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A Panel of Media Titans Scopes Out the New Face of Boxing in the Digital Era

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On Wednesday, October 17, HBO Sports vice president Peter Nelson showed up to the Marriott Marquis in midtown Manhattan to partake in a panel on “storytelling” in documentary film, as part of the Sports Business Journal’s annual media conference. Among the topics that Nelson broached were the record viewership that tuned into “Andre the Giant” and the inception of “Barbershop,” the new chat show produced by and featuring Lebron James.

But looming over the discussion like a dark cloud was the recent news that HBO Sports would forgo live boxing from their programming slate starting in 2019 — a shocking, although not completely unforeseen, announcement. Between budget cuts, expanded competition, and the exodus of elite talent, boxing at HBO had been on the decline for several years. Still for more than 40 years, the two were inextricable. Household names like Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr., Oscar de la Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all, at one point, captured the zeitgeist by fighting on the premium channel. Indeed, long before its scripted series began stockpiling Emmys, HBO was associated with two things: movie reruns and boxing.

So finally, right before the end of the panel, the host, SBJ’s John Ourand, prodded Nelson to address the ungainly elephant in the room. “The idea of boxing not being on HBO is something that’s almost unthinkable,” began Ourand. “It’s been such a rich part of the network’s legacy. Take us through that decision. Why did you decide to step away?”

“Sure,” Nelson said, as he adjusted himself in his seat, “it wasn’t a subjective decision…”

Meanwhile that same day, 10 blocks south at Madison Square Garden, Mexican superstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez was preparing for a press conference to announce his New York City debut on December 15 against Rocky Fielding. That was just the teaser. The real headline was that Alvarez had signed with the streaming platform DAZN for a staggering $365 million for 11 fights, or five years. John Skipper, DAZN executive chairman and ex-ESPN head, opened the presser by declaring that “Today represents a major shift in over-the-top sports content.” Alvarez, the biggest active draw in North America, has appeared exclusively on PPV — mostly on HBO — for the past five years going back to his fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2013. To see Alvarez fight once meant viewers had to pay upwards of $85, a hefty financial proposition. Now, it would cost viewers $10, or the price of a monthly subscription fee to DAZN.

“The only way to watch this fight is to download the DAZN app and activate it,” Skipper told The Sweet Science. “The first one’s free. The next ten, you’ll need to be a subscriber to DAZN to watch the fight.”

In a time in which cordcutting and rising rights fees have battered the traditional television model, streaming, or OTT, has been hailed as the new frontier of the sports media landscape. For the most part, its adherents are still striving to find the right balance between content and monetization. In the case of DAZN, the company is also at pains to create a public profile, as it remains virtually unknown in the United States, unlike, say, ESPN+, which benefits from its association with “The World Wide Leader in Sports.” That said, DAZN is fairly well known internationally, in countries such as Italy and Japan, where the company owns extensive baseball and soccer rights. The Alvarez signing, to some extent, provides an instant stimulus for their US enterprise.

DAZN is betting that they can convert the Alvarez PPV buyer into a DAZN subscriber. The logic, after all, is in their favor. Why pay $85 to see Alvarez fight once, when you can pay a fraction of that for not only Alvarez, but a host of other combat sports content for an entire month? (DAZN also owns global rights to Bellator). Skipper, though, acknowledged the marketing hurdles ahead. “We still have to find those (potential subscribers), activate them,” admitted Skipper. “But I think if you believe that the three plus million people (in his last three fights combined) who paid $85 dollars to watch ‘Canelo’ fight would be willing to pay a lot less to watch him fight, I think this is a game changer.”

In years past it would have been unfathomable to imagine boxing without HBO at its helm. But there it was, on Wednesday, in striking juxtaposition, a glimpse at the future of the sport without the premium cable giant: Alvarez leaping headlong into the booming streaming business with a quarter-billion dollar contract in his pocket; the HBO Sport head talking about documentaries at an industry convention.

Yet, as always, the sport moves on. The emergence of Fox as a boxing player, the continued commitment from Showtime, the growth of ESPN and ESPN+, and the arrival of well-heeled disruptors like DAZN, are signs that the business is more than prepared to fill the void left by HBO. Indeed, the shifting landscape in the sport is a microcosm of a larger ongoing media trend, and boxing, in many respects, finds itself in the middle of the mainstream muddle. To this end, the two-day SBJ conference in New York afforded a chance to view the latest developments in boxing from a more holistic perspective, to see it in relation to the larger sports world. The Sweet Science was on hand to listen to — and on occasion, speak with — top sports media executives from across the spectrum.

An Appetite for Live Sports

What was perhaps most ironic about the presence of Nelson at the conference was that for the most part his fellow speakers were evangelists for live sports programming. ESPN head Jimmy Pitaro set the tone when he declared, “Everybody in this room knows how important live sports are. Live sports are moving the needle more than anything else. Look at what the top 10, top 20 shows are every week.”

MLS Senior vice president Seth Bacon reiterated this belief. “Live sports are the center from which all cross-promotional content —storytelling, fandom — come back to,” said Bacon.

