The Writing on the Wall: Boxing Leaves HBO
By Hector Franco | Senior Writer and Editor
Published: December 20, 2018
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2018 marks the end of an era. On the weekend of December 8th of 2018, HBO gave its final boxing telecast featuring a tripleheader headlined by undisputed female welterweight champion Cecilia Braekus. Many fans did not attend the show, and it was a sad end to a franchise that has been at the forefront of the boxing world for the last 45 years.
The subscription-based premium cable network first began showing boxing on its airwaves in 1973 when George Foreman took on Joe Frazier in Jamaica. The network started with one of the most significant heavyweight bouts of its era and ended its final foray in Pay-Per-View with the rematch between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. With over 1,100 boxing matches shown on the network, it came as a shocking surprise to many casual boxing fans that HBO decided to leave boxing behind in 2019. For those who follow the sport extensively, boxing may have left HBO and not the other way around. Boxing’s departure from HBO was imminent if you looked at the network’s usage of boxing over the past few years.
Today now more than ever technology plays a significant role in how boxing fans can watch the sport. Change is inevitable, however in this era changes are frequent and substantial. HBO was not able to keep up with many of the new changes that streaming services have brought to a viewing consumer. Being able to stream an event live while using your laptop or smartphone has become a standard in today’s modern world. HBO does have its own streaming services such as HBO Go and HBO Now, however, neither service offers any live fights or events. When premium cable network rival, Showtime, is able to provide a similar streaming service with live events it began to blur the line between who is number one and number two. Now that Showtime has ultimately come out on top with a long foreseeable future in the boxing world, many will be left wondering how we got to the point of boxing no longer being shown on HBO. There isn’t one answer to this question and with a multitude of factors influencing this decision we can only speculate.
In the early 2000s, there was a boom in DVD sales from a wide variety of platforms. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Mixed Martial Art Company, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) put out a broad array of content in DVDs for consumers that included PPV’s and fight highlights such as the best knockouts of the year. It can be argued that the DVD’s the UFC produced helped lead them into a boom in 2006 where there was a massive spike in popularity for the company and mixed martial arts in general. Putting out home videos for their product was nothing new for WWE, and in many respects, the sports entertainment wrestling company has been at the forefront of keeping up with each changing era by adapting to the marketplace.
While HBO put out DVD’s for some of there most successful shows such as The Sopranos, the cable network never put out any boxing content. The boxing matches that were shown on HBO do belong to the respective promoters who helped put on and promote the match. However, with HBO making a habit of signing fighters to exclusive contracts where they would only be able to fight on their airwaves, it’s hard to imagine that not one deal was made with any of the various promoters the cable network worked with to put out some content for sale that could bring all entities involved a profit.
HBO has had some of the most important names in boxing history apply their craft on the network. Fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. each fought on the network 32 times each. The two biggest names of the past era Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao fought on the network over 20 times with Mayweather at 27 and Pacquiao at 24. Quite possibly, the sport of boxing’s most controversial figure Mike Tyson fought on the network 17 times.
The Internet has made it available for boxing fans that are looking for career fight sets of almost any fighter. HBO could have capitalized on this market and even helped pull in new fans that could have picked up a greatest fights DVD on Oscar De La Hoya at their local Wal-Mart or Best Buy.
In the early 2000s, HBO created a boxing mini-series called Legendary Nights that highlighted and told the story of some of the most significant fights to have taken place on the network. Matches such as Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns and Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello were featured with their own episode on the mini-documentary series. Unfortunately, this series has never been released for the public to purchase and is not currently available to view on any of HBO’s streaming apps. Simply put HBO at times has been unable or unwilling to treat boxing with the same amount of care that it does with its other programming.
If there is one thing that any fan can point to as HBO’s greatest strength, it could be its production values. HBO is known for its quality documentaries and shows that have been at the forefront of high-level programming that has influenced other networks such as AMC and FX to put out shows such as Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy that would have usually found themselves on HBO’s airwaves.
In the late 2000s, HBO began to produce a highly successful documentary-style series called 24/7 to help promote fights. The first batch of 24/7 episodes took place in 2007 for Oscar De La Hoya’s bout with Floyd Mayweather. The show ended up winning Emmy’s and would continue to be a trend in promoting major PPV shows for HBO over the next few years. As the years went by, the 24/7 series became more of an infomercial than a mini-documentary and the number of episodes made for each fight being promoted decreased. These shows much like Legendary Nights was never put out for the public to purchase leaving fans to find remnants of episodes on YouTube. The shows may have become less and less profitable for HBO causing them to only do the 24/ 7 series on rare occasions.
HBO did attempt to make a news style boxing show called The Fight Game hosted by longtime HBO commentator Jim Lampley. Unfortunately, the show would never pick up any traction or attract a large viewing audience due to the show coming on so infrequently. The show mostly played a game of catch up, as at times it was more than three months between episodes.
In today’s marketplace content is king. HBO was unwilling or unable to produce enough content to make a profit showcasing boxing on its airwaves. At times there were too many PPV’s in a year combined with the inability to grow the sport by keeping up with trends in content for the masses to grasp. HBO in many respects did not want to compete.
With 2019 on the horizon, HBO not being featured on a boxing fans calendar will for some feel surreal. HBO has been a large part of boxing’s identity over the last 45 years and for many fans was part of their first experience in watching boxing. There are so many moments and fights that come to any boxing fans mind when they think of HBO. From Barrera-McKinney to Canelo-GGG 2 HBO for years was a destination for great fights to take place. These moments and memories won’t be forgotten, but hopefully, they won’t end up lost never to see the light of day again.
The executive vice president of HBO Sports Peter Nelson stated, “Because of our association with boxing, people forget that we’re not a sports network. We’re a storytelling platform.”
What Nelson neglected is that boxing is the ultimate sport for storytelling. No other sport has the drama, excitement, and characters that make boxing standout with the stories that can be told inside a squared circle. Boxing will miss HBO, but boxing will live on as it always has. HBO didn’t know what it had in boxing. Rather than mourn at a dead franchise, fans should look forward to the future of boxing as the sport looks to change and evolve and not wait for anyone who can’t keep up. It is tough sometimes to say goodbye, but with a tear in the eye of most boxing fans, we know that it was for the best.
(Featured Photo: HBO Sports)