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The fact Klitschko-Chambers is not on U.S. TV is a new low

15
Mar

Eddie Chambers, speaking at a news conference in Dusseldorf, Germany, would pull off an enormous upset if he could beat Wladimir Klitschko on Saturday. But those in the U.S. can watch it only on the Klitschko brothers' Web site. Photo / Jan Sanders-Goossen Tutor

Some have pegged 6-foot-6, 33-year-old RING heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and 5-1, 20-year-old actress Hayden Panettiere as something of an odd couple. But if you look at the progression of their professional exploits over the last couple of years, they actually have a lot in common.

Panettiere plays the cheerleader, of “save the cheerleader, save the world” catchphrase fame, on the NBC show Heroes. The superhero serial debuted in 2006 and quickly became one of TV’s most popular and critically acclaimed programs, earning an “Outstanding Drama” Emmy nomination and a rabid following. But after one well-received season, the writers lost their way, the ratings declined significantly with each passing year and now, at the end of the fourth season, speculation is that the show will be cancelled.

From a perspective of popularity in America and favor with television executives, Klitschko’s line graph strongly mirrors that of his girlfriend’s show. From 2004 to 2008, he had 11 fights in a row televised by HBO (plus six of eight fights before that streak). As the world’s preeminent heavyweight for most of that stretch, he was a staple of the network. But the tide took a sudden turn in ’09. When opponent David Haye backed out of what was to be Klitschko’s 12th straight HBO appearance, the pay-cable giant declined to purchase a replacement fight between Klitschko and Ruslan Chagaev. And now it’s two in a row on this new streak, as this Saturday’s fight in between Klitschko and Eddie Chambers in Dusseldorf, Germany won’t be on HBO.

In fact, whereas Klitschko-Chagaev and Vitali Klitschko-Juan Carlos Gomez at least found a home on ESPN Classic, Klitschko-Chambers won’t be on television in America at all. The No. 1 heavyweight in the world is defending THE RING title and two alphabet belts against a likable, well-spoken, once-beaten American contender, and the only way to see it is by paying $14.95 to watch it on the Klitschko brothers’ web site, www.klitschko.com.

It’s not exactly original to point out that the heavyweight division is losing relevance in the United States. But when it reaches this point, alarm bells go off. When the title that was held by Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson is being contested without the fight available anywhere on the American TV dial, that represents a new low.

HBO Sports Senior Vice President of Programming Kery Davis spelled out the reasons Klitschko-Chambers is not being carried by the network that has been the primary home of the heavyweight championship in recent years.

“We are looking to be opportunistic with regard to licensing fights in the heavyweight division,” Davis said. “We weigh a number of factors in making that determination – including the quality of the matchup, the location of the fight and any scheduling concerns. Ultimately, with Klitschko-Chambers, the fact that the fight is in Europe and occurring on March 20, in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament, factored in to us ultimately passing on the fight.”

That all makes perfect sense, and it’s the first statement that is the most telling: HBO is in “opportunistic” mode with regard to the heavyweight division. It used to be that if you were a top heavyweight, HBO was automatically interested – and probably Showtime was too. Now extreme selectivity is being employed. Chris Arreola vs. Tomasz Adamek is an HBO fight. Klitschko-Chambers is not.

The difference between the two fights is obvious.

“You can blame it on a budget, you can blame it on a slot not being available, but when everything comes down to it, we’re in the entertainment business,” said Dan Goossen, Chambers’ promoter. “It would be one thing if Wladimir Klitschko was what we perceived as an exciting heavyweight world champion. You could bet your bottom dollar he’d be plastered all over HBO and they’d have billboards of him in Times Square. All due respect to Wladimir, he’s not an exciting champion. We want our heavyweight champions to draw a line in the middle of the ring and say, ‘All right, let’s see who is the baddest man on the planet.’ With Wladimir, he doesn’t come near any of these things that the American fan is looking for.

“Look, the Klitschkos are drawing tremendous fans in Europe. Maybe they’re happy, maybe their fans are fine with them fighting the type of fights they’re fighting in Germany, like the one Vitali has coming up with the guy who lost to Zuri Lawrence [Albert Sosnowski]. So be it. If they can get an easy fight and draw 50,000, God bless them. The problem is, these fights aren’t on American TV because they’re not compelling TV. Arreola and Adamek, those are the fights fans want to see.”

Goossen acknowledged that his fighter in this Saturday’s bout, Chambers, doesn’t have the most overwhelming reputation for excitement either. But he believes Chambers has made strides in that department and that “Fast Eddie’s” win over Alexander Dimitrenko last July was a compelling display. All Goossen can do as a promoter is hope that Chambers upsets Klitschko and, as a result, becomes a heavyweight champion who falls on the right side of HBO’s “opportunistic” attitude.

But for now, Chambers is a young American athlete challenging for what once was the prestigious prize in all of sports, and even in his hometown you need a high-speed internet connection to watch it. How did we get to this point? And how do we reverse this and revive interest in the division?

The answers to the first question are mostly obvious and have been discussed over and over (young American big men pursuing football or basketball instead, the recognizable names of the ’80s and ’90s finally fading away, etc.). If there’s one incident to point to as a tipping point, it’s the night of Feb. 23, 2008, when Wladimir Klitschko fought Sultan Ibragimov in an alphabet unification fight at Madison Square Garden. You don’t get a grander stage in America than that, and “Dr. Steel Hammer” only brought one tool, his jab. Two years later, it’s safe to say the heavyweight division hasn’t recovered from the damage done that night, when the boos raining down at MSG were so loud you’d have thought the Knicks were playing.

So what will it take for the recovery process to begin? We can’t really think about the long term. That depends too heavily on something unpredictable like a 14-year-old kid in some inner city with all the right physical tools finding his way into a boxing gym. But we can focus on the short term, and on what needs to happen to ensure that the next time the heavyweight championship is at stake, an American network is interested.

One thing that could help is Chambers pulling the major upset over Klitschko. Even though the win wouldn’t be televised, thus greatly diminishing the splash it makes, the news would still have an impact. Chambers would hit the interview circuit hard and the media would love the David-over-Goliath angle. Remember at the end of Hasim Rahman-Lennox Lewis I, when Jim Lampley exclaimed, “We’ve got a brand new heavyweight champion, and he’s from the United States!”? Nationality counts when it comes to the heavyweight title.

To an extent, Chambers beating Klitschko would matter because of qualities specific to Chambers. But mostly, it would matter because it would mean someone had broken up the Klitschko gridlock. Until one of the brothers loses, the top two heavyweights in the world will be two men who refuse to fight each other, and as the declining interest in the division the last two years proves, that’s not good for business.

“Eddie Chambers winning changes the landscape of the heavyweight division as we know it today,” Goossen said simply.

Right now, any kind of a change is welcome. Nothing against the Klitschkos, two talented boxers and classy men, but the division will become infinitely more compelling if one of them tumbles.

Unfortunately, a Chambers victory is a major long shot, as he lacks the punching power to place Wladimir in real peril. So what else might restore some American interest in the heavyweight division?

A great fight between Arreola and Adamek would help. An alphabet title fight between the winner and David Haye would be a potentially sensational next step. If Chambers can’t upset Wladimir, then mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin pulling it off would be a positive development. (Povetkin isn’t American, but he’s trained by the highly visible Teddy Atlas and has an aggressive style.)

The heavyweight division isn’t dead. But in America, it doesn’t quite feel alive right now either, does it?

A train wreck of a TV show like Heroes can get cancelled. The heavyweight division can’t. It will continue on no matter what. But will American fans be able to watch it? The answer depends on what happens this Saturday and in the months ahead.

RASKIN’S RANTS

ÔÇó There’s not a whole lot you can say about Manny Pacquiao-Josh Clottey. The best fighter in the world turned in a near-perfect performance, and his opponent gave a disappointing performance. But I strongly disagreed with the HBO commentary crew’s insistence that Clottey wasn’t letting his hands go because he was afraid of Pacquiao countering him. In reality, every time Clottey punched, Pacquiao stopped punching. Clottey’s best defense would have been to employ something resembling an offense.

ÔÇó Note to the company that bought advertising space on Alfonso Gomez’s back: Fancy lettering that’s borderline illegible probably isn’t the way to get the most bang for your buck.

ÔÇó I’m thrilled that Timothy Bradley is being moved into big fights. And I love watching Luis Carlos Abregu. But the two of them sharing a ring is a travesty. I traveled back in time and asked 1999 Roy Jones what he thought, and even he said it was a gross mismatch.

ÔÇó Ever wonder what the 19,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center would look like with only 500 people in it? You’ll find out when Evander Holyfield meets Frans Botha on April 10.

ÔÇó More Omar Henry, please. Somebody has to teach this guy how to start a little faster, but otherwise, I like everything about him.

ÔÇó A new episode of the hit audio show RING Theory (hey, this is my column, I can call it a hit if I want to), will be going up this week, highlighted by a return appearance from THE RING Editor-in-Chief Nigel Collins. If that’s not reason enough to press play, here are two more for you: You’ll probably get to hear me eat some crow for taking the “under” on my co-host Bill Dettloff’s prediction of 44,000 strong at Cowboys Stadium; and you might get to hear me re-enact the O.J. car chase, the 1969 moon landing, and the JFK assassination, while Bill sits there and doesn’t react, having no knowledge of any of those events.

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected] You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine.

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