By Jeremy Wall
Saturday night, June 13th, HBO and Showtime aired boxing matches head-to-head that featured fighters that both stations are trying to build into future stars. Showtime featured Deontay Wilder successfully defending the WBC Heavyweight title by knocking Eric Molina out in the ninth round at the Bartow Arena in Birmingham. Showtime had two major fights with 22-year-old prospect Felix Verdejo beating Ivan Najera by unanimous decision and in the headline Nicholas “The Axe Man” Walters beating Miguel Marriaga by unanimous decision at the Madison Square Garden Theatre. Both shows also went up against UFC 188 on pay per view from Mexico.
HBO went with a double-header of showcase fights for Felix Verdejo and Nicholas Walters to counter program Showtime’s fight with Deontay Wilder. The Showtime broadcast began at 9pm ET and the HBO at 10pm ET.
Walters (26-0, 21KO) beat Marriaga (20-1, 18KO) by unanimous decision on scores of 118-109, 117-110, and 119-108. It was a rematch of an amateur bout the two had years ago which Marriaga won. Walters was originally supposed to defend his WBA Featherweight title, but was stripped of the belt after the weigh-ins when he came in one pound over. The belt remains vacant. Attendance at the MSG Theater was 3,321.
Walters, 29, was criticized for not making an effort in trying to make the 126-pounds weight limit. He originally weighed in at 127.4 pounds. He was given two hours to make weight and try again, but after only ninety minutes he weighed in again at 127 pounds, having only lost 0.4 of a pound. The WBA Featherweight title was still on the line if Marriaga won, since he made weight at 125.2 pounds.
"I'm coming off an eight-month layoff. I tried everything," said Walters, who was also fined $40,000 for missing weight.
"He worked out as hard as he could but the last couple of pounds are always hard for him to get off and he tried to, but physically he felt he would have nothing left if he kept working to get that last pound off," said vice-president of Top Rank Carl Moretti,. "I'm a little surprised. I saw him struggle to make weight for the Donaire fight and also for his previous fight, so I always knew 130 was around the corner. I just didn't think it would be around the corner for this fight. He's definitely going to 130 pounds after this."
Walters rehydrated to 145 pounds by fight time. He outmatched Marriaga, knocking him down in with a right hand in the ninth round. Walters landed 279 of 809 punches thrown for 34-percent compared to Marriaga, who landed 165 of 619 punches thrown at 27-percent.
"It was a tough fight. [Marriaga] was very well-rounded. He was tough and he came to fight," Walters said. "He put on a show and it was a tough fight after [I had] an eight-month layoff. I caught him a few times, I hurt him a few times, and that was it."
Walters is best known for knocking out Nonito Donaire in the sixth round last October. The win made Walters look like an emerging star. Top Rank had plans to match Donaire against Vasyl Lomachenko, a highly skilled fighter whose profile recently got a boost by winning an undercard bout on the pay per view broadcast of Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. The idea here was clearly give Walters a showcase win to setup Walters vs. Lomachenko on HBO later this year. It’s not a huge name fight, but it is a bout between two guys who are among the best at featherweight and have potential to become bigger names than what they are now.
Walters missing weight, however, puts that fight in jeopardy. That he didn’t even try to make weight when given a second chance was curious considering the idea was to fight Lomachenko at 126 pounds and missing weight against Morriaga sends the wrong message.
“He’s not the champion anymore,” Lomachenko’s manager Egis Klimas said after the Walters-Marriage fight. “Why do we want him? For what? What reason?”
"I'm thinking about staying at featherweight but I don't know," Walters said. "I'll decide maybe in a few weeks if I will go up to 130. But I still want to fight Lomachenko. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and they say he's one of the best."
"The Lomachenko fight was never made so I don't know how you can say the fight is going to happen - it was never made in the first place. It's got to get made first to fall apart,” said Morretti. “Eventually, they'll fight each other."
Moretti also claimed that even if Walters moved up to 130 pounds, that wouldn’t prevent a fight with Lomachenko from happening. “If we make that fight, they can fight over 126,” said Moretti.
"Lomachenko wants that fight very badly. He loves challenges and he loves to test his skills," said Bob Arum. "That's why I love these guys. No jerking around."
Except when it comes to making weight.
In HBO’s opening bout, Felix Verdejo (18-0, 13KO) looked like a rising superstar with an exciting unanimous decision win over Ivan Najera (16-1, 8KO). Verdejo won on cards of 100-88, 100-88, and 99-89. It was Verdejo’s debut on HBO. The bout took place on the event of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, of which Verdejo was scheduled to be a part. Verdejo’s place in the Puerto Rican Day Parade was originally held for Miguel Cotto, but Cotto left Top Rank this year to sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.
Verdejo out-classed Najera, who showed tremendous toughness in the fight by going the distance despite being knocked down in rounds five and seven. Verdejo landed 194 of 487 punches for 40-percent compared to 101 of 333 punches for 30-percent by Najera.
Verdejo also went into the fight against Najera with a hairline fracture of his left hand. The injury might keep him out of action for a few months.
“Felix came into this fight with a bad hand, and it’s been nagging,” Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. “There was a little piece that hadn’t settled in in the middle of his hand. It just kept getting inflamed and we didn’t want to pull out, because it was too special an opportunity for Verdejo. We went and next week he has a doctor’s appointment.”
"This is one of the toughest opponents I have faced. He kept coming," Verdejo said. "I dropped him twice but he kept coming."
"If the injury is what the doctor told us it is, it won’t take more than three months to recover from the injury," said Ricky Marquez, Verdejo’s manager and trainer. Marques expects Verdejo to fight again in October.
“Depending on how the hand feels, we’ll see what’s next for me,” Verdejo said. “My hand hurts a lot. We’re going to the doctor. We’ll see what the specialist says. We just don’t know right now. We’ll go to the doctor and see what happens.”
The audience was full of fans carrying Puerto Rican flags, coming out in full force to support Verdejo. Verdejo has tremendous star potential. He’s lightning fast with devastating power, able to end his fights with highlight reel knockouts. He has the Puerto Rican fan base already behind him and could be a star on the level of a Miguel Cotto.
"If this wasn't the Puerto Rican Day weekend, I don't think necessarily he would have been in this situation," Moretti said.
"We put him in Puerto Rico and boom, he sells 6,000 tickets right off the bat just like that," Arum said of Verdejo. "There aren't a lot of guys like that."
"Top Rank knows how to develop fighters, and if they think I'm ready for this, I trust them," Verdejo told Kevin Iole at Yahoo.
"We have four guys I'm really looking at as having potential to become legitimate pay-per-view stars," Arum said. "Verdejo is number one. If I had to place a bet on any fighter from that Class of 2012 becoming a big pay-per-view star, it would be him. But we also have Gilbert Ramirez, the super middleweight from Mexico; [Oscar] Valdez and Jose Ramirez, all of whom have a decent shot to do it. And you might even throw in Jesse Hart.
"They all have that marketability. The question from a pay-per-view standpoint is, will people plunk down money in sufficient numbers? A few fighters, the answer is yes. Most, it is no,” continued Arum. “Andre Ward is a great, great fighter, but I don't see him as a pay-per-view star. [Wladimir] Klitschko is the heavyweight champion, a terrific fighter, but he's not a pay-per-view star. Mayweather is not the most exciting, slugging fighter, but he's a huge [PPV] star. There are a lot of things that go into it."
Meanwhile on Showtime, Deontay Wilder (34-0, 33KO) made the first successful defense of his WBC Heavyweight title by knocking out Eric Molina (23-3, 17 KO) at 1:03 of the ninth round. The fight drew 9,347 to the sold-out Bartow Arena in Birmingham, an hour’s drive from Wilder’s hometown of Tuscaloosa. It was the first ever heavyweight title fight in Alabama.
Wilder scored four knock downs in the fight, including downs in round four and two in round five before the finish came in round nine from a straight right. There was a scare, though, when Wilder was tagged hard by a left hook from Molina in the third round.
"I definitely was surprised," said Wilder of Molina. "This guy's got heart. All the critics doubted him, but I'm so proud of him."
“There is no question that Wilder has the potential to not only become a star, but to be a difference-maker in the sport,” says Yahoo’s Kevin Iole.
I agree. Of all the fighters Al Haymon has under contract, the one with the most box office potential is Deontay Wilder. He’s charismatic, American, a heavyweight champion, and is skilled.
"I'm trying to become a household name. I want to fight constantly throughout the period of the year. I'm looking forward to this fight come Saturday, and if God so has it that I don't get injured, I plan to come back in September. And after that, I want to come back in December,” said Wilder before the bout.
Odd, though, was the fact that the fight took place on Showtime. Wilder defeated Bermaine Stiverne on Showtime back in January to win the WBC Heavyweight title. This was just a few weeks before Haymon launched PBC and Wilder was still under contract to Golden Boy, who co-promoted Wilder’s fight against Stiverne with Don King.
At the time, it was thought to be the last fight Wilder would do for Golden Boy. But Saturday night’s fight against Molina was also promoted by Golden Boy. That’s not just strange because it looked like Wilder was finished with Golden Boy after beating Stiverne in January, but also because Golden Boy just filed a massive anti-trust suit against Al Haymon. That Golden Boy and Haymon were working together on Wilder’s fight against Molina is nothing short of bizarre.
Perhaps Wilder still had to fulfill his contract with Golden Boy. Maybe Wilder chose to resign with Golden Boy. Maybe there was some political reason why Haymon had Wilder fight again for Golden Boy on Showtime. There isn’t a lot of information available on this topic, but it’s strange.
Wilder should be fighting on NBC, not Showtime. He will not become a star to his potential if he is fighting on premium cable rather than network television. If possible, I would be building my PBC on NBC shows around Wilder. He is the guy.
PBC has made some strange choices with which station to promote certain fighters. It was odd that they had Amir Khan fight on Spike when Khan is rumoured to be Floyd Mayweather’s opponent in September, when having Khan fight on NBC would have been a much better way to get Khan’s name into the mainstream.
Haymon also had Julio Cesar Chavez Jr fight Andzrej Fonfara at light-heavyweight on Showtime, which was such a bad idea in so many ways. Chavez Jr is a star and a ratings movers, but only because he is carefully protected in matchmaking by fighting guys much smaller than him. He should have been fighting on network television to maximize his ratings potential, and he should never have fought someone as large as Fonfara, who wrecked him and probably permanently damaged Junior’s drawing power.
So, PBC is doing a lot of things right, but there are a lot of poor choice in matchmaking that are hampering star growth and thus long-term box office potential. Some of these poor choices may be by necessity, as perhaps Wilder had a contract to fight for Golden Boy on Showtime and Haymon couldn’t get him on PBC. But key fighters need to be put in key broadcasts in order to create stars. PBC has so many broadcasting partners that they ought to be able to easily do this.
Wilder’s next opponent will likely be Alexander Povetkin, who won a title eliminator against Mike Perez in Europe that was aired on tape-delay on ESPN2 a few weeks ago. Wilder needs to get past Povetkin, but to become a real star, he needs to defeat Wladimir Klitschko.
Klitschko is currently negotiating his mandatory title defense against Tyson Furey, which will take place somewhere in Britain. It is also possible that the fight goes to purse bid, and if that happens Klitschko’s side will probably win and take the fight to Germany. The rumour is that wherever it happens, it will happen in October.
If Klitschko beats Furey and Wilder beats Povetkin, both of which are the likely outcomes, then the fight to make is Wilder vs. Klitschko. In order to become a household name, Wilder needs to get some fights on network television and he needs to defeat Wladimir Klitschko. The former is obviously much easier than the later.
“Well, I'm going to put it like this, that fight is titled not if it's going to happen, but when it's going to happen,” Wilder said of facing Klitschko. “Of course, that's something I think about, but at this moment in time, I'm not focused on him. He will get his turn as well too, and last time I checked, I have the most prestigious, most well-known, most precious, beautiful belt in all of boxing, something that's been around for a very long time, and that's the WBC crown, it's something that everybody wants.”
Wilder is a former sparring partner of Klitschko. The Klitschko brothers have always liked to use future potential opponents as sparring partners in order to get a read on them in case they need to fight them down the line. What that means for Wilder’s chances against Klitschko is anyone’s guess, but it is probably not good.
HBO has been on a roll this year in television ratings as boxing has made a major comeback, largely due to the machinations of Al Haymon. Nevertheless, HBO has benefited, drawing multiple large audiences for their fights in 2015.
Earlier this month Cotto vs Geale drew 1.589 million viewers on average, peaking at 1.621 million. It was HBO’s third most watched show of the year, behind Canelo vs Kirkland in May (2.146 million viewers) and Klitschko vs Jennings in April (1.63 million viewers).
Other major HBO fights this year have been Rios vs Alvarado in January (1.252 million); GGG vs Murray in February in an afternoon slot (862,000); Kovalev vs Pascal in March (1.152 million), and GGG vs Monroe in May (1.338 million).
As a reference point, the most-watched fight on HBO in 2014 was Julio Cesar Chavez vs Vera 2, which drew 1.39 million viewers on average and peaked at 1.53 million. Three fights on HBO this year have already surpassed that number. Compared to 2014, GGG vs Monroe would have ranked second, Alvarado vs Rios would have ranked fourth, and Kovalev vs Pascal would have ranked sixth.
There is no question that boxing has become a much bigger ratings draw in 2015 compared to recent years.
Well, for the most part. While PBC and HBO have been doing great business, Showtime has been struggling, to the point where even the HBO people made fun of the lack of fights on Showtime during the pressers for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight last month.
Showtime did a good number for the Wilder-Stiverne WBC title fight from January at 1.24 million average viewers, peaking at 1.34 million. That fight is still outside the top five most-watched bouts on HBO this year. But Showtime did a horrendous number for Cesar Chavez Jr’s fight against Fonfara, which only drew 618,000 viewers on average and peaked at 836,000. That was a 40% decline from the last fight Junior had on HBO.
Showtime hasn’t aired many other fights besides the ones mentioned above. In the major promotional war between PBC and HBO, so far Showtime is looking like the major losers. Many of the star fighters on Showtime prior to this year were guys managed by Al Haymon and promoted by Golden Boy. Haymon, however, took many of these stars away from Showtime and is using them to build PBC. HBO still has their stable of stars across a number of promotions. But Showtime is left with little else besides Mayweather, which is perhaps how the Wilder fight this past weekend ended up taking place on that station. Showtime is owned by the same company as CBS, which airs PBC, and that must be an awkward relationship right now.
Jeremy Wall can be contacted at jeremywall1984@gmail and found on Twitter @jeremydalewall.