Boxing: TV networks have the ring boxed in

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The Independent Online
In modern boxing, television rules by

usurping traditional promoters to fulfil

the matchmaking role.

EVENTS OF last week serve to illustrate a shift in the balance of power at the business end of boxing. Last Wednesday's New York Daily News revealed that Naseem Hamed's next defence of the World Boxing Organisation featherweight championship would be against Wayne McCullough, the Las Vegas-based Ulsterman and former bantamweight champion, in Las Vegas, on 31 October. As of last Friday, spokespersons for Hamed's promoter, Frank Warren, were denying that this was the case.

The "leak" was attributed to the American subscription TV company Home Box Office, with whom Hamed signed a six-fight deal late last year. The announcement having emanated from the Avenue of the Americas, Manhattan, rather than Warren's Hertfordshire HQ is further cause for consternation among boxing's traditional business community.

The transatlantic discrepancy underlines the fact that in modern boxing, the TV network increasingly attempts to assume the role of matchmaker, usurping promoters such as Warren, whose legal war with his former partner Don King erupted as a result of Warren taking Hamed away from King's exclusive American subscription TV outlet, Showtime, and signing with their bitter rivals in the ratings war.

Beyond dispute, HBO, which provides the bulk of the financial backing for both Hamed and Lennox Lewis, the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, is the most powerful force in contemporary boxing.

The network's parent company, Time Warner Sports, spent about $60m on boxing last year, with the bulk of that budget going on HBO's two boxing shows, Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark, plus the network's pay- per-view presentations, transmitted under the "TVKO" banner.

Boxing serves the network well. Some 6.5 to 10 per cent of HBO's 25 million subscribers regularly tune in to the network's boxing programming. The TV executives appear to have decided that the future of the sport can no longer be entrusted to its traditional guardians.

In charge of the day-to-day running of HBO boxing is Lou DiBella, a 38- year-old Brooklynite who graduated from Harvard Law School but decided that a career with Sullivan & Cromwell, a prominent Wall Street law firm, was not for him. His stance is unequivocal.

"Promoters are generally the biggest obstacle to big fights occurring, and the only way to overcome that obstacle is to throw money at them," said DiBella. "Frankly, we do that for the good of the sport - we throw money at it. Promoters don't often want to make the big fight. They're concerned about options: `I have x-amount of dollars sunk into this guy, I want to make x-amount out of him. Why should I fight another promoter's fighter'?''

DiBella also has harsh words for the proliferation of self-appointed sanctioning bodies in boxing, describing them as "horrendous jokes that are cancers on the sport".

"But right now, the reason Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis isn't happening is because the promoter of Holyfield [King] is not going to risk his last major asset when he doesn't have Lennox Lewis," DiBella claims. "The public doesn't give a rat's ass about Holyfield-Vaughn Bean or Lennox v Zeljko Mavrovic [September's mandatory defences by the respective heavyweight champions] either. But we're forced to take these mandatory fights and they're terrible."

HBO's tradition of helping facilitate the fights that matter dates back to the mid-1980s and the heavyweight tournament that saw Mike Tyson emerge as unified heavyweight champion and the sport's biggest and, despite numerous misdemeanours, most enduring star.

"That Mike Tyson remains a bigger draw and moneymaker than Evander Holyfield bothers me," said DiBella.

"I look up to and admire Evander Holyfield; I consider him to be the epitome of a champion, and he should be on a pedestal, not Mike Tyson.

"It's unfortunate that our society is what it is, but it's not boxing, it's not sports, it's our society. Bad boys make better print."

But DiBella has faith in the ability of Hamed and Oscar De La Hoya, the World Boxing Council welterweight champion and boxing's current biggest draw, to "transcend the boxing fan to the general sports fan", as only Tyson has appeared capable of doing over the past decade.

"De La Hoya has tremendous crossover appeal and he's a real good kid as well as a tremendous fighter," he said. "We love Oscar. He's our shining star.

"Naseem? Generation X. MTV. Tremendous talent, tremendous firepower, tremendous flair. Real nice kid if you get to know him, too. Arrogant, cocky, but not mean- spirited."

DiBella terms Hamed the "first fighter of the 21st century", a century in which the television executive per se will doubtless exert yet further control over boxing, which might be no bad thing. As DiBella says: "Our interest is aligned with the boxing fan. We're in the business of television. We couldn't possibly have a motive other than making the biggest fights with the greatest public interest."

And that's what boxing desperately needs.