by Gary Purfield
In late 2011 Main Events Promotions, a promotional company that was in existence back when boxing was on network TV, announced they would be running a series of fights broadcast on the NBC Sports Network (formerly Vs.). The series would look to shift the current landscape of boxing on TV from showcases for specific fighters to a model where the quality of the fight took precedence over the fighters involved.
The series was scheduled to have four dates in 2012, but with the early success of the first show a fifth date has been added. I spoke with Main Events CEO Kathy Duva on how the series was developed, its current status, and her plans for the future of the “Fight Night” series and NBC. The following is part one of a two part series on how the idea developed, the success of the first show despite last minute adversity, and where the series is headed in the future.
I first wanted to know how the idea even came about to approach NBC, a network that had long ago stopped televising boxing, and why they were willing to give the sweet science an opportunity on their new 24/7 sports channel.
“When it became known that Comcast and NBC were going to merge. We had done a series with NBC years ago and the same people we worked with at NBC are the same people we worked with back in the eighties and nineties when we were doing fights on a regular basis. We’ve had a long and great relationship with them. I’ve been talking to them on and off for years and there was really no place for a boxing series on NBC. Once it went through [the Comast/NBC merger] early last year we started talking about the obvious. Now you have NBC Sports Network and regional sport networks have a lot more time to program.”
Simply having airtime was not going to be enough to get the TV giant NBC back into the fight game. The network wanted to know that they would be getting exciting fights that would draw ratings.
Main Events was the company that had a business model that enticed the network to get involved. They have a reputation for going against the grain, putting on independent shows without the backing of HBO or Showtime, and had plenty of experience with making fights that would draw attention despite not being on the main cable boxing channels. They have spent years promoting fights where the revenue was based on ticket sales and PPVs and where the only way they would make money would be to make fights people were willing to pay for.
“They wanted assurances the fights were going to be good. That’s the big thing. They wanted to have a reason to believe that this wasn’t just going to be a platform where a promoter was going to give people appearance fights. Our story was we don’t have a lot of fighters. We don’t have sixty guys we have to give dates to. Basically we’re willing to work with anybody. I want to be a promoter the way promoters used to be, where basically you’re offering people the opportunity to fight in a competitive fight, not a date. We don’t approach it like this is so-and-so’s date. We approach it like this is the match we wanted and if somebody is not willing to be in a competitive match, whether it’s our fighter or somebody else’s, then we’re going to pass. So what we brought to them was our track record, our marketing expertise, Russell’s [Peltz] track record, his expertise as a fine matchmaker and promoter. We basically sold them on the idea that our experience was going to trump what other companies could offer, which was going to be a lot of name fighters in fights that are not terribly interesting.”
Peltz may have been the icing on the cake. The Hall of Fame promoter has a reputation for making exciting fights and not being afraid to put fighters into matches that risk their records. As the independent matchmaker for the series, his presence provided NBC with an extra guarantee that the fights would be competitive.
“Russell’s a great matchmaker. The question is always ‘why should we believe you’re going to put on this fight?’ So, Russell was there as well. You know his track record. You know his history. You know what he can do. His record speaks for itself. It was part of our good housekeeping seal of approval so to speak.”
Like in any business, different companies have different ways of finding success. The bigger promotional companies and some of the smaller outfits have made great money bringing their fighters along carefully, setting them up for big paydays on HBO. But for Duva and Main Events, this model simply doesn’t appeal to their senses. They have a differing old school philosophy and wanted to make it work now on Fight Night as they had done in the past when boxing was a bigger sport.
“Look, Top Rank and Golden Boy, they’re in a different business model. Their model is based on they get as many fighters as they can and they figure that by the law of averages some of them are going to rise to the top and be big stars and the rest are going to be whatever they are. Our company used to be like that years ago. I don’t think we ever had as many fighters. We never had sixty. Even when we had twenty-five fighters under contract, I found that was not a business model that I could make succeed. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have HBO giving me dates as Golden Boy had. You can’t do that if you don’t have the television platform. If you do have the television platform, which we now have, I still don’t think that’s the way to do it because what ends up happening is you have a lot of really unhappy fighters who don’t want to be in tough fights, and want their promoter to give them one easy fight after another.
“Here’s the problem–they feel you’re kind of being disloyal of them if you ask them to fight a competitive fight. That’s not what a boxing promoter is supposed to do. That’s what a manager’s supposed to be. So we approach it more as boxing promoters and our feeling is the way to have competitive fights is for everybody’s fighters to be in interesting fights. If I win great, he goes on. If he doesn’t win, if his style is pleasing, if he tries, he’s a showman, he’s somebody people want to watch again, he’s going to get to fight again anyway.”
It’s a philosophy that some fighters will shy away from, but the fighters that want to fight tough and please the crowd will gravitate towards it.
“I don’t really think our job is to protect the fighters. It is certainly to do the best job we can for them to advance their careers. But this does not always include putting you in safe fights. I think there is this incredible shift that has come in this business that was not there when I started. At all costs you have to avoid losing because if you ever lose a fight, I don’t know what they think will happen.”
