What we know about Al Haymon: Part V
THE RING’S Thomas Hauser in this special series sheds light on the powerful and mysterious boxing impresario Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions. Fifth of five parts. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
Richard Schaefer once observed, “In boxing, money alone doesn’t bring success.”
Al Haymon is still boxing’s most influential power broker. But he’s learning that trying to control and restructure the sweet science is like nation building in Iraq. Early victories are no guarantee of long term progress.
Haymon had the means to shape the presentation of Premier Boxing Champions any way he wanted to in building a brand. But PBC has failed to make new fans or energize old ones. It lacks an identity in the public mind.
The initial curiosity of boxing fans with regard to PBC has turned to indifference. “I’m on social media every day,” ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael says. “And let me tell you, there’s no buzz now for PBC. There was at the start but it’s gone.”
As previously noted, Haymon has approximately 200 fighters under contract. But very few of them are A-list guys. Not a single fighter on ESPN’s Top-10 pound-for-pound list is a PBC fighter. Outside of Deontay Wilder, it’s hard to think of a PBC fighter who has a greater following or is more marketable now than he was a year ago. That might change with Errol Spence Jr. But the rest of Haymon’s “stars” are trading on the interest that was engendered in them when they fought on HBO or Showtime.
Haymon’s grand plan is turning out to be not so grand. There are times when PBC evokes the image of a giant elephant lumbering downhill toward a pit of quicksand.
“We know it can’t go on like this,” says a rival promoter. “Al is skating on thin ice and some of us wouldn’t mind if it breaks.”
“It’s an uphill battle for Al now,” Schaefer acknowledges. “A lot of things will have to change for PBC to work. But you learn from your mistakes. You keep doing what worked and cut back on what didn’t work. I believe in Al and I believe that PBC can still be successful.”
But what’s the fallback plan? And what is Haymon’s current mindset? Crisis? Confidence?
PBC appears to be cutting back on expenses. The days when Haymon Sports purchased two airplanes (an 11-seat Learjet and a 22-seat Gulfstream Areospace G-IV) are gone.
Rafael says that Haymon’s contract with NBC and his contract with ESPN called for him to pay each network in advance on a yearly basis ($20 million per year for NBC and $8 million per year for ESPN) but, when Haymon closed a deal with Fox Sports 1 in mid-2015, it called for monthly payments and he declined to give them a letter of credit for the full amount.
The first few months of 2016 were slower than expected. The “monthly” PBC shows on Spike turned out to be not monthly.
We know it can’t go on like this. Al is skating on thin ice and some of us wouldn’t mind if it breaks.
On March 1, 2016, Rafael reported, “ESPN’s first Premier Boxing Champions card of 2016 was initially scheduled for January. Then the card was delayed until April 2, when it was to be televised in the afternoon on ABC with a second card scheduled for April 30 in prime time on ESPN. Two more shows were scheduled for ESPN in May. PBC, however, has pushed back the start until June. In all, there are seven PBC (shows) on ESPN to end the first season even though the series was announced last year as a monthly series (12 shows a year for two years). The last PBC on ESPN card was on Nov. 25.”
And there was no public explanation for the change in plans, which might lead one to believe that PBC is tightening the purse strings because it has been losing an alarming amount of money.
PBC is also cutting back on TV production expenses. The staging has become less elaborate. Fewer people are traveling to the shows. Less money is being spent on on-air talent than at the start.
And Haymon has started sending PBC fighters outside of the PBC universe. Dominic Wade and Amir Khan (both under contract to Haymon) have been offered up as presumptive sacrificial lambs for Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez on April 23 (HBO World Championship Boxing) and May 7 (HBO-Pay-Per-View) respectively. Should Wade or Khan win, it would be good for them and good for Haymon. But the move takes the burden of paying for their fights off of Haymon’s shoulders.
Haymon’s interaction with the world sanctioning organizations is also of interest. At one point, he was said to be considering walking away from the sanctioning bodies and crowning his own PBC champions. But he has made his accommodations with them.
Recent maneuvering in the heavyweight division has been intriguing in that regard. At present, Tyson Fury is widely seen as having the most credible claim to the heavyweight throne by virtue of his Nov. 28, 2015, victory over Wladimir Klitschko. Haymon “advises” WBC beltholder Deontay Wilder and IBF beltholder Charles Martin.
