Down for the Count: A Look Back at HBO Boxing’s Storied History

Tonight HBO Boxing will broadcast its final boxing event ever at Madison Square Garden. After 45 years of broadcasting some of boxing’s most iconic fights and fighters, HBO had decided to get out of the boxing business. From George Foreman’s upset of Joe Frazier to Buster Douglas’ shocking knockout of Mike Tyson, HBO has broadcast many memorable moments in boxing history.

“Going forward in 2019, we will be pivoting away from programming live boxing on HBO,” according to an HBO statement published by Yahoo.  “As always, we will remain open to looking at events that fit our programming mix.  This could include boxing, just not for the foreseeable future.” Peter Nelson, the executive vice president of HBO Sports commented that, “our audience research informs us that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for subscribing to HBO.”

Furthermore, with the growth in digital streaming platforms, the growth of Showtime Boxing and the resurgence of bouts being televised on network television, there are less high value fights left for HBO. Promoter Al Haymon, who arguably has the most talented stable of boxers, has taken his Premier Boxing Champions fights to Showtime Boxing and Fox/FS1. Similarly, Bob Arum signed an exclusive seven-year deal with ESPN to have all of his Top Rank fights broadcast on the cable sports network. That left only Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, which was the last major promotional company that had a deal with HBO Boxing. However, Golden Boy only has one marquee fighter, Canelo Alvarez, which wasn’t enough to sustain HBO Boxing. Over the last 10 years, HBO has lost superstars such as Floyd Mayweather (went to Showtime), Manny Pacquiao (went to ESPN), Andre Ward (retired) and others, thus reducing its importance as a boxing broadcaster.

Like most fight fans, the team at Eightcount.tv was shocked at the sudden departure of HBO. The network has meant so much to boxing. It catalyzed the growth of boxing into a multi-billion dollar sport by ushering in Pay-Per-View and it gave boxing a premium feel in contrast to the broadcast television fights that dominated boxing in in the late 70’s and early 80’s

Let’s take a look back at the storied history of HBO Boxing as we bid it a final adieu.

The Beginning

The network’s rich boxing history began in 1973 with George Foreman’s second round knockout of heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier in Kingston Jamaica.

FRAZIER FOREMAN KINGSTON
Defending WBA champion Joe Frazier, left, hits the canvas in the first round of the world heavyweight title bout, while challenger George Foreman stands over him, at National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, on January 22, 1973. Foreman knocked down Frazier several more times and won the title after the referee stopped the fight in the second round. (AP Photo )

HBO went on to televise some of the most legendary boxing fights during the 70’s including:

  • The Rumble in the Jungle, in which Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight title from George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974
  • Thrilla in Manila, the final encounter between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
  • Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney, for the World Boxing Council heavyweight championship

The 80’s & 90’s

In the 1980s and 1990s, viewers were drawn to the network by marquee boxing matchups featuring Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Some of the most iconic fights include:

  • The Battle of the Champions, when Aaron Pryor beat Alexis Argüello in their first fight.
  • Carnival of Champions, in which Wilfredo Gómez beat Lupe Pintor, and Thomas Hearns beat Wilfred Benítez.
  • Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns fight, billed as The War.
  • Thunder Meets Lightning, in which Julio César Chávez beat Meldrick Taylor with two seconds remaining in the twelfth round. Many dub this as the “Fight of the Decade”.

HBO was home to perhaps the most feared and revered boxers of the 80’s – hailing from Brownsville, Brooklyn, Iron Mike Tyson, who went on to set attendance and viewership records for HBO, including his historic KO victory over Trevor Berbick in 1986 to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history at the age of 20.

Tyson Knocked Out
James Douglas watches on as Mike Tyson tries to recover from being knockdown in round seven of their heavyweight championship fight

Equally as historic was James “Buster” Douglas’ improbable defeat of undefeated Tyson by knockout for the undisputed world heavyweight title in Tokyo, Japan on February 11, 1990. Douglas walked into the ring a 42-1 underdog and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.

