- Don Steinberg
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Last month's "Battle of the Planet" -- the April 19 fight between Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins -- achieved an all-time first in the art of plastering silly promotional names onto boxing matches.
No, it wasn't the first title fight ever to sound like a John Travolta science fiction movie -- there actually have been several of those. But "Battle of the Planet" was the first name for a boxing match that had a sponsor's brand name (Planet Hollywood) baked right into it.
"They wanted 'planet' in the name of the fight," says Dave Itskowitch, CEO at Golden Boy Promotions, the fight's promoter.
It's OK, though. The "planet" theme worked out fine, because the fight featured one boxer from America and the other from Wales. The poster showed Hopkins and Calzaghe on different parts of a globe, sort of. So everybody won.
You may wonder how I know that "Battle of the Planet" was the first fight name to which corporate naming rights have, in essence, been sold.
I know because, for the past several years, while most normal people were busy getting a life, I have been compiling a master database of names given to boxing matches. You know, like "Rumble in the Jungle" (Muhammad Ali-George Foreman), or "March Badness" (Lennox Lewis-Shannon Briggs). I've documented hundreds of names dating back to the 19th century (the poster for John L. Sullivan vs. James J. Corbett in 1898 dubbed the day "Carnival of Champions").
For most of history, boxing matches didn't have names that sounded like Cinemax After Dark movies, like "Dangerous Intentions" (Diego Corrales-Acelino Freitas) or "Forces of Destruction" (Felix Trinidad-Fernando Vargas).
Sugar Ray Robinson fought Jake LaMotta six times, and not one of those battles had a nickname at all. They didn't need to call a Robinson-LaMotta rematch "Stone & Sugar" (that was Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran 2) or "Now It's Personal" (Roy Jones-Antonio Tarver I) or "Judgment Day" (it's been used four times, for fights presented as tests for hyped fighters: Trevor Berbick-Mike Tyson, Calzaghe-Jeff Lacy, Chris Eubank-Nigel Benn and Buster Douglas-Evander Holyfield, which actually was "Judgment Day is Coming.")
The classic boxing poster style -- with big block letters and gray cutouts of fighters on a yellow background -- didn't leave much space for exploring the kind of complex narrative that "To Hell and Back" (Arturo Gatti-Angel Manfredy) or "In Your Face" (Johnny Tapia-Danny Romero) opens up. Vintage posters had one line of free-form text at the very top, and usually it said something very functional to entice people to show up at the venue.
The line across the top of the poster for the 1955 Rocky Marciano-Archie Moore heavyweight championship at Yankee Stadium said "No Television," and it was Marciano's final fight. Today it would be something like "Fight to the Finish" (Bernard Hopkins-Antonio Tarver) or "The Last Hurrah" (Ali-Larry Holmes) or "Adios al Guerrero" (Roberto Duran-Pat Lawlor II).
Sure, there was the periodic "Battle of the Century" (Jim Corbett-Bob Fitzsimmons; Jack Johnson-James Jeffries; Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier; Dempsey-Gene Tunney II), but it was often newspapermen as much as promoters who came up with that superlative.
The first Ali-Joe Frazier match in 1971 was "The Fight of the Century." It also was "Fight of the Champions" or just "The Fight," depending on where you looked. The 1973 Frazier-Foreman heavyweight championship in Jamaica was dubbed "The Sunshine Showdown."
Then came Don King -- who delivered "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974 and "The Thrilla in Manila" (Ali-Frazier III) in 1975 -- and things were never the same.
King loves military and patriotic terminology and borrows from classic literature. His "The Sound and the Fury" (Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield II) came from Shakespeare. King once explained to me (sort of) how he crafted "Thrilla in Manila."
"I took 'Thrilla in Manila' to demonstrate what endurance and courage would be, from Iwo Jima to Bataan, Corregidor, Saipan, during World War II," King said. "So liberation, freedom is there, and you've got the two greatest fighters in the world, signifying it's going to be a Thrilla in Manila! Manila was the central hub for our bases to take off. Now you've tied in every veteran around the world who contributed to the victories in Southeast Asia. They're tied into that thrilla!"
Meanwhile, in the 1970s LeRoy Neiman began creating a whole new kind of boxing poster art. It was off to the races from there. After King got it started, we had lots of fight names that rhymed, such as "The Brawl for it All" (Michael Spinks-Dwight Muhammad Qawi) and "The Real Thing in the Bull Ring" (Michael Carbajal-Humberto Gonzalez). We also got fight names about places, like "The Reno Rumble" (Ray Mancini-Bobby Chacon), "Battle of New Orleans" (Ali-Leon Spinks), "I Love New York" (Larry Holmes-Mike Weaver) and "Vindication in Vegas" (Michael Spinks-Holmes 2).
Then there were fight names that both rhymed and were about places: "Drama in Bahama" (Ali-Trevor Berbick), "Showdown in Motown" (Tyson-Andrew Golota), "The Brawl in Montreal" (Leonard-Duran I), "The War at the Shore" (Michael Spinks-Gerry Cooney) and "Judgment Day in Monterrey" (Frankie Randall-Rodney Moore).
Little by little, a name became like a Good Housekeeping seal, sanctioning a fight as worthy of attention. Now, Itskowitch says, a name is "obligatory for all bigger fights."
Most bigger fights these days run through HBO. Mark Taffet, HBO's executive in charge of pay-per-view boxing, is "the Yoda of fight names," says Itskowitch. Taffet says a good name weaves a story that compels people to watch.
"You want to create almost a mini-movie in the mind of the consumer," Taffet said. "A good name allows your mind to dream and wander in all sorts of directions to make the fight bigger than life."
Taffet takes pride in "Battle of the Ages" (Foreman-Holyfield), "Bad Blood" (feuding Mexican-American fighters Oscar De La Hoya and Vargas) and "Two Big" (giants Lewis and Michael Grant).
For pay-per-view fights, HBO's creative team works with promoters to hone in on a name and develop a poster or even a logo around it.
"Often an e-mail chain will get started and everyone will throw in what they think it should be," Itskowitch says.
Sometimes a name needs to work extra-hard to sell a pay-per-view event. Taffet believes "Danger Zone" (De La Hoya-Ricardo Mayorga) boosted buys by presenting Mayorga as a danger to De La Hoya, even if he didn't turn out to be.
When Hopkins fought Winky Wright, HBO called it "Coming to Fight" -- you have to suspect there was a desire to convince people that the two risk-averse boxers were actually going go near each other.
It seemed audacious when Bob Arum cooked up "Fight of the Millennium" (De La Hoya-Trinidad), but it became the highest-grossing non-heavyweight fight of the 20th century.
Ideally, all the promotional pieces are integrated like a Hollywood movie release, says Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer.
For "The World Awaits" (De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather), Golden Boy hired a pricy outside consultant who normally works with major movie studios, Schaefer says. The consultant came up with the name and the concept for the poster showing a crowd of people behind the fighters.
"It delivered the whole look and feel of the world really awaiting," Schaefer says.
One thing HBO avoids is mentioning where a fight is taking place in its fight names or posters. If you're watching on HBO, the fight is at your house. If a promoter insists on naming a venue, HBO may use its own slogan.
The promoters of the first Lewis-Hasim Rahman bout called it "Thunder in Africa" while HBO's poster called it "Ready to Rock" (using Rahman's nickname).
Fight names that play off of a guy's nickname are the hardest to digest, like "Big Daddy's Home" (Riddick Bowe-Golota I) or "Lights Out in Reno" (James Toney-Dominic Guinn). It's a nickname within a nickname.
There are exceptions, of course. "The Devil and Mr. Jones" was an awesome name for Roy Jones versus Vinny "Pazmanian Devil" Pazienza.
That was just one of the many fight names that have sounded a lot like the movie that comes on cable after the fight. We've had "Magnum Force" (Michael Moorer-Mike Evans), "Friday the 13th: Resurrection" (Hector Camacho-Edwin Rosario) and "Fast & Furious" (Miguel Cotto-Shane Mosley). We've had "Up Close & Personal" (Naseem Hamed-Tom Johnson), "Presumption of Innocence" (Tyson-Buster Mathis Jr.) and "The Full Monty" (Calzaghe-Eubank).
De La Hoya may be the leader in fights that sound like sci-fi flicks: "Fight of the Millennium," "The World Awaits," "The Quest" (versus Javier Castillejo) and "Title Wave" (versus Wilfredo Rivera).
By those standards, I suppose I can live with "Battle of the Planet," even if it sounds like a "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" episode, complete with integrated product tie-in.
But what I'm really hoping is for Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez to consent to battle for a third time, this one back in the Philippines. That could be called "Pacquiao-Marquez III: Thrilla in Manila II."
Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.