Jay Z and Roc Nation leave the boxing promotional business
It was with great fanfare in 2014 when Roc Nation entered the boxing space, and mogul Jay-Z stuck his flag into the territory which he thought would be a fertile space.
Jay assumed that he would attract boxing talent that would enjoy their personal brand growth as part of his empire. His track record indicated that a broad shouldered player had entered the fray of boxing promotion, when on August 18, 2014 word dropped there would be a new-age force to be reckoned with.
It was with considerably less fanfare that the Roc Nation boxing program ended. An insider informed us that Roc Nation’s boxing foray is over. In April, the company made a decision to get out of boxing, I was told by the insider who had an ear to that ground.
The pandemic and lockdown were cited as reasons to jump and dump the ship, but some inside the shop had wanted to exit that arena and they saw the lockdown as an opportunity to do so.
The music man Jay-Z, born “Shawn Carter” in 1969, who has branched out heavily into varied endeavors, announced his sports division in April 2013.
Robinson Cano, playing for the NY Yankees, signed on with Roc, and it seemed like the synergy would snap and crackle the Jay-Z way. He would work in concert with Live Nation, and CAA, the entertainment agency, and we were told that Jay, who’d grown up in the rugged Brooklyn hood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, would in fact become an agent, and rep some mega-stars in the various big leagues.
Boxing would be added to the “big leagues” pool, it was declared, when word dropped that pugilism would be part of the Roc gaming portfolio. “Because of my love of sports, it was a natural progression to form a company where we can help top athletes in various sports the same way we have been helping artists in the music industry for years,” Jay-Z said when the sporting play rolled out.
Then age 43, he’d found success in the sports realm when he took hold of a sliver of Brooklyn Nets (NBA) ownership. Boxing could see an uptick in prominence, people pondered, by getting a positive rub from the NY fixture. He’d been raised by a single mom, in a housing project, and drew praise for his savvy and scrap as he manufactured hits and buzz. Even someone for whom rap or hip hop isn’t their preferred musical genre had to tip their cap to Jay, for his focus and drive as he formed in 1995 Roc-A-Fella Records with Damon Dash and Kareem Burke. His statute grew that much more with the popularity of the 1998 release “Hard Knock Life,” which hit No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“He’s one of the last really great hardcore rappers since B.I.G., who’s in a similar sensitive-gangsta mold,” explained Toure in a 1997 Rolling Stone story on how rock is dead. “In the Death Row era, rappers just told you they shot thirty guys and that was it. The sensitive gangsta might talk about all the evil things he did, but then explains why he did it and how he felt about it. It’s a more intelligent way of rhyming, and people are really responding to that.”
This isn’t so much of a thing now, but the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry helped kindle and stoke heat and interest from casuals. That was but one dynamic that Mr. Carter adeptly handled as he grew his empire, starting out selling drugs to accumulate some capital (“cookin’ coke in the kitchen/back when Rodman was a Piston”), starting his indie label, helping push the clothing brand Rocawear, running Def Jam after deciding to lighten up on recording/performing after winning Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy for “99 Problems,” the 2003 single.
Yes, Jay-Z was buzz-y as hell when he dove into the boxing pond. Fortune magazine tabbed him one of its 50 “Businesspersons of the Year” in 2012 and his Rocawear fashion label (sold in 2007 for $200 plus million bucks), strength as an artist himself, and some other ventures gave him a bunch of healthy revenue streams.
His won-loss record to that point gave him the fuel to see how he’d do against the Arums and Oscars. And it wasn’t just a matter of having an earned ego, either. The lukewarm critical response to his latest album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” and easy to read trending which showed “album” sales losing air, for everyone, made the timing more right to diversify even more from music and performing, arguably. People find it easy to not pay for a song they dig, but not so for attending a live show, seeing someone they dig in person. In April 2008, Jay set the table for the move to boxing. He’d depart Def Jam, for a roughly $150 million package with the concert behemoth Live Nation, which would include financing to totally steer the ship on his new ventures.
“I’ve turned into the Rolling Stones of hip-hop,” Jay-Z said before this rights deal got announced.
“Live Nation would finance the start-up of a venture that would be an umbrella for his outside projects, which are expected to include his own label, music publishing, and talent consulting and managing,” the NY Times told readers. “Live Nation is expected to contribute $5 million a year in overhead for five years, with another $25 million available to finance Jay-Z’s acquisitions or investments, according to people in the music industry briefed on the agreement. The venture, to be called Roc Nation, will split profits with Live Nation.”