After the fight Tyson struggled to recover from his fall from grace and got involved in legal troubles. On March 26, 1992, after nearly a year of trial proceedings, Tyson was found guilty on one count of rape and two counts of deviant sexual conduct against Desiree Washington, a Miss Black American contestant. Tyson was ordered to spend six years in prison, of which he spent three before being released.

While Mike Tyson served jail time, another dominant heavyweight champion, known as “The Real Deal” became a staple on HBO Boxing. At first a world cruiserweight champion (WBA), Evander Holyfield hailing from Atlanta, Georgia stepped up in weight and became the world heavyweight champion in in 1990, after he defeated Buster Douglas in just three rounds on HBO Boxing. He claimed the WBA, IBF and WBC titles. But, in 1992, he would suffered his first defeat in 29 fights, losing his title to Riddick Bowe. In what was dubbed by fight fans as Repeat or Revenge, in 1993 Evander Holyfield would avenge his defeat to Bowe, winning by decision and reclaiming his title. However, the fight would be overshadowed by the infamous “Parachute Incident” that occurred during Round 7, causing pandemonium and a 21-minute delay in the fight.

The Bowe-Holyfield fiasco was only to be overshadowed by the second Tyson-Holyfield clash that took place on June 28, 1997. After suffering an 11th round knockout loss, Mike Tyson claimed that he was the victim of multiple illegal head butts by Holyfield and vowed to avenge his loss. The second fight was televised on HBO pay-per-view and was viewed in nearly 2 million households, setting a record at the time for the highest number of paid television viewers. Both boxers also received record purses for the match, making them the highest-paid professional boxers in history until 2007. The first two rounds were full of action, bringing the crowd to its feet multiple times. However, in round three, Tyson shocked fans and boxing officials when he grabbed Holyfield and bit both of the boxer’s ears, completely severing a piece of Holyfield’s right ear. Tyson claimed that the action was retaliation for Holyfield’s illegal head butts from their previous match. Judges didn’t agree with Tyson’s reasoning, however, and disqualified the boxer from the match. If you’ve never seen the infamous “Bite Seen Around the World”, here it is for your viewing pleasure:

In the late 90’s HBO Boxing also displayed the emergence of more contemporary boxing greats, such as Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.

After starting 18-0 and claiming the WBO title as both a junior lightweight and a lightweight, Oscar “Golden Boy” De La Hoya, faced his biggest challenge to date in Julio Cesar Chavez, an experienced and popular Mexican fighter and the reigning World Boxing Council (WBC) junior welterweight champion. The fight took place on July 6, 1996 at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas. De La Hoya had sparred with Chavez as an amateur and been knocked down, but this time the results were different. De La Hoya pummeled crowd favorite Chavez with blows, opening a cut above the champion’s eye before officials stopped the bout in the fourth round and declared victory for De La Hoya. This fight erased any doubts that De La Hoya was as good as advertised.

De La Hoya would go on to fight his entire career on HBO Boxing against opponents such as Pernell “Sweat Pea” Whitaker, Hector “Macho” Camacho, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., and Manny Pacquiao. De La Hoya ended his career with 39 victories (30 by KO), 6 losses (2 by KO) and no draws.

A bit over two years later, “Pretty Boy” Floyd Mayweather, would earn his first title, the WBC super featherweight title, on HBO after defeating Genaro Hernandez. After both fighters went to the canvas in the first round, with both falls being ruled as slips, Mayweather took control of the fight, throwing well placed combinations and pop-shots. Ultimately, Hernandez failed to come out of his corner after the eight round giving Mayweather his first world title and an undefeated record of 18-0.