And Mark Shuken, president of Pac-12 Networks, expressed much of the same: “People like to talk about the DVR-proof nature of live sports, but I think it is that immediacy, that communal nature that you gotta be there now to see it. How are you taking part in the tribal nature of sports? People want to talk about it, especially in today’s landscape, sports are a great distraction.”

Given the current market for live sports, then, it is little wonder that those who own the content wield considerable leverage. “Rights holders are in the driver’s seat,” said Lindsey Ross, director of rights for FloSports. Most executives on hand see rights fees only continuing to rise. “I feel bad for some of my colleagues up here,” one executive joked. “Sports rights are expensive.”

In boxing, the bustling streaming market has been a boon to boxers. Previously unconnected boxers, like Tevin Farmer and Danny Roman, are now making career purses after signing with DAZN. For the first time in decades, the highest payday for a boxer — at any level — is no longer tied to an appearance on HBO or, for that matter, Showtime.

Of course, HBO’s reasons for leaving boxing are well justified. Citing internal research, Nelson suggested that boxing not only mattered very little to HBO subscribers, but that buying more fights would not improve the overall subscribership.“So in looking at that,” Nelson told Ourand, “it became impossible to ignore. You know, the old Peter Drucker line ‘there’s nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.’”

Since DAZN began in September, few weekends have gone in which there were not multiple boxing cards occurring — sometimes concurrently — from all around the world, from a variety of competing platforms. Some observers are convinced that boxing has turned over a new leaf and that the latest streaming ventures are evidence of a healthy sport. But it remains to be seen how long this level of pace and volume will last.

Boxing “Beachhead”

During a panel on direct-to-consumer relations, Brian Socolow, legal counsel for DAZN and co-chair at the firm Loeb & Loeb, had this to say: “DAZN wants to be the Netflix of sports, not just boxing.” The statement is illuminating for a couple reasons. One, it shows that DAZN regards boxing as a steppingstone, albeit a very expensive one. Two, the comparison to the entertainment giant shows just how ambitious the company plans to be. (DAZN is owned by billionaire Len Blavatnik.)

“Certainly the consumer wants fighting sports,” continued Socolow, “ but the consumer also wants a whole lot more than that and you probably need that as a business model to expand beyond that.”

The expectation is that once major rights are up for negotiation, DAZN will bid aggressively for pieces of mainstream sports, like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. In the meantime, that is where boxing comes in.

Talking about DAZN’s entry into the US market through boxing and MMA, Socolow referred to the move as “beachhead,” business shorthand for the type of strategy in which an investment is made in small markets before pursuing larger ones. “Right now [DAZN’s] focus has been on boxing and fighting sports,” said Socolow. “I think it’s a good way as they come into the United States and get the beachhead (for combat sports). But I think the intent there is to grow beyond that. I think they have to.”

But there are big question marks as to whether DAZN will be able to carve out what they require from boxing, a perennially hostile territory. The list of failed endeavors in boxing, after all, from crass peddlers to honest do-gooders, runs longer than most Senate bills. For all the ballyhoo that accompanied their US announcement earlier in the spring, the first card DAZN launched featured Jessie Vargas against Thomas Dulorme in boxing-averse Chicago. And despite the bellicose courting from Hearn, DAZN was unable to persuade some of the biggest names aligned with the PBC, including Adrien Broner, Gervonta Davis, and the Charlo twins, to join its ranks. No doubt, DAZN has dramatically improved its standing with the signing of Alvarez, and together with the UK’s Anthony Joshua, the platform can claim to have the exclusive rights to the two biggest box office stars on both sides of the Atlantic. Outside of those fighters, however, their roster quickly thins out. The November 17 card featuring Brandon Rios and Gabriel Rosado, two fighters way past their primes, is a tacky exercise in hodgepodge and mediocrity, and characteristic of some of DAZN’s bottom-heavy rotation.

Yet part of their strategy seems to be working, at least as it pertains to the middleweight division. Three of the four major title belts belong to Alvarez and new signee Demetrius Andrade. The other title holder, Danny Jacobs, is currently a network free agent, but as he is promoted by Hearn, it is expected he will appear on DAZN before long. And if Gennady Golovkin decides to join as well, as reports indicate, his presence would then give DAZN a veritable hold on one of the more intriguing and competitive divisions in boxing.

Silicon Valley “Experiments”

Not everyone is as aggressive as DAZN.

When asked about the pressure to compete with highly-strapped competitors like DAZN, Portia Archer, NBC vice president of direct-to-consumer services, told The Sweet Science, “We’re not in the business of they do 65 (million), we’ll do 70 (million).” (Sports Gold, NBC’s subscription over-the-top service, currently offers ten sports, with three more soon to be added. While Archer acknowledged that her colleagues were currently working out a potential deal with promoter Main Events, boxing is not on the radar for the app).

Such sentiment extends beyond the traditional power players.

In a recent SBJ article, Ourand pointed out how Silicon Valley titans have yet to pursue sports rights in a vigorous way and remain generally in the experimental stage. “Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have made sports investments in the United States,” wrote Ourand. “But they view those investments more as market tests than full-blown business strategies.”