And sure, there was no shortage of folks rooting for him to fail when it was decided in the first half of 2014 to respect how boxers could be marketed, because, hello, our brand of capitalism means his failure would be another mans’ gain. And Jay’s more than healthy dash of ego set a high bar for the Marcy Houses alumnus. Hello, he told you that he was as impactful as an entire band, Mike AND Keith and company.
Not so fast, said people who’d already dealt with the ups and dire downs that those in the boxing promotional space inevitably absorb as newbies. More so behind his back, of course, by and large.
Just wait and see how it plays out, this “game” is unlike any other, and it isn’t as easy as it looks from the outside, plenty of rivals and those who always liked the West Coasters when beefs with EC hip hoppers boiled over muttered to themselves or members of their squad. OK, bro, some closet haters were thinking as they’d snicker about scenes like this one, below:
In August of 2014, some specifics got laid out. David Itskowitch, a nuts and bolts more so behind the scenes builder who’d been with Lou DiBella, and Golden Boy, was hired to lead up the division day to day. Michael Yormark had left the NHL Florida Panthers to help steer the new ship on the boxing block, and again, people saw synergy, with his twin brother Brett in charge of running Barclays Center, in Brooklyn.
At the time, 50 Cent could have given hot intel to Jay Z, speaking on some of the potholes he’d fallen into while trying to drive his way into the promotional space which Top Rank and Golden Boy were succeeding within. If asked and sworn to answer from the heart, would Fiddy have counseled Roc Nation to bid on a Peter Quillin (then WBO 160 champ) v Matt Korobov clash for almost $2 million? Likely not.
Indeed, he went on record, telling BET that he thought Jay would not succeed in the pugilism wars. “I think they gonna clean Jay up,” Fiddy said. “The sport of boxing is going to clean him up and he’s going to find out it’s not like any other portion of business that he’s been involved in. You can’t just buy your way into it by purchasing existing companies and stuff like that,” he said. “You look at the roster of fighters…you have to have experienced people around to run it. But boxing is like the fur coat business…we don’t know how much they actually sold the jacket for.”
If people on the Roc train didn’t get that boxing is different off the bat, they probably did when Quillin said he was giving up the WBO title, on the counsel of advisor Al Haymon, because he had other irons in the fire.
It was a surprise when Roc started “small,” with a Jan. 9, 2015 show topped by a Dusty Harrison v Tommy Rainone clash at the Madison Square Garden Theater, which ran on Fox Sports 1.
They’d brought in Gary Shaw, a more muscular personality than Itskowitch, to be a more obvious presence. This being boxing, there was no shortage of snipers dissecting their every move, and there wasn’t a shortage of decisions to discuss. Why the boxing brand was being referred to as “throne boxing,” without accompanying storylines–or uppercase letters– and cementing to explain the word choice was a subject matter that came up in pundit chats.
Negative nellies got shouted down to a degree, though, when signings happened. Andre Ward came into the fold, as a 27 year old master-class type holding a 27-0 record at the start of 2015. Miguel Cotto got brought on board, in March 2015, but the price paid for the services of the 34 year old Puerto Rican had those covering the sport trying to figure out if and when and how Roc would get that money back. Shaw and Roc parted ways, and veteran promoter/manager/talent scout Dino Duva came in, to help some execs without any boxing experience figure out the realities of the market.
Pretty much anyone involved in the Cotto signing had to at least silently acknowledge this was a dice roll. But what if their guy Cotto turned back that clock? What a triumph it would be for the company if he showed ascending Canelo Alvarez on Nov. 21, 2015 that 35 was the new 25 when they faced off, in a Vegas clash which was presented on PPV.
The platform for Cotto v Canelo was provided by HBO, the all-time all-star concerning content, which itself would exit the boxing space at the end of 2018. It was a roll of the dice and it didn’t go Roc’s way; Cotto beat gimme foe Daniel Geale in his first Roc bout, but Canelo bested the Puerto Rican on Nov. 21, 2015, and it would be the end of the Roc run for Miguel.
Assessments of the health and wellness of the new guys on the promotional block were furnished all along the line, aloud or whispered. (More often whispered by media which chose placidity over wave making, to keep sources happy and access to ringside seating on the table.) And some people liked some of the plays by the crew which indicated that they’d work on building grass roots strength, by signing guys with less than ten, and even five wins as a pro. Indeed, Roc Nation did last longer than many, many smart money asessors said they would.