Mayweather, who was managed by Bob Arum’s Top Rank until 2006, fought top fighters such as Diego Corrales, Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, and Zab “Super” Judah. His first two pay-per-view bouts came in 2005 and 2006 against Gatti and Judah. Pretty Boy, had PPV buy rates of 365,000 and 375,000. His paychecks were consistently in the $3 million range. It wasn’t until after his split with Arum did Floyd go from Pretty Boy to Money Mayweather and the birth of the mega-payday fights was born.

The Voices of HBO Boxing

Over it’s 45 years, the voice of HBO Boxing was defined by Larry Merchant, Jim Lampley, Max Kellerman and Michael Buffer.

Merchant, who retired from HBO Boxing telecast in 2012 after 35 years of service, was a polarizing figure, called “the greatest television boxing analyst of all time” by some, including ESPN Boxing analyst Dan Rafael, and derided as out of touch, biased and incoherent by others. He was known for his post-fight interview clashes with fighters due to his  hard-hitting, blunt questions and confrontational interview style. None were more famous than his verbal spat with undefeated welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. after his fight against Victor Ortiz on September 17, 2011:

Jim Lampley, the other half of HBO Boxing’s dynamic commentating duo was much the opposite of Merchant. Lampley joined HBO Boxing in 1988, after having spent time on ESPN and KCBS Los Angeles. Known for his great blow-by-blow commentating, Lampley is best known for having called some of HBO Boxing’s greatest moments, including Thunder Meets Lightening, Buster Douglas’ upset of Mike Tyson, and George Foreman’s comeback to defeat Michael Moorer. Moreover, Lampley has been known to wear his emotions on his sleeve as he is often found teary eyed and on the brink of crying due his never ending passion for the sport of boxing and more importantly his appreciation and human connection with many of its fighters. Here’s a look at Jim Lampley’s heartfelt farewell to welterweight great Miguel Cotto:

Lampley will remain with the network, despite there being no more boxing. The fate of his featured HBO show The Fight Game, which he writes, hosts and produces will and is now in its seventh season, has still yet to be determined. Given that HBO will no longer be airing boxing, it’s not clear why the network would continue broadcasting The Fight Game, but perhaps that is in part why Lampley is staying with HBO.

Image result for picture of larry buffer

Nevertheless, perhaps the most iconic voice of HBO Boxing was that of Michael Buffer. His rich baritone voice could be heard by the “thousands of fans in attendance and the millions watching around the world”. An HBO fight wasn’t an HBO fight until Buffer kicked it off with his iconic catchphrase – “Let’s Get Ready to Rumbleeeeeeeeeeeeeee”. Born and in the fight town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised just outside in Lancaster, Michael began his career as a ring announcer in 1982. During the 80’s he was the exclusive ring announcer for all bouts in Donald Trump-owned casinos. Buffer’s work was also admired by many boxing greats including Sugar Ray Leonard, who once said, “When [Buffer] introduces a fighter, it makes him want to fight.” Buffer is currently the announcer for all fights on the Matchroom Boxing / Perform Group’s new sports streaming platform DAZN exclusively.

Image result for max kellerman

And finally, there’s Max Kellerman, the younger, outspoken, and controversial and color commentator who first started out on HBO’s Boxing After Dark alongside Fran Charles and Lennox Lewis and then was promoted in 2007 to the HBO World Championship Boxing team alongside Lampley and Merchant. Kellerman has covered many of the recent marquee fights including, Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao, Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev, and Canelo Alvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin.

Over the 45 year history of HBO Boxing, legendary fighters and trainers have joined the commentating crew ringside, including George Foreman, Emanuel Stewart, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones Jr., and Andre Ward. Each of them has added their unique perspective and personality to the commentating crew. The psychological, physical and technical insights enriched the viewing experience and helped the casual boxing fan to better understand the sport.

