Andy Lee's first defence of his WBO world middleweight title against Peter Quillin in Brooklyn on Saturday night is likely to draw at least four times as many television viewers as Conor McGregor's forthcoming bout with Jose Aldo.
Victims of the unrelenting UFC hype machine may not want to hear that. Lee's fight is being shown live on NBC where somewhere north of three million are expected to tune in. Dana White is hopeful McGregor's insufferable schtick will sell 800,000 pay-per-views.
The vast difference in audience sums up the conundrum that has bedevilled the fight game for generations. Charge and you make more money, at least in the short term, go free-to-air and you have the potential to turn fighters into the type of break-out superstars who transcend their sport. With the former approach having ghettoised American boxing on the premium channels of HBO and Showtime for decades, Lee versus Quillin, and co-main event, Danny Garcia versus Lamont Peterson, are part of Premier Boxing Champions, a renewed attempt to bring it back to the mainstream.
The plan is the brainchild of Al Haymon, the most powerful and mysterious figure in any professional sport. Floyd Mayweather calls him "the ghost" and the New York Times dubbed him "the secret agent".
No less an authority than Thomas Hauser has compared his power and reach to Don King in his pomp but he's the anti-Don King in crucial ways. He remains hidden from public view, studiously eschewing the spotlight, and his fighters never, ever seem to complain about being ripped off.
A Harvard business graduate with a background in the entertainment industry, Haymon promoted a glittering and lengthy roster of acts that included
, MC Hammer,
, Mary J. Blige, and T.I. About 15 years ago, he started to dabble in boxing (his brother Bobby once lost to Sugar Ray Leonard) and today, with more than 100 fighters (including Amir Khan) under contract, he has the ear of the television networks and may just have the wherewithal to make boxing matter again.
Certainly, something drastic needs to be done. Mayweather is arguably the greatest fighter of his time and one of the best ever. Yet, to the majority of Americans who have never seen him box, he is simply the cocky guy from a long ago season of Dancing with the Stars". He has spent his career amassing a personal fortune but has never enjoyed the name recognition or adulation afforded the historic icons against whom he will eventually have to be measured. The fact his meeting with Manny Pacquiao next month, five years past its sell-by date, could retail at $90 on pay-per-view perfectly captures how and why boxing became irrelevant.
The irony is that Haymon, a man reportedly paying NBC $20m to put boxing back on the prime time schedule, is also an advisor to Mayweather. That the putative saviour once shepherded the undefeated welterweight’s lucrative move from HBO to Showtime is just one of many contradictions that surround him.
As he stockpiled fighters over the past few years, Haymon’s stable became notorious for avoiding risky bouts and worrying more about paydays than prestige. If boxing is to succeed on terrestrial television, it needs to move away from the type of mismatches which have besmirched its reputation for too long, and to offer truly competitive fare. While a Haymon show that was carried by CBS last weekend reeked of the bad old, one-sided days, this Saturday’s card appears much more promising.
The fact Lee is even in New York with a belt around his waist and this wonderful opportunity to catapult himself to a whole new level of stardom is, indirectly, also down to Haymon and the labyrinthine workings of every boxing promotion.
Quillin was originally scheduled to take on Matt Korobov last year, at least until the purse bid for the event was won by Roc Nation, sports arm of Jay-Z's burgeoning business empire. Whether motivated by professional interest and/or his personal animosity with Jay-Z, Haymon didn't want one of his charges fighting on a Roc Nation card so Quillin walked away from the biggest earning opportunity of his career. Lee stepped up to fill the vacancy and unfurled the epic right hook that staggered the Russian and transformed his own fortunes.
As the soap operatic tinge to that tale suggests, Haymon isn't immune to the backstabbing, name-calling and lawsuits that are the stuff of so much boxing lore. Indeed, while his clients constantly praise him for taking a smaller cut of their earnings and doing wonders for their profile, his rivals whisper about his true intentions and negative impact on the sport. There are accusations he's scheming to set up his own sanctioning body a la UFC, that he wants to establish a dedicated boxing channel, and regularly contravenes the Muhammad Ali Act which precludes individuals from fulfilling the role of manager and promoter.
For now, most fans won’t care a jot about those allegations because they are too busy turning back the clock to savour new access to an old favourite. Earlier this week, it was announced Saturday night’s Barclays Centre action will be broadcast live on radio. Back on terrestrial television. Back on the wireless. And an Irish guy fighting a contender nicknamed “Kid Chocolate”. Just like the way things used to be.