Utter mismatches continue to hurt boxing

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

Boxing in the modern era exists in this odd space in the American sporting landscape, where most of the time, people are predicting its imminent demise. But when one of its iconic stars, a Floyd Mayweather or a Mike Tyson, has a big fight upcoming, the world is riveted and it’s hailed as the fight to save boxing.

Neither, of course, is true.

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What will save boxing or, more properly, guarantee it long-term success, are a few things:

  • Promoters regularly making even, quality matches. Note that this does not necessarily mean the so-called “best versus best” all the time. Rather, it means pair fighters whose style suggest an entertaining match and whose skillsets are similar.

  • Along those same lines, promoters must avoid making the kinds of fights that are all too prevalent in the sport today, in which their star, or the fighter they believe will become a star, is put in against an opponent who has next-to-no chance to win.

  • Sanctioning bodies fairly rank fighters (like that will ever happen) and promise not to strip the champions of their belts unnecessarily.

  • Quality sales people who can sell advertising on television so promoters have a legitimate source of income for their fights.

  • Strong public relations efforts to tell the many compelling stories within the sport. People will care for and root for an athlete they feel a bond with, which is why there are so many features on television during the Olympics.

  • An all-for-one and one-for-all approach among those who make their living from the sport. As it is now, Promoter A will snipe at Promoter B’s card, and Manager A will demean Manager B’s stable of fighters, etc. All that does is turn reasonable people away from the sport.

  • Fair and equitable judging and officiating.

  • A focus on fighter health and safety, and an effort to educate boxers on the dangers of cutting extreme amounts of weight.

  • An effort to avoid pay-per-view except as a last resort.

Top Rank has long been boxing’s leading promoter, and the company has had a bevy of legendary fighters on its roster throughout the years, from Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Mayweather in the past to Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko now.

In a deal brokered by the powerful talent agency CAA, Top Rank and ESPN combined for a historic deal that turned over all of Top Rank’s broadcast. Top Rank president Todd duBoef was unhappy with his fights being on premium cable, either HBO or Showtime, because he believed it wasn’t hitting the proper audience.

Shakur Stevenson is a whopping minus-12,500 favorite to defeat Juan Tapia on Friday night. (AP)
Shakur Stevenson is a whopping minus-12,500 favorite to defeat Juan Tapia on Friday night. (AP)

Plus, he felt that the network held the upper hand and he wasn’t able to properly market and advance his product. With the ESPN deal, he’s got a network with passionate sports fans that is in under just 90 million homes. ESPN committed to not only broadcasting Top Rank’s shows, but covering the fights during the week on its various shows, and doing pre- and post-game coverage.

DuBoef sought, correctly, coverage much like the NBA and NFL gets, and what Fox provides for the UFC.

But there are troubling signs already, early in the relationship. On its Feb. 3 show in Corpus Christi, Texas, the main event between Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez and Habib Ahmed as well as the co-main event between Jerwin Ancajas and Israel Gonzalez were utter mismatches. Ramirez and Ancajas won easily in bouts that weren’t remotely competitive.

But those fights will look like Ali-Frazier III compared to the fights ESPN is broadcasting tonight, if oddsmakers are correct.

Consider these odds from 5 Dimes:

  • In the main event, Ray Beltran fights Paulus Moses for the vacant WBO lightweight title. Beltran is a minus-3500 favorite. Moses is plus-1750.

  • In the co-main, knockout artist Egidijus Kavaliauskas is minus-1050 over David Avanesyan, who is plus-650.

  • In a welterweight bout, Alexander Besputin is a minus-2200 favorite over Wesley Tucker, who is plus-1200.

  • Shakur Stevenson, the 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist, is a whopping minus-12,500 favorite to defeat Juan Tapia. Tapia is plus-4000.

  • Heavyweight Bryant Jennings is a minus-7500 favorite over Akhror Muralimov, who is plus-3000.

If you’re not familiar with odds, here’s an easy way to understand it. In order to win $100 on Stevenson, you’d have to bet $12,500. But if you think Tapia will upset him, a $100 bet would earn you $4,000.

Perhaps one of the underdogs will rise up and pull off a stunning upset and make all the critics eat crow. It’s happened before, but would you want to wager your money on Messrs. Moses, Avanesyan, Tucker, Tapia and Muralimov?

If you bet $100 on those five underdogs, for a total of $500 risked, and all five won, you’d walk away with a profit of $10,600.

The reality, though, is that the favorites will win each of the bouts handily, and that leads back to the points above. How do these kinds of matches actually build interest in boxing? How, I might ask, will it keep the few committed fans the sport already has?

To be fair, Top Rank has had some good fights on its deal thus far. And while Guillermo Rigondeaux failed to perform in his fight with Lomachenko in December and quit on the stool because he had a bruised knuckle, it’s revisionist history to criticize the promoter for the bout. It was universally praised when it was made.

Top Rank has Oscar Valdez against Scott Quigg upcoming, which is a decent fight, as well as Jose Ramirez versus Amir Imam, which also has potential.

But these utter mismatches bring down so much else. Top Rank desperately needs to infuse its roster with main event and co-main event ready talent, because they clearly are reluctant to work regularly with other promoters. If they aren’t willing to do that, then they need to go on a signing spree similar to what Al Haymon did before he created the PBC, so that they have enough quality fighters to put on matches that fans who tune to ESPN can support.

It is not asking too much to do away with the fights in which anyone is a minus-12,500 favorite.

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