This scenario largely describes what is going on at Facebook through its free VOD service Facebook Watch. Currently, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has rights deals with the MLB, LPGA, Golden Boy Promotions, high school football games in Florida, and various soccer leagues.

Peter Hutton, Facebook’s newly-hired head of live sports programming, was on hand for the conference, and while he pointed out that the company was “very much [at] a listen, learn, watch, experiment stage,” he also insisted that their involvement with sports was not just a casual dalliance. “Whether it is South American soccer or whether it is major league baseball here in the US, there’s clearly a few bets being made and we’re looking at the data on the back of that,” Hutton told The Sweet Science. “I think it’s more important to say how do we integrate ourselves with a sport on a long time basis.”

Speaking specifically about boxing, Hutton explained that Facebook was not looking at boxing as “a short term, one fight, two fight sort of an experiment” and that he sees a natural affinity between the two.

“Boxing and Facebook is a quite an interesting story going forward,” Hutton explained. “If you think about the power of boxing it’s very much about creating stories and creating credibility about fights and therefore that social engagement around the fight is something that I think Facebook and Instagram and the rest of our platform can really be a part of. You need a dripfeed of information, you need that sense that what you’re going to watch is important and helping the boxers to tell that story and put regular content out before a fight and develop that route through watching a live experience. I think that is a really good balance, the sport and the social networks.”

One of the questions brought up in Ourand’s article is if social media companies actually need to own the content to live sports. Sports-leaning social media users, after all, constantly engage with sports content that is not owned by Facebook, like the NBA and NFL, say. Hutton believes that there are clear advantages to owning the content outright. In the case of boxing, given its relatively simple structure — a small circumscribed ring and two righters — Hutton sees an opportunity for Facebook to experiment with the actual live experience with their robust virtual reality technology. Facebook owns the virtual reality company Oculus and has bought hundreds of patents related to VR and augmented reality technology. In the end, Hutton wants to offer a sports product that is sui generis, that only Facebook can offer.

“We’ll look at the data through the deals that we’ve got through Golden Boy and see the popularity of the sport and how well it works,” said Hutton. “We don’t just want to show sport, we want to show sport that gives viewers a better experience and we want it to be positive. We don’t want it to be a worse version of what we’ve had historically.”

(Part of the Alvarez-DAZN signing called for guaranteed Golden Boy dates, so it is not immediately clear if Golden Boy will continue to work with Facebook.)

ESPN and Audience Expansion”

Drawing more viewers and subscribers is the mandate for any platform. But for a fixture like ESPN that has seen its viewership dwindle rapidly in recent years, the issue is existential. But during an interview with Ourand, Pitaro had some good news to share: For four quarters in a row, ESPN had seen a net subscriber decline. In other words, ESPN is still losing subscribers, just not as quickly as they once were.

One reason for that is likely because of ESPN+. Of all the streaming platforms operating in the United States, ESPN+ currently has the largest and most diverse portfolio of live sports under its belt. This includes mainstream sports such as NCAA basketball, NHL, MLB, and college football but also what ESPN head Pitaro, in a rare public appearance on the second day of the conference, described as “niche sports.”

“We’re interested in the pure point of big needle movers but we’re also just as interested in what’s now in the smaller niche sports,” said Pitaro. “So if you look on ESPN+ right now we have rugby, we have cricket, we have lacrosse, we have partnership with the Ivy League network.”

This also includes boxing — that is, Top Rank Boxing. The deal, struck back in 2017, was a major improvement on the usual club-fare shows that ESPN produced, namely through its Friday Night Fights series. ESPN would support Top Rank boxing through ancillary programming and a slew of primetime dates. Both parties seem to be enjoying a measure of success. Most recently in October, Terence Crawford-Jose Benavidez Jr. averaged 2.2 million viewers on a Saturday night, the second highest Top Rank-ESPN telecast since the beginning of their deal in 2017. Earlier this year, Top Rank and ESPN renewed their partnership with a seven year extension to showcase 54 live events through 2025.

Surprised by ESPN’s decision to strike up rights deals with combat sports entities, Ourand asked Pitaro, “If you would have told me 5 years ago that ESPN would have boxing programming and doing a deal with UFC I never have thought that would happen. What happened?

“Audience expansion,” Pitaro stated. “The main driver behind that deal was expanding our audience and presenting content that we think will speak to a younger generation.”

Pitaro singled out Top Rank president Todd duBoef for understanding exactly what their boxing programming needs to look like in order to attract more subscribers.

“Top Rank is run by a very progressive, a very intelligent guy named Todd duBoef,” said Pitaro, “and Todd is correctly focused on all the right things including expanding the reach, making boxing more popular around the globe and he believed that the best way to do that was partnering with ESPN.”

