PBC’s Hard Lessons

Last week two high profile articles hit the web describing in almost grotesque detail the way Premier Boxing Champions—Al Haymon’s infamous boxing league—has been bled nearly dry. The numbers are baffling: $434 million dollars gone in barely 18 months. That works out to a bit over $5.5 million spent per week. The benefactors of such astounding largesse? Hundreds of chronically inactive fighters, about a dozen TV networks, a few seat-filling companies, and scores of radio DJs running ticket giveaways in such boxing-crazed markets as Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mashantucket, Connecticut, and Tunica, Mississippi. And don’t forget the brigade of suits hired to defend the budding enterprise against costly legal threats from Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank.

In light of such revelations, the mudslinging from fans towards Haymon’s failing experiment is rampant, and perhaps there are some valid reasons. After all, many PBC-affiliated fighters have shown effectively zero in the way of decorum or discretion regarding the obscene amounts of money they’ve made for unworthy matches. Remember when Julio Cesar Chavez Jr—right before his name shed its last sliver of relevance—flaunted on Instagram a picture of the seven-figure paycheck he earned for getting his ass kicked by Andrezj Fonfara? And who could forget troll extraordinaire Angel Garcia advising Shawn Porter and Keith Thurman to fight a couple of Salkas for million-dollar paydays instead of fighting each other? Or what about this Adonis Stevenson tweet? Or what about the sense of entitlement permeating the careers of so many PBC fighters, perfectly channeled, in all its douchey glory, in this Adrien Broner video?

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Broner: ‘douchey glory.’

And yet riding the schadenfreude train, tempting as it might be and fun as it might sound, ultimately leads us nowhere; after a while, the laughter turns to mere chuckles, and quickly thereafter into sad smiles as we grimly realize it has left us stranded in some desolate, forsaken place that mirrors what the PBC has done to the careers of many of its so-called stars.

Though in fairness, PBC boxers did what no doubt many of us would have done,  signed up with the outfit that promised them the most money for the least amount of risk. Those who could get a fight every once in a while actually got paid, so good on them. Also, it’s worth noting the PBC isn’t, as of today, officially dead; in fact, it may linger on zombie-like for who knows how long, provided Uncle Al dupes a few investors into coughing up more cash. Perhaps the only immediate threat to Haymon’s hustle would be an unscheduled visit from the feds.

That said, expecting Al Haymon to turn this ship around and accomplish what he originally set out to do—namely, the monopolization of professional boxing in North America—will be a tall order indeed. The good news is that when a half-a-billion dollar experiment goes up in smoke in a record amount of time, the lessons are both numerous and unmissable.

Haymon: Maybe this guy is the problem.
Haymon: On the ropes?

Number one on the list being that boxing is in fact about the best fighters fighting each other. This is almost tautological, and yet Al Haymon & Co. never seemed to grasp the concept. For 18 months Premier Boxing Champions has bombarded us with farcical mismatches and irrelevant bouts on expensive prime time television. Sure, there were occasional jewels, like Thurman vs Porter and Santa Cruz vs Frampton, but these top fights have been, sadly, the exception of PBC matchmaking and not the rule.

In fact, PBC’s production strategy seems to have been to tape their fighters’ names on a board and then have a couple shit-faced interns throw darts in pairs. Perhaps a better approach would’ve been to invest heavily in a few select divisions and then hold tournaments, thus producing a boxing television series with a definite sense of progression and an identifiable end. An additional benefit of the tournament format would’ve been that it would’ve kept momentum going for both the PBC and the winning fighters, adding to viewer’s expectations by fueling anticipation for the next big card. Instead, PBC’s random–and often unintriguing–matchmaking has resulted in maybe a handful of memorable fights and performances, and a preponderance of tedious and/or unnecessary matches making it to air.

Thurman vs Porter: the exception.
Thurman vs Porter: the exception.

Names come and go, but the nature of boxing is the constant in the equation. People tune in to watch good fights, sure, but we also crave a narrative that shows us who the man to beat is. PBC, through its dollar-per-word talking heads, was only interested in telling us who to root for. Competition is a form of discovery, and boxing—the so-called theater of the unexpected—offers a stage on which such discovery can attain unrivaled dramatic heights. PBC wasted the opportunity to pit top talents against each other in a quest for greatness of the real kind, not the manufactured one. A future such enterprise will focus on building a sustainable platform for finding and testing top boxing talent perpetually, and in avoiding reliance on a few big names who may not be that interested in truly meaningful matches.

