How to Bring Boxing's Cold War to an End

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How to Bring Boxing's Cold War to an End
Kevork Djansezian
It's time these two bury the hatchet.

Good news, fight fans. Boxing’s aptly named cold war, the term most frequently used to describe the state of affairs between the sport’s two biggest and most influential promotional companies, Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions, has a definite solution.

The bad news? You probably won’t like what it is.

Before we get there, though, let’s first discern what the cold war is and, by extension, what it is not.

In short, boxing’s cold war is the rival promoters’ unwillingness to work together to make fights. Depending on who you ask, it’s been either three or four years since the two companies worked a promotion together.

Technically speaking, the last time Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions worked together for a boxing promotion was back in September 2011 for the battle between Top Rank’s Yuriorkis Gamboa and Golden Boy’s Daniel Ponce De Leon.

But the last time the two came together for a big-time pay-per-view card was one year prior, when Manny Pacquiao annihilated Ricky Hatton in just two rounds. Top Rank Vice President Carl Moretti told Bleacher Report he considers that bout the last “true co-promotion” of the two companies.

Al Bello/Getty Images
The last big fight Top Rank and Golden Boy put together was Pacquiao-Hatton.

Most consider the genesis of the rift to have originated back in 2007 when, according to Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times, Golden Boy-founder Oscar De La Hoya tried to use a briefcase full of cash to lure Pacquiao away from Top Rank.

Because Pacquiao had essentially signed with both promoters, Top Rank and Golden boy went to court over the matter. After arbitration, Pacquiao was back with Top Rank with Golden Boy maintaining a percentage of the popular fighter’s promotional contract.

Things got snippy between the Top Rank’s Bob Arum and Golden Boy’s Richard Schaefer. The two bickered back and forth with each other through the press, something that seemed to boil over in 2009 when the camps tried and failed to put together a bout between Golden Boy-supported Mayweather and Top Rank’s chief cash cow, Pacquiao.

The two were at odds once again in 2010 over disputed accounting practices used during three Pacquiao co-promotions.

The bad blood continued, of course, and devolved to the point that by 2013, the companies had seemingly parted ways for good. It was only a matter of time until they took their preferred television partners along with them.

And in March 2013, that happened too. Top Rank began officially working exclusively with HBO while Golden Boy chose to move forward by promoting fights televised on Showtime.

Interestingly enough, according to ESPN.com’s Brian Campbell, Pacquiao may have helped start the feud but it was Mayweather who helped further separate boxing's power brokers when he left HBO to sign a widely publicized six-fight, 30-month deal with Showtime and parent-company, CBS:

Mayweather's leap was, for all intents and purposes, the final straw to kick off the current promotional and network cold war that had been brewing for years. One month later, HBO severed ties with Golden Boy fighters, essentially creating two independent professional boxing leagues.

The particulars of the split are as follows.

The last Golden Boy-promoted telecast on HBO was in March 2013, the very month Mayweather defected to Showtime, when light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins defeated Tavoris Cloud.

Soon after, and coinciding with the Mayweather defection, the network officially announced it would no longer do business with the promoter.

HBO president Ken Hershman released a statement to various media outlets including The Sweet Science:

In order to achieve our goal of the best fighters in the most compelling matchups we've decided to focus our efforts and resources on those strategic relationships where we better share common goals and business philosophies.

In hindsight, the translation seems fairly straightforward. HBO appears to be reacting to a situation where fighters they felt they helped build into stars were being taken over to Showtime.

The Sweet Science’s Michael Woods published similar sentiments from an unnamed source at the company soon after the split:

A source at HBO told me that the two parties are not on the same page strategically. It has been simmering for a year or so, I'm led to believe, with HBO not being pleased at seeing talent they've nurtured then being brought across the street to be showcased.

The source goes on to tell Woods HBO would be willing to listen to offers from Golden Boy in the future, but that the call probably wouldn’t come anytime soon, and things seem to have played out exactly as anticipated. 

Meanwhile, the last Top Rank-promoted telecast on Showtime took place in March 2012 when Orlando Salido won a rematch over Juan Manuel Lopez. A couple weeks later, the promoter put on a smaller card featuring Diego Magdaleno.

According to Showtime Executive Vice President and General Manager, Stephen Espinoza, Top Rank is “absolutely” welcome to pitch shows to the network and has been. They simply haven’t pitched any fights, and talks between the two companies haven’t happened since a failed attempt by Top Rank and Golden Boy to put together a bout between Nonito Donaire and Abner Mares back in 2012.

“Top Rank is welcome, as are other promoters,” said Espinoza.

Still, the effect of the feud on the sport of boxing seems simple. Fight fans have been left twisting in the wind because fights that ideally would be made between the two promotional entities never get done.  

There are numerous examples of this happening over the last few years, the best probably being the never-made superfight between superstars Pacquiao and Mayweather. Espinoza agreed that particular fight never happening probably amplified the effect of the cold war to a degree.

“It can distract from a lot of the positive things that are going on in the sport,” said Espinoza. “Absolutely there are ways the sport could function better. That’s always been the case and hopefully we can all collectively find solutions to some of the systemic issues. Notwithstanding that, the sport overall had one of the strongest years in recent history in 2013.”

But let’s be honest with ourselves, too. Is there really anything new about the situation between Top Rank and Golden Boy that hasn’t happened before? Main Events CEO Kathy Duva doesn’t think so.

“It doesn’t look that different to me than when Don King took all of his business to Showtime and he had the whole network to himself and everybody else went to HBO,” said Duva. “That’s when we came up during that time. He had Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez over at Showtime and everybody else was at HBO…This is no different. Everybody talks about it like it’s something extraordinary and yet I’ve seen it before and I’ll see it when I leave.”