The 2000’s

Over 8,000 miles away in the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao made his professional debut as a junior flyweight on January 22, 1995, at the age of 16.  Many of his early bouts were televised on a program called Blow by Blow, where his all-action style and boyish smile quickly made him a favourite with Filipino boxing fans. He won his first major title on December 4, 1998, knocking out Thailand’s Chatchai Sasakul to capture the World Boxing Council (WBC) flyweight title. After failing to make weight, however, he lost the title to Medgoen Singsurat of Thailand in September 1999. Pacquiao moved up in weight class, and on June 23, 2001, in his first fight in the United States, he scored a sixth-round knockout of Lehlo Ledwaba to win the International Boxing Federation (IBF) junior featherweight title live on HBO Boxing.

Following four successful defenses, he knocked out Mexico’s Marco Antonio Barrera on November 15, 2003, to become The Ring Magazine featherweight champion.

Over the next several years, Pacquiao engaged in a series of high-profile fights, winning the World Boxing Association (WBA) and IBF featherweight titles, the WBC and The Ring’s junior lightweight titles, and the WBC lightweight title. His rise was aided by American trainer Freddie Roach, who gradually transformed the left-handed slugger into a multifaceted boxer without detracting from his natural aggression or punching power.

On December 6, 2008, Pacquiao faced and thrashed American boxing star Oscar De La Hoya in a celebrated nontitle welterweight bout in Las Vegas. By then Pacquiao had become a complete fighter, combining excellent footwork, blazing speed, and a vastly improved defense, and he was widely considered, pound for pound, the world’s finest boxer. In addition, Pacquiao’s popularity as a pay-per-view (PPV) boxing attraction had increased steadily since 2002, but the match with De La Hoya was his breakthrough as a global phenomenon. The fight, broadcast by HBO, sold approximately 1.25 million buys, generating roughly $70 million in PPV revenue, one of the largest PPV grosses in history for a non-heavyweight bout.

Pacquiao’s largest pay day came against an undefeated Floyd Mayweather in May 2015. It was a much-anticipated contest that the two fighters’ camps had been negotiating on and off for more than six years. In that event, Pacquiao was unable to mount an effective offense against Mayweather, who was arguably the greatest defensive fighter of his generation, and he lost by unanimous decision. The fight was co-broadcasted by Showtime and HBO, as Mayweather left HBO for its biggest competitor at the time in 2013. Pacquiao walked away from the fight with a gross purse of $160 million.

In September 2012, hard hitting middleweight from Kazakhstan, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin made his HBO debut against Grezgorz Proksa. GGG scored a TKO victory in his HBO debut and followed that up with another against Gabriel Rosado in early 2013. That June, he floored Matthew Macklin with a stiff body shot at Foxwoods Resort Casino. He finished out the year with his 15th consecutive knockout, a TKO against Curtis Stevens.

Golovkin’s reputation only grew in 2014, as he stopped Daniel Geale in the third round in the big room at Madison Square Garden, and thrilled the StubHub Center crowd with a knockout of veteran fighter Marco Antonio Rubio in what Golovkin dubbed was his signature “Mexican Style.”

Gennady “GGG” Golovkin

2015 saw Golovkin continue his KO streak against the fierce Martin Murray in February, the slick Willie Monroe in May, and, in his HBO Pay Per View debut, the hard-hitting David Lemieux in October. By 2016, Golovkin had cemented his reputation as the most feared fighter in boxing. Possessing a high ring IQ, Golovkin became known for stalking his opponents, cutting off the ring, and delivering his trademark power.

In parallel with Golovkin’s meteoric rise to fame, HBO Boxing was also the home of Golden Boy Promotions most prized fighter, the young, red-headed Mexican, Saul Canelo Alvarez.

Saúl Canelo Alvarez (middle) pictured with his trainers Chepo Reynoso (left) and son Eddy Reynoso (right)

Alvarez made his debut on HBO in March of 2011 against Matthew Hatton. In that fight, the 20-year-old Álvarez won his first world title—making him the youngest fighter to ever hoist the 154-pound belt—when he defeated Hatton at California’s Honda Center. Canelo rounded out 2011 with a unanimous decision victory over Ryan Rhodes in June and TKO win against Kermit Cintron in November to preserve his undefeated record.

