How Explosion of Eastern European Fighters Is Changing the Boxing Landscape

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2014

Sergey Kovalev is coming up in boxing at just the right time.
Sergey Kovalev is coming up in boxing at just the right time.Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Fighters from the Americas, move over. Because your brethren from Eastern Europe are changing boxing’s landscape, and it’s definitely for the better.

“It’s always been a global sport,” Main Events CEO Kathy Duva told Bleacher Report. “America just noticed.”

We sure have.

While there has been no shortage of fighters from Eastern Europe doing big things on the world stage in the past, American fight fans have had little chance to embrace them.

Duva said it’s because U.S. television executives have only very recently changed their minds about what kinds of fighters can become big stars in America.

“I think the guy who opened the door for that to happen was Gennady Golovkin. Once Golovkin proved that an Eastern European can, in fact, be embraced by the whole world, then that prejudice, and that’s what it was, the wall came down. Thank heavens for that.”

Duva has good reason to be thankful.

Her fighter, light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev, is currently punching his way into the hearts and minds of Americans the way Golovkin did.

It has earned Kovalev a spot on HBO next Saturday as the headliner and his promoter, Duva and Main Events, their first card on the television giant since Arturo Gatti lost to Alfonso Gomez in July 2007.

That was almost seven years ago.

“I think without Golovkin getting on HBO and proving he can draw a huge audience, I might still be knocking on HBO’s door.”

Like Golovkin, Kovalev is a sound boxer who uses his expert technical ability to be forceful and aggressive. Add power to the equation, which both Kovalev and Golovkin possess in spades, and you have a pretty exciting and entertaining brand of boxing to showcase.

HBO loves Golovkin.
HBO loves Golovkin.Al Bello/Getty Images

HBO has taken note of both, and it looks like the fighters’ success might open more doors on the network for Easter European fighters who might not have otherwise had the opportunity.

Duva would know a lot about that, too. She said those doors may be opening now just as it appears one may be closing: the career of another one of her fighters, Tomasz Adamek of Poland.

Adamek is a former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titleholder who has been a top heavyweight contender over the last few years. Still, he struggled to get dates on HBO and Showtime.

“Adamek is the best example: fan-friendly, warm, a guy that people adore, and I couldn’t get him on television here.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

Duva would meet with the brass over at HBO and Showtime constantly, practically begging them to give him fights. She’d list the names of fighters from other countries she’s promoted before, guys who made big names and big fanbases for themselves in the states.

Guys like Lennox Lewis and Arturo Gatti did it, she’d tell them, why can’t these other guys? Every time, she said, she was met with the same kind of resistance.

“It’s shocking when you think about it now. I would say this over and over and over again in meetings with television executives and find myself being told ‘Oh no, Americans will watch Mexicans, but they won’t watch anyone else’s fighters.’ And it was [like I was] banging my head against a wall!”

Duva took other measures with Adamek. She put on shows in the U.S. and sold the fights herself.

“We just did it our own way. We sold tickets. We sold the rights to Poland. We sold the rights to other parts of the world. We paid for our own television production. We did a lot of stuff. We took a lot of risks, but people followed him, so those risks worked out.”

Alik Keplicz/Associated Press

But Adamek still couldn’t get any significant air time on HBO or Showtime. Oh, they’d let him be an opponent. He was served up to Johnathon Banks in 2009 on Showtime and to Chris Arreola in 2010 on HBO. He won both fights, but it didn’t earn him much by way of return dates.

“It was a catch 22, or whatever you want to call it. They would tell me he’s just got a lot of Polish fans…but what we learned with Adamek was that there weren’t just Polish people interested in him but rather that everybody was Polish for a day. It was like St. Patrick’s Day, you know? Everybody is Irish.”

In 2011, Duva and Main Events signed a deal with NBC. There, she finally found a place for Adamek.

“God bless NBC. When they gave us an opportunity, they said you tell us who you want to put on, we’re behind you. We had the freedom to not have to pay attention to the nationality or the race or what language the fighter spoke. It opened up a whole new world to us.”

It doesn’t appear she’ll have to deal with the same kinds of things with Kovalev. Instead, Duva and other promoters can now focus on the basics of promoting when working with HBO and Showtime. The stigma of Eastern European fighters not being able to draw an audience fades more and more with every show, and both Golovkin and Kovalev appear to be on their way toward superstardom.

“We’ve got to sell a bunch of tickets and then go out and get a huge rating on HBO. It’s not just about winning the fights anymore, as Guillermo Rigondeaux just found out.”

Bringing up Rigondeaux was an interesting point. Here is a case of a fighter being absurdly talented and successful but never catching on with American fight fans. The result? According to Boxing Scene’s David Greisman, networks and promotional companies are finding it more and more difficult to work with him:

Rigondeaux, who won gold medals in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and later defected from Cuba, is considered to be among the best professional boxers in the sport today. What he seeks is attention commensurate with his position. What he’s learning is that winning isn’t everything. HBO, one of the two biggest networks airing boxing in the United States, isn’t overly interested in having him back on its broadcasts, not after the way his last fight performed in the ratings. The other major network, Showtime, doesn’t have a working relationship anymore with his co-promoter, Top Rank.

Duva said she was fortunate to not have to try to sell a fighter like Rigondeaux to HBO.

“My perception of the problem with [Rigondeaux], and it contrasts sharply with Sergey, is that Sergey has an ability to have a personal relationship with everyone in the room. People that are charismatic can do that. Not everyone can. But when he gets in that ring, everyone in that room feels like they’re invested in him. There’s something about him that you can embrace so easily. Rigondeaux, it’s almost like he’s off-putting.”

Duva paused a moment and then corrected herself.

“Not almosthe is. He’s off-putting. He gives the impression that he doesn’t care if you like him, and that, to me, is just failing.”

Duva said being a great fighter can only get you so far.

“It’s not that he’s not a great fighter, because he is. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy watching him, because I really do… But once you are at a certain level of ability…when you can say someone is an elite fighter…he’s got to have that ability to engage with everyone, whether it’s verbally or just by standing in the ring and commanding attentionthat’ s how Thomas Hearns did it. He didn’t have this engaging personality, but boy when he got into the ring, you had to look. Sergey has that.”

Rigondeaux doesn’t, and some other fighters don’t either.

There will no doubt be many fighters looking for exposure who’ll come along in the future. Some will be from America and Mexico. Others, like Rigondeaux, will be from Cuba. Still, others will hail from Kazakhstan like Golovkin and Russia like Kovalev.

After all, boxing is a global sport.

But wherever they come from, they’re more apt to get a fair shake from television partners now, thanks in large part to fighters like Golovkin, Kovalev and even Adamek.

Team Kovalev is excited about the future.
Team Kovalev is excited about the future.Scott Heavey/Getty Images

“Tomasz would’ve made a lot more money if we could have convinced HBO or Showtime to embrace him... It’s bittersweet, because he paved the way in some respects, for the people who are going to be able to capitalize.”

Times are changing, and boxing will be better because of it.  

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.


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