Buying or Selling Boxing's Top Young Talents as Future Pay-Per-View Stars
In today's boxing world, the pay-per-view star sits at the top of the pyramid.
Title fights still mean something, at least some of the time. Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime still generate subscribers by programming high-profile, championship-level cards.
But the pay-per-view weekends are when the sport breaks into the mainstream. Even in an age when boxing has declined in prominence and popularity, pay-per-view stars like Floyd Mayweather still rate high on the Forbes' list of top-earning sports stars.
Pay-per-view weekends are crucial economic events for host cities like Las Vegas. Sports bars around the country pay over a thousand dollars each in order to broadcast the fight and sell mountains of chicken wings and lakes of beer.
For this list I have only considered fighters below the age of 30. Many of them have already fought on pay-per-view cards, and I can easily imagine most of them headlining a pay-per-view in the role of opponent.
But to become the actual star of the show and the main name selling the tickets is a different matter. There is only room for a few stars at a time like that.
And the competition to become one is enormous.
Abner Mares: Selling with Regret
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Abner Mares is among the most exciting fighters in the sport and a top pound-for-pound talent. He cleaned out the bantamweight division, won a world title at 122, then moved up to featherweight and captured a third championship belt.
But I do not see him developing into a major pay-per-view star despite his talent. For one thing, the sort of casual fans who ultimately anoint pay-per-view status on a fighter don't have as much enthusiasm for smaller fighters.
The biggest fights almost all occur at welterweight or above.
Beyond that, the most compelling potential opponents for Mares are all signed with Top Rank, while Mares is promoted by Golden Boy. Trying to arrange fights between the two biggest promoters in the sport has been historically futile.
Mikey Garcia: Selling with Regret
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I can imagine WBO featherweight champion Mikey Garcia developing into the top pound-for-pound boxer in the sport within the next few years. He is the total package as a fighter: a technician with finishing power.
But I have far less confidence in his potential to become a pay-per-view star.
He is in a similar situation to Abner Mares. He fights below welterweight and his best potential rival at the moment, Mares, is signed with the wrong promoter.
I could imagine Garcia winning fights up to 140, and possibly even at 147. Whether or not he can bring his exciting, fight-ending power with him is a different matter.
I'd like to see Garcia develop into a major pay-per-view star. He showcases a lot of what is great about the sport both inside the ring and out.
But I don't see him as the most likely candidate to get there.
Adrien Broner: Buying but with Extreme Reservations
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People have been talking about Adrien Broner as a future pay-per-view star for about as long as they have been talking about him at all. At 23, he has already won world titles in three different divisions.
He has undeniable skill and athletic ability. He already has the best business connections that a young fighter can have.
But his performance against Paulie Malignaggi last June proved he has plenty of work left to do. I thought Broner deserved to win the fight, but he was far less convincing against Paulie Mags than Ricky Hatton or Amir Khan were.
And Khan and Hatton fought Malignaggi when the Magic Man was still in his prime.
If Broner were the type of fighter who seemed likely to learn his lessons from that fight and improve, I wouldn't think twice about his future status. But nothing in Broner's public persona indicates he has that sort of self-awareness and wisdom.
So much of how Broner presents himself seems borrowed wholesale from Floyd Mayweather. But Mayweather developed that villain's mask over the course of a Hall of Fame career.
Broner is attempting to simply put on Mayweather's image like a kid brother borrowing his older brother's jacket. It doesn't fit yet and looks ridiculous.
I'd have a lot less reservations on buying Broner as a future king of the sport if he didn't already think he was there.
Brandon Rios: Selling
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Brandon Rios is one of the most exciting fighters in the sport. Fans know they are in for a great night whenever he climbs into the ring.
I've interviewed Rios and heard him on media calls, and his passion for the sport always comes across. He gets as excited talking about fights that don't even involve him as he does talking about his own.
Hardcore fans can tell that Rios is one of their own, and that is always going to build a following for a fighter.
But as Mike Alvarado demonstrated last March, and as Richar Abril, in my opinion, demonstrated in April 2012, Rios can be beaten by boxing. And to win the kind of fights that are necessary to reach the very top of boxing's food chain, a fighter needs more versatility than Rios has so far displayed.
Rios has a golden opportunity when he faces former pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao in November. But even if he wins, it will probably be treated more as an indication of Pacquiao's decline than of Rios' ultimate value.
Danny Garcia: Selling
I could be sleeping on Danny Garcia here. He has fight-ending power and no obvious flaws. At only 25, he has already captured the lion's share of world titles at 140 pounds.
He's a legitimate world-class fighter, but I just don't see him with the potential to become one of the sport's transcendent stars. His Round 4 TKO of Amir Khan in July of last year was extremely impressive, but until he caught the notoriously fragile Khan with a big shot in the third round, he was being clearly out-boxed.
