HBO Boxing’s Fitting Farewell: Old Men, A Crappy Card, and Zero Point To Tuning In

By Paul Magno on December 7, 2018
HBO Boxing’s Fitting Farewell: Old Men, A Crappy Card, and Zero Point To Tuning In
This disdain has everything to do with what HBO Boxing became and not what it once was.

Over the last several years—actually, the last couple decades—HBO became more of an enemy of the sport than the powerful ally it used to be…

This Saturday’s final HBO Boxing telecast, headlined by women’s welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus, will see the return of 87-year-old Larry Merchant for one final on-air chat with multi-decade broadcast partner Jim Lampley.

Old men chatting up a self-indulgent storm during a shitty card. There couldn’t be a more fitting farewell for HBO Boxing.

Before bristling at an attack against a beloved institution on its deathbed, it should be made clear that this disdain has everything to do with what HBO became and not what it once was. At one time, they were the very best in the business at creating a big fight feel and also the very best at calling the in-ring action. For a good long while, they were even considered by many as THE home of big-time boxing.

But over the last several years—actually, the last couple decades—HBO became more of an enemy of the sport than the powerful ally it used to be. Somewhere along the way, somebody at the premium cable network decided that they were in the star-making business and not the fight business and the product suffered…until there was no coming back from the damage done.

The sad part is that almost all of their star-making attempts were business flops. Roy Jones, for all his otherworldly talent, never became a mainstream superstar maybe, in part, because he had so many mismatch showcases on the network. Andre Berto, an honest and earnest fighter clearly without superstar-level abilities or charisma, drew the ire of fans because he was pushed so hard for so long. A likable and talented Jermain Taylor got zero momentum following his two wins over Bernard Hopkins, primarily because HBO chose to green light post-Hopkins matches against muddle-making spoilers Winky Wright and Cory Spinks. Taylor’s eventual conqueror, Kelly Pavlik, who reeked of mainstream potential, was allowed to professionally implode just a year after his career-defining victory with an embarrassing schooling at the hands of veteran spoiler Bernard Hopkins. Fast forward a few years, past several other missteps, and there was the manufactured stardom of Gennady Golovkin, who, after six years of extreme network promotion, complimentary matchmaking, and a piggyback ride from Canelo Alvarez, could only manage to be half as big a draw as the generation of stars before him.

One could go on and on with examples of failed insight and foresight from the suits behind HBO Boxing. The fact of the matter is that the network farewell to the sport may have come much earlier than this year if not for the post-prime glow of Oscar De La Hoya and the emergence of mostly self-made superstars like Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, and Canelo Alvarez.

And while the stiffs behind the scenes were screwing up royally, the broadcast faces of the network gradually became unwatchable. Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Max Kellerman became bloated with self-importance, alternating between being shameless shills for house fighters to belligerent know-it-alls who openly disrespected certain fighters on-air and routinely stepped on or flat-out dismissed the insight of the ex-fighter color commentators added to the telecast.

More and more, the commentating at HBO Boxing became about old white men in tuxedos selling things that weren’t always happening and airing their self-righteous grievances. When Larry Merchant countered Floyd Mayweather’s dismissal in a 2011 post-fight interview by saying, “I wish I was 50 years younger, and I’d kick your ass,” purist, old school boxing fans loved it. But there was never a more telling indication of where things had gone on-air. A clear move had been made away from asking the hard questions and enlightening to grandstanding for the sake of grandstanding and cherry-picking outrage.

By the time 2018 came around, HBO Boxing was a burnt-out shell of something that used to be much, much better and there was zero interest in trying to turn things around. The audience had been reduced to a fraction of what it once was, much of the top talent had migrated to other networks, and the corporate big shots had soured on the product they helped ruin. The fight for on-air excellence was waved off in September, but the towel had been thrown in a while ago. HBO Boxing, in its most recent form, will not be missed.

Macho fairytales and nostalgia drive most of boxing’s narratives, at least among hardcore fans and media, so expect plenty of teary-eyed retrospectives this week on the best HBO Boxing has given us over the last 40+ years. But that should all fly right out the window on Saturday when the lights go on for the last time and we’re reminded of why they’re going off in the first place.

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  1. Your Name 12:10pm, 12/09/2018

    deep stuff, fan, deep

  2. fan 09:52am, 12/09/2018

    radio could still be an opportunity and we could still see highlight on the internet.