On ESPN+, Top Rank has shown fight cards from around the world, as far flung as Japan, Bulgaria and England. It also recently inked a deal with UK promoter Frank Warren to stream all of his fights on the app. All of which to say that there is an explicit corporate agenda in place for Top Rank, unlike its tenure with HBO, and that is to ensure that their fights drive subscribers to ESPN and ESPN+. So far, the results have been positive. In September, ESPN announced that the app had surpassed the one million subscriber mark, which many pundits considered impressive. (It should be pointed out that a reported roughly 300,000 of those subscriptions were brought in through ESPN’s existing paywall service, Insider).

Fragmentation

The current economic upswing in boxing — “it’s a great time to be a fighter,” is a common refrain heard around the industry — may taper out as initial investments flounder and the market comes back down to reality. Some executives were skeptical that the current proliferation of streaming platforms could be sustained in the long haul. “I don’t believe we’re going to find people who want 14 different type of OTT services,” said Hania Poole, vice president of BR Live, during a panel. Poole predicts that a degree of consolidation will be in order. “I think we’re going to go back to where television started with 3 or 4 networks. Sports becomes a premium piece of that package. Kind of like what the old world looked like but with a new delivery service, with one billing system, one password. I don’t see how this fragmentation can continue.”

NBC’s Archer was also similarly skeptical, but believed that the new model that streaming presents is here to stay. “Our fans are focused on customization and personalization. They really want something that is for them. I don’t see the interest in recreating something that they formally had. If we could keep that principle in mind and figure out what the right mix is so that you don’t have 15, or 20 or some unmanageable number (of apps), then perhaps (that will work).

The last thing an unregulated sport like boxing needs is more fragmentation, but the early signs suggest that the latest streaming deals have only reified the grand old political divisions. With Matchroom (and perhaps Golden Boy) now working exclusively with DAZN, Top Rank with ESPN, and PBC with Showtime and Fox, the current climate discourages collaboration. For example, neither a Terence Crawford vs. Errol Spence Jr. or an Anthony Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder fight is likely to materialize anytime soon because of conflicting broadcast alliances. Such conflicts are nothing new, but with promoters now incentivized to spur the subscriber base of their respective broadcasters, there is one less reason to come to together at the table. DAZN, for example, is not about to let Joshua, its marquee signee, hop over to Showtime/Fox to fight Wilder — not when it has a business to build.

Back in May, The Sweet Science asked Top Rank’s Todd duBoef if he had any intention to let 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez participate in the WBSS series to face the other top fighters in the division. duBeof’s response was instructive. “I’m building an enterprise here,” he answered. “Why would I work five years developing a product just to give it away?” If Top Rank feels that strongly about Ramirez, why should it be any different with Crawford?

HBO is gone, yes, and the boxing landscape may look more different than ever, but the same problems appear no closer to being solved.

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Mad Max and Manny

Ted Sares

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The crowd chants “Manny, Manny, Manny” at the weigh-in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and Pacquaio’s beloved Pinoy fans are going wild. It’s a BIG event, bigger even than many heavyweight title fights.

Max

Meanwhile, Maxim “Mad Max” Dadashev’s wife Elizabeth is flying from her home in St. Petersburg, Russia, to be with her husband at a hospital in Maryland. Dadashev was critically injured on Friday night while suffering an upset loss to heavy-handed Puerto Rican bomber Subriel Matias at another MGM property, the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Dadashev, 28, was 281-20 as an amateur, undefeated in 13 professional fights, and the IBF’s third-ranked junior welterweight, but Matias had his number and dominated throughout in a tough and grinding affair.

Capture 9

Maxim Dadashev

At the end of the 11th round, Buddy McGirt told his fighter, “I’m going to stop it, Max.” Dadashev protested. Maybe Max’s brain signaled no, maybe not. But his heart surely said “I’m not done.”

McGirt overruled him, a sage move, but unbeknownst to anyone the damage had been done and it was severe.

“He had one hell of a fight,” McGirt told the Washington Post. “Tough fight, tough fight; took a lot of tough body shots. I just think it was time to stop it. He was getting hit with too many shots. I said to him, ‘I’m stopping it.’ He said, ‘No, don’t.’”

The scores at the time of the stoppage were 109-100, 108-101 and 107-102 in favor of Matias. According to CompuBox, Matias out-landed Dadashev 319-157; 112 of Matias’ punches were body shots.

Max was stretchered out of the arena and rushed to UM Prince George’s Hospital where his skull was opened up to relieve the pressure caused by bleeding. The cavity reveals brain damage, and memories of Mago surface. The dreaded and familiar scenario then begins as he is put into an induced coma. Hopefully, the swelling goes down, the bleeding stops, and no blood clot appears as the later would make a terrible situation grave. In any event, Max will never box again. His well-publicized dream to win a world title will not be fulfilled.

In a post-fight interview, ESPN’s ringside analyst Tim Bradley said, “That’s a scary situation and every time you step foot in the ring you know that was always the talk that I would have with my wife. You know before I would step foot in the ring, I would sit her down, I would look at her and I would say, ‘Look at me, honey. Take a good look at me, open your eyes wide open because I might not come out the ring, for one, and I know I’m not coming out of the ring the same way that I came in.’”

