by David P. Greisman
One thing young writers are taught to steer clear of is including too much inside baseball in their stories. No one wants to know how the proverbial sausage is made. Too much process bogs down the narrative. It’s far more important to cover what has happened and then what that means.
Boxing articles occasionally require an exception to that rule.
So much of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the ring is because of what happens (or doesn’t happen) outside of it. Fighting itself is simple. It’s just two people in a ring trying to hit each other. But the sport of boxing is complicated, driven — sometimes into the ground — by machinations, negotiations, competition, contractual obligations, inclinations and injuries.
Some of that goes on behind the scenes. The rest is increasingly seen, with the business of boxing getting in the way of the sport. In recent years that has involved the battles between Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank, as well as the competition between networks HBO and Showtime. But the driving force in boxing these days is Al Haymon, whose influence has become incredibly outsized, whose roster of fighters continues to expand to around 200, and whose “Premier Boxing Champions” is on a number of networks.
He not only has an influence on those working with him. He also has an effect on those who don’t. And it is because of this that we tend to spend so much bandwidth on how the sausage is made.
The figurative process is similar to the literal one: It isn’t pretty.
Two weeks ago, Sergey Kovalev made short work of the mandatory challenger to one of his three world titles, Nadjib Mohammedi. Afterward, one potential name mentioned for Kovalev’s next fight was Artur Beterbiev, an accomplished amateur and two-time Olympian who turned pro in 2013 and has moved up in the light heavyweight ranks after nine wins in the paid ranks.
It was an intriguing pairing to ponder, especially if Kovalev-Betebiev were to be in their home country of Russia.
It seemed unlikely, though, given that Beterbiev is signed with Haymon and that a fight between Kovalev and another 175-pounder with Haymon, lineal champ Adonis Stevenson, has fallen apart on multiple occasions.
But then Beterbiev’s promoter, Yvon Michel — Al Haymon is ostensibly the adviser, though he is also likely the one whose sway means he has the most influence on decisions — came out and said a fight with Kovalev was possible, and that some of the obstacles that prevented Kovalev-Stevenson wouldn’t be present in this case.
I wrote two weeks ago that the making of Kovalev-Beterbiev depended on Haymon.
We now have a good idea of where he’s going.
He’s moving toward yet another showdown with Kovalev and his promoter, Main Events, putting pressure on the fighter and his team and seeking to call their bluff.
The previous showdown came earlier this year. Kovalev-Stevenson was originally on a path to happening from 2013 into 2014, when both men were on HBO. Stevenson soon signed with Haymon, sought more money for a fight with Andrzej Fonfara than the network was willing to pay, and instead jumped to the winning bidder in Showtime. Stevenson seemed more intent on facing Bernard Hopkins before Hopkins retired, though that never came to fruition. Main Events sued, dropping its case later in the year when Kovalev was able to get a fight with Hopkins instead.
Earlier this year, Main Events lobbied the World Boxing Council to do something sanctioning bodies typically don’t. It convinced the WBC to rate Kovalev, who has the three other major organizations’ world titles, in a position to be Stevenson’s mandatory challenger.
“We would either be able to force a unification or force to vacate,” said Main Events head Kathy Duva, speaking in hindsight last month with Anson Wainwright of RingTV.com.
The fight likely only could be made via purse bid, with the promoter who bids the most winning the right to put on the bout. Otherwise, it was doubtful that a deal would be made. Stevenson was either to be featured on PBC shows or on Showtime and within Haymon’s plans against his stable of light heavyweights, among others. Kovalev had been featured on HBO and was coming to the end of his contract. The network had matching rights for his next fight.
But then the purse bid got moved up, and Main Events pulled Kovalev out. It blamed the timing of the purse bid being changed, as well as economic factors.
Its bluff had been called.
When the purse bid was moved up to mid-April, Kovalev was not yet under a new contract. Main Events claimed that HBO’s right to make a matching offer for Kovalev’s next bout would potentially be messed up were another promoter to win the purse bid and want the fight on a different network. That was because Kovalev’s fight with Mohammedi hadn’t been announced yet, even though both were signed with Main Events and about a month had passed since Kovalev’s March win over Jean Pascal.
Main Events also said in a statement that it couldn't put in a proper bid now for Kovalev-Stevenson to be held later in the year given how economic conditions could change. But had the purse bid come later in the year, as originally planned, it’s possible that Main Events still would’ve pulled Kovalev out.
Kovalev would’ve still agreed to another deal with HBO. Main Events wouldn’t have wanted to upset a network that is working with them, particularly given how few slots there are for promoters on other channels. The terms of his new deal with HBO likely wouldn’t allow for Kovalev to appear elsewhere. And it was quite possible given Haymon’s deep pockets that Main Events would come out on the losing end of the purse bid.
