Eric Raskin

Don’t look now, but HBO might just deserve a little credit

HBO deserves credit for airing competitive fights between elite boxers during the first quarter of 2011. The anticipated bantamweight showdown between Fernando Montiel (left) and Nonito Donaire on Feb. 19 is one of the subscription cable network's attractive matchups. Photo / Chris Cozzone-Fightwireimages.com

Who has the best chin in boxing today? Glen Johnson? Vitali Klitschko, perhaps? Maybe Sakio Bika? Here’s one more name to consider that doesn’t get thrown into the mix very often: Ross Greenburg.

Say what you will about the president of HBO Sports, but he takes as many shots as anyone and he’s still hanging in there.

With the deepest pockets in boxing, HBO is a massive target for criticism –- and often, it’s completely warranted. Unattractive matchups sometimes get the stamp of approval, while well-connected fighters can find themselves overpaid and under-matched. So it’s perfectly valid to test the chins of Greenburg and his staff periodically.

But if fans, promoters, managers and writers are going to tear them new rear hatches when they screw up, it’s only fair to also send a word of praise in their direction when they get it right.

And with the 2011 HBO boxing calendar thus far, they’re getting it right. There’s virtually nothing at all to criticize. So here’s a crazy idea: Let’s give HBO some credit for a change.

If the goal of a network should be to buy fights between evenly matched fighters, fights that mean something, fights that have the potential to be stylistically entertaining, then how can you do better than Timothy Bradley vs. Devon Alexander and Nonito Donaire vs. Fernando Montiel? We got some unfortunate news this week about fighters pulling out of HBO bouts, but that doesn't change the fact that HBO was prepared to put money behind guaranteed scorchers Michael Katsidis vs. Robert Guerrero and Andy Lee vs. John Duddy. And one excellent undercard fight is still on the schedule: a rematch between Mike Jones and Jesus Soto-Karass.

There will still be critics who slam HBO. But those who do so at this particular moment are either thoughtlessly bitching out of habit or have an axe to grind.

“We as a network have taken criticism all the way back to when I first got here in 1978,” Greenburg told RingTV.com. “I can think back to when Sugar Ray Leonard fought Bruce Finch on HBO after he fought Tommy Hearns, and we took criticism. That was back in 1982.

“There have been many times over the years that we’ve taken shots –- sometimes deserved, and other times not. [Programming boxing] is not an exact science, in case anyone was wondering. None of us have a crystal ball and can really project whether a fight is going to be quality when it’s made. All you can try to do is put the best fighters in the ring in tough fights.”

Needless to say, there have been times when that mission statement hasn’t been followed. It happened as recently as two HBO cards ago, last Nov. 27, when Andre Berto got a soft touch in Freddy Hernandez and Celestino Caballero took on 13-1 underdog Jason Litzau. By the time the broadcast was over, however, only one of the two supposed mismatches could still be criticized, as Litzau pulled off the shocking upset and reminded us just how inexact the science of appraising the value of a fight is.

It follows that Bradley might rout Alexander or vice-versa, or Donaire and Montiel might dance defensively for 12 rounds. But Greenburg can’t think that way. Disappointments like Oscar De La Hoya vs. Felix Trinidad will happen. All you can do is put your money behind fights that are promising on paper, which most all of the 2011 HBO slate is.

And Greenburg isn’t gloating about that. If anything, he’s deflecting credit with sort of a “how could we not buy these fights when they were presented to us?” attitude.

“Bradley and Alexander are positioned as two of the best 140-pounders in the world, and I’ve been eying that fight for about eight months. So knowing that the two fighters wanted to get it on, we were right there supporting it,” Greenburg said. “Montiel-Donaire, it’s a little out of lockstep for us to dive into the bantamweight division, but we know that those are two of the best fighters in the world, period, and they happen to be the same size. And if that’s going to happen, then they belong on HBO.”

If there’s a 2011 fight that Greenburg and the rest of the folks at HBO deserve more direct credit for, it’s the March 12 middleweight championship fight between Sergio Martinez and Sergei Dzinziruk.

The HBO Sports execs knew they wanted to televise Martinez’s next fight after featuring his breakthrough 2010 victories over Kelly Pavlik and Paul Williams, so they committed to giving him a date before an opponent had been found (a move that sometimes gets networks in trouble). A few names were floated, but some simply had no chance of being competitive with “Maravilla.” So Greenburg pushed for a challenger who wouldn’t be hopelessly out of his depth with Martinez and came up with Dzinziruk.

Not everyone is sold on the style matchup. But in the relatively shallow 160- and 154-pound divisions, it’s hard to dispute that the undefeated Ukrainian is among the most capable and worthy contenders.

Maybe it’s just rhetoric, but Greenburg claims that HBO, the very same goliath that some people blame for so many of boxing’s ills, is acting with the sport’s best interest in mind in 2011.

“We’re making sure that if we have any weight to bear on the decision, boxing’s biggest stars will fight the toughest available opponents,” Greenburg said. “Boxing needs that right now. This is not the NFL. This is a sport that desperately needs attention. And the only way to grab that attention is with really good fights in the ring that become water-cooler talk. You can’t get that with mismatches, and you can’t get that with soft touches. So this isn’t just about HBO; this is about the survival of a great sport.”

We’ve heard this kind of talk from the HBO brass before, but this time, the upcoming schedule actually backs it up.

And so does what’s not on the schedule. HBO is not carrying the uninspired pairing of Miguel Cotto and Ricardo Mayorga even though Cotto is one of the sport’s most reliable ratings-grabbers.

Sure, it’s not ideal that we’re getting only one HBO fight card in January and only one in February. But if that means there’s more money available later in the year when several attractive, expensive matchups come together at once, then the light early-2011 schedule becomes something for which fans should be grateful.

Maybe the quantity for the first quarter of the new year isn’t perfect. But the quality is damned close to perfect.

Why is that? Has there been a philosophical shift at HBO? Or are they just getting lucky with phenomenal fights falling into their laps?

Whichever is the case, all of the fights on the schedule are fights we want to see. It doesn’t particularly matter what the reason is. Just sit back, enjoy and direct your criticism somewhere else for a change.

RASKIN’S RANTS

• What a great background piece on Friday Night Fights this past week about the post-Contender struggles of Peter Manfredo Jr. How do you not root for a guy like that? (Especially considering he got no workman’s comp after that horrific accident at the Dunkin Donuts Center when a zamboni ran over his nose.)

• Someone on Twitter suggested Manfredo as a perfect next test for David Lemieux. Co-sign.

• In the interest of saving precious keystrokes, I’m loving the nickname “WV2” for Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. I’m also really looking forward to when Manny Pacquiao’s grandson turns pro so I can start calling him “MP3.” And I’m sad that I won’t be around in a few hundred years when the 17th Nigel Collins is the editor of THE RING.

• I’m relieved that the British Boxing Board of Control decided not to withhold any of Audley Harrison’s purse for his fight with David Haye. To do otherwise would have set a frightening precedent. We must continue to draw a line between those fighters who throw fights and those who just plain stink.

• Oliver McCall-Fres Oquendo II: Because organizers of the Evander Holyfield-Sherman Williams card didn’t feel right monopolizing all of the heavyweight fights that nobody wants to see.

Eric Raskin can be reached at RaskinBoxing@yahoo.com. You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine and follow him on Twitter @EricRaskin

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