With the approval obtained from NBC, the next step was to make good on their business plan and set competitive fights that would draw in the viewers. Peltz and Main Events felt they had set up the perfect start to their series for January 21 at the Arena in South Philadelphia. In the main event, they would be featuring boxing’s glamour division with two proven heavyweights. Philadelphia’s former title challenger, Eddie Chambers, would take on former WBO heavyweight champ, Sergei Liakhovich. In the co-feature, battle-tested Gabe Rosado would face Mexican warrior Jesus Soto-Karass in a guaranteed action fight. Everyone involved thought they had hit the right note.
But in boxing, things rarely go according to plan. Six days before the fight, Chambers dropped out with a rib injury leaving everyone scrambling for a way to save the series before it even started. I asked Duva what went through her mind when Chambers informed them he could not fight.
“What went through my head? Oh, shit, that’s what went through my head. What else can you say? What do we do now? It was a moment of crap, what do we do now, and then you figure out what to do. We started making phone calls. I mean, literally, Eddie came here and told us and we were making phone calls before he left the office to try and find someone to fight Liakhovich on such short notice. Of course, as you saw, we were not able to find anyone who was willing to do that.”
With six days to make it right everyone went to work. It quickly became obvious they could not find a heavyweight with enough talent on six days’ notice to make a competitive fight with a former champ at the level of Liakhovich. So they began looking for plan B in an unlikely place, but one that was familiar to Peltz and Duva from the “old days” of boxing promotions.
They chose to follow the plan of make the fight, not the fighter. Find two men who would be willing and eager to fight hard. So they found two undefeated, Philadelphia, heavyweight prospects in Bryant Jennings and Maurice Byarm. While no one but the hardcore Philly fight fan and boxing expert had much knowledge of either fighter, Main Events believed they fit the mold of the series. Duva talked about the reaction to the match and why they believed this was the right direction.
“I made this decision and this was my decision. Everybody had thought I’d lost my mind. There’s no doubt and I have no problem telling you that. I keep going back to what I learned when I started. I remembered the fights we had back in the seventies and eighties where we would have Scott Frank fight Guy “The Rock” Casale for the New Jersey State Championship. That probably means nothing to you, but at the time that was front page news of our local newspaper–not the sports section, the whole newspaper. What happened was you count on guys’ pride trumping their instinct for self-preservation. Unfortunately, a lot of fighters get in the ring and self-preservation comes out and that’s when they make a boring fight. But what used to happen when we had these state title fights, cross town rivalries who actually knew each other, fighting each other, what you got was two people who had to win. They were so personally invested that they had to win.
“Neither guy went into this fight just thinking ‘I’m going to get a payday.’ Both guys went into this fight thinking ‘I’m going to seize this opportunity.’ It was the same kind of mindset that we had back then. When we had the press conference, it appeared to be that. I met Maurice for the first time and I saw how they were reacting with each other. Then I calmed down because I knew we had the same kind of energy going there.”
Duva stuck to her guns that the quality of the fight was more important than the names of the fighters. With a belief that few general sports fans really know any of the current boxers, the philosophy was to make a fight with two men that would have something to gain to the point that they would be willing to risk everything to win, which in turn, provides the fans an exciting fight.
“I believe people want to see action and who’s providing the action is almost secondary now. When your general sports fan doesn’t know any fighter other than Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, what I think we’re looking for on a network that’s widely distributed like NBC Sports is that fight where people are surfing through the channels and they’re gonna stop and they’re gonna watch. You need guys to be throwing punches at each other for that to happen.”
Jennings and Byarm were both proud, young fighters eager to seize an opportunity and gain the spotlight. Once she saw their desire to fight on TV and make a name for themselves, Duva believed that this fight would deliver the action they promised NBC and boxing fans.
“If you get young guys who have everything to gain, think about the psychology of it. You’re more likely to get something exciting than if you’ve got guys in their forties who are just trying to hang on and just get another title shot so they can get a payday. That mentality informs so much of this world, especially what’s going on now, if you lose a fight your career is considered over. You have some people who are just piling up wins so they can get a fight, so they can get a payday and go home. If that’s how we are going to make our decisions as matchmakers and promoters, then no one is going to want to watch. I don’t even want to watch that, so why would people pay to see it. Why would people go out of their way to watch it on television? My feeling is I’d rather put on a fight where both guys are trying to win, rather than trying to survive. I think it’s really important. It sounds like a simple thing, but I don’t think a lot of people when they sit down and make matches these days, even on the television networks, are thinking about that. What’s going to make fighter A want to fight really hard against fighter B?”
The opening card lived up to Main Events hype. Rosado provided the excitement that was expected by taking out Soto-Karass in exciting fashion. The young guns Jennings and Byarm fought for pride and went back and forth over ten action-packed rounds despite the fact that neither fighter had ever gone more than six prior to that bout. Bryant Jennings came out on top with a close unanimous decision win.
Part two will look at the Fight Night Series schedule for the next two cards and where Duva plans to take the series next year.
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