Against 35-year-old Zab Judah, Garcia was the obvious winner, but also struggled late in the fight.
Garcia has been underestimated for much of his career, and has done nothing but continue to advance into greater stardom. On the Floyd Mayweather-Saul Alvarez card in September, he will have the chance to prove doubters wrong once more when he faces Lucas Matthysse, a fighter who has developed into something of a cult figure.
A win for Garcia in this fight will make him among the fastest-rising properties in the sport.
Keith Thurman: Buying
If I am sleeping on Danny Garcia, I am willing to go out on a limb for Keith Thurman. He is coming off from an exciting Round 10 KO of previously unbeaten Diego Chaves, which earned him the WBA interim welterweight title.
Winning the interim WBA belt should make Thurman the mandatory No. 1 contender for a unification fight with WBA champion Adrien Broner. But I don't expect Golden Boy to match two of their hottest undefeated fighters this early in their careers.
Thurman gets a lot less hype than Broner, but I think he has more long-term potential. He's already demonstrated serious punching power at 147 and 154.
Thurman has accumulated 19 stoppages in 21 professional fights, and has been able to thrive as a pure gunslinger for most of his career so far.
But in his recent fights with Chaves, and Jan Zaveck last March, Thurman has shown a great ability to adjust to higher-level competition while continuing to dominate.
Austin Trout: Selling
Austin Trout carries himself like a professional, both inside the ring and out. He's already accomplished a great deal in his career, and I expect him to remain near the top of the sport for at least the next several years.
But I don't expect him to develop into a true pay-per-view superstar. I just don't think he has the excitement and power to dazzle crowds or beat the very elite at 154 and 160.
Trout beat Miguel Cotto with ease and made an impressive showing in defeat against Saul Alvarez last spring. He's only 27 and he will fight meaningful fights and probably even hold world titles again.
I can imagine him fighting on a pay-per-view undercard, or possibly even headlining as an opponent. That's a pretty nice career.
But I don't see Trout going any higher than that.
Saul Alvarez: Buying
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It could be argued that Saul Alvarez is already there as a pay-per-view star. He's fighting in the role of opponent against Floyd Mayweather this September, but there is no question that Canelo's own popularity will be a major force for driving up the buy rates.
If Alvarez loses, as most expect he will, it will mean a step back for the bright young star. Even so, it could be a long time before fans see Alvarez fight again without paying for it.
Alvarez has gotten better in every fight he's had at the championship level, and at 23, he is already an extremely experienced star. There hasn't been a fighter as popular as him since Oscar De La Hoya.
If Alvarez can do what seems impossible and upset Mayweather, the sport's next major superstar will officially ascend to the throne.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.: Buying but with the Intent to Sell
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As with Saul Alvarez, you could argue that Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is already a pay-per-view star. While he was the lower-rated fighter against Sergio Martinez last year, Chavez's famous name more than Martinez's pound-for-pound credentials made that event a pay-per-view.
Chavez lost a one-sided decision, but his dramatic Round 12 knockdown of Martinez allowed him to retain his status for now. A showdown with either Gennady Golovkin or Andre Ward would likely be another pay-per-view showcase for the son of the legend.
Chavez, like Alvarez, has improved in the spotlight in recent years. Still, I think he would lose again by one-sided decision to either Golovkin or Ward, and that he might even get stopped for the first time in his career.
If that were the case, his stock would inevitably drop.
So I'm buying Chavez as a headliner for another pay-per-view fight. But I'm selling as quickly as I can beyond that.
Andre Ward: Buying but Not Quite Yet
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Andre Ward has earned his reputation as the No. 2 pound-for-pound star in the sport. He cleaned out the super middleweight division from 2010 to 2012 and then beat light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson by TKO in September of last year.
He's a former Olympic gold medalist who hasn't lost a fight of any kind since before he hit puberty. On paper he looks like he should be a pay-per-view star already.
But Ward's run of dominance has not always been thrilling. His 54 percent KO ratio belies the fact that his nearly unbeatable style does not always rouse the fans.
Ward also lacks for an obvious worthy opponent. The top-rated fighter at 168 behind Ward is Carl Froch, a man he has already beaten with ease. A rematch would sell out a soccer stadium in England, but fans in North America would not be willing to shell out $60 for it on pay-per-view.
Ward is going to need to wait for the right opponent to emerge. A best-case scenario for him would be to fight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., who has enough popularity in his own right to promote such an event.
Beyond that, Ward needs fighters like Gennady Golovkin, Peter Quillin or light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev to continue cleaning up their own divisions before coming after him.
Ward is undeniably among the most talented fighters to emerge in the past 10 years, and he conducts himself in a manner that reflects very well on the sport. If anybody deserves to be boxing's top pay-per-view representative, it's Ward.