Manny

Back to the big fight the following evening:

The crowd chants “Manny, Manny, Manny” as he enters the ring to battle Keith Thurman for still another championship as his worshipers are now virtually in a state of mass hysteria and begin singing and cheering loudly. The scene borders on the surreal.

Across the Pond

Earlier on Saturday, across the pond in London, heavyweight David Allen took a bad beating from 6’9” David Price and required oxygen. He also was stretchered out and sent to a hospital, adding to the angst. But he will be okay. According to his promoter, Eddie Hearn, Allen had a broken orbital bone and a damaged tongue, but brain scans suggested he was okay.

David Allen — “Very happy and proud of David Price. I will be okay, but the last 12 months or so my health has been deteriorating and I’m glad I hung on, took the chance, and made money. [I’m] now probably done.”

“Manny, Manny, Manny”

In Las Vegas, Manny has decked Thurman in the first round and the place is delirious. The crowd senses that this is his night although Thurman is not backing up. In the tenth, Pac almost puts “One Time” away after landing a devastating body punch.

Finally, the fight is over and Manny is declared the winner. The decibel count goes off the chart as the Pinoys sing “We Are The Champions.” Viewers hit the mute button. These are not fans as much as they are cultists. One wonders if those who are chanting even know that this has been a week where boxing exposed its grim side.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

Ted Sares is a member of Ring 8, a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Master Class.

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The Hauser Report: Caleb Plant is Making His Mark

Thomas Hauser

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The July 20 IBF 168-pound title fight between Caleb Plant and Mike Lee wasn’t expected to be competitive. But it was a coming out party for one of boxing’s more compelling personalities.

Plant was born and raised in Tennessee. As his ring career progressed, he moved to Henderson on the outskirts of Las Vegas to hone his craft. On January 13 of this year, he scored an upset decision victory over Jose Uzcategui to claim the IBF belt and bring his record to 18-0 with 10 KOs. Prior to that, his hardscrabble origins had been scarred by tragedy.

Plant grew up in a home where alcohol and drug abuse were common. His own daughter, Alia, was born with severe brain damage.

“She had zero motor skills,” Caleb recounted last year. “She couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t hold her head up. She couldn’t lift her arm. She couldn’t eat. She ate through a tube in her stomach. I didn’t know if she was gonna know who I was. I didn’t know if she knew that I loved her. She was never gonna stand and say ‘I love you, dad’ or ‘Merry Christmas, dad.’ She’s not gonna know what it’s like to have friends. But what if I could just give her a nice life, a life that I didn’t have. What if I could work so hard that I can give her a life and things that I never had as a kid. We won’t be able to have the relationship that I had with my dad. But I’ll give her my all, my best, no matter what. This is what I can try to give her. A roof over her head; food in her stomach even if it’s not through her mouth.”

In 2015, at nineteen months of age, Alia was in the hospital on life support for the fifth and final time in her young life. Plant’s words speak for themselves.

“The doctors were telling me, ‘Mr. Plant, your daughter is gonna pass away. That’s a tough conversation to have. She was slowly going down and down and down and down. I went to her. It was just me, and I said, ‘You know, this has been a long nineteen months, and I know you have to be tired. And if you are over this, then I’m okay with that. I’m not gonna be mad at you. I’m not gonna be disappointed in you. I’m not gonna be upset with you. If you’re tired of this and you’re done and you don’t want to do this anymore, then your daddy supports you. And I’m gonna be right here.’ And right after that conversation – a conversation that I had never had with her before because, every time before, it was ‘No, this is not gonna happen’ – she started going down. I said, ‘I want you guys to take this stuff off of her because I don’t want her to pass with these tubes down her throat and an EEG machine on her head and sticky and all that stuff.’ They took all that stuff out. They cleaned her off and washed her hair. They took everything out. I got to sit there with her. She took her last breath at 10:55. And I just sat with her there for a long while.”

Adding to the tragedy in Plant’s life, his mother was shot and killed by a police officer in March of this year. According to the Tennessee Bureau of investigation, Beth Plant was being taken to a hospital by ambulance when she became unruly and pulled a knife from her backpack. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and called for assistance from law enforcement. When a policeman arrived, Plant came toward him brandishing the knife and he shot her.

After Plant’s mother died, Caleb posted a message on Facebook that read, “Love you forever and always momma. You always said ‘work hard bubba’ and I did. I know that we spent a lot of time wishing the relationship we had was different but you was still my momma. We both wished we could start from scratch so we could go back and you could have a fresh start with me and Maddie. Regardless you was one of the sweetest ladies I’ve ever come across. You had your demons but you’d give the shoes off your feet and your last dollar to someone who needed it less than you. I love you momma and I know you are up there with Alia now and her and grandma finally get to spend time together like we talked about way back. You are the first one out of all of us to see what Alia is really like so make the most of that and kiss her up and tell her that her daddy loves and misses her. I know in the end it’s your demons we always talked about that got the best of you. Maybe you always told me because you knew I’d understand because we shared some of the same ones.”

The saving grace in Plant’s life has been boxing.