Successful title defenses gave way to a May 2012 HBO PPV bout with Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand. The unanimous decision win over Mosley earned Canelo dates with Austin Trout, Floyd Mayweather, Alfredo Angulo and Erislandy Lara in 2013-2014, going 3-1 in that span.

In his return to HBO in March 2015, Álvarez knocked out James Kirkland in three rounds—landing over 60% of his power punches—at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. He ended 2015 with a HBO PPV victory against middleweight titleholder, Miguel Cotto, in November at Mandalay Bay.

It was only a matter of time before fight fans demanded that HBO’s two stars – Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin – face off in the squared circle. In September 2017, the two fighters met at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and traded blows for twelve rounds. The fight ended in a controversial majority draw leaving fans polarized. While popular opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of Golovkin, many boxing fans made a valid argument that Canelo edged out GGG.

 

Canelo and GGG face off at the weigh-in in 2017

The two fighters met again for the rematch in 2018, again at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. This time, Canelo emerged as the victor by majority decision. The second fight did 1.1 million pay-per-view buys, falling short of the 1.3  million buys the fight did the first time around in 2017. Canelo captured the WBC, WBA and IBO Middleweight Titles.

Canelo captured the WBC, WBA and IBO Middleweight Titles after defeating Gennady Golovkin by majority decision in their second fight.

The last 18 years of HBO Boxing have been filled with other great memorable fights:

  • Arturo Gatti vs. Mickey Ward
  • Antonio Margarito vs. Miguel Cotto I and II
  • The Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Manny Pacquiao I, II, III and IV
  • Erik Morales vs. Manny Pacquiao
  • Floyd Mayweather vs. Oscar De La Hoya
  • Felix Trinidad vs. Oscar De La Hoya
  • Diego Corralles vs. Jose Luis Castillo
  • Andrew Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev I and II
  • Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad

The most widely watched live bout on HBO of 2018, a middleweight title fight between Gennady Golovkin and Vanes Martirosyan, drew 1.3 million viewers.

Farewell

While HBO’s absence in televising boxing will create a sizable void, other broadcast entities have been more than willing to fill it.

Showtime has been televising championship bouts since 1986, emerging as a major player with a 2013 deal it struck with Floyd Mayweather. Last month, the network announced a three-year extension with Premier Boxing Champions, which represents several of the top current boxers.

Meanwhile, British boxing promoter Eddie Hearn’s company, Matchroom Boxing, recently signed a $1 billion deal to televise pay-per-view bouts over the next eight years. ESPN reached a seven-year deal with promoter Top Rank to televise boxing on its various outlets. And Fox Sports also just signed a deal with Premier Boxing Champions.

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Eddie Hearn’s (middle) Matchroom Boxing and Perform Group seal boxing’s first billion dollar deal.

Two weeks ago, Canelo Alvarez signed an 11-fight $325 million deal with DAZN, which is the most lucrative sports contract in history. It’s also been rumored that HBO’s other prize fighter, Gennady Golovkin is listening to offers from ESPN, DAZN and Showtime.

Although the future is bright for boxing, tonight will be a sad one. It will mark the end of an era – an iconic brand in the sport of boxing will bid its fans a farewell. We are thankful for the countless moments and memories that HBO Boxing contributed to the sport. Thank you to all of the employees over the 45 years that have spent countless hours bringing some of the greatest sporting events to fans in the arena and at home. And most of all thank you to the countless fighters that have risked their lives doing what they love to do in the name of the sport! Fight fans, HBO nor the sport of boxing would be what it is without you all.

So to boxing fans, please tune in tonight on HBO at 10pm ET and enjoy one final HBO card. Two things you can count on tonight are a great night of HBO Boxing and Jim Lampley crying as he signs off from Madison Square Garden on last time.

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