Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

ABCs of boxing far from simple

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It took just a split second - one lightning-quick punch - for Baltimore boxer Hasim Rahman to become the heavyweight champion. He conquered the boxing world with one iron fist and positioned himself for at least a $14 million payday that will come with his first title defense.

Seems simple enough, except that nothing is ever entirely as it seems in the complex, confusing and sometimes shady world of professional boxing.

Rahman's situation was less complicated than most, because he landed that big right hand and dropped heavily favored Lennox Lewis without selling the rights to his next fight. No one had expected Rahman's next fight to be all that valuable.

But the upset put him in the middle of a tug of war between cable giants Home Box Office and Showtime, who have emerged as the major power brokers of boxing after decades of infighting among the various governing bodies that created their own fiefdoms within the sport.

There still is plenty of "alphabet soup" - the term coined by eminent boxing historian Bert Sugar to describe the confusion wrought by the WBC (World Boxing Council), the IBF (International Boxing Federation), the WBA (World Boxing Association) and several lesser organizations - but the Rahman situation clearly highlights the growing influence of the two cable networks, even as it raises questions about the failure of HBO to plan adequately for the possibility of a Rahman upset.

Slipping through cracks

HBO could have locked Rahman into a contract beyond the April 21 bout in South Africa that would have guaranteed an initial title defense against Lewis, who has a multi-fight contract with the network. Showtime, which has No. 1 WBC contender Mike Tyson and WBA champion John Ruiz under contract, wouldn't even have gotten a chance to bid on the fight.

Instead, Rahman and his management team signed three contracts related to the first Lewis bout, one of them calling for a rematch within 150 days and another that allows for an interim fight as long as it occurs at least 60 days before the Lewis rematch. The third contract, filed with the IBF, did not include any rematch clause, in accordance with IBF rules.

In short, there was enough ambiguity to make Rahman the boxing equivalent of a baseball free agent, and his handlers have spent the past few weeks playing HBO and Showtime off each other to get the best deal.

"There's no way they [HBO] should have let me go over there [to Africa] contract-free," Rahman said recently. "They had an arrogance about their fighter, and now they have a hefty price to pay."

If Rahman showed he could pack quite a wallop during his first title shot, no one foresaw how much clout he would have after the fight.

"I see Hasim Rahman as a miracle worker," said Showtime senior vice president Jay Larkin. "He not only defeated the odds, he defeated a powerful cartel that was stacked against him."

Evolution of power

The boxing world has always been something of a split decision. Promoters have been fighting over the economics of the sport as long as fighters have been battling for sanctioned titles.

The sport was controlled largely by the New York State Athletic Commission during the early part of the 20th century, but a split in the middleweight division in the 1930s led to the formation of the National Boxing Association, which would change its name to the World Boxing Association in 1950.

The World Boxing Council was founded in 1962. The IBF split from the WBA and gained legitimacy with the 1983 title bout between Marvin Hagler and Wilford Sypion.

There are other sanctioning entities - most notably the World Boxing Organization - which just adds to the confusion and possibility of corruption.

"Boxing has fallen apart because of these sanctioning bodies," Sugar said. "You now have four lemonade stands on different corners, and they're selling championship belts and ratings."

The sanctioning bodies produce the championship belts that help drive the marketing of the fighters, but the promoters - the businessmen who book the fighters and promote the big events - have controlled the sport for much of its modern history.

Network television helped them create star power in the 1950s and '60s. The advent of pay-per-view in the 1970s took the revenue potential of major boxing events into the stratosphere, but it also would signal the eventual decline of the promoter as the driving force in the industry and the end of broadcast television's close association with the sport.

"When boxing was one of the most popular sports in America, it was accessible to everyone on radio and broadcast television," Larkin said. "In the '60s and '70s, there was a great amount of high-quality boxing on ABC, CBS and NBC, and that's where the real stars were created.

"When the numbers started to go up, HBO came into the mix and started outbidding the broadcast networks, which put them in the position of being a farm team for HBO. They didn't want to develop fighters only to lose them to pay television."

Where money flows

HBO became a major player in 1973 with its first pay-per-view telecast (the Joe Frazier-George Foreman title fight) and has been gaining in influence ever since. The sponsorship explosion of the 1980s and '90s also would have a big impact on the economics of the sport.

"Boxing is like any other business: The money is the power," said former HBO executive Lou DiBella. "The rules that govern boxing were written in a day when the promoter was the money. He took the risks. He rented the seats. He paid the purses. There was no big television money. He created a film, and they put it up in movie houses or on closed-circuit [TV].