“I’ve been boxing since I was nine years old,” Caleb says. “There ain’t never been a Plan B. Not to go to college. Not to get a nine-to-five. Not to get a job. Not to be in the NFL. Not any of that. All I’ve ever had is boxing. I’m from the metho-heroin capital of the U.S. where a mother will sell her child’s last toy for one Xanex. Where a mother will lock her son and her daughter in a room for hours, not taking care of them, just so she can be locked away in her room doing her own stuff. I’m from where the Bethesda Center gives out-of-date canned food to you because you ain’t got no food. There ain’t no Plan B.”

Elaborating on that theme during a July 1 media conference call, Plant declared, “Boxing has always been like a sanctuary for me. It’s been a place that I could go and be somebody. As a kid, I was somebody that nobody would want to be, living in a place where nobody would want to be in. When I got to go to the gym, then I got to be somebody that everybody wanted to be. Grown men looking up to me, oohing and ahhing. And once I got back out of those doors, I had to go back to being that kid that nobody wanted to be. So that became like an addiction for me, to want to be there, want to be in the gym.”

“Through everything that came and left in my life,” Plant continued. “Through all the things that I’ve lost, through all the things I’ve been deprived of or haven’t had, boxing has always stood by my side. Boxing has always been there for me through thick and thin. Boxing is like a woman. If you treat her right and you do good by her, then she’ll stand by you and she’ll do right by you. But she’s a jealous woman. And the difference between me and my opponent is, I haven’t glanced off of her. I haven’t endeavored into other things.”

Mike Lee comes from a world that Caleb Plant is unfamiliar with.

Lee went to high school at the Benet Academy in Lisle, Illinois. Virtually all of Benet’s students go on to college. Lee spent a year at the University of Missouri before transferring to Notre Dame, where he graduated with a degree in finance. “I relax by watching CNBC,” he told writer Kieran Mulvaney several years ago. “And I like reading the Wall Street Journal.”

For most of Lee’s ring career, he was well marketed and well protected by Top Rank. At one point, he parlayed his Notre Dame pedigree into a much-commented-upon Subway commercial. Recently, he left Top Rank to campaign under the Premier Boxing Champions banner. Now 32 (five years older than Plant), he came into Saturday night’s fight with a 21-0 (11 KOs) record and had fought his entire career at light-heavyweight or a shade higher.

Plant’s opposition had been suspect prior to his victory over Uzcategui. Lee’s opposition had been worse. “The typical Mike Lee opponent,” one matchmaker observed, “has had ten fights and won all but nine of them.”

Kick-off press conferences are usually characterized by the lack of anything eloquent being said. The May 21 press conference for Plant-Lee was different. Lee spoke first, voicing the usual platitudes.

“Every single fight is different. I don’t really care what his other opponents have done in or out of the ring. It doesn’t matter. On fight night, the bell rings, it’s just me and him. The best man will win. I’ve been in so many press conferences where opponents either talk shit or they’re dismissive or they’re respectful. I’ve beat them all. This is an incredible opportunity and I will make the most of it. I’m going to shock a lot of people”

Then it was Plant’s turn.

“I’ve been boxing my whole life,” Caleb said. “No college degree for me. No high school sports. No acting gigs. No Subway commercials. Just boxing, day in and day out, rain, sleet, or snow. He may have a financial degree. But in boxing I have a Ph.D and that’s something he don’t know anything about. Something else I have a Ph.D in is being cold and being hungry and being deprived, coming from very rock bottom. That’s something he don’t know anything about. So if this guy ever thought for one second that I would let him mess this up for me and send me back there; unlike him, I have everything to lose. This is how I keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. That’s something he don’t know anything about. So if he thinks he’s going to mess this up for me, he’s not half as educated as I thought he was.”

At times, the dialogue seemed to verge on class warfare. And it continued in that vein through fight week.

“There are zoo lions and there are jungle lions,” Plant said at the final pre-fight press conference two days before the bout. “The zoo lion will look at the jungle lion and think they’re the same thing. And from a distance they look the same. Until it’s time to eat or be eaten.”

“The trash talking goes back and forth,” Lee responded. “That’s as old as time. Nothing he’s saying is new. It’s all recycled stuff he’s heard on TV or heard in movies. It’s nothing new to me. It doesn’t even bother me. I laugh at it.”

Plant-Lee was broadcast live on Fox as a lead-in to the Pacquiao-Thurman pay-per-view card. Lee was a 15-to-1 underdog. The consensus was that he had as much chance of beating Plant in a boxing match as Yale would have of beating Notre Dame in football.

Nevada’s choice of 76-year-old referee Robert Byrd as third man in the ring was a bit of a surprise. Byrd was once a capable referee, but his performance in recent years has been erratic. The most egregious example of this was his mishandling of the June 15 World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight semi-final bout between Mairis Briedis and Krzysztof Glowacki.

Byrd is past the point where he can move nimbly around the ring and was out of position for much of Briedis-Glowacki. His judgment was also faulty. In round two while the fighters were in a clinch, Glowacki hit Breidis in the back of the head with a rabbit punch. Briedis retaliated by flagrantly smashing an elbow into Glowacki’s face, driving the Pole to the canvas. In a post-fight in-the-ring interview on DAZN, Briedis acknowledged the foul, saying, “I did a little bit dirty.”

