Is HBO vs. Al Haymon Boxing's Next Big Fight?

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterMarch 12, 2015

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 07:  A general view prior to a Premier Boxing Champions bout between Adrien Broner and John Molina Jr. in the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 7, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

Al Haymon is the most powerful man in boxing. Yet, before Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) launched on NBC last week, you'd likely never heard of him. You've certainly never heard from him or seen him in the ring glad handing fighters and searching out the cameras.

Haymon might as well be a ghost—and that's just the way he likes it.

But, behind the scenes, where he's amassed a roster of the sport's biggest names, Haymon is a knockout slugger. On Friday, he'll wind up and take a second swing at the boxing establishment and its very way of doing business, this time on Spike TV.

"I think it's a huge deal," former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver, a Haymon client who will call the fights for Spike, told Bleacher Report. "I think it puts boxing back on the map. You can turn on any channel and get football, basketball or baseball. Boxing kind of went away from that. And we've lost some luster because of that lack of visibility. I remember back in the day when fighters started their careers on NBC. Network TV.  That's how legendary stars were made. I think NBC and Spike are going to do the same for today's fighters."

To take boxing into the future, Haymon intends to revisit the past, bringing boxing to the masses. Before boxing can truly rebuild, he believes, it must first be seen. It's a marked change in the business model, reliant on premium cable for decades—but one Spike Television President Kevin Kay says is long overdue.

"I never felt boxing was dead. I think boxing was hidden," Kay told Bleacher Report. "They do a really good job on pay cable, but when you're only in 28 million homes, and that's your major platform, it's hard to really reach a broad audience. I longed for the day I could watch boxing for free on a cable platform. I feel like that's been missing for a long time."

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Kay, who will be re-branding Spike's Friday night lineup (which also includes MMA and kickboxing events) with the "Lights Out" moniker, says Haymon was the only boxing power broker willing to reconsider a path that has seen promoters focus primarily on hardcore fans while eschewing the mainstream almost entirely. 

"I met Al a couple of years ago when I was trying to figure out the boxing business. I kept kind of getting the run around from various promoters and didn't get the answers I wanted," Kay said. "I heard from him a willingness to change the model. I heard a guy who believes what I believe. When you combine that with the stable of fighters that he's got, and his willingness to put on truly competitive fights, and we have the chance to do something really different. That's what I was looking for...To me he's a breath of fresh air in a business that has been tough to love for a long time."

HBO Spring Boxing Schedule
DateMain Event
March 14Sergey Kovalev vs. Jean Pascal
April 18Matthysse vs. Provodnikov+Crawford vs. Dulorme
April 25Wladimir Klitschko vs. Bryant Jennings
May 2Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao
May 9Canelo Alvarez vs. James Kirkland

With PBC's ascent, HBO has been forced to get creative with its own boxing programming, creating a bevy of new stars from the most unexpected of places—the former Soviet bloc. While language and cultural barriers are all too real, the network has found fighters with the rare charisma to overcome them.

"I think what makes Gennady Golovkin or Canelo Alvarez or Sergey Kovalev so engaging are their personalities in and out of the ring," HBO Sports President Ken Hershman said. "Not only are they spectacularly entertaining fighters in the ring, but when you meet them, they're so  different outside the ring. Their personas come through and the language barrier seems to melt away. People are drawn to their energy."

With Haymon on the horizon, HBO booked a strong spring schedule for its subscribers. While the intent likely wasn't sending the competition a message, the collection of outstanding and competitive fights makes it very clear the network doesn't intend to abdicate the throne without a fight.

Photo courtesy of HBO

"There's always been competition," Hershman said. "We aren't afraid of competition. Anything that elevates boxing as a sport elevates HBO's boxing. I want other boxing programs to do well and develop new stars we can have on our platform at some point. I think it's going to be healthy for the sport. The more people who are aware of great boxers and looking for great fights, the better. They aren't going to want to miss what HBO is putting on.

"I think we have the best roster of fighters. I'll leave it to the fans to say who's better than who. I think that's part of the fun of the sport—but it's subjective. Our objective is to have a roster of fighters that are important, meaningful, fight in a style that the fans enjoy and are willing to take on all comers. We have a roster of fighters that know to be great they have to fight other great fighters. And they're not afraid of it." 

Conspicuously missing from HBO's schedule are fighters managed by Haymon, not coincidentally fighters who have mainly eschewed competitive fights until a big payday was on the horizon. While the rumor mill says Haymon is essentially barred from doing business with the network, Hershman insists that isn't true. He'll make a deal with anyone—if it's the right deal.

"I don't think anything changes," he said. "Our strategy has been consistent. We want to invest in fighters, promoters and managers that see a long-term future with HBO and who we can comfortably put our money and our platform behind to build them into the stars they deserve to be. As long as those business objectives are met, we'll buy fights from anybody.

"In the conversations we have with promoters, there's no way to avoid crossing over with fighters who are managed in some capacity by Al. We don't tell people not to bring up those names. We have the conversations. And I'm sure at some point those conversations will result in Al's fighters being on HBO. I don't know in what capacity and I can't predict when, where or how. But we don't rule anything out and we don't ban anyone. It's not about that. We're just trying to articulate to everyone in the community what our objectives, goals and requirements are. Hopefully there are enough people who agree with them and see the benefits of being on the HBO platform." 

While it's early to say whether Haymon's vision will usurp HBO, work nicely as a complement or fail outright, early ratings on NBC were promising. If PBC continues to showcase talented fighters in real fights, Tarver believes a boxing renaissance could bloom from what has mostly been a sport on the decline.

"I think free TV is the way to go. They're going to be able to build a brand. For Al to be able to see that, and be the innovator of that, that's why he's where he's at," Tarver said. "It's all about the matchups. You have to put quality fights on TV to get people to watch and be entertained. In order for people to care about the competitors in the ring, they've got to be competitive fights. I think if you look at what NBC did last Saturday and what Spike TV is doing Friday you have to be impressed."

The result, he believes, will be good for both promoters and fighters. And, as an added bonus, it will finally answer lingering questions about who will eventually replace Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao at the top of the boxing pyramid. 

"If you fight on NBC or on Spike TV and get seen—then it's time to go to pay-per-view," Tarver said. "There's only one or two real pay-per-view fighters. Everybody else? Let's get famous first. Let's become household names, not just with boxing fans but with sports fans. That's when we'll see boxing rise back to that pinnacle where we used to be. I think it's going to be perfect for the sport of boxing." 

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.