"Today, the promoter's not the money anymore," he said. "The money's HBO or Showtime or ESPN or Fox. The money's Caesars Palace or Madison Square Garden. The money's Miller or Anheuser Busch."

Don't misunderstand: The promoters still play a major role in the match making. Controversial promoter Don King recently tried to influence Rahman's decision by offering him $15 million to fight Ruiz in a title unification bout. And the close relationship between Rahman's promoter, Cedric Kushner, and HBO clearly have played a role in the negotiations for the new champion's upcoming title defense.

It probably doesn't seem like such a difficult decision to boxing fans. Rahman figured to get $14 million to $16 million for fighting any of the three top contenders - Lewis, Tyson or Ruiz - so why all the intrigue?

Because the impact of this title defense on the future of boxing at HBO and Showtime could be dynamic.

Staying in contention

HBO wants a rematch with Lewis in an attempt to keep a handle on the heavyweight championship, knowing that if Rahman were to lose the title to Tyson or Ruiz that Showtime would all but gain control of the otherwise lackluster heavyweight division.

Showtime has even more at stake, because the network advanced Tyson millions to get out of trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and needs to put him in some big-money fights to recoup its investment. Tyson went to court to try forcing Rahman into a bout with him based on Tyson's status as the WBC's No. 1 contender.

Confused yet?

So is everybody else without a law degree or a lifetime subscription to Ring.

In a perfect world, the champion in any of boxing's myriad weight classifications would always line up against the No. 1 contender or the guy he defeated to win the title, but it doesn't work that way in the less-than-perfect world of marketing and mass media.

"I look at our role as trying to provide great boxing on television, the best program for our subscribers," said HBO executive Kery Davis. "That means doing the most competitive fights, putting people who are the most compelling figures that we can in those fights. ...

"When we look at a boxer, we look at not just talent, but charisma, entertainment [value] or some other exceptional quality. Sometimes, the charisma, you can't describe; you know it when you see it."

And, sometimes, a network is just looking to keep its high-profile fighter in front of the public until the next mega-payday.

The fact that Rahman even got a title shot is a miracle of boxing's modern age, in which bankable fighters can make huge purses without putting themselves at serious risk of losing the title.

Or so Lewis thought.

Popular super-middleweight Roy Jones Jr. (HBO) has been criticized for avoiding dangerous fights, seeming content to put on a good show against safer competition.

"He makes a lot of money without putting himself, his safety and his health at risk," DiBella said. "He's never really been hurt ... never taken the kind of punishment as a lot of his friends. He's as pretty as he's always been. Roy will never face that kind of sacrifice.

"In terms of pure intellect, if people are going to pay him a gazillion dollars to let him go safety first, on one hand, more power to him. On the other hand, if some people don't dig that, they don't have to watch."

HBO's Davis insists that is not the case. The problem, in his view, is the competition.

"Roy Jones is one of the toughest fighters in the business in that there aren't that many compelling matchups out there for him," Davis said. "His talent is so far above everyone else in weight class that it's difficult for him to have quality matchups."

Scandal sows seeds

If the proliferation of governing bodies created Sugar's "alphabet soup," figuring out the rankings was like eating that soup with a fork.

ABC pulled out of a title tournament in 1977 when it learned the Ring had accepted payoffs to supply altered records for several boxers. Beginning in 1924, the magazine provided rankings that "were the mortar, or the basis" by which the organizations measured their fighters, Sugar said. A year after the ABC pullout, those rankings were discredited.

More recently, the way in which the IBF has sanctioned its bouts was scrutinized in federal court after a four-year FBI investigation. The president of the IBF, Robert W. Lee, was sentenced to a prison term in February for money laundering and tax evasion, and in a related action, agreed to a lifetime ban from boxing.

To keep corruption in check, a federal monitor was installed to oversee the IBF.

Rahman's path to South Africa grew out of an IBF matchup that fizzled.

He was not the obvious title contender when he met Lewis. Rahman got the fight though he was ranked only No. 6 when he signed in August to fight an IBF elimination bout with No. 5 Danell Nicholson for the chance to be the No. 1 contender.

That fight fell through twice, and Rahman was selected to fight Lewis, largely because he was available and - some think - considered vulnerable to Lewis' style.

Whatever the reason, it worked out for both Rahman and the millions of boxing fans who watch just in case something magical happens.

"Rahman's injected a lot of life into the heavyweight division," DiBella said. "What happened in South Africa is good for boxing."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°