Glowacki, for his part, noted, “The elbow was really strong and clear to the chin. I did not know what happened. I do not remember a lot after that.”

Byrd deducted a point from Briedis but didn’t give Glowacki additional time to recover. Still hurt, Glowacki was knocked down fifteen seconds later by a two-punch combination that ended with a right hand to the back of the head. He rose. The bell rang to end the round. And Byrd didn’t hear it.

“The bell’s gone,” DAZN blow-by-blow commentator Jim Rosenthal shouted. “They’re carrying on. Come on, referee. I can hear it. Get in there.”

But Byrd allowed the action to continue. With people at ringside waving their arms and screaming at him that the round had ended, he allowed Briedis to batter Glowacki for another eight seconds until Mairis scored another knockdown.

“He’s gone down after the bell,” Rosenthal proclaimed. “What is occurring in there? What is occurring? That bell was ringing for ages. It’s farcical. He’s saying he couldn’t hear the bell. He must have been the only one in the arena.”

A badly damaged Glowacki was allowed out of his corner for round three but the fight was stopped twenty seconds later. In the same post-fight interview on DAZN, Briedis conceded that he’d heard the bell ending round two but kept punching.

As for Plant-Lee, the fight lived down to expectations. Lee tried to fight aggressively but didn’t have the tools to do it. Plant was the faster, stronger, tougher, better schooled fighter. He dropped Lee with a lead left hook late in round one, dug effectively to the body throughout, and put Lee on the canvas thrice more in the third stanza. After the final knockdown, Byrd stopped the mismatch. According to CompuBox, Lee landed just eight punches in the entire bout.

It will be interesting to see how Plant progresses from here, in and out of the ring. In that regard, it should be noted that writer Jeremy Herriges talked at length recently with Carman Jean Briscoe-Lee (Alia’s mother, who was once Caleb’s companion). Thereafter, Herriges wrote a thought-provoking article for NY Fights that calls portions of Plant’s narrative into question.

A Missing Part of the Caleb Plant Story 

 

Meanwhile, Caleb remains a work in progress.

“I’m not a grown man,” he said during a July 1 media conference call. “I’m a growing man. So I’m going to continue to become better in the ring. I’m going to continue to become a better man outside the ring. Thus far, I think I’ve done a good job of handling that responsibility. If I just continue to follow what I’ve done, I think I’ll be on the right path.”

Let’s see how the journey unfolds.

Thomas Hauser’s new email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing  – will published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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Manny Pacquiao Defies Father Time, Whips Thurman

David A. Avila

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Manny Pacquiao Defies Father Time, Whips Thurman

LAS VEGAS-Father time, hold on.

Manny Pacquiao knocked down Keith Thurman with his electrifying speed in the first round then managed to keep the lead and defeat Keith Thurman by split decision and retain the WBA welterweight world title Saturday. It was one exciting firefight.

Pacquiao showed the young guns he still has bullets left in the chamber.

The pride of the Philippines, Pacquiao (62-7-2, 39 KOs) also showed he still has star attraction and startling speed in front of the crowd of 14,356 at the MGM Grand. And he still has enough in the gas tank to defeat a young powerhouse like 30-year-old Thurman.

But it was razor close.

Pacman jumped to the lead in the first round with a sizzling combination capped by a lightning right hook that floored a surprised Thurman. The Florida fighter smiled while getting up.

“He caught me when I was moving back,” said Thurman. “After that knockdown it was just a numbers game.”

For the first five rounds Pacquiao bedazzled Thurman and the fans with his jitterbug style that has confused dozens of opponents in more than 20 years as a professional. But once he slowed down, Thurman began connecting and connecting.

Thurman had never tasted defeat and used a body attack to slow down the rushes by Pacquiao. It proved effective and from rounds six through nine the taller Thurman was connecting on a slower moving Pacquiao.

Just when it looked like Thurman was about to take over with body shots and rights in the 10th round, Pacquiao stopped the onslaught and unleashed a multiple-punch rally including a powerful left to the body that buckled Thurman who was visibly pained by the body blow. Somehow he hung on as Pacquiao unfurled a barrage of blows in search of the killing blow he once knew so well. Thurman survived.

“I felt like I was grabbing some momentum back. I felt like I needed to possibly get a knockdown,” Thurman said. “But definitely I was obviously hurt in that round.  I tried to push him to his limit and he came up on top.”

Pacquiao was able to carry over the momentum to the 11th round by targeting Thurman’s weakened body. But at 30 years old the Floridians recovery time was quick and he was able to stave off Pacquiao’s attacks with well-placed right counters.

In the final round Thurman kept pressure on the shorter Pacquiao who seemed a little tired and careful about getting caught with Thurman’s sharp right counters. The fight ended without serious further altercations.

Judge Glenn Feldman scored it 114-113 for Thurman while judges Dave Moretti and Tim Cheatham tabbed it 115-112 for Pacquiao who retains the WBA welterweight title by split decision.

