HBO Boxing’s Fitting Farewell: Old Men, A Crappy Card, and Zero Point To Tuning In
(Originally Published: December, 2018 @ Boxing.com)
This Saturday’s final HBO Boxing telecast, headlined by women’s welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus, will see the return of 87-year-old Larry Merchant for one final on-air chat with multi-decade broadcast partner Jim Lampley.
Old men chatting up a self-indulgent storm during a shitty card. There couldn’t be a more fitting farewell for HBO Boxing.
Before bristling at an attack against a beloved institution on its deathbed, it should be made clear that this disdain has everything to do with what HBO became and not what it once was. At one time, they were the very best in the business at creating a big fight feel and also the very best at calling the in-ring action. For a good long while, they were even considered by many as THE home of big-time boxing.
But over the last several years—actually, the last couple decades– HBO became more of an enemy of the sport than the powerful ally it used to be. Somewhere along the way, somebody at the premium cable network decided that they were in the star-making business and not the fight business and the product suffered…until there was no coming back from the damage done.
The sad part is that almost all of their star-making attempts were business flops. Roy Jones, for all his otherworldly talent, never became a mainstream superstar maybe, in part, because he had so many mismatch showcases on the network. Andre Berto, an honest and earnest fighter clearly without superstar-level abilities or charisma, drew the ire of fans because he was pushed so hard for so long. A likable and talented Jermain Taylor got zero momentum following his two wins over Bernard Hopkins, primarily because HBO chose to green light post-Hopkins matches for Taylor against muddle-making spoilers Winky Wright and Cory Spinks. Taylor’s eventual conqueror, Kelly Pavlik, who reeked of mainstream potential, was allowed to professionally implode just a year after his career-defining victory with an embarrassing schooling at the hands of veteran spoiler Bernard Hopkins. Fast forward a few years, past several other missteps, and there was the manufactured stardom of Gennady Golovkin, who, after six years of extreme network promotion, complimentary matchmaking, and a piggyback ride from Canelo Alvarez, could only manage to be half as big a draw as the generation of stars before him.
One could go on and on with examples of failed insight and foresight from the suits behind HBO Boxing. The fact of the matter is that the network farewell to the sport may have come much earlier than this year if not for the post-prime glow of Oscar De La Hoya and the emergence of mostly self-made superstars like Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, and Canelo Alvarez.
And while the stiffs behind the scenes were screwing up royally, the broadcast faces of the network gradually became unwatchable. Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Max Kellerman became bloated with self-importance, alternating between being shameless shills for house fighters to belligerent know-it-alls who openly disrespected certain fighters on-air and routinely stepped on or flat-out dismissed the insight of the ex-fighter color commentators added to the telecast.
More and more, the commentating at HBO Boxing became about old white men in tuxedos selling things that weren’t always happening and airing their self-righteous grievances. When Larry Merchant countered Floyd Mayweather’s dismissal in a 2011 post-fight interview by saying, “I wish I was 50 years younger, and I’d kick your ass,” purist, old school boxing fans loved it. But there was never a more telling indication of where things had gone on-air. A clear move had been made away from asking the hard questions and enlightening to grandstanding for the sake of grandstanding and cherry-picking outrage.
By the time 2018 came around, HBO Boxing was a burnt-out shell of something that used to be much, much better and there was zero interest in trying to turn things around. The audience had been reduced to a fraction of what it once was, much of the top talent had migrated to other networks, and the corporate big shots had soured on the product they helped ruin. The fight for on-air excellence was waved off in September, but the towel had been thrown in a while ago. HBO Boxing, in its most recent form, will not be missed.
Macho fairytales and nostalgia drive most of boxing’s narratives, at least among hardcore fans and media, so expect plenty of teary-eyed retrospectives this week on the best HBO Boxing has given us over the last 40+ years. But that should all fly right out the window on Saturday when the lights go on for the last time and we’re reminded of why they’re going off in the first place.