And along the way, guys like Duva, who has been on board to the final bell, made some solid calls. Their hat was in the ring to sign talent like Shakur Stevenson, off the 2016 Olympics. But while experience is less and less appreciated in an age dominated by the immediate surge offered by the speed of the digital communique, in boxing, that gave an seasoned company like Top Rank a consistent advantage. Why? Because their infrastructure includes something that has been underrated for the last decade or more — institutional knowledge. The decades of insights sifted and led by talent scout/matchmakers Brad Goodman and Bruce Trampler, and events expert Brad Jacobs and low key sage Carl Moretti, that guaranteed a certain level of achievement. Would those guys have figured that bringing Rihanna to the opening night at the Theater would make hardcores fall in love with “throne boxing,” and lure copious casuals in to take a look and stay awhile? I don’t have to poll them, I’m fully confident that they’d have told executives and company influencers like Juan and Desiree Perez that having Dusty headlining the first show wouldn’t be the direction to go in.
Maybe those Top Rank seasoned hands, if asked, would have said OK, sign Andre Ward. But there would have been debate, about “worth,” about the possibility for Ward to achieve mass appeal, beyond people who appreciate majestic technical wizardry.
Anyway, Ward hanging up the mitts in 2017 left Roc without a signature face of boxing… but the division stayed afloat.
A win for a Guillermo Rigondeaux against Vasiliy Lomachenko would have given Roc Nation’s boxing efforts a buzz bump…but Loma schooled Rigo on Dec. 9, 2017…and the bumps didn’t come as frequently as envisioned when the hubby of Beyonce decided to go up against Arum while Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions also gobbled up oxygen in the room—and talent, and dates.
Haymon’s PBC started out ahead of Roc. The PBC got off the blocks in March 2015, already boasting a massive talent roster, and as we look back and sift and analyze, we have to realize, if we don’t already, that it’s largely about talent. Who had the best in breed on their platform as Roc tried to gain solid footing, and advance? Too often, the companies and show runners in Las Vegas (Top Rank), or Cali (Golden Boy) and wherever Haymon makes his home, had the studs in the stable.
The case could be made that when Jay-Z couldn’t lure Adrien Broner into the fold, his program right then and there sent a distress flair into the air.
Broner made a point in profane but cogent fashion when he blurted that Jay himself should have reached out to him. That might have made the difference, and allowed the Roc Nation Sports boxing program to secure the talents of less long-in-the-tooth talents. But the man had lots on his plate and a limited appetite for allocating much day to day nuts ‘n bolts focus to the RN fight arm.
Mentions of the Roc boxing program became more rare in mainstream press, in 2018, and by 2019, Roc stayed in the game, but in a quite low key way. You’d see Duva in the promotional corner of an athlete like 27-0 junior welter Maurice Hooker, holder of the WBO strap, who challenged WBC titlist Jose Ramirez on June 27, 2019, but took his first L.
And of course, it’s impossible to say exactly how things would have played out if 2020 didn’t unfurl as a severe s__t show, the world over. But you all know that businesses small, medium and large have been affected, and will continue to be so, by COVID. To one degree or another, so it was with Roc nation’s boxing arm.
In talking about what was, and what might have been, that ear to the ground source noted that Roc could have accomplished great things in boxing, with a mix of talent, branding ability, style, those ingredients could have been unique in the strengths brought to the table. But early-on mistakes, and over-spending, bidding against themselves, dug a deep hole that was hard to get out of, some will say while doing their post-mortem.
The “later” years, with a pared down roster, which included Tramaine Williams and Darmani Rock, that down-sized vehicle wasn’t leaking red, so it can be argued that was sustainable.
And let’s not leave out positives, that Jay’s attempt brought a bit of buzz and some paydays to athletes. Williams said heck yes, he is sad to see Roc fold up the tent (“They treated me amazing!”)
But a desire to make deep impact early-on combined with a degree of arrogance stemming from a belief that the existing brand that was Jay would propel them up the ladder, without the need to pay dues or factor in a learning curve, lost them steam in the kickoff period.
Hubris played a part in the demise, the insider theorized, attitude and decisions maybe came off as lack of respect for others in the business. That probably hurt Roc Nation as they moved forward and looked to firm up alliances.
It has happened time and again to titans of industries who’d climbed mountains before, and assumed they’d ascend at the same speed to the same heights in the boxing arena. By the time they realize just how different a deal boxing is, it’s too late to course correct.