On September 29, 2007, undefeated middleweight champion Jermain Taylor and undefeated challenger Kelly Pavlik battled in a memorable slugfest at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Although Taylor, from Little Rock, Arkansas, was the champion, promoters Lou DiBella (Taylor) and Bob Arum (Pavlik) chose to stage the fight in Atlantic City, a historically strong fight town also accessible to Pavlik’s devoted Youngstown, Ohio fan base. And to help fuel interest, they put together one of the more inspired, eye-catching fight posters you will see.
The resulting fight, aired on HBO World Championship Boxing, was a middleweight clash for the ages, with Pavlik down and nearly out early only to roar back with a thrilling come-from-behind knockout victory to secure the title. As I can attest from being in attendance, the raucous crowd had a tangible impact on the electric atmosphere that night. It’s unlikely they made much impact on Pavlik’s mid-fight resurrection, but they certainly made the night more memorable.
When the dust settled, Pavlik was a new star and Taylor, despite the loss, actually improved his standing amongst fight fans after yawn-inducing performances against Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks in previous bouts. A great fight was staged, a new champion was crowned, and the fans were entertained and uplifted. Everybody left the arena satisfied.
This Saturday, January 29, two more undefeated Americans will square off for divisional supremacy, as Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander battle to see who the best 140-pound fighter in the world (Amir Khan notwithstanding; he will very likely have his opportunity to face the victor later this year to establish the undisputed champion of the division). It is the most anticipated, important, high-level fight between two undefeated Americans since Pavlik-Taylor I; unfortunately, it has been treated by its promoters like it’s just another fight.
Instead of capitalizing on Alexander’s popularity in St. Louis (where fans are so dedicated they long supported the boxing equivalent of a John Tesh album, the aforementioned Spinks) by holding the fight somewhere accessible to his many supporters, Alexander promoter Don King and Bradley promoter Gary Shaw reached an agreement to stage the fight at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan.
According to Google Maps, the Silverdome is approximately 9.5 hours from St. Louis, a daunting drive for even many diehard Alexander fans. Bradley fans, meanwhile, best make their airline reservations for next weekend, unless they’re into road trips big time. The drive from Bradley’s home of Palm Springs, California to Pontiac is a cool 1 day, 12 hours. A 36-hour drive to see a roughly 45 minute fight? Who wouldn’t sign up for that?
As a result, ticket sales are reported by some to be pathetic, though of course the usual obfuscation and indignation by the promoters muddies the water somewhat.
So why did King and Shaw decide that economically depressed Pontiac, Michigan was the most logical home for a fight between a St. Louis fighter and a California fighter? According to Michael Marley, “Shaw and King just banked $225,000 each as their share of the site fee.”
I guess a few bucks in the pocket are worth a few thousand asses in the seats, to horribly mangle/paraphrase (manglephrase?) the cliché. King and Shaw may be boxing promoters by trade, but this is yet more evidence that their primary interest is promoting the health of their own bank accounts, no matter the fallout for the fighters or fans.
Because he’s already pocketed his cash, it’s easy enough for Shaw to say things like, “I don’t care if we draw 500 people,” as he did in USA Today. Is it absurd for the promoter of a fight to flatly declare his lack of interest in selling tickets for said fight? It would be almost anywhere, except in boxing.
So if the promoters are less than interested in making the fight itself a must-see spectacle, at least HBO, which will be broadcasting the fight live, must be motivated to draw big-time ratings for this fight and potentially build a major star out of one or both of these fighters, right?
HBO’s failed build began in December, after Amir Khan outpointed Marcos Maidana in an outstanding fight to close the 2010 boxing season on HBO. Like Bradley and Alexander, Khan is one of the top 140-pound fighters in the world. With all three fighters entering their prime at roughly the same time in the same weight class, they could potentially provoke a similar explosion of interest in the junior welterweight division as Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Manny Pacquiao, and Juan Manuel Marquez did in the featherweight division in the last decade, or Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, and Roberto Duran did in the welterweight division in the 1980s.
However, instead of capitalizing on Khan’s impressive victory with a lengthy post-fight interview, instead of alluding to the possibility of Khan facing the Bradley-Alexander winner to crown a true champion at junior welterweight, instead of whetting the fight fan’s appetite prior to a month-plus long layoff from boxing on HBO, instead of serving their own self-interest by hyping an important fight that will air on their network, one that could very realistically catapult the winner towards the type of future stardom the network covets, HBO asked Khan one question and cut to a preview for their 24/7 special about a hockey game.
Since then, HBO has hyped the Bradley-Alexander matchup by… well, it’s on their schedule, so that’s good. And they sometimes even have commercials for it. And there are plenty of articles and videos about it on their Web site, though I know few fight fans that regularly frequent the HBO Boxing Web site. But since starting the critically lauded 24/7 series in 2007, HBO has gradually stopped producing the excellent half-hour Coundown shows they used to put together for nearly every big fight. Because 24/7 is much more expensive than the Countdown shows, HBO reserves 24/7 for potentially lucrative pay-per-views. Thus, major HBO World Championship Boxing cards like Bradley-Alexander receive no extended promotional hype from the network. None. And they wonder why ratings are down.
It should be noted that HBO aired a Countdown special for Pavlik-Taylor I before that fight.
Shaw is quoted by USA Today saying, “[T]he fight is bigger than the site.” Unfortunately, neither promoter, nor HBO, is treating it that way. Shaw, King, and HBO are acting as though this is just another fight card, taking the quick money from site fees rather than staging the fight at a logical location, failing to capitalize on opportunities to expose the fighters to captive audiences, and failing to put much extra effort into raising the profile of the fighters through television specials or any creative promotional efforts whatsoever.
Just as the Pavlik-Taylor I fight poster perfectly embodied the hype and anticipation for that matchup, so too does that Bradley-Alexander poster speak to the laziness and general ineffectiveness of the promoters in stoking interest in this fight. Poor poster, poor planning, poor promotion – it’s a shame that such a shoddy effort is compromising the exposure of such a wonderful fight.
(Marketer A: How can we communicate how unique and special these fighters are, and how rare and exciting a matchup this is? Marketer B: Let’s have them generically posed on a stand-up comedy stage with vacant or pained expressions. Marketer A: Brilliant!)