HBO Sports rolling with the punches
Ross Greenburg isn't a fighter like the athletes he televises, but HBO Sports' president has been scrapping in the boardroom to get the fights he wants.
That's one of the reasons why, after one of its weakest stretches in recent memory, HBO's 2010 boxing schedule seems poised to close with a bang and open with another in early 2011, after Greenburg and Kery Davis, HBO Sports senior vice president, were able to finally nail down several fan-friendly matches.
There are three big ones before the end of the year: The much-anticipated rematch between middleweight champion Sergio Martinez and Paul Williams on Nov. 20, Juan Manuel Marquez's lightweight championship defense against Michael Katsidis on Nov. 27 and junior welterweight titleholder Amir Khan's showdown with Marcos Maidana on Dec. 11.
Early 2011 brings two more important fights on HBO: A Jan. 29 meeting between junior welterweight titleholders Devon Alexander and Timothy Bradley Jr. and a Feb. 19 fight for hardcore fans between bantamweight titlist Fernando Montiel and Nonito Donaire.
Although there have been some major disappointments in 2010, Greenburg is gratified to have put together a strong upcoming schedule.
"I think when you look at the three big ones -- Martinez-Williams, Marquez-Katsidis and Khan-Maidana -- this year, and then you have Bradley-Alexander and Montiel-Donaire, I think we're in a rhythm," Greenburg said in an interview with ESPN.com. "I think we have to just keep it going through 2011. We're really excited about those particular fights. Everything fell into place."
But there was no rhythm for most of 2010, which Greenburg is well aware of and has taken his share of criticism over. There were long stretches without fights. There were some lackluster cards, on paper and in the ring. Most significantly, the much anticipated Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight didn't come off, despite two rounds of failed negotiations -- the second of which Greenburg was stuck in the middle of as a go-between. The fight not being finalized cast a pall over the sport.
We have to mine all the divisions and look for the Montiel-Donaire-type fights. This is a statement that we are making. We will be on the lookout for great fights, and I don't care what weight they are. This is a change of heart within HBO sports.” -- HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg
A major welterweight title bout between Shane Mosley and Andre Berto, which was supposed to take place in January as the network's first big fight of the year, was called off when Berto withdrew on short notice after the massive earthquake in Haiti killed eight members of his family. Greenburg, of course, understood the reason the fight was called off, but he said he's not quite sure why it didn't eventually happen when the sides went back to the table to try to make the fight for the fall.
Greenburg was frustrated that it was so difficult to make marquee fights, even when HBO was offering by far the most money in the industry.
"We hit a couple of different roadblocks, with certain promoters and fighters not wanting to make certain fights, and there were some managerial skirmishes," Greenburg said. "We made headway in 2009 and we were headed in that direction in 2010, but the apple cart got a little upset. We couldn't make fights -- literally, couldn't make any fights. Mosley-Berto failed. The negotiations just fell down. They evaporated and left us scratching our heads. That hurt. It was a frustrating and odd year.
"But what happened was, over the summer the promoters and fighters came to the realization that HBO isn't going to buy any old fight. And the fighters and their promoters figured out that they had to fight the best guys. They suddenly woke up to that, and we were able to make the fights we have coming up. So going forward, I am optimistic again.
"We will run through a healthy stretch at the end of 2010 and hopefully through 2011 to make the sport thrive. We dug our heels in this summer, which is why the schedule maybe wasn't as good as we would have liked it to be. But in the long run, it looks like things are working out because of the fights we have been able to make."
The elephant in the room remains the inability to make Pacquiao-Mayweather, the blockbuster of blockbusters. It's a fight the public has demanded the past few years and a match that would pit boxing's top two fighters in an era-defining showdown between clear-cut Hall of Famers. Most industry observers expect that the fight would shatter box office records.
Greenburg was bitterly disappointed when two rounds of negotiations to make the fight -- last winter and in the spring -- failed. First, Pacquiao wouldn't agree to the level of Mayweather's prefight drug testing demands. Then the fight couldn't be consummated in the spring because ... well, nobody seems to know.
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Mayweather and his team denied that the second round of talks took place with Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who promotes Pacquiao. Arum insisted they happened, and Greenburg, who served as go-between, backed up the claim.
"Both times I thought we'd be able to make the fight, it didn't happen," Greenburg said. "The second time, I don't know why it didn't happen. You need to talk to Floyd Mayweather about that. I don't know why he wouldn't fight Manny this fall."
