When Sergio Martinez stepped in for Kelly Pavlik as a late replacement opponent for Paul Williams in December of 2009, he impressed in a controversial losing effort that many thought he won. In only two appearances on HBO, Martinez was an unlucky 0-1-1 (the draw being the result of an atrocious job by referee Frank Santore Jr.), but he was asked back the following April as an opponent for the aforementioned Pavlik, then the Ring/WBO/WBC middleweight champion. The former soccer player-turned cyclist-turned professional boxer bloodied Pavlik to become the recognized middleweight champion of the world.
Martinez, who toiled away in obscurity for most of his career, was thrust into the spotlight. But without a large and loyal fan base to follow him around the country, Martinez and his handlers opted to leave his career in the trembling hands of HBO executives. With the right moves, Lou DiBella, with the aid of his old pals at HBO, could have turned Martinez into a big attraction.
The Sergio Martinez-HBO partnership got off to a great start. After the Pavlik bout, Martinez was back on HBO in a rematch against Paul Williams. After a thrilling one-punch knockout over Williams, Martinez figured to be a priority for the sport’s premiere boxing outlet. Unfortunately Martinez’s meager drawing power worked against him.
Martinez was stripped of the last bargaining chip he held last January. When HBO opted not to approve unknown German, Sebastian Zbik, the mandatory challenger for his WBC middleweight title, the WBC stripped Martinez and promoted Zbik to world champion. Martinez was not left empty handed, however, as the WBC bestowed upon him the “honor” of holding its Diamond Championship, a title that was created as a special honor and a channel for the WBC to siphon funds from Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto, who squared off for the WBO welterweight title in November of 2009. The Diamond Championship was created as a one-time championship, and was not intended to be defended once won. Always one for finding loopholes (or just making up the rules as they go along), the WBC put Martinez’s Diamond title up for grabs in his next bout.
After turning down the unknown Zbik, HBO would eventually approve the equally unknown Serhiy Dzinziruk as Martinez’s March 2011 opponent, then turn around and approve Zbik as Chavez’s opponent for his June 2011 HBO date. Martinez went on to score a knockout victory over Dzinziruk, while Chavez would score an exciting majority decision victory over Zbik in June.
Martinez continued paying the 3% sanctioning fee to Jose Sulaiman and his gaggle of “yes” men at the WBC for the right to defend a made-up title while holding onto a promissory napkin guaranteeing him an eventual shot at Chavez.
After Martinez made a second defense of his Diamond title and Chavez made his first optional defense against Peter Manfredo Jr., Martinez would finally be granted his shot at Chavez (or so he thought). When backed into a corner at the 49th WBC Convention, Sulaiman declared Chavez must defend his title against Martinez in his next bout.
I was not at all surprised to learn that Sulaiman made like Barry Sanders and reversed field on his decision, allowing Chavez to defend his title against (convenient, and other) mandatory, Marco Antonio Rubio in his February HBO date. Martinez was again left at the altar, and HBO, who played a crucial role in the crowning of Chavez Jr., offered no resistance.
In the last week of December, Martinez held a press conference in which he dropped his title and blasted the WBC, HBO, Chavez, and Bob Arum. Martinez took exception at the way his career was handled by HBO, bringing us to an oft-ignored problem in the sport.
Premium cable networks can be great exposure for young and established fighters alike. Before HBO developed a bad habit of overpaying for fights, Boxing After Dark, the creation of Martinez’s promoter Lou DiBella, was a prime showcase for up-and-coming talent, while its World Championship Boxing series was the platform for established names. The mishandling of its annual budget has forced HBO to make up for its mistakes by short-changing the fighters with less prominent promoters.
The world titles that are offered up by the four major sanctioning bodies (WBC/WBA/IBF/WBO) often play major roles in the decisions of the networks. Titles may not be crucial or absolutely necessary to dedicated fans, but they do play a part in marketing fighters to a mainstream audience, in addition to increasing a fighter’s paycheck.
HBO and Showtime have become crutches for promoters in the sport, much to the chagrin of hardcore fans. While much can be said about the evil, greedy nature of Top Rank frontman, Bob Arum, the man knows how to sculpt a masterpiece from a turd. He took Chavez, albeit with a built-in fan base, and propped him up against cab drivers and janitors on his self-distributed “Latin Fury” pay-per-view cards until he was ready for mainstream American exposure against real opposition. And for all of Arum’s hard work, Chavez has grown from the soft-in-the-middle, spoiled brat, into a very good fighter.
Kathy Duva, head of Main Events Promotions, was faced with a similar dilemma with 2010’s Zab Judah-Kaizer Mabuza IBF jr. welterweight title fight. Duva, when told HBO had no interest in buying the fight, opted to distribute the fight on Integrated Sports Pay-Per-View, bucking the system and proving that the small-market promoters can also foot the bill without network backing.
While Martinez and DiBella have a valid beef with the WBC and HBO, they really have no one to blame but themselves. Networks, like boxing, are business first and foremost – and they must make money to continue to exist. When faced with the choice to back Martinez, who can’t fill a 5,000 seat arena in Atlantic City, or Chavez, who fills arenas twice that size, HBO made the decision to back the money maker. This is a harsh reality in the sport of boxing, and it is one that promoters and fighters without the money and backing fall victim to more often in today’s world.
Martinez wasn’t brought into the sport with a silver spoon in his mouth. Like others before him, he has placed the handling of his career in the hands of the networks, a move that proved to be a bad investment. Martinez may go on to right the ship and capture another world title on HBO’s main rival, Showtime, but he should serve as a cautionary tale to other hopeful stars looking to get to the top on a network’s dollar.
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