A little under a month from now, Jay-Z and his company, Roc Nation, will host their first boxing card at Madison Square Garden’s Theatre. They are calling it “Throne Boxing” in reference to the rapper’s album duet with Kanye West, and presumptively, to emphasize the regality of Roc Nation’s foray into the sport. The card is low on star power and long on promise. It will be an entertainment show, featuring musical performances in addition to the fights. For a fledgling boxing outfit it must be this way. Without any marketable names in its stable, Roc Nation can best leverage its assets through a confluence of sports and art, and build its product patiently.
The card will be headlined by Washington, D.C.’s Dusty Hernandez-Harrison (24-0), an undefeated welterweight prospect who will take on Long Island’s Tommy Rainone (22-5-1). I know nothing about either man, but this fight can be sold since it matches promise, in Hernandez-Harrison, against Rainone’s regional relevance. Of course, most of the talk since the card was announced has not focused on the main event, but the sort of show Roc Nation will provide. The fighters are supporting actors on a large stage, and fans will attend more to bask in its spectacle than to see how the main event unfolds.
Unlike 50 Cent’s poorly managed promotional company, Roc Nation is a highly successful business with the right infrastructure for tasks that require complex administrative skills and business connections. It also has David Itskowitch as the chief operating officer of its boxing division. Only 39, Itskowitch has worked in boxing for eighteen years and has valuable promotional experience, having previously served under Lou DiBella and Oscar De La Hoya. He is also ambitious, and last summer told ESPN that Roc Nation is “looking to make an immediate and dramatic impact on the sport.” In the same interview, he spoke of his wish to reach younger audiences. Itskowitch believes Roc Nation is the right company to popularize boxing with youth given its pertinence as a musical force and its understanding of how to manufacture celebrity in an age that’s obsessed with it.
This sounds promising, and I (like many I suspect) want to see a new player in boxing. But while Jay Z seems to have entrusted the right people to run his company, acquiring good talent is another matter. You need stars to succeed in boxing promotion and they are not easily obtained. Earlier this year Roc Nation tendered promotional offers to Deontay Wilder and Peter Quillin and was rebuffed in both instances. The company also seriously outbid Golden Boy and Top Rank to promote November’s Peter Quillen-Matt Korobov fight. Rather than face Korobov, Quillen dropped his WBO middleweight title belt and chose to forego a payday that he would not have seen otherwise. Not a transcendent star, Quillin was the beneficiary of Roc Nation’s desire to make a splash, but rather than take advantage of their offer he turned it down.
Quillin likely did this on the advice of Al Haymon, his advisor, who does not want Jay Z to lessen the grip he exercises on boxing. Haymon, about whom much is said but little is known, reportedly has a personal beef with Jay Z. Like the rapper he made himself rich in the music business before entering the fight game, and was once listed as a co-promoter on Jay Z’s tours. And, like Jay Z, he has a relationship with Beyonce, the rapper’s superstar wife, but Haymon’s link to her is contentious. According to Billboard.com, in 2011 Mathew Knowles, Beyonce’s father and former manager, sued Live Nation Entertainment for supposedly claiming that he and Haymon worked together to defraud Beyonce, a conspiracy for which Knowles was allegedly fired as her manager. In music, the business lives of Jay Z and Haymon were once entwined. In boxing, the two men are magnets whose forces repel one another.
Haymon is a powerful player in the sport, controls many of the top boxers, and seems to enjoy good relations with all of them. Even if he’s responsible for preventing more fights from happening than actually making them, it will be difficult to pry fighters away because Haymon gets them paid. Roc Nation made immediate, high profile signings in the NBA, MLB, and NFL, with players like Kevin Durant, Robinson, Cano, and Victor Cruz, respectively, but acquiring boxers has proven more difficult. The most obvious way of procuring talent in a sport whose best and brightest are mostly tied to one man is to sign young, un-tethered guys and build their profiles patiently, in the same way a baseball organization moves a draftee along from the minors to the majors. Roc Nation can look outside of the US for talent, and while they probably will anyway because it makes business sense, the company seems intent on featuring home grown fighters whose urban backgrounds will appeal to the same fans who listen to Roc Nation music.
Starpower is paramount in individual sports and Jay Z will need it to put on cards of relevance. Unless he manages to sign an established name, like Andre Ward, in whom Roc Nation has expressed interest, this will take time. Big time boxing promotion is a business traditionally allergic to outsiders. For the past forty years it has been dominated by two men in North America, Don King and Bob Arum, and is now mostly fought over between Arum and De La Hoya. Unlike other start-ups, however, Roc Nation is not a new business. It is a successful, established entity that knows how to promote and has a well-oiled PR machine. From the outset, it is smart to package its boxing product as a synthesis of art and sport because in doing so Roc Nation gives fans an original fight experience that’s stylistically true to the company. They are not overreaching, only introducing a sports component to their entertainment business.
Other musicians have tried their hand at boxing promotion, usually with poor results. 50 Cent has not become a player, neither did Damon Dash, and only Rap-A-Lot mogul James Prince, who once managed Floyd Mayweather and now steers Andre Ward, has had sustained success. Jay Z is a proven businessman who knows only maximum commitment will bear fruit for his boxing outfit. He has already taken the Garden as an artist. As a fight promoter, we’ll see if he has the guile and patience to guide his business from MSG’s Theatre into its Main Arena.
— Eliott McCormick