Multiple sources say that Haymon tried to make a title unification bout between Wilder and Martin but the WBC refused to release Wilder from his obligation to fight mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin. Then, in a further effort to protect Wilder, an overture was made to Team Povetkin to see if the Russian would fight Martin instead but the Povetkin camp said no.
Wilder vs. Povetkin then went to a purse bid that was won by Russian promoter Andrey Ryabinsky. The bout is tentatively scheduled for May 21 in Moscow. At the same time, Haymon stepped out of the PBC bubble again to match Charles Martin against Anthony Joshua in London on April 9. The fight offers life-changing money for Martin. It also offers Haymon the opportunity to trade up for a continuing interest in Joshua and cultivate a relationship with Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn.
But at the end of the day, Haymon doesn’t want to be dependent on networks and promoters that he doesn’t control. So what might he do within his own universe?
The people who want Al to fail aren’t rooting for boxing.
Let’s start with the understanding that Haymon can’t change what he ate for dinner last night, let alone undo the past year. But he can change direction in the future.
Premier Boxing Champions needs more continuity in scheduling than it has had during the past year. Right now, many prospective viewers don’t know when or where to find PBC fights.
There should be more emphasis on ESPN, which is a portal to mainstream sports fans in a way that the other PBC networks aren’t.
Schaefer’s absence from the mix has been curious. It was widely expected that he would join forces with Haymon when the contractual limitations imposed by his settlement with Golden Boy expired last summer. That hasn’t happened, perhaps because Schaefer’s involvement with PBC at the present time is considered too risky in light of the ongoing lawsuits against Haymon.
Schaefer recently told this writer, “There are a number of things, including some real estate deals, that I’m working on now. But I’d be interested in coming back into boxing someday. I’m observing what’s going on to see if, when and how I want to come back; not to come back for a year or two, but to build something for the long term.”
Schaefer also made the point, “Al is the captain of the ship. But for a ship this big, you have to delegate responsibility for the ship to be run right.”
But most important, Haymon has to give the public better fights. In some respects, he has been remarkably tone-deaf. And nowhere has that been more evident than in the fights he has made.
The ratings show that sports fans haven’t bought into Premier Boxing Champions as a brand. Whether or not they watch a given PBC telecast depends on who’s fighting.
“Boxing After Dark,” in its early years, had the buzz and brand that PBC should be trying to duplicate. Before HBO started using “BAD” as a favor bank for promoters and as a vehicle to “build” fighters through one-sided match-ups, it featured the most competitive, risky, entertaining fights that the network could buy.
“You can’t reinvent boxing,” promoter Gary Shaw says. “Boxing is two guys in the ring putting on what you hope is a great fight. Everything else, all the bells and whistles, is secondary to that.”
Schaefer concurs, acknowledging, “One thing Oscar always said that I agree with is the best should fight the best. If I were Al, I would make fewer fights. The schedule is too cluttered now. And I would try to make bigger fights with the best fighting the best.”
It’s not rocket science. Schedule a fight that shapes up as an entertaining match-up and more people will watch.
The indications are that Haymon still has tens of millions of dollars in his war chest. He should use that money to make the best, most exciting fights he can make. If a fighter goes in tough and loses, PBC can bring him back any way it wants.
Two upcoming PBC telecasts offer a contrast in programming philosophy.
Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter is scheduled for June 25 on CBS and is paired with Abner Mares vs. Jesus Cuellar. That shapes up as an entertaining card. At the other end of the spectrum, an April 29 telecast on Spike features Anthony Dirrell vs. Caleb Truax and Andre Dirrell vs. Blake Caparello in what are expected to be unattractive lopsided fights.
There have been – and continue to be – too many “nobody cares” PBC fights.
And wouldn’t Thurman-Porter be even more exciting if viewers knew that the winner was slated to fight the winner of an equally high-profile match-up? Tournaments and playoffs work in every other sport. Why can’t PBC match winners against winners and its best against its best?
Also, it’s worth noting that Thurman vs. Porter will be labeled “Showtime Boxing on CBS.” The Showtime commentating team will call the action and Jimmy Lennon will be the ring announcer. That’s because the Showtime brand is expected to attract more advertisers and viewers than the PBC brand. That exemplifies the failure of the PBC brand to date.
Meanwhile, all of the issues discussed above should be viewed within the framework of an overriding question: Is Al Haymon good for boxing?
