By Jake Donovan

From the moment they began pricing out the rest of the industry, cable giant HBO has been looked upon as the face of boxing.

They’ve reached a point where other networks don’t even try to outbid them, instead simply chasing after whatever fights in which little to no interest is expressed by HBO.

The result has been only one place to turn for the types of fights that are guaranteed to grab the headlines the next morning, while other networks offer – at best – mouthwatering matchups that appeal to the sport’s hardcore, but with little to no exposure beyond that.

That’s not to say that every fight on HBO is a big event. The network has caught more than its fair share of justified criticism for some terrible decision-making, be it blatant mismatches in the form of showcase bouts for its house fighters or grossly overpaying for certain fights just to ensure that no other network even threatens to express interest, never mind create a bidding war for a fighter’s services.

It’s also not to say that other networks aren’t capable of stepping up. Showtime has often received praise for its ability to make more with less, and on several occasions putting out a superior product to its premium cable rival.

HBO was involved in 2009’s Fight of the Year, the first time it could claim such honors in five years. Showtime played host to the best fight three times in a four-year stretch at one point, presenting the Fight of the Year in 2005 (Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo I), 2007 (Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez II) and 2008 (Vazquez-Marquez III). 

For the most part, though, the sport’s biggest events wind up on the self-proclaimed Network of Champions. It’s been more than a decade since Showtime has solely produced a pay-per-view event that landed among the year’s best sellers. Any other network that ventures into the PPV business does backflips any time it comes within sniffing distance of 100,000 buys, which isn’t very often at all.

But for all of the slack HBO catches for merely getting by on it having the deepest pockets in the sport, what would happen if one day they decided to turn off the faucet and left it up to everyone else to carry the torch?

In some ways, the industry has already begun to respond, though the early returns aren’t completely promising.

Networks like ESPN2, Telefutura, Telemundo and Fox Sports remain the sport’s equivalents of the minor leagues, only sporadically offering a major fight but for the most part remaining on the prospect or comeback level.

Rather than try to compete with HBO, those networks have actually scaled back on its boxing budgets. Telefutura in fact bowed out of the boxing business before returning earlier this year.

Showtime and the folks who run ESPN and its affiliates deserve credit for constantly trying to find ways to reinvent the wheel.

Showtime has made considerable investments in tournaments involving the super middleweight and now the bantamweight division, and also laid the foundation for the highly anticipated showdown between Juan Manuel Lopez and Rafael Marquez.

ESPN has expanded its boxing coverage, using online coverage on ESPN3.com to air fights live from overseas on Friday and Saturday, while following up with tape-delayed coverage either later in the evening, or some time the next day.

It was thanks to this new format that stateside boxing fans are still able to view the Klitschko brothers in some medium after HBO decided to stop showcasing their bouts. Lineal heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko hasn’t appeared live on a stateside network since his vacant World title win over Ruslan Chagaev more than a year ago on ESPN.

His title defense earlier this year against top American challenger Eddie Chambers was limited to whatever pirated weblinks could be unearthed and shared by folks on this side of the Atlantic, while last month’s rematch with Samuel Peter was carried live on ESPN3.com and aired the next day on their flagship station.

Vitali Klitschko saw his October 2008 comeback fight aired via tape-delay on Showtime, and appeared twice on HBO in 2009, but has experienced limited exposure in 2010. His upcoming bout with Shannon Briggs (October 16) will air in the same format as was the case for younger brother last month.

It will be a busy weekend for ESPN3.com, as the website will also air live the October 15 super middleweight bout between Lucian Bute and Jesse Brinkley. Beyond that, a stretch of showing bouts nearly every weekend in September has since thinned out a bit.

It was a refreshing alternative to what had been the case in past seasons, where none of the ESPN affiliates would actively show boxing from late August until early January, marking the end and beginning of its Friday Night Fights seasons.

While the system is ideal for bouts outside of the United States, what has to be asked is what level of fights would be shown if HBO decided to just stop showing boxing for an undetermined period of time?

Sadly, we may very well have our answer.

The last fight card to appear on HBO was its September 11 doubleheader, featuring Brandon Rios’ disqualification win over Anthony Peterson and Yuriorkis Gamboa’s points win over Orlando Salido.

They don’t return until November 6, airing a doubleheader from the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, marking the first of four straight weekends – and in fact five out of six weekends - in which the network or its PPV affiliate will be involved in boxing.

But while November and December are set, they left most of September and all of October on the table.

Sadly, nobody elected to step in and pick up the slack.

Showtime tried, with bouts lined up on three consecutive weekends in September and October. However, it’s September 18 card was postponed when Rafael Marquez injured himself and was forced to push back his bout with Juan Manuel Lopez.

September 25 and October 2 both were reserved for Super Six Group Stage Three bouts, but wound up going dark. No venue was ever secured for the contracted fight between Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell, and Carl Froch managed to raise a few eyebrows with news of a bad back pushing back plans for a highly anticipated showdown with Arthur Abraham.

Most of the rest of October is relatively quiet, save for a couple of cards on ESPN3.com next Friday and Saturday, a weekend that also includes an independent pay-per-view telecast headlined by undefeated rising star Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.

With an eight-week gap in between fights and expressing zero interest in filling up its calendar space during that stretch, there was an open market for the rest of the networks to step up.

They haven’t.

Without HBO around, it stands to reason that high-priced talent like Paul Williams and Chad Dawson aren’t given multi-million dollar fights without ever establishing themselves as bankable fighters.

It goes without saying that no other network in its right mind would present Andre Berto and Lou DiBella a check for $1.25 million for a tune-up fight in the opening leg of a televised tripleheader.

But the real question is if a market exists for such fighters should HBO go dark for longer than just stretches at a time. Would the price tags go down, or would the other networks be willing to spend a little more (or just enough) without fear of being outbid?

The argument has always been that if you give any other network HBO’s budget, they not only compete but put out a far superior product. But if that is the case, then why does the rest of the industry continue to follow HBO’s lead, even when it takes a break and gives everyone else a chance to catch up.

Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com and an award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Contact Jake at JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .