The Fog Machine

berto14.06.07 - By Carlos Acevedo: On the Jermain Taylor-Cory Spinks telecast in May, HBO aired "highlights" of an undercard bout between rising prospect Andre Berto and opponent Martinus Clay. Berto drubbed Clay for 6 repetitive rounds while the usual suspects—-the referee and the seconds—-looked on indifferently.

Clay, battered and outclassed, finally took matters into his own hands and surrendered during the seventh. Clips of Berto landing precise combinations were shown, accompanied by glowing commentary from Jim Lampley. But what HBO never mentioned was that Martinus Clay was 12-13-2 going into the bout.

Looking impressive against stiffs is a prerequisite for any decent boxer—not just the all-time greats—and, indeed, sometimes even other stiffs manage to look good against their own kind. But over the last few years several highly touted prospects (Jaidon Codrington, Kid Diamond, Joel Julio, etc.) have generated significant industry buzz solely on the basis of pummeling tomato cans. Many of these fighters then went on to implode before ever accomplishing anything meaningful in the ring.

No sooner, it seems, does a young fighter blast out a few hapless mid-western types than he is on HBO or Showtime; and no sooner is he on HBO or Showtime than he is counting the ring lights. Jason Litzau is the most recent example of this trend, and Andre Berto is the latest boxer to receive what appears to be disproportionate buzz.

What is it that Berto has done to earn this kind of attention? Could it be his eye-catching first round demolition of Robert Valenzuela, 37-24-2 coming into the match and who made his pro debut at 118 pounds? Or was it the one-round knockout, inexplicably televised by HBO, over Nito Bravo, 23-12-3 and 36 years old at the time? Is it the hurt he put on James Crayton, a junior lightweight fringe contender a decade ago, but now 36 and, at the time he met Berto, loser of 14 of his last 18 fights? What are we to make of a fighter whose last five opponents have a combined record of 149-90-12? If you remove Miguel Figueroa (a tough clubfighter who was at his best during his days at lightweight) from the equation, then the record becomes even ghastlier: 124-86-10, a winning percentage of just 56%. Closer analysis shows that if you only factor in the previous 10 fights of each boxer Berto has faced in the last year the combined record amounts to 23-32-3, with one no-contest. Not only were these opponents no-hopers, they were no-hopers on the downside. That is to say, they were not even at the best of their worst when they stepped into the ring with Berto. So why does it matter that Andre Berto can manhandle a few stumblebums? The answer to this question can be found in the strange marketing practices of a sport whose mainstream exposure barely rivals that of Jai Alai.

Few boxers today (or their management) take the "prodigy" road seriously. Years ago, Jeff Fenech was good enough to win the IBF bantamweight title, the WBC junior bantamweight title, and the WBC featherweight title before he twenty-four years old. Fenech went 15 rounds in his twelfth pro fight! Similarly, Kostya Tszyu defeated ex-champion Juan Laporte in just his fourth bout and knocked out Angel Hernandez in his twelfth fight. At the time, Hernandez was 40-1-2, with his only loss coming at the hands of Julio Cesar Chavez. But this accelerated pace was not just some odd Australian trend. The 1984 U.S. Olympians, guided by Main Events, also took major steps early in their careers. In his first thirteen fights Mark Breland faced Don Shiver, 19-0; Troy Wortham, 24-0; Richard Aguirre, 13-0; Daryl Anthony, 20-1-2; and John Munduga, 24-0. Evander Holyfield, in just his twelfth pro fight, defeated Dwight Qawi via 15-round decision for the cruiserweight title and Pernell Whitaker defeated dangerous Roger Mayweather after only twelve fights. The list goes on. But that list ceases, with a few exceptions, in the early 1990s when network television stopped producing marketable fighters and the pay cable giants decided to, in effect, create their own stars. Recent successful prodigies, although nowhere near as accomplished as Fenech, Holyfield, and Tszyu at comparable stages in their careers, include Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and Fernando Vargas. De la Hoya, of course, came in during the tail end of the network boxing boom; several of his early fights were televised on ABC. Is it any coincidence that the biggest star in boxing over the last 10 years was also its last network product?

With the decline of boxing on network television, media outlets, particularly HBO, set about trying to invent marketable fighters in order to plug a growing "celebrity gap." In the last few years marquee HBO fighters such as Roy Jones, Lennox Lewis, Fernando Vargas, and Felix Trinidad have retired or hit the skids. In addition, Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, Winky Wright, and Marco Antonio Barrera are all nearing the end of their careers. That leaves the HBO "star" roster with Jermain Taylor, Manny Pacquiao, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Wladimir Klitscko, and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Hatton and Taylor have looked ragged lately and neither one is exactly ratings bonanza material. Mayweather, for his part, claims to be retired. Only Pacquiao and Cotto consistently engage in exciting, high quality fights. But since they are smaller fighters with language barriers (for the American fan, at least), their public appeal is, to an extent, limited. HBO, and boxing itself, is now left with a serious star drought and its thirst to manufacture a new star has led the network on an over zealous marketing/promoting campaign. In the past, the talent they invested in often flourished spectacularly, but lately they seem to have lost their bearings.