Indeed, King grabbed Tyson and Chavez and headed over to Showtime in 1991 and didn’t promote a fight on HBO again until Evander Holyfield faced Lennox Lewis in 1999.  

RUSTY KENNEDY
King and Tyson had a good run without HBO.

Espinoza agreed.

“I don’t think this is a new phenomenon,” said Espinoza. “I think there are cycles to it. I think there are times when promotional rivalries and relationships at networks have ebbs and flows. It’s like a pendulum and sometimes people are getting along very well and sometimes they’re not.”

To Duva, Espinoza and many other insiders, the boxing business is the same as it’s ever been: a bit dysfunctional and very cyclical.

In fact, despite recently getting in a very public tiff with Espinoza via social media over Showtime’s signing of light heavyweight Adonis Stevenson, a fighter Duva believed she had an agreement with to face Main Events-promoted Sergey Kovalev, Duva said the cold war had actually been a good thing for other promoters, Main Events included.

“I think it helps because it’s opened up slots on HBO because certain fighters aren’t fighting on HBO,” said Duva.

Duva’s been left in a good position because of it. She helped parlay one of those extra spots into an opportunity for Kovalev, who made good on the gig by destroying Nathan Cleverly in Wales for the WBO title to become one of the network’s brightest up-and-comers.

And despite Duva’s previous intimation to Bleacher Report that Showtime doesn’t want to do business with her or her company, Espinoza said he’s given no reason for her to think that. In fact, Espinoza said he wants to see the proposed Stevenson-Kovalev bout come to fruition just as much as anyone.

“We saw an opportunity in the light heavyweight division [with Stevenson]…we’d love Kovalev to be a part of that as well whenever he becomes available.”

If that fight doesn’t get made, it’s important to remember neither fighter is promoted by Top Rank or Golden Boy. The reason the fight might not happen this summer has nothing to do with boxing’s cold war between Top Rank and Golden Boy. Rather, it’s the business of boxing in general that’s responsible.

Therein lies the truth of the matter. Boxing’s cold war means little in the grand scheme of things. While there are always fights fans might wish would happen, the truth is that there will always be fights that don’t get made for one reason or another regardless of the situation between Top Rank and Golden Boy.

Need a few examples beyond Stevenson-Kovalev?

The best fight to be made at middleweight has long been lineal champion Sergio Martinez and undefeated alphabet titleholder Gennady Golovkin. Both men fight on HBO and neither is affiliated with Top Rank or Golden Boy. Regardless, the fight hasn’t happened.

Irish boxing fans have long wanted to see middleweight contenders Andy Lee and Matthew Macklin face off. Both are promoted by Lou DiBella and have appeared on HBO multiple times, yet a fight between the two has never been made. Again, neither fighter is affiliated with Top Rank or Golden Boy.

Tim Larsen
Lee might be moving down to junior middleweight.

There was a time when a fight between Yuriorkis Gamboa and Juan Manuel Lopez had boxing fans champing at the bit. The stage was set perfectly. Both were promoted by Top Rank and appeared to be on a collision course.

But the luster was lost on that one after Lopez was dismantled by Orlando Salido and Gamboa was equally undressed by his own undoing after promotional woes of leaving Top Rank and signing with rapper Curtis Jackson put his career momentarily on ice. The fight wasn’t made when it should have been, and now it seems no one cares enough to try.

Some fights just don’t get made, and there are various reasons why. Sometimes the promoter wants to build a fighter up to the level where the risk of taking on a certain opponent is eclipsed by the reward.

Other times, the fighters just have different things in mind for their careers at different times. Both Lee and Macklin have stated numerous times they want to fight each other, but any sort of serious effort to get the bout made goes by the wayside every time one of them rears his head in another direction. The latest example would be Lee’s imminent move down to the junior middleweight division.

Sometimes a fight just doesn’t get made, and sometimes there just isn’t even a real reason.

Because here’s the thing: on the business side of boxing, the side that actually puts the fights together, the managers, promoters and television partners all looking to make a buck, this side of things doesn’t refer to them as fights at all. Instead, they call them promotions.

And that’s what they are: business ventures built around a carefully crafted and commercially packaged narrative.

Where it might be difficult to understand why a fight doesn’t get made in the abstract, is it really that hard to believe a promotion might not? Boxing does not fall under a single umbrella. It is unlike almost all other major professional sports in that competing promotional companies all stand on similar footing.

There is simply no way for an environment such as this to yield all the fights every fan wants to see. The cold war, then, is just another avenue a promotion might take on its way to not getting done.

As an example, had both Pacquiao and Mayweather been with just Top Rank or just Golden Boy, would we care the reason why the fight never got made? Would it matter any less if the two just never got around to it? Or if they waited too long for it to be relevant? Or if there was no reason at all?

Sticking with the Pacquiao-Mayweather debacle, are there any among us who believe the fight wouldn’t have been made had both men absolutely demanded it?

Boxing’s cold war between Top Rank and Golden Boy will not last forever. Cooler heads will prevail, or new leaders will emerge or fighters from each camp who have enough sway will demand a fight be made.

What will end it remains to be seen. But the constants in the equation are this: it will take time to happen, and all you can do in the meantime is be patient and not overemphasize the situation’s importance. 

Because the only thing that will end boxing’s cold war is time.

“I don’t think this divide lasts forever…,” said Espinoza, as the second hand on the clock above ticked toward the end of our call. “Things like this never last forever.”

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. 

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