  3. Asher 09:09am, 12/09/2018

    Nutzonyolip: With a handle like that, you reveal your bottomless ignorance. Spare me the identity politics i’m-a-victim-for-life-by-virtue-of-my-skin-color bullshit. Rhyming off authors whose works you’ve heard of or skimmed but surely lack the intellect to read cover to cover, doesn’t give you credibility, it marks you as a pretentious charlatan. My point - which you obviously missed - is that criticizing anyone crosses the line when it makes reference to skin color, and that while we rightfully would never allow a black commentator to be disparaged for their skin color, we have developed a collective blind spot where hacks like Magno have no reservations in referring to commentators they don’t like as ‘Old White Men’. It’s garbage, pure and simple. And so are you if you support that sort of thing.

  4. Nutzonyolip 01:23am, 12/09/2018

    @Asher.  Vote for Trump much?  You may want to read a few books like Beyond the Mayflower or A People’s History of The United States or anything written by Du Bois or Douglass or Baldwin, etc…  Or you can continue to bask in your ignorance.  Don’t worry though, as long as you have that Maga hat on, you won’t get burned.

  5. Shaan 12:06am, 12/09/2018

    Wow those are very harsh words for Jim Lampley. I am certainly a fringe fan of boxing but the tuxedoed bloated commentary as you see it is why I have loved HBO boxing. I certainly get your point but as I see it, Jim’s passion and poetry in speech can’t be denied and to me, it elevated the sport from technical violence to something more poignant.
    I know they come off arrogant and heavy handed at times but I always liked these guys more than the showtime presenters.

  6. Buster 11:18pm, 12/08/2018

    You guys don’t get it. HBO left boxing because the fans are leaving and have left this sport in droves over the past 30 years. The blame begins with boxing’s lack of organization. What kind of sport has zillions of “champions” and a bunch of corrupt con men running the show. Few care about this sport because it is a disorganized hideous freak show. HBO left with a whimper. Good riddance. Hopefully this brain damaging “sport” will go further in the toilet until it is barely noticed.

  7. NYIrish 02:46pm, 12/08/2018

    Not everybody who can type is a writer.

  8. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 10:58am, 12/08/2018

    HBO ditched boxing because boxing is no longer a MAINSTREAM SPORT IN AMERICA. Someone commented that a group of folks had no idea who Roy Jones Jr. was a the peak of Jones’ career. I am assuming this was the mid 1990’s and compared to 2018 and modern day fighters, I believe Jones was well known figure back in those days. Of course I was living in Florida and that being Jones’ home state, things might have been different. While Jones was not a celebrity figure on par with Muhammad Ali, he certainly was far more known than Anthony Joshua, or Tyson Fury are at the moment. Look at the Tyson Fury video which featured Fury walking down the streets of Los Angeles and asking random strangers if they knew of Deontay Wilder. I think Fury ran into 2-3 people who actually knew who knew of Wilder. Boxing might be all that in Mexico or Britain, but in America, it is a second tier sport at best in 2018.

  9. Bruce 09:39am, 12/08/2018

    The single most damaging issue with HBO Boxing was clearly when they forgot the consumer and instead tried to be promoters themselves.  The classic example was Roy Jones and all of the sanctioning body mismatches that they televised.  It didn’t work.  At the peak of Roy’s career, I once asked a large group of sports fans what they thought of Roy Jones.  No one seemed to know who I was talking about, but one gent asked “Who does he play for.”  I kid you not.  Much like stores like Sears and Kmart, mismanagement will eventually do you in.

  10. Asher 09:28am, 12/08/2018

    HBO has broadcast some great cards over the years. And admittedly they’ve also broadcast some stinkers. The analysis from Lampley, Merchant and Kellerman over the years has been on point many times. Other times, not so much. Fair enough. Point taken. But Magno’s piece isn’t an article, it’s a screed. Being angry and negative is easy. So is throwing stones. And Magno reveals himself to be less of a writer, and more of a hack with an axe to grind. ‘Old white men’? Old white men have fought wars, built skyscrapers, freed slaves, cured diseases, written great works of literature, raised families and founded corporations that employed tens of thousands of people, and have done so without veiled attacks or vainglorious postings on Narcistagram. What does the skin color of HBO’s broadcast team have to do with anything? Roy Jones Jr., Emanuel Steward, Spider Jones, Stephen Smith, Karyn Bryant, Bernard Hopkins, James Brown: will Magno’s next article mention the skin color these sports broadcasters? Of course not. He wouldn’t dare. Because he knows the consequences - THE SKY WOULD FALL ON HIS HEAD. Just as he knows the consequences of attacking white broadcasters for being white: ZERO. In fact, in many circles he will be celebrated for attacking ‘whitey’. is this what passes for boxing journalism these days? What utter garbage. What pure racisim.

  11. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 08:17am, 12/08/2018

    @Erect On Demand… haha. Interesting theory on “nonprophet.” I beg to differ with you on that character about one thing though, my friend. I think he is a JOKE.