Once again the record-making eight-division world champion Pacquiao defied the ageing process with a victory over another younger world champion. If naysayers felt retirement was overdue he proved once again that he is one of the wonders of prizefighting.

“He’s a good fighter, he’s strong,” said Pacquiao. “We did it for the fans. I’m sure they were happy tonight. Even though it was close he’s not an easy opponent, he’s strong.”

Thurman was gracious in defeat.

“I knew it was close,” said Thurman. “This is a beautiful night for boxing. Manny Pacquiao is a great, great champion. I wish I had a little bit more as he was getting tired, but it was a great night for boxing.”

“This guy is a fighter,” said Pacquiao. “I think I can rank this like a (Antonio) Margarito fight, an Oscar De La Hoya fight, a Juan Manuel Marquez fight and Marco Antonio Barrera fight. You saw what we did in the ring, it’s the first time I encountered an opponent like Keith Thurman. Keith hits like Margarito. I think because he was too big for me and heavy handed.”

Caleb Plant

IBF super middleweight titlist Caleb Plant had predicted Mike Lee was not a true challenge and then proved it with three rounds of domination to win by technical knockout in the third round.

Plant floored a hyper Lee in the first round with a left hook but the Chicago fighter shook it off. The second round was better for Lee who managed to land some blows against the speedy Plant but still lost the round. Worse things were in store for Lee.

Las Vegas-based Plant opened the third round with two quick jabs and rifled a right cross missile that dropped Lee with a thud. The former Notre Dame football player got up enthusiastically ready for more and Plant obliged with a check left hook and down went Lee again. Luckily for Lee, referee Robert Byrd missed the knockdown and called it a slip. Lee couldn’t get up right away but managed to gather himself. When the fight resumed Plant zipped a right cross and down went Lee hard. Referee Byrd stopped the fight without a count though Lee angrily disagreed with the stoppage.

Plant was deemed the winner by technical knockout at 1:29 of the third round to retain the IBF super middleweight world title. It was his first title defense since winning it earlier this year in Los Angeles against Jose Uzcategui.

“I’ve been telling you it’s not going 12,” said Plant. “I take my hat off to Mike, it takes a true man to go in the ring.”

The Tennessee native said he’s ready for anyone whether it’s a super middleweight or light heavyweight.

“I ain’t hard to get ahold of, just come to Las Vegas,” said Plant.

Nery KOs Payano

In a tough battle between southpaw sluggers for the WBC Silver bantamweight title Mexico’s Luis Nery (30-0, 24 KOs) finally solved Dominican’s Jose Carlos Payano (21-3, 9 KOs) by directing his big blows to the body to win by knockout in the ninth round. It was Nery’s 11th consecutive knockout win.

“He had a complicated style but I adapted by the sixth round and went to the body and focused on that,” said Nery who lives and trains in Tijuana, Mexico.

After back and forth blows for nine rounds Nery caught Payano with a crackling left to the body and down went Payano for more than five minutes. The Dominican was counted out by referee Vic Drakulich at 1:43 of the ninth round.

Ugas wins Ugly

If not for a point deducted Cuba’s Yordenis Ugas (24-4, 11 KOs) would have won every round over Texas fighter Omar Figueroa (28-1-1, 19 KOs) but he had to settle for winning by unanimous decision in winning the eliminator for the WBC welterweight title.

It was an ugly fight.

The first round looked good for Ugas who nailed Figueroa with a wicked overhand right. Figueroa was saved from hitting the floor by the ropes and the referee wisely called it a knockdown. But after that, darkness and frustration set in as Figueroa hugged his way inside and Ugas showed he did not how to fight at close distance. Instead of fighting he held and held until referee Russell Mora took a point away in the fifth round.

Figueroa’s charges inside were ineffective for 11 rounds as both were unable to allow a fight to break out. After 12 rounds all three judges scored it the same 119-107 for Ugas. It was Figueroa’s first loss as a pro.

Lipinets

Former super lightweight world titlist Sergey Lipinets faced last-minute replacement Javar Inson, a southpaw, and knocked out the Filipino fighter with a counter left hook in the second round. It was advice that his new trainer Joe Goossen had directed him to do.

“(Joe Goossen) is an exceptional trainer. He just wanted me to make sure I block his punches with my elbows and just counter,” said Lipinets.

During a exchange of blows Lipinets countered with a left hook that Inson did not see and was dropped for a knockdown. Referee Jay Nady looked at his eyes and stopped the fight at 57 seconds of the second round for a technical knockout win for Lipinets.

“You never know what to expect because you train for one style and get another. He was looking for it. A great fighter executes what he expects,” said Goossen.

Other Bouts

Nigeria’s Efe Ajagba (11-0, 9 KOs) out-punched Turkey’s Ali Eren Demirezen (11-1,10 KOs) over 10 rounds to surprisingly win by unanimous decision instead of by knockout. Both heavyweights entered the ring with prodigious knockout records but neither was able to knock the other down. Two judges scored it 99-91 and a third 97-93 for Ajagba.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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