he wasn’t there for me to hug. It would be the greatest honor to be elected to the Hall, but I don’t know if I’m up to those emotions should the day come true.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF flyweight title – Sheffield, United Kingdom
Sunny Edwards (champion/No. 2 IWBR) vs. Felix Alvarado (No. 3 WBO/Unranked IWBR)
Edwards (18-0, 4 KO): Third title defense; First fight in Sheffield
Alvarado (38-2, 33 KO): Fifth title fight (2-2); Held IBF title at 108 pounds (2018-19, one defense)
Fitzbitz says: The challenger has a pedigree at 108 and has spent much of his career at 112, but his wins at the higher weight haven’t been so meaningful. Edwards is too skilled. Edwards by decision (85/15)
WBO middleweight title – Las Vegas, Nevada
Janibek Alimkhanuly (champion/No. 9 IWBR) vs. Denzel Bentley (No. 14 WBO/No. 62 IWBR)
Alimkhanuly (12-0, 8 KO): First title defense; Four KOs in four fights in Las Vegas (20 total rounds)
Bentley (17-1-1, 14 KO): First title fight; First fight outside the United Kingdom
Fitzbitz says: No one ought to suggest Alimkhanuly is the best fighter at 160, but he’s stopped two former second-tier champions and ought to grind down a second-tier foe here. Alimkhanuly in 8 (90/10)
Last week's picks: 2-2 (WIN: Teraji, Rakhimov; LOSS: Iwata, Ramirez)
2022 picks record: 33-14 (70.2 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,242-406 (75.4 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.