With respect to the PBC’s efforts to gain new boxing fans, Haymon had his work cut out for him, given the fact a sizable number of civilians see it as a relic of a bygone era and many sports fans now prefer mixed martial arts. This means that even if PBC had conjured the perfect strategy and enjoyed unlimited funding, the prospects of greatly increasing boxing’s popularity were dim at best. This is why PBC made token attempts at drawing interest from casual sports fans, by hiring Hans Zimmer to compose a music theme, bringing in Al Michaels to commentate, and standardizing ring walks. At the same time, PBC tried to drape boxing in political correctness (no ring card girls to objectify; no profanity-laced post-fight interviews), to make it as family-friendly as football and baseball. But these efforts translated into little more than unsuccessful pandering to those disinterested in combat sports, while they alienated the hardcore boxing fan base that most craved the product.

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Marv Albert, Al Michaels, Ray Leonard, Bob Costas: surely the ‘casuals’ will follow.

Instead of spending millions of dollars on unnecessary flash, Haymon should have focused on getting the basics right and working from the ground up. Developing relationships with local gyms and amateur programs in big boxing cities would have allowed access to future stars. Letting people know Haymon cares about the sport–as opposed to just making money–and that he’s in it for the long run would’ve boosted his chances of earning the boxing establishment’s backing and getting word-of-mouth endorsement. Shining light on the positive impact boxing has in thousands of young kids’ lives and on their trainers and families would’ve shown America the good side of boxing. Doing all, or any of this, would’ve not only garnered some attention from people who don’t normally pay attention to boxing, but would have also generated content that complemented PBC’s main product.

A final word on spending money: fighters’ purses need to be adjusted for both the degree of risk involved in the fights they take, as well as for the demand for a given fight. There is no such thing as a free lunch, especially so in boxing in this day and age. PBC fighters got paid very well, absolutely, but it came directly from PBC’s war chest, which was supposed to last for more than just a year and a half. This means the PBC will in all likelihood meet its demise much earlier than anticipated, and the fact everyone now believes this to be true means moving forward few will want to invest in or work with a sinking ship, further accelerating its demise. Inflated purses more than likely constituted the largest expenditure in PBC’s books, and to exert some control over them, it was imperative for Haymon and his team to understand a titleholder fighting “a Salka”—as Angel so classily put it—should not be rewarded with the same paycheck as facing a top-level fighter.

Garcia vs ‘a Salka’: overpaid?

Moving on to the issue of accessibility, the fact PBC fights were distributed through so many different channels, following schedules so incoherent they might as well have been determined by monkeys on typewriters, made it impossible for any kind of fan–hardcore, casual or newcomer– to keep up with the action, and in fact might have even turned off a number of them. In an age of ever-decreasing attention spans and unlimited entertainment choices, simplicity should’ve ruled the roster: Premier Fights on NBC the first Saturday of every month! Up and Comers on Spike every other Wednesday! Eliminators on ESPN on Fridays! Something in this vein would’ve made it easier for potential fans to understand the concept of PBC, to help them see where the featured fighters ranked within the bigger picture, and where each boxer stood in terms of their career development.

Finally, it must be said Haymon made a huge mistake the moment he shunned traditional boxing media from PBC’s shindigs, announcements and promotional efforts. It was always going to be hard to gain new adherents in massive numbers, and the task of achieving sustainability was made even harder by the fact Haymon took the fight establishment for granted. Instead of trying to get the boxing media and fight fans to spread the word about PBC, Haymon gave them an excuse to “hate” on him. In the best case scenario, PBC would’ve had to run a marathon to get to where it wanted to go; alienating the sport’s niche following meant Haymon chopped off a leg before the starting gun even fired.

The glorious beginning.
The glorious beginning.

It’s hard to tell what the future holds for PBC fighters, but a spreading consequence of the inflated purses Haymon doled out is that boxers from other promotional companies also feel like they’re not being properly compensated for their efforts. It will take a while for reality to sink back in, and reality is that boxing’s audience—at least in North America—is hardly growing, and, in all probability, is shrinking. This does not bode well for those accustomed to earning millions for taking relatively easy fights.

Even worse, if PBC’s demise results in court hearings, federal investigations, or even indictments, it will surely paint boxing an even darker shade than it’s already viewed in by the public, and Haymon will have then achieved the exact opposite of what he intended. Still, even that nightmare scenario wouldn’t finish off professional boxing as a mainstream attraction, at least not completely. But it would mean fighters will find it harder to ply their trade, and fans would have to look elsewhere—MMA, international boxing—to get their fix. Whether we get to that point remains to be seen, but whenever the next deep-pocketed businessman comes along to save boxing from itself, he or she would do well to heed the lessons learned from PBC’s rise and seemingly inevitable fall.             –Rafael Garcia

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