Making the fight has been one of Greenburg's priorities for more than a year, to no avail. But even as Pacquiao prepares to face Antonio Margarito on Nov. 13, Greenburg holds out hope that the superfight will eventually come to fruition.
"Pacquiao-Mayweather, it's the biggest of the big," Greenburg said. "I'll continue to battle for that fight as long as Mayweather can handle his personal issues in Nevada. Hopefully, we can make that fight in 2011 because the sport desperately needs it. Pacquiao, hopefully he gets through the Margarito fight, for his sake. If not, I don't know where we go."
When Greenburg mentioned Mayweather's "personal issues," he was talking about the eight counts (four felonies and four misdemeanors) he faces in Las Vegas, stemming from an alleged domestic dispute in September.
"I'm just hoping Mayweather has a better 2011," Greenburg said. "Since [beating Mosley on] May 1, he has had a difficult time managing his life, and I hope those around him are giving him a helping hand and he gets through the situation in Las Vegas and can turn his life back around. He was in a very good spot a couple of years ago. Hopefully he can get his feet planted on the ground again and come back to the sport he loves and help us resurrect the game with a Pacquiao fight. But clearly he has some serious work to do."
Besides the charges, Mayweather seriously damaged his reputation days earlier by going on a lengthy racist and homophobic rant directed at Pacquiao on a streaming video website.
"Mayweather has been brazen on '24/7,' but that was a frustrated Floyd Mayweather having to endure the public relations backlash from the Pacquiao negotiations and then watching Manny go off and fight Margarito," Greenburg said. "I think the video was an attention-grabbing moment for Floyd and it backfired. It's one thing to showcase his bravado on '24/7.' It's another to go on an irrational rant. I think he learned a valuable lesson."
Change in philosophy
One of the strategic changes for HBO in 2011 is more open-mindedness toward fights in smaller weight divisions. Except in rare instances, the network has rarely dipped below the featherweight division.
Greenburg's decision to green-light Montiel-Donaire is a breakthrough and shouldn't be considered a one-time thing, he said.
"We reached out into the smaller divisions for Montiel-Donaire," Greenburg said. "We're going to look for the best fights available, regardless of weight class. This fight sends a message. We have to change our perspective here. If something appeals to us in the heavyweight division, a [Wladimir or Vitali] Klitschko fight, a David Haye fight, a Tomasz Adamek fight, we'll be there, too. We just need to look for the best fights and the best divisions. Everywhere from flyweight to cruiserweight, we're looking for good fights."
So why the change of heart?
"It's because the sport is in a position where we have to put the best fights on the air and mine all the divisions," Greenburg said. "Not only for the hard-core fan, but to lure back the casual fan. One way is to put on mega-events like Pacquiao-Mayweather. The second is to market and promote the star power of fighters like Martinez, Williams, Bradley, Alexander or Khan. And the third way is by electrifying viewers with really great matchups. If those matchups are in the smaller divisions, that's where they are. So we have to mine all the divisions and look for the Montiel-Donaire-type fights. This is a statement that we are making. We will be on the lookout for great fights, and I don't care what weight they are. This is a change of heart within HBO sports."
Showtime, HBO's fierce rival, has found success doing that under tighter budget constraints than HBO. It found magic with the epic series of fights between junior featherweights Rafael Marquez and Israel Vazquez. On Dec. 11, it airs the semifinals of a four-man bantamweight tournament.
Greenburg said his decision to change course on the smaller divisions is not financially driven, even though lower-weight fights usually come with a cheaper price tag.
"It's really about putting a great fight on the air," he said. "You can also have an easier time making fights in those weight classes because the fighters there are not used to taking soft touches and making millions of dollars for it. We can match the best in a division against each other with less difficulty."
Greenburg did spend lavishly to put together the Alexander-Bradley and Khan-Maidana junior welterweight fights. The 140-pound division is one of the most talent-rich and exciting in boxing. Besides the two biggies, HBO is doing other fights in the weight class, including Zab Judah-Lucas Matthysse on Saturday night and Victor Ortiz-Lamont Peterson on the Khan-Maidana undercard Dec. 11.
"We have the de facto semifinals," Greenburg said of the two major 140-pound bouts. "It's pretty logical that the Alexander-Bradley and Khan-Maidana winners should fight. It's inevitable; it's just a question of when. We're going to try our best to make these big fights in the division happen."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.
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