Boxing is a sport ruled by predators who follow no rules except those that are in their own self-interest. At their worst, they’re like pirates on an ocean where fate is determined by the survival of the fittest. The powers that be in the sport created the conditions that made Haymon’s rise possible. In many instances, their incompetence has been breathtaking and their greed shortsighted.
When Premier Boxing Champions was launched, boxing fans gave Haymon the benefit of the doubt and wanted to believe in him. He positioned himself as a reformer who was going to make the sweet science more popular and more equitable. He was looking at problems that other people only complained about and trying to solve them. He challenged the status quo and the sense of entitlement that too many promoters, sanctioning body officials, network executives and others have.
“The people who want Al to fail,” says Lou DiBella, “aren’t rooting for boxing.”
But to date, Haymon has done nothing to improve the entertainment value of the sport. And his time-buy model (which he says is transitional) is not self-sustaining.
When one looks at Haymon’s history in boxing, he left HBO worse off than when he found it. He left Golden Boy worse off than when he found it. Promoters like Lou DiBella are less powerful now than when they began doing business with him.
Haymon is in the spotlight now whether he likes it or not. He’s said to be looking at an initial term of three to four years before evaluating the overall success of his effort. He might not get that far. And even if PBC survives, it’s unlikely to achieve the UFC-type domination that Haymon once envisioned.
Fox wanted to say, “We have all the UFC that’s on free television.” No one will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to say, “We have all the PBC that’s on free television.”
Mike Borao (the manager of record for Charles Martin) likens evaluating Premier Boxing Champions to critiquing a painting by Picasso: “You evaluate it when the work is done; not halfway through its creation.”
Schaefer also cautions that time is necessary, saying, “When you start a new business like this with plans that are as ambitious as Al has, you need time to succeed. If someone had judged Golden Boy after one year, we weren’t nearly as good as we became later on.”
But a television executive who has been involved with sports for decades says. “If a transition to advertiser-supported networks paying large license fees was Al’s plan, then Al was delusional. Those networks aren’t interested in building boxing. If lightning strikes, fine. But right now, they’re selling a time-buy; that’s all. The only reason they’re carrying Al’s boxing programming is that he’s paying them to do it.”
If the advertiser-supported networks that Haymon is doing business with now decide to license fights in the future, Haymon is likely to hear, “We’re not paying you what you were paying us.” And even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll buy fights from Haymon as opposed to another promoter.
If Premier Boxing Champions fails to live up to expectations, Haymon will still have the wherewithal to be a force in boxing. But he doesn’t just want a place at the table. He already has that. He wants to dominate. Maybe he’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat. But right now, it looks as though he was wiser in raising money than he has been in spending it. And if Haymon’s fallback plan is some sort of subscription channel or pay-per-view model, that won’t be good for fans.
You can’t reinvent boxing. Boxing is two guys in the ring putting on what you hope is a great fight. Everything else, all the bells and whistles, is secondary to that.
There may come a time when the money gets tight. If that day comes, will PBC be like musical chairs with some fighters being thrown out of the game? Or will the band stop playing altogether?
If Haymon’s grand plan falls apart, how will the pieces realign?
One or more of the companies that comprise Haymon’s corporate organizational chart could survive in some form if he wants them too. Also, there are rumors that Richard Schaefer will return to boxing as early as next month in a leadership role with Mayweather Promotions. That would open the door for some interesting synergy between Schaefer and Haymon, particularly if Mayweather fights again.
HBO and Showtime could continue doing what they already do. ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” was a small but respected brand and could be revived. Other cable networks might be drawn to the sweet science on a small scale, as they have been in the past. The broadcast networks might utilize inexpensive boxing telecasts as cost-efficient counter-programming against major events on other networks.
Also, let’s not forget: The broadcast networks got out of boxing a long time ago. If PBC fails, Haymon isn’t chasing them out of something that they were in before he came on the scene.
So let’s close for now with a final thought on Al Haymon.
“Al is smart, very smart,” says someone who has done business with him for years. “But the rest of us aren’t all stupid. And I’ll tell you something else. Maybe Al isn’t as smart as people think he is. And when it comes to boxing, maybe Al doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows.”
Who we are when we’re young shapes who we are as we grow older.
Dr. Enrico Melson graduated from the University of California at Irvine with a medical degree in 1982. Since then, he has served in a variety of positions, drawing in particular on his expertise in holistic medicine and other indigenous healing practices.