  12. ceylon 07:41am, 12/08/2018

    the card is just fine. there are only two real problems with it: hammer pulled out of the shields fight, and womens fights are 2 min rounds. they need to be 3 min.

    dont care at all about merchant-lampley. meh.

  13. George Otto 02:27am, 12/08/2018

    Not a bad article.  Over and beyond the difficulties and perhaps failures regarding promoting and presenting the sport, professional boxing has suffered badly because of 3 huge factors which no network neither could nor did control.  First of all, the recent plethora of terrible decisions in championship bouts which reinforced the already historically established image of the sweet science being obviously rigged, jobbed, and thus unfair.  Secondly, the sporting public’s awareness of the noticeable number of fighters whose post-boxing lives were not successful in terms of their financial stability and overall mental and/or physical health.  And, partially as a result of the first items, the serious decline of amateur boxing in the US of A.

  14. Erect On Demand 06:14pm, 12/07/2018

    All of this shit, every bit of it, open borders, identity politics which is a code word for race hatred, gender hatred and class hatred, those eight miserable years of fundamental transforming by Larry Sinclair’s trick is about one thing….the “browning” of the greatest nation on the face of the earth! When that brownout finally comes to pass it will last about two fukin’ seconds! The only question after that is whether America will be divided between China and Russia at the Rocky Mountains or the Mississippi!

  15. David 05:13pm, 12/07/2018

    Maggie here is on some kind of white hatred trip. The question is whether it’s typical Leftist virtue signaling, or whether he’s just an ignorant piece of racist trash who needs to race-bait in order to get clicks.

  16. Erect On Demand 04:13pm, 12/07/2018

    @Mau-Mau-While we are on the subject, have you ever wondered why that grievance ridden, hate filled, POS who comments as “nonprophet” seems to pop up on this site from time to time, seemingly out of nowhere, spewing his dog vomit green hate? The answer is this….there is no popping up to it, this fuker is a constant presence on this site and has been for years! I joke about Magno commenting as “fan” but this joker is no joke!

  17. Nicolas 12:25pm, 12/07/2018

    For me HBO’s decline began when the Klitschkos ruled the heavyweight roost, and they were fighting in Germany instead of the United States and HBO felt like they were pushed into the back by then the German network who was promoting boxing at the time. They got upset, and the guy who I think was running HBO at the time did not consider the Klitschkos’ stars, and instead tried to push Chad Dawson. The Klitschkos seemed like outstanding people, but tried to push Bernard Hopkins who did not always appear to be a good person. I know a few people who are ending there subscriptions to HBO because they have gotten rid of boxing. But I think finally the problem is that they go after boxers to promote, not good matches, I think we will see in the future that this will effect other boxing networks as well. DAZN showing Canelo against Rocky Fielding may be a very poor decision, and Showtime I think will have the same decline in the future.

  18. The Tache 10:15am, 12/07/2018

    I feel like Larry Merchant is probably still finishing that interview with Mayweather. He……...painful……..listen………..zzzzzzzzzzzzz

  19. Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers 09:22am, 12/07/2018

    Wow, back to back articles by Magno slamming Whites. First my brethren and I are told we are racist for maybe being a bit too one sided in judging the Wilder vs. Fury bout, and now Magno double dips and slams not only Whites but “old White guys.” This is akin to “White men” being slammed for the all these sexual assault allegations lately. Never mind the fact that most of the men accused of this illicit behavior are not of White European stock at all, but it fits the narrative and people will believe the lie. Can you imagine if Magno would have slammed old Jewish guys ( Larry Merchant is Jewish) or said that some of the Black ex-fighters like Roy Jones who serve as boxing analysts weren’t or aren’t articulate enough to do a good enough job behind the mic? HBO back in the day provided a lot of good fights over the years. Nothing lasts forever. Thank you, HBO and ignore the hate. Magno hates cake and ice cream.

  20. Your Name 08:13am, 12/07/2018

    Lucas, bingo

  21. Lucas McCain 08:11am, 12/07/2018

    It takes great discipline (and energy) to be pissed off most of the time, so I admire the grouchiness here.  But just for the record, the remark about old white men in tuxedos might also include a tip of the Hatlo hat to past commentary by Sugar Ray Leonard, Fran Charles,  Roy Jones, Jr.,  Andre Ward,  Bernard Hopkins, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, and Emanuel Steward.  And as for the old part, oldies were once newies as the 1970s song says.  Even Angry Young Men jockeying for position find themselves on looking backward sooner than expected. That comes with being a carbon-based life form!

  22. Your Name 06:33am, 12/07/2018

    Hate piece. Why?

  23. Harvey 06:30am, 12/07/2018

    For all his other worldly talent Ron Jones his team and HBO did not want to put him in with a guy who could hit him in his China chin.

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