Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we’re back in the middle of the lockout-shortened, hyper-accelerated NBA regular season. It’s a Wednesday night and there are 13 games on the schedule. As a fan, it’s hard not to feel excited — Memphis is playing Oklahoma City, the Clippers are hosting Dallas, and Miami is facing the Knicks at the Garden. Then you turn on your television and the only game that is broadcast nationally is the Charlotte Bobcats versus the Sacramento Kings. Upon discovering this, you probably wonder, How the hell did this happen? (Unless you’re a graduate of Brigham Young University or a native of Glens Falls, New York, in which case you shout “Jimmer Time!”)
Fortunately, the networks that broadcast NBA games know better than to screw over their audience like that. Unfortunately, the networks that broadcast boxing do not.
On Saturday, I wanted to watch the super middleweight title fight between Montreal-based champion Lucian Bute and his challenger, the U.K.’s Carl Froch. These guys aren’t the hottest-burning stars in boxing’s universe, but they’re two of the top four fighters in their division and they’ve both fought several times on HBO and Showtime in the past five years. On top of that, anyone who’d seen these two fight before could have predicted that their styles would come together to make an exciting match. Bute was the undefeated southpaw with knockout power in his left cross and uppercut; Froch was the best kind of bully — a swaggering pressure fighter with a granite chin. Neither was that concerned about defense. Add it all up and you get a bout where a quick, entertaining brawl is about the worst you can expect to see, and the best-case scenario is a fight of the year candidate.
Yet despite all this, HBO and Showtime both declined to carry it, according to ESPN’s Dan Rafael. That left me and the 37 other boxing fans who cared scrambling to find a way to watch the fight, which was instead picked up by an upstart premium cable network called Epix, which isn’t carried by any of the major providers in Los Angeles (where I live) and is probably most notable for its deal with Netflix — a union that’s somehow responsible for Rango and The Lincoln Lawyer being recommended to me every time I try to find a streaming movie. So here I was, calling sports bars and British-owned pubs at 10:45 on Saturday morning, asking if anyone had Epix and was showing Froch-Bute, and always getting stymied by answering machines and groggy employees who’d just arrived to open up for the day. Eventually, I settled for signing up for a free trial on EpixHD.com and prayed for a halfway decent video stream.
Jumping through these hoops was no fun, and I sent a few e-mails to boxing writers demanding they answer for HBO and Showtime: Why would the networks do this? Why are they so stupid? Bear in mind that these are the same networks that have used their expert judgment to show boxing fans about a dozen Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez fights over the past three years, which are only interesting if you enjoy watching untested Mexican champions stay busy against journeymen who are happy to take a well-paid beating. These are the same networks that chose to televise Bernard Hopkins vs. Chad Dawson not once but twice in the past seven months. The first fight was a disgraceful, two-round no-contest, and the second was a 12-round decision victory for Dawson that had me wishing for a disgraceful, two-round no contest. These are the same networks that chose to televise Bute’s fights against far lesser opponents than Froch, such as Edison Miranda and an ossified, 42-year-old Glen Johnson. These are the same networks that lost two of the best fights planned for May and June — Khan-Peterson II and Ortiz-Berto II — when fighters tested positive for steroids. It wasn’t the networks’ fault those bouts fell apart, but it might have softened the blow to have Bute-Froch available on the back burner.
My boxing writer friends didn’t share my ire — they’re more used to this business. Neither fighter has a big following in the United States, they explained. Bute is worth televising when he headlines at the Bell Centre in Montreal, when he’s fighting on Eastern Standard Time in front of several thousand orgiastic Quebecers. But when he’s fighting in Froch’s hometown of Nottingham, England, and the U.S. networks would have to choose between airing the fight live on a Saturday afternoon or later that night on tape delay? Forget it. Showtime had spent several years and millions of dollars building up the super middleweight division with its Super Six tournament that ended last year (Froch was runner-up to Andre Ward). They signed Bute to a multiple-fight deal to further that commitment, but perhaps they lost interest when Ward, the Super Six champion, passed on Bute and told the Romanian-Canadian to come back after he’d beaten Froch or another top 168-pound contender. When Showtime passed, HBO had a chance to pick up the fight, but they also demurred.
Yes, neither Froch nor Bute is American or Mexican or Puerto Rican or Irish or Italian or Polish or any of the other ethnicities that TV networks feel confident building a fight around. Yes, neither Froch nor Bute is hooked up with Golden Boy or Top Rank or Lou DiBella or Gary Shaw or any of the other major U.S. promoters who are well-connected enough with the networks to say, “Hey, put this fight on or you’re not getting Pacquiao next time.” Yes, Bute-Froch didn’t follow any obvious formula for TV success in the United States. But the networks and the boxing insiders overlooked one big factor when it came to Bute-Froch, and that was that this was obviously going to be a very good fight — good enough perhaps to catch the eye of the more general audience of sports fans and not just the handful of boxing diehards who watch Friday Night Fights and Azteca America and blurry YouTube replays of Dwight Muhammad Qawi.
What proof do I have that Bute-Froch might have had crossover appeal? Well, a couple hours before the fight, Grantland’s editor-in-chief, Bill Simmons — who has come to embody American sports fandom more than any writer over the course of his career — e-mailed me to ask, “What channel is this on?” If HBO and Showtime had known they’d be missing out on the Simmons audience, something tells me they might have picked up Bute-Froch.
So what actually happened in the fight? It lived up to expectations — short and brutal, with Froch sealing the upset by technical knockout in the fifth round. Both fighters seemed cool: Bute has perfected the look of the goofy, smirking champ who kind of resembles Shane Battier but can make opponents woozy after a couple clean lefts to the temple. Froch entered the ring to the song from Rocky IV and looked like a more ripped version of Gerard Butler from 300. The first two rounds of the fight were competitive, until Froch realized that he had hurt and could continue to hurt Bute, and then we saw two more rounds of Bute turning into a human bobblehead with wobbly knees. When Froch had Bute against the ropes in the fourth and fifth rounds and was unloading hooks and uppercuts, I may have yelled, “GO DOWN! GO DOWN!” at my laptop, but Bute never hit the canvas, though he might have been better off if he did. Watch the whole fight here.
A weekend that began with a very good fight ended with two tragedies. Former bantamweight and featherweight Johnny Tapia was found dead in his New Mexico home. He was 45. And Paul Williams, the 30-year-old former welterweight and light middleweight champion, was paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle crash. This is heartbreaking in its own right, and doubly so for the way it echoes Diego Corrales’s death a little more than five years ago. Williams, who was recognized as one of the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighters earlier in his career, had just signed a contract to challenge Canelo Alvarez for his 154-pound title in September. There’s no right way to honor or remember or pay tribute to his career, but Williams was the victor in one of my favorite fights ever, his 2009 decision over Sergio Martinez. The video of that fight is below.