Dr. Melson was a young man with a dream when he began his journey from the mean streets of Los Angeles to a different world. In September 1973, he arrived at Harvard, where he was assigned to room with another freshman who had a background similar to his own: Alan Haymon.
Dr. Melson’s memories of Al Haymon follow:
“Let me start with how I met Alan. It was freshman week and we were assigned to be roommates in Comstock dormitory, room 310, in Radcliffe Yard. It was an experiment in coed education with young men and women living in the same dorm. Being the guy that I was – a burgeoning ladies man coming out of the Los Angeles ghetto – that was fine with me. Alan and I had that in common to start with. He came out of Cleveland. I came out of Watts and Compton, so we could relate on that level.
“I met Alan as we were moving in. He and his family were bringing in his belongings. I had a cousin who was also attending Harvard as a freshman and my cousin and I thought maybe we could get Alan to switch. Alan was cool with the idea if he could get a single room instead of a double. As luck would have it, there was an available single room about the size of a lady’s closet down the hall.
“I helped Alan carry his belongings down the hall and it was an experience. He looked like Superfly with a big Afro. And he had platform shoes of all types. Green glitter platform shoes, silver platform shoes, boxes and boxes of platform shoes. And I found out later that he had a blue Cadillac de Ville with an off-white top that he’d drive around looking for a parking space. It was always a challenge to find parking in Cambridge. But there must have been some money in the family if he had a car of his own. I know, when I got my first financial aid check, I sent it home to my family. And I stayed in the dorms over Christmas my freshman year to save the money it would have cost to fly back to California.
“I met Alan’s family the day we moved in. They seemed like a strong, upright, cohesive family unit. His parents were proud of him but they were proud of his brother and sister too. I remember, his brother was a professional boxer. His sister was kind of quiet but that could have been the circumstances. So Alan had something that I’d never had; an intact family that brought him to Harvard, figuratively and literally. My father didn’t get to Harvard until I graduated four years later. And my mother couldn’t make it to my graduation because she was in an intensive care unit with a gunshot wound.
“Alan had gifts as an athlete. He liked to party. He was a good dancer. He was brilliant.
“The fight against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle to free Nelson Mandela were issues at the time. Alan wasn’t a political activist but he was clear in his support. He was at Harvard to learn how to do business and I was there to save the world. But we got along.
“There was a lot of polarization at Harvard in those days, black vs. white. There were young black men who were predicted by the conventionalists as being unlikely to make it through Harvard because they refused to assimilate. Alan was one of those who refused to assimilate. So was I. The issue wasn’t whether we were smart enough to make it. It was whether we would fold ourselves into the assimilation pool. We could hold onto our blackness or we could swing over to the establishment side. A lot of the black students wanted to join the elite. They wanted to become the next generation of bankers and politicians and rulers of the system. And believe me, when you’re coming from the underclass and an oppressed minority, survival in that cultural environment is an issue, not just in the classroom but emotionally too.
“Alan wanted to succeed in the business world and keep his identity. He was a brother who stood in both worlds and never sold out. He had a strong personality that enabled him to survive at Harvard and stay true to himself. He chose not to abandon his cultural identity. He never sacrificed his core. He was at Harvard but he had his own style and lifestyle. ‘Look at me. This is who I am. The streets of Cleveland are in me.’ He was bold. He had a strong will. Like the rest of us, he was wrestling with the issue of who he was and what kind of person he wanted to be. But he was never arrogant or unkind.
“Even then, he was driven. In our junior year, I started to hear the term “an Alan Haymon production” on the radio. I thought that was pretty cool. By Alan’s senior year, he was mentoring some of the younger students like George Jackson (who later produced “New Jack City”). I remember George telling me during my last year at Harvard that his role model was Alan Haymon.
“None of it came easily. About 15 years ago, I heard from a classmate that Alan was going through some hard times emotionally and battling depression. That comes sometimes with the pressures of fame and success on the level that Alan has had. From what I was told, it was a dark time and he had to rebuild emotionally. But he seems to have done that successfully and it’s to his credit that he did.
“So that’s what I remember about Alan. He had a sense of destiny about what he wanted to do and he did it. It’s remarkable to actualize that kind of ambition. I respect and admire who he is and everything that he has accomplished.”
This is the final part of a five-part series. Click here for Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
Hauser is a consultant for HBO Sports.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – A Hurting Sport – was published 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.