For example, a slew of squash matches over the last year or so has given the impression that HBO is using its broadcasts merely as propaganda to generate pay-per-view sales. Enticing viewers to fork over $50.00 for a fight requires star power, and HBO seems to believe that stars can be made through the power of matchmaking illusion. The truth is that many of the bouts on HBO qualify as set-ups because their outcomes are, for all intents and purposes, predetermined. Showcase matches like Paul Williams-Sharmba Mitchell are little more than sadistic exhibitions intended to build a fighter up to draw a potential fan base for big money events down the line. Of course, this is usually what a promoter does (not a television network) and it is an accepted part of the fight game; however, you usually see this kind of ritual slaughter on Fox Sports or at the Plaza de Toros in Madrid. For HBO to televise this kind of bloody sacrifice on a regular basis is astounding. The philosophy seems to be that "If you watch world-class Fighter A pummel no-hope Fighter B, then you will want to see world-class Fighter A again," but this line of thought seems illogical. Does anyone really want to see Jermain Taylor again after his dreadful waltz with Cory Spinks? Jorge Arce only lost marketability when he futilely chased unwilling Julio Roque Ler around the ring for twelve supernaturally dull rounds. Ler seldom interrupted his Maypole dance to throw punches and, once, he actually stopped his jig to kiss Arce. The sports fan gets excited when they see evenly matched boxers in competitive fights. Kelly Pavlik stirred up a cyclone of publicity when he scored a spectacular knockout of legitimate contender Edison Miranda. Had Pavlik bowled over another paunchy fighter with a mullet, no one, outside of a few agoraphobic bloggers and the managerial team behind the winner, would have cared.

Another problem with the marketing of boxers today concerns the "contract" fighters whom HBO stage-manages—by matchmaking—in order to create a thread of narrative continuity from fight to fight. No matter how much grumbling the network does about the shenanigans of the Alphabet Groups, HBO is still willing to pay exorbitant broadcast fees for "title" fights involving one of their franchise players because they are often contractually obligated to do so and because they want to maintain some sort of brand integrity. This is why viewers are often stuck with deplorable mandatory mismatches like the recent Wladimir Klitschko-Ray Austin fiasco. Long term contracts ensure that each fighter takes an easy road: since they are beneficiaries of big money multi-fight contracts, they want to be able to reach the end of their deal with as few objects thrown in the way as possible. HBO is also complicit in this scheme since it wants to make sure that the fighter it has poured so much hype and money into continues to be a marketable "champion." Here the question of matchmaking comes into play: HBO clearly plays matchmaker, and, as such, is 100% responsible for the content of their broadcasts. So when a young fighter is fed overmatched opponents or a world-class fighter thrashes an untutored pug from South Africa or Tarpon Springs, Florida, remember that these matches are being aired with the tacit approval of the network. HBO has enough clout and a big enough piggy bank to decline any subpar matches dangled its way. But too often the network is willing to air such offal in the interest of marketing a fighter in order to produce buzz. (There are other backroom shenanigans responsible for some of the odd things subscribers see on HBO boxing, but that is a another muckrake altogether.)

The vacuum of boxing luminaries also affects the press and often seems to force collective hallucinations upon observers of the sport. Today it takes only a few picturesque whippings of pugs whose sole purpose in this business is to take picturesque whippings to goad the media into a frenzy. Jaidon Codrington, a young fighter from New York (and, interestingly enough, a stablemate of Berto) had a similar gossamer air before being knocked out in 18 seconds by Allan Green on Showtime. Not long before that humiliating defeat, Thomas Hauser, perhaps the best journalist working in boxing today, published a profile on Codrington. Incredibly, the normally level Hauser had this to say about a boxer with seven professional fights under his belt: "Codrington is a complete fighter. Everything he does works off his jab, but he has a full arsenal of weapons at his command. He can box, punch, and take a punch. He has never been stopped and has been knocked down only once, by U.S. Olympian Andre Dirrell." This brings us back to Andre Berto and the fog-making machine that surrounds him. The boxing press, so ravenous for a new star, pile superlatives on Berto as indiscriminately as a PR agent or Don King would.

None of this should be construed as condemnation of Berto, a good young fighter with power in either hand and an aggressive style guaranteed to please fans. It is always nice to see a boxer make a payday (since few fighters actually make a decent living in this pitiless sport), but accolades and exposure should be won on merit, and when Berto finally steps into the ring with someone who does not appear to suffer from the bends we can better judge if he deserves the glory prematurely granted him. In the meantime, the Kafkaesque business of pre-packaging boxers for a nearly non-existent general audience will continue inexorably and as exact as a machine.

Article posted on 14.06.2007

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