It is said so often that is really feels redundant at this time, but this weekend is a busy one for combat sports fans. The focus of many will be on UFC 231, where two evenly matched title fights between popular fighters take center stage. For the boxing purists, most of their attention will be on ESPN, where WBA lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko, considered by many to be the best fighter pound for pound in the sport, looks to win his fourth world title facing WBO lightweight titlist Jose Pedraza of Puerto Rico at the Hulu Theatre in New York City.
Meanwhile, across the country in the famed ‘War Grounds’ of StubHub Center in Carson, California, the last HBO Boxing card of their incredible forty-six year run will go down. The main event will be Norway’s Cecilia Braekhus (34-0, 9 KOs) defending her undisputed welterweight title versus Polish American Alexandria Lopes (18-4-3, 13 KOs). It will also featured popular super flyweight contender Juan Francisco Estrada (37-3, 25 KOs) facing Victor Mendez (28-3-2, 20 KOs) and former Olympic Gold Medalist Claressa Shields (7-0, 2 KOs) defending her middleweight titles Femke Hermans (9-1, 3 KOs) of Belgium.
Not the most auspicious of endings.
For decades, HBO was known as “The Heart and Soul of Boxing” and it was impossible to argue the fact. The amount of important fights and excellent fighters that were showcased on the premium network over the years dwarfs that of any other channel. Once the broadcast networks began to abandon boxing in earnest in the late 1980s, HBO was THE place. Yes, Showtime occasionally made a run at their position, but HBO was the rock on which the church of boxing was built.
And it’s not just HBO that built boxing-boxing built HBO. When HBO went live across the country for the first time in 1975, they did with a fight of some note-the third battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier-from Quezon City in the Philippines. The result was an explosion in subscribers for HBO and the beginning of one of the biggest cable channels in history. Without boxing, there is no Sopranos or Sex In the City or Game of Thrones. There is no HBO without boxing.
But the truth is, despite all boxing has done for HBO and vice versa, the writing has been on the wall ever since Peter Nelson took over the Sports Divisions. The last few years have seen fewer marquee fights, fewer superstars made, and an absolute willingness to change with the times. While their long time competitor, Showtime, had made in advancements in streaming and different use of social media to find new ways to showcase their fights and fighters, HBO remained stuck in the mud. Even though they are sitting on a library of over 1,000 fighters and who knows how many more hours of extra footage, HBO never made an attempt to make better use of that.
Meanwhile, Bob Arum, often the smartest man in boxing, proved to be a prophet when he took his stable of Top Rank fighters to HBO. This has resulted in fighters such as Lomachenko and Terrance Crawford getting big time showcases on the network and becoming bigger stars than ever. Meanwhile, a burgeoning stable of young talent will be able to be showcased on big stages much sooner than they would have been on HBO.
Showtime has been running number two in boxing for years, and despite they’re detestable alliance with Premier Boxing Champions, their network has done a great job finding new ways to showcase fights and fighters. They have renewed their commitment to boxing and the network looks to be in the game for years to come. Meanwhile, while DAZN’s foray into boxing has not produced great fights as of yet, the sheer amount of fighter they have showcased has been staggering. It is also giving international boxing, from places where the sport is bigger than ever such as UK and Japan, a U.S showcase of the type it never has before.
HBO has been unwilling and unable to change with the times, yet at the same time they have continually willing to milk their loyal fanbase with exorbitant prices on PPV. With all of this in mind, combined with the commitment of other outlets to boxing, when it comes to the end of HBO Boxing, only two words come to mind for me…