From fans' perspective, Calzaghe-Jones undercard failed to deliver

11/9/2008 - Boxing

NEW YORK -- Did the promoters -- in this case Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones themselves -- encounter a streak of uncommonly bad luck, or was Saturday's televised undercard a blatant case of the old bait-and-switch?

From the time Calzaghe-Jones was announced, unbeaten Dmitry Salita's fans had looked forward to his biggest career challenge, a title bout against 140-pound belt-holder Andres Kotelnik that would have matched Ukraine-born boxers in the co-feature at Madison Square Garden.

Another announced undercard bout would have matched Frankie Figueroa, a Bronx-based action fighter who hasn't lost in over five years, against once-beaten Gavin Rees, Calzaghe's stablemate from Wales and the man Kotelnik beat earlier this year to win his title.

The Calzaghe-Jones appetizers at one time or another also included three other former world title-holders -- Julio Diaz, Derrick Gainer and Zab Judah.

How many of those fans actually purchased the pay-per-view telecast of Saturday night's Calzaghe-Jones telecast based on the anticipated undercard remains unlearned, but the fact remains that by fight night the menu had been altered beyond recognition.

In late September, Kotelnik cited a rib injury in pulling out of his defense against Salita (though the real injury may have been to his pocketbook: Andreas was reportedly upset with the purse he was offered to fight Salita), and, after a replacement fight against Scotland's Willie Limond also fell apart, Salita was left facing Derrick Campos, a journeyman from Topeka with a 17-5 record accumulated almost exclusively in the Midwest.

Rees broke his nose in sparring and withdrew on three weeks' notice. Instead of a former world champion, Figueroa found himself fighting the Drunken Master, as 38-29-6 Emanuel Augustus was added to the Madison Square Garden show.

The bouts involving Diaz and Gainer quietly disappeared from the card altogether.

At least no promises had been made about Judah's opponent. Winless in his last four title fights and 0-2 in New York over the last five years, Zab was always going to face a warm body Saturday night. Judah rejected several abler foes before promoters found a willing foil in 18-2-1 Californian Ernest Johnson who, having stopped just seven of his 21 professional opponents, was adjudged safe enough.

Not a bad array for, say, a midweek cable show, but considering the $49.95 price tag for home consumption of Calzaghe-Jones, it represented (on paper, anyway) what one online critic described as "the worst undercard in pay-per-view history."

And it might, arguably, have been just that. The Judah-Johnson co-feature was a stinker, with the only suspense provided by the cut above Judah's left eye sustained in the third round. Judah toyed with the willing Johnson as he rolled to a landslide victory.

No opponent ever looks good against Emanuel Augustus, and midway through their 8-round fight Frankie Figueroa must have been cursing the guy who broke Gavin Rees' nose. Figueroa pulled out a split decision win in a fight that didn't have much aesthetic value beyond the Drunken Master's staggering act.

Campos proved to be tougher that advertised. Salita won the fight -- though he certainly didn't win it by the 120-108 score turned in by judge Robin Taylor.

Those who say they don't make pay-per-view undercards like they used to aren't far off the mark.

Less than 10 years ago, on March 13, 1999, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield met in the same building that hosted Calzaghe-Jones. The long-anticipated collision between the world's two heavyweight championship claimants certainly didn't need any window-dressing to appeal to boxing fans, but those who shelled out $49.95 for Don King's PPV card that evening got an undercard that included three more world title fights (Fernando Vargas-Howard Clarke, Leo Gamez-Hugo Soto and James Page-Sam Garr), as well as future heavyweight champion John Ruiz, as part of the bargain.

Since the World's Greatest Promoter generally has a plethora of top fighters under contract, his big-fight undercards have traditionally represented better value for money than most. The standard against which future pay-per-view undercards would be measured was probably Mike Tyson's second fight against Frank Bruno at the MGM in Las Vegas back in 1996.

The prospect of watching Tyson in his first title fight since his 1990 loss to Buster Douglas (and subsequent prison stretch) didn't need much help, but that night's Showtime-produced undercard saw middleweight titlists Bernard Hopkins and Keith Holmes defend their titles as well as champions Michael Carbajal and perennial pound-for-pounder Ricardo Lopez in two other world title bouts. Yet another titlist, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, in a non-title bout that night, but the fight that wound up stealing the whole show was the six-round bloodbath between Christy Martin and Deirdre Gogarty.

Compare that card, which was priced at $44.95, to the fare that was on offer for five bucks more on Saturday and one has to question whether contemporary promoters are simply thumbing their noses at PPV buyers with a "take it of leave it" proposition.

"Obviously, everyone was a bit disappointed that some of the planned fights fell through for one reason or another," said HBO vice president Mark Taffett, who presides over the network's pay-per-view wing. "When you're selling an evening of boxing, you always want to provide an undercard that includes competitive and entertaining fights.

"But remember," Taffett said, "this wasn't an HBO PPV production. We were operating as the distributor [for the Nov. 8 Garden show]. It was the promoters [in this case Calzaghe and Jones themselves] who determined what would be on the card."

Taffett also noted that HBO's extensive research indicated that while viewers might express their displeasure over a less-than-compelling undercard, the dramatis personae of the supporting acts is a negligible factor when viewers decide to buy or not to buy a PPV telecast.

"In the end, people who wanted to see Calzaghe-Jones were going to buy the fight no matter who was fighting on the undercard," he said. "And our figures show that viewers who are inclined not to buy a pay-per-view fight aren't going to change their minds based on the undercard, regardless of who is on it."

Actually, domestic audiences should count themselves fortunate. While 50 bucks might have been an affront to America's armchair boxing fans, at least they weren't subjected to the rest of the card -- but Setanta's viewers in Britain and Ireland were. Desperately trying to keep its audience awake for the main event, which didn't commence until 4:30 a.m. GMT, Setanta went on the air at 11 p.m. -- 6 p.m. ET, meaning that British viewers had to sit through a series of bouts to which not even HBO PPV would subject its viewers.

It appeared that to fill these early bouts the promoters had just walked into Brooklyn's Starrett City Gym and asked for a show of hands.

When Golden Boy insisted on adding Danny Jacobs' fight against Tyrone Watson to the Hopkins-Pavlik pay-per-view card a month earlier, promoter Bob Arum had termed the mismatch "an embarrassment," and effectively disowned it. Arum's judgment was confirmed when Jacobs knocked out Watson in less than a round.

Setanta apparently had no such qualms about showing Jacobs against another overmatched opponent, Londoner Jimmy Campbell.

Campbell, unlike Tyrone Watson, at least knew how to toe Jacobs up and thus lasted until the third round before exhausting the patience of referee Danny Schaivone, who stopped the fight with a second left in the round.

A day earlier, one Setanta executive explained that beyond customer satisfaction, undercard bouts have another value, in that they can sometimes enhance brand identification.

Of course, it can work the other way, too. We can imagine a bleary-eyed British fight fan waking up the morning after Calzaghe-Jones and telling his wife "If you ever catch me watching another Jimmy Campbell fight, just shoot me."

George Kimball, who writes for the Irish Times and Boxing Digest as well as ESPN.com, won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1985. He is the author of the widely acclaimed new book "Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing."