(Santa Claus helps Leo Santa Cruz [no relation] work out in advance of his appearance on CBS; photo credit: Esther Lin, Showtime)
If you read boxing ignoramuses like ESPN's Scoop Jackson, boxing died this past weekend, just like critics have taken any occasion over the last 100 years-plus to declare it dead. So it must come as some kind of shock to Scoop and anyone who believes his tripe that, this weekend, and then again next weekend, boxing will be back on network television, first CBS and then NBC.
It's been a while since live boxing appeared on one of the four major networks, and that has assisted the decline — decline, mind you, not death — of boxing. While it was away, the sport declined further, then began slowly climbing back out of the morass, and likewise the nature of television audiences changed, reliant less on the four networks than before but not so much that those networks weren't still the most powerful in the business.
In that way, boxing's return to CBS and NBC is a major event, if not the "Holy Grail" it was once thought to be. Consider this a guide to how boxing got off TV, why it's back on, and — for neophytes — who you'll be seeing on those networks this weekend and next.
The Departure, The Return
The last time live boxing was on one of the big four, it was in 2005 on NBC's reality show "The Contender." The premise of the show was to have boxers face one another in an elimination-style tournament, and while most of the show was taped, the finale was a live boxing match. The show was not a major hit, though, and the second season migrated to ESPN. For CBS, the last live boxing card goes back even further, to
1998 1997. There have been dalliances with boxing-related content since then, like CBS airing some a documentary series in advance of the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley pay-per-view in 2011.
The reasons for boxing's departure are myriad. Here's how NBC Sports pres John Miller explains it:
"In the early 1990s, we had lots of fighters on," Miller said. "What happened was agents started chasing the money to grow their fighters' brands and they'd only put them in the ring with a tomato can — not someone who could challenge them."
This 1998 article quotes a different NBC official or two, citing slightly different reasons.
"Our business is based on advertisers, and eventually with all the problems in boxing you could get motor oils and beers as sponsors, but no Procter and Gamble, no Coke, no Pepsi… It's a shame. I love boxing, but we just can't make the economics work. It got to the point where one out of every three fights fell apart. And if you're a sponsor with money, you want to put it in something safe." — Kevin Monaghan, director of new business development for NBC
Added Marv Albert, then at NBC: "Network guys always got frustrated by dealmakers and cancellations. They hated the headaches."
Boxing also moved away from the networks by choice. The rise of HBO, Showtime and pay-per-view offered more lucrative hauls for events. In so doing, they isolated themselves and shrunk the audience for the sport, and you could see how some of these problems could start to compound the others.
It just so happens that the period where boxing largely disappeared from the airwaves of the biggest networks coincides with a period where the problem Miller cited was at an apex. That phenomenon began to recede a good deal around 2007, the same year when Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather fought in what became the biggest boxing PPV of all time. There have been fits and starts since in the trend of the best fighters taking on viable challenges (Mayweather-Pacquiao never happening being the worst example), but overall we get a lot of best-vs.-best match-ups these days.
Boxing also made some wise decisions that have no doubt influenced the networks toward thinking the sport could be worth airing again. For instance, Golden Boy Promotions, and then Top Rank, began luring sponsors back to the sport. That was done with the explicit idea of getting boxing back on the big networks in mind; it also doesn't hurt on the sponsorship front that the sport's audience began to show trends again toward luring younger viewers. Top Rank leveraged the financial might of Pacquiao to shift him off of HBO PPV and secure a deal where Showtime would air the Pacquiao-Mosley PPV and its parent network, CBS, would air the aforementioned documentary series. HBO responded by using the promise of airing Pacquiao-related programming via some of its affiliates — CNN, TNT — to steal Pacquiao back. Somewhere in there, everyone saw the synergistic benefits of cross-promoting boxing across various platforms. The NBC programming, for instance, is an outgrowth of NBC Sports airing some boxing on its channel.
Many of boxing's dealmakers are still a pain in the ass; fights still fall through sometimes. But boxing has gotten to the point where it's worthwhile for NBC and CBS to try airing some live boxing in the admittedly non-peak slot of Saturday afternoon. The television landscape has changed significantly since 1998, let alone 2005, and the major networks don't have the power they once did as a result. But being on those networks does expose the sport to a group of fans who might not otherwise watch, because they don't have HBO or Showtime or even in some cases cable, and more eyes on the sport gives boxing a chance to grow by creating new fans, and for individual boxers to get their names recognized more broadly and become bigger stars. The cast of that first season of "The Contender" still gets fights by virtue of their name recognition from being on NBC.
Now the question is, what will boxing do with that exposure? Here's what it's doing this weekend and next, anyway.
The CBS Show
Leo Santa Cruz headlines the CBS broadcast Saturday afternoon, and the major difference between the CBS and NBC cards is this: CBS is featuring promising young fighters in showcase bouts, while NBC is featuring a quality match-up between a pair of older fighters.
Santa Cruz, a bantamweight, has a one-track mind, but in a good way. That track is, "Throw the maximum amount of punches at all times, even if my arms fall off." One gets the impression that if his arms fell off, he would still wiggle his stumps into his opponent's face a hundred times a round anyway. Different boxers have different styles — some are clever defenders who rely on speed, for instance — but Santa Cruz, by virtue of sheer, exhausting volume, has one of the most fun styles of all. And while he's not got huge knockout power, he hits hard enough, especially to the body, to score KOs or force his man to quit. Although sometimes fighters with that style get hit so much they don't appear to be very good, they often wear down the other guy in the process, and Santa Cruz has shown some respectable defense for a fighter with his style. He doesn't have a signature win yet, but he does have a decent resume of beating quality vets like Vusi Malinga and Eric Morel, and he's targeting bigger names like Abner Mares to get him that signature win. All in all, it's good enough for him to be rated the #4 bantamweight in the world according to the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. By virtue of his style, talent and Mexican heritage, he does have the potential to become at least a mid-level star of the sport.
His opponent is harmless-looking enough. Alberto Guevara is undefeated in 16 fights, but he's done it against even more harmless boxers. He has just six KOs, rare for the kind of competition he's faced. In the one clip I could dig up, he will likely be faster than Santa Cruz and better defensively and he looks competent technically. All of those things could be illusions considering his quality of competition; fighting other good boxers has a way of making good defensive fighters look ordinary in that department. The match-up, then, is disappointing from a competitive standpoint, but I get the impression that Guevara will fight in a style that makes Santa Cruz shine, because he'll SEEM competitive by hitting Santa Cruz a bit, yet won't circle away and avoid contact himself.
The idea to showcase Santa Cruz was ostensibly, per Showtime's Stephen Espinoza, that he's entertaining and entertainment will bring ratings, but it doesn't hurt that he's also young enough and unspoiled enough by big-time HBO/Showtime money that CBS didn't have to fork over a big paycheck for the broadcast.
Also on the card is the professional debut of 2012 U.S. Olympian Joseph Diaz, who in his brief showing in the London Games had the hint of a nice pro prospect. The junior featherweight will take the kind of challenge promising prospects usually take in their pro debut, which is to say, no challenge. Vicente Alfaro has a record of 5-2, but he's fought mainly in the Midwest, the land of inflated boxing records. Nonetheless, there was a time when U.S. boxing fans connected with their ex-Olympians, and Diaz's outgoing, humble personality offers material for such a connection.
The upside here is as mentioned: Santa Cruz is fun to watch, and Diaz could inspire some patriotic affiliation. The risk here is, if NBC's Miller is right, CBS will be airing a pair of uncompetitive fights of the variety that led to boxing's exile from the big networks.
The show starts at 4:30 p.m. It feeds into the Showtime card later that evening.
The NBC Show
We know Tomasz Adamek-Steve Cunningham is a good match-up because we saw it once already. It was four years ago that the pair produced one of the best cruiserweight fights ever. Adamek at the time was more of a slugger who liked give and take and could take punches exceptionally well, while Cunningham was the lighter-punching, faster, more vulnerable boxer. The crowd in Newark was a mix of Polish fans rooting for Adamek and Philadelphia fans rooting for the ex-Marine Philly product. Cunningham would dominate for stretches only to get knocked down periodically and fight his way back into it, with the bout ending in a close Adamek win. It remains one of the best couple fights I've witnessed live.
Now both are older, bigger heavyweights. That's not necessarily a good thing; Cunningham couldn't punch very hard one division lower, and won't be any harder-hitting for gaining weight. Adamek has become craftier, but he's remained an exciting heavyweight despite cutting down on the punch-trading because he has become more vulnerable to big-punching heavyweights, as an undersized heavyweight himself. Cunningham isn't a big-punching heavyweight, so that robs Adamek of some of his appeal since moving to the division.
On the other hand, Adamek-Cunningham I was such a good fight, and neither man has totally transformed his style, so the fight likely won't be very different in the rematch. They've each had their ups and downs since — Cunningham recently lost to a talented youngster, Yoan Pablo Hernandez, while Adamek lost to one of the two-headed rulers of the heavyweight division, Vitali Klitschko — and look a bit worse for wear at their ages, but rematches between older boxers can go a couple ways, and one of them is the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier "Thrilla in Manila" way, which is to say that everyone getting older and slower means they're forced to fight toe-to-toe more than before. I'm not saying Adamek-Cunningham II will rival one of the best fights in the history of the sport, only that the addition of hard years doesn't necessarily mean it will be bad, especially when you take into account all the ways it could be excellent.
Because Adamek is such a big live draw, selling so many tickets like he does to the Polish fan base, and because he generates a lot of money via broadcasts of the fight in Poland itself, he is less dependent than your average boxer on huge paydays from the likes of HBO or Showtime. That makes him another fighter who is relatively cheap to put on the air. Cunningham is in a similar position but for different reasons; he really has never made much in the way of U.S. TV money — he's only recently returned from Europe, where he was making a better living with his clever, low-KO style than he could in his homeland, since tastes in Germany are a little more inclined toward nuanced boxing skills than tastes here.
Also on the card is young American heavyweight Tor Hamer, who recently gave a jolt to his struggling career by winning a mini-tournament of heavyweights in the U.K. on a program called "Prizefighter." He needed it, because he popped onto the scene as a promising prospect before he suffered an unexpected loss two years ago. Hamer is as eloquent a boxer as you'll find, a college-educated New Yorker who has a knack for saying amusingly self-aware, even self-doubting things, as he did when I interviewed him here. His opponent is Vyacheslav Glazkov, who has an undistinguished record, but Main Events, the promoter of the card, has a knack for putting together match-ups that produce both action and competition, so don't be surprised if this one is good, too.
That both of these fights are heavyweight fights is no coincidence. Main Events has an audacious notion to bring the division back to prominence in the United States, a plan outlined here.
The show airs at 4 p.m. on Dec. 22.