All of that sausage there is to build to what we’re looking at now.
Kovalev-Beterbiev won’t be happening next. It might never happen at all. His team is positioning him to be in a purse bid for the title shot, rather than in free negotiations.
And if the move works, it could eventually leave Kovalev without one of his world titles.
Right after Kovalev beat Mohammedi, Michel told BoxingScene.com’s Rick Reeno that he wanted Main Events to make an “honest offer.”
“No strings attached, no options and first and last [rights] from the network. Except we will agree to a rematch clause, because there is no problem giving him a rematch after Beterbiev knocks him out. If we can do it that way, we will of course abandon the route of trying to get the mandatory position and take the challenge,” Michel said.
“There is no problem [with HBO]. Artur is in a different position than Stevenson. Stevenson is a champion, he has an association with a network in Showtime and wherever he is, he demands a big purse. Artur is challenger and he understands the position of being a challenger. And when a challenger has an opportunity to fight against the champion [he takes it]," he said.
“All we want is honest and fair offer, and we will also be honest because we know that Kovalev is the champion and has three belts. We are not going to ask for the moon. It’s a fight we want to have. It’s a fight that Artur Beterbiev has wanted since he did his first pro fight and he’s ready any time to do it.”
Main Events made an offer — $500,000, plus 25 percent of pay-per-view and closed-circuit revenue in Canada, where Beterbiev now lives, according to Dan Rafael of ESPN.com. Michel declined, and according to Duva didn’t even make a counterproposal. Michel said they would opt instead for Beterbiev to fight in a title eliminator for one of the sanctioning bodies for the right to challenge Kovalev, a deal they felt would make them all more money later.
It’s possible that’s true. It’s also possible that Beterbiev and his team want another bout’s worth of experience before facing Kovalev.
“We will of course abandon the route of trying to get the mandatory position and take the challenge,” Michel had said initially. “Artur is challenger and he understands the position of being a challenger. And when a challenger has an opportunity to fight against the champion [he takes it]."
But Beterbiev may end up being able to win a world title without ever facing Kovalev or appearing on a network not affiliated with Haymon.
Beterbiev is ranked No. 2 by the IBF. There is no one at No. 1 now that Mohammedi has lost to Kovalev. The next people in the rankings are Bernard Hopkins at No. 3, Erik Skoglund at No. 4, Isaac Chilemba at No. 5, and Fonfara (another Haymon fighter) at No. 6.
Rafael reported that Hopkins, who wants to retire after one more fight, didn’t tell the IBF that he’s interested in the elimination bout. “Skoglund is not available as he has another fight scheduled for Sept. 19,” Rafael wrote.
We’ll know by tomorrow (Aug. 11) whether Chilemba, who’s also with Main Events, will take the fight. Chilemba also is ranked No. 1 by the WBC, whose title is held by Stevenson. He is followed by three Haymon light heavyweights: Fonfara, Eleider Alvarez and Beterbiev. Chilemba isn’t a star in the U.S., nor is he regularly featured by HBO. He could reasonably face one of Haymon’s fighters on another network, though Main Events has been lining him and its other 175-pounders up as potential foes for Kovalev.
No matter who Beterbiev faces, a win will make him mandatory to Kovalev and could lead to a purse bid. Main Events would once again be in the position of needing to bid high to win the right to put the fight on, or face the possibility of ditching one of Kovalev’s titles given his contractual obligations to HBO. And given that Kovalev wants to hold onto his belts, that’s a difficult position for his team to be in.
Kovalev also has the WBA and WBO belts. The WBA’s ratings, which were last updated July 8, have a vacancy at No. 1, Mohammedi at No. 2 (soon to drop), Fonfara at No. 3 and Beterbiev at No. 4. But Kovalev is the WBA’s “super champion,” thanks to his being unified with other world titles. The “regular champion” — boxing, as always, is sausage — is Juergen Braehmer, whose next mandatory will be the winner of the Aug. 23 fight between No. 7 Stanyslav Kashtanov and No. 8 Felix Valera. Kovalev could be mandated to face Braehmer or whoever the “regular champion” is at some point in the future.
The WBO has Dominic Boesel at No. 1, followed by Chilemba, Beterbiev, Mohammedi and Fonfara. Its ratings were last updated July 14, so Mohammedi is likely to be dropped lower.
All of this will feed into the decisions to be made this week and over the next several months. But if this is going where it appears to be going, then it seems as if Main Events and Haymon will continue to try to out-maneuver each other, all while their star fighters never end up actually facing each other.
The 10 Count will return soon.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]