Failing HBO Boxing Arranges For Another Kovalev Soft Touch

By Paul Magno on December 20, 2017
Failing HBO Boxing Arranges For Another Kovalev Soft Touch
Igor Mikhalkin is another Shabranskyy…decent and politely skilled. (Stacey Verbeek)

Executive vice president of HBO Sports, Peter Nelson, even after what should’ve been a humbling 2017, still assumes that he’s the smartest man in the room…

One would like to think that the Harvard scholar in charge of HBO Boxing would’ve learned a lesson from the poor TV ratings and wistful laments of fight fans this past year. But, apparently, nope.

Executive vice president of HBO Sports, Peter Nelson, even after what should’ve been a humbling 2017, still assumes that he’s the smartest man in the room when it comes to the fight game and seems intent upon wedging his Bizarro World wisdom into the programming schedule for yet another year.

According to reports, Sergey Kovalev will be back in the ring on March 3, but not against one of the many young, hungry bangers at 175 or even one of the entertaining, but limited second-tier light heavies. Instead, the HBO braintrust has seen fit to toss the surly Russian another tune-up fight against another light-hitting Eastern European in Igor Mikhalkin.

Who is Igor Mikhalkin?

Long story—Mikhalkin is a light-hitting 32-year-old Russian who fights mostly out of Germany. He’s also the current IBO light heavyweight champ—something which, when added to a buck in loose change, can get him something from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. He has a good-looking record at 21-1 (with 9 KOs), but has only scored two knockout victories since 2009 (and both of those KOs were less about concussive force than about his opponent being gassed into acquiescence). He’s a solid enough southpaw with decent skills that show he’s been in the gym, but don’t scream of anything greater than him being in the gym and learning some stuff.

Short Story—Mikhalkin is another Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. Decent and politely skilled, but placed before Kovalev to lose…and lose spectacularly.

Rebuilding a tamed beast via sacrificial lambs is nothing new in boxing. The hardcore boxing fan gets the idea that Kovalev’s people want Kovaelv to put some blood-trailed distance between where he is now and the emasculating frustration of fighting (and losing to) Andre Ward twice in a row. After all, how the hell can you a sell a monster clutching at his nutsack and crying to the world about how he’s been victimized?

But back in the good ol’ days, it would be Kovalev’s manager and promoter looking for soft touches for a comeback and then meeting resistance from the network that actually has to try and sell the fights to the public. And at some point in this behind-the-scenes battling, a happy compromise would be made. Maybe Team Kovalev wouldn’t get the creampuff they wanted and the fight-buying public wouldn’t get the 5-star match-up they hoped for, but a good, solid fight would be put together to satisfy everyone.

That doesn’t happen anymore, especially not on HBO under Nelson, who seems reasonably adept at pushing super flyweights into good fights, but utterly submissive when it comes to getting the network headliners to fight anyone in anything resembling a competitive match-up. And, at the risk of offending boxing purists, battling 115-pounders won’t bring back half the boxing audience HBO has already lost under Nelson.

Without knowing what, exactly, is going on behind the scenes, it’s kind of hard to assign specific blame for the all-around shit HBO Boxing has become. Maybe the network suits are making it hard for Nelson to apply his, as HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo said when announcing the Nelson hiring in December of 2015,  “comprehensive understanding of boxing.”

As bossman, however, the buck stops with Nelson and the reality is that, under his watch, the one-time home for premium-level boxing has become a place for budget battles and showcase bouts for stars who can’t sell their soft touches as viable opposition anywhere else. Anything worth watching on HBO Boxing these days goes straight to PPV, and, even then, fewer and fewer fans are bothering to watch.

And 2018 is looking to follow up on the pattern established in Nelson’s previous two years. The January 27 Lucas Matthysse vs. Tewa Kiram and Jorge Linares vs. Mercito Gesta double bill is solid, as is the card headlined by Srisaket Sor Rungvisai vs. Juan Francisco Estrada on February 24. Neither, however, is going to do more than attract the minimum TV rating any bit of boxing attracts on any given Saturday night HBO Boxing date. And on March 3, when a genuine possible attraction in Kovalev IS on the schedule, he’s paired off in an absolutely unappealing squash.

Boxing isn’t about TV ratings, of course, but TV ratings and, in HBO’s case, subscriptions, keep money flowing through the sport which, in turn, allows for bigger and better fights to be made without taking everything to PPV. Nelson inherited a network which had already burned bridges with adviser Al Haymon and his entire mega-stable of fighters and he followed up on that right cross by making an enemy out of longtime HBO ally Bob Arum. The list of bankable talent NOT affiliated with either Haymon or Arum is small and growing smaller all the time. Miguel Cotto has just retired and one wonders how long it’s going to take for Saul “Canelo” Alvarez to realize the he doesn’t really need Golden Boy or HBO to sell his fights. Putting their top available talent in off-putting match-ups is the boxing equivalent of suicide-by-cop and Nelson seems either too dense to understand that or too arrogant to admit that he’s been wrong.

But maybe HBO Boxing has to crash and burn for it to be reborn. Or maybe it has to disappear altogether and let some other network take over with more energy and greater dedication. Given the quality of its current product, not too many people will mourn the absence of HBO Boxing should it go away.

Nobody but nobody considers romps like Kovalev vs. Shabranskyy or Mikhalkin to be premium content and, correspondingly, fewer and fewer are watching.

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  1. Your Name 07:13pm, 12/20/2017

    Koolz, you are Kool. Great post. You get it. Eastern Europe is on its way to owning the kind of boxing Americans like to watch. They are the exciting ones. Funny, but they speak English better than most American fighters! lol!

  2. Koolz 03:00pm, 12/20/2017

    He’s also the current IBO light heavyweight champ

    yes…you don’t say.
    hmm you don’t say..
    You don’t Say!!!
    You Don’t Say!!!!!
    “what did he say?:
    “I don’t know he didn’t say!!!!”
    Bring on The Russians!  Another Fight with Another Russian that’s fantastic More the merry!  Bring them on I say!  I say Russia!

  3. Your Name 09:31am, 12/20/2017

    Hmmmm…I wonder what your stance was on Mayweather-Berto and lol Mayweather - McGregor.

    Only cynics pick on fighters because of poor promotional choices, sanctioning bodies or rating issues.

    Kovalev will clean out the top tier of LHW contenders. Give him a little respect.

  4. Stanley Holloway 08:11am, 12/20/2017

    Your articles are a cut above and this time you nailed it! This guy doesn’t need to fight any Russians not at this time anyway. He needs to fight Stevenson and then Ward when he comes back which will be next Summer at the latest!

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