Eric Raskin

HBO’s Hunger to Go Younger

If the Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya fight was billed as “The World Awaits,” then this Saturday night’s bout between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver could rightly be named “The World Accepts.”

It’s a rematch to a one-sided fight, a rematch no fan requested, but a rematch to which Dawson was contractually obligated. So it’s happening. And the boxing world can live with it because we’re under the assumption that once this is over with, we’re going to see Dawson tested against the best of the best.

Call it an investment in the future of Chad Dawson on HBO’s part. It will mark the undefeated light heavyweight titlist’s HBO debut, and importantly, it’s the first fight of a two-fight deal with the network. The second fight, presumably, will be one the boxing world is clamoring to see.

But Dawson isn’t the only promising young fighter in whom HBO has made a purposeful investment. There’s been a noticeable change in the long-term strategy at the network. Already in 2009, the following boxers have appeared live on HBO: Paul Williams, Juan Manuel Lopez, Victor Ortiz, Alfredo Angulo, Andre Berto, James Kirkland, Chris Arreola and Lamont Peterson. Dawson will join that list in a few days. Kirkland’s legal problems notwithstanding, these are the most intriguing and talented twentysomethings in the sport. This could almost be a glimpse at the pound-for-pound list circa 2011 or so. And it’s no accident that all of these young potential stars are being beamed into living rooms across the country on the same network.

“What you’re seeing now is a very conscious, strategic effort at HBO to invest in the future of the sport,” explained HBO Senior Vice President of Sports Operations Mark Taffet. “Particularly in the last quarter of 2008, Ross [Greenburg] and Kery [Davis] and I spent a lot of time talking about this, about the importance of this, about our commitment to the future of the sport, and about the importance of showcasing these fighters throughout 2009, 2010 and beyond.

“A lot of the current crop of stars are veterans. And it’s very important to always be ahead of the curve so that there’s a great continuum of stars. In support of that, we decided that we would spend all of 2009 focusing, particularly on Boxing After Dark, on the next generation of stars and the new faces of boxing that you’ve seen fighting on our network so far this year.”

The turnover from the Oscar De La Hoya/Roy Jones generation of superstars has been a slow one. For the most part, the fighters that mainstream America could name in the mid-’00s were the same ones it could name in the late-’90s. Manny Pacquiao sneaking in and becoming a pay-per-view force was the exception, not the rule; for the most part, the PPV industry was relying on the same fighters it relied on a half-dozen years earlier.

But, the persistent and ageless Hopkins aside, those fighters are finally releasing their grip. The mega-stars of the ’90s are all either retired or in denial about the fact that they should be retired. The time has come for the promoters and network executives to move on—and not just to the bridge-the-gap fighters like Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and Juan Manuel Marquez. Those guys are all in their 30s and aren’t a long-term fix at this point. If there’s a long-term answer, it will come from among those fighters Boxing After Dark has been featuring this year—not to mention the fighters who have been filling out the undercards of major HBO PPVs recently.

Criticize the matchups all you want (and there have indeed been some bad ones), but the undercards of pay-per-views that are purchased in a million or so homes are a great place for getting eyeballs on potential future attractions.

“There’s a finite number of Boxing After Dark shows in any given year, but there’s a tremendous supply of great new young fighters,” Taffet said. “So promoters are also realizing when you have the opportunity on big pay-per-view shows, where not only is there lots of consumer attention but also lots of media presence, that’s an important showcase for young talent. And the sport needs to take advantage of those slots as well as the Boxing After Dark telecasts.”

Interestingly, Taffet says the new initiative isn’t just about pushing younger fighters. It’s also about reaching younger viewers.

“We’re focused on identifying the next generation of stars on an ongoing basis,” he said. “We’re also focused on identifying the next generation of boxing fans, and we are committed to finding ways to connect those two.”

For starters, that means using HBO.com and other Web portals to drive the agenda. In January, HBO gathered about a dozen of the young fighters that the network intended to feature in ’09 and conducted an extensive video and photo shoot with them. That material is being used both on HBO’s television air waves and on its digital platforms to market HBO, the sport of boxing and these next-generation pugilists.

Perhaps the most notable of these efforts is Ring Life, a series of short-form documentaries that air on HBO.com and HBO’s YouTube channel. So far, Williams, Arreola and Kirkland have been featured on Ring Life, along with some fighters who don’t fit the “future star” designation but have interesting stories to tell.

“Moving forward, HBO’s features on air are going to be branded as Ring Life,” Taffet revealed, “and then that segment will be available on digital outlets as well.”

Just because HBO boxing is hosting a youth movement, that doesn’t mean the old guard is getting the stiff-arm from the network. Boxing After Dark is leaning heavily on the next wave of stars, but World Championship Boxing still provides a potential home for the likes of Hopkins, Shane Mosley and the rest of the relevant older fighters, provided the matchup has appeal.

Ultimately, the future of the sport lies in the hands of the fighters; if Chad Dawson and Juan Manuel Lopez and Victor Ortiz and Paul Williams are willing to face serious challenges, are good enough to overcome those challenges and can be entertaining along the way, then new superstars will emerge. What HBO is doing is giving these fighters a high-profile chance to make good on their promise.

This Saturday’s fight between Dawson and Tarver is a hiccup on the road to what the sport needs and what fight fans, young and old, want to see. If that was the price HBO had to pay to get into the Chad Dawson business, so be it. Maybe the network had to sell a sliver of its soul to reclaim its reputation as “the heart and soul of boxing,” but it will indeed reclaim that reputation if it continues to embrace the future and let go of the past.

RASKIN’S RANTS

· Last week I made an accurate prediction about the one-sided nature of the Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton fight. This week’s prediction: Far fewer e-mails than last week from opinionated British boxing fans.

· Did you know that Hatton has already been enshrined in Canastota? At least that’s what Michael Buffer says, so it must be true. Hey, Mike, just announce the fighters’ hometowns and weights and say “Let’s get ready to rumble.” You’re a ring announcer, not a color commentator.

· Seriously, though, with regard to Hatton, he has nothing to be ashamed of. He’ll always have the win over Kostya Tszyu (who was not an over-the-hill fighter, no matter what anybody says), he had a four-year reign as the undisputed junior welterweight champion of the world (trivial alphabet belts or not) and he got crushed by arguably the two most talented fighters of his generation. It doesn’t make him a bum. It just means he aimed a little too high a couple of times.

· Luis Carlos Abregu probably isn’t going very far, but he’s going to be fun to watch for as long as he lasts. His war with Irving Garcia on ShoBox was the kind of fight that, like Sakio Bika-Jaidon Codrington in 2007, packed Fight of the Year-quality action but just wasn’t significant enough to contend seriously for the award.

· Put a prime Hector Camacho in the ring against a prime Yory Boy Campas, and I still wouldn’t pay five cents to watch it. I’m setting the over/under for PPV buys this Saturday night at 38.5.

· Speaking of fights I don’t want to see, Dominick Guinn is absolutely not an HBO-worthy opponent for Chris Arreola. If I want to watch a frustratingly passive heavyweight share an HBO screen with someone whose breasts are unpleasant to look at, I’ll On-Demand a scene involving Bobby Bacala and Janice Soprano.

Eric Raskin can be reached at RaskinBoxing@yahoo.com

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