Suffering Hour: On Adrien Broner, Gavin Rees, & HBO

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In a main event that might qualify as a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Adrien Broner returns to HBO against British and European lightweight champion Gavin Rees at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Oddsmakers are befuddled by this apparent farce, laying out lines that range from anywhere between 30-1 to 80-1. In a rare common sense move for anything even remotely connected to boxing, some books have taken the off-the-board approach here. This entire televised card, in fact, deserves the benefit of such sound judgment.

Incredibly, Broner-Rees was originally set to be supported by a rematch of a two-round blowout, because, naturally, two-round blowouts are what premium cable networks ought to be pursuing. Injury prevented Jonathan Banks-Seth Mitchell II, and HBO subscribers are better off because of it. Imagine if Mitchell had learned how to remain vertical after taking a punch and had actually won the return bout! You can almost hear Max Kellerman invoke Ali-Frazier and Zale-Graziano as comparable trilogies. As has been repeated here ad infinitum, all fighters deserve respect, but the next time Seth Mitchell fights he should be allowed to wear his Michigan State football helmet in the ring. No amount of puffery is going to make Mitchell a world-class fighter.

With a new media based on the indiscriminate “content provider” model of the internet bubble years, you can now find more propaganda in boxing than you could in, say, Glavit during the height of the Soviet Union. The 24/7 broadband furnace, fed by hundreds—if not thousands—of keyboard stokers just happy to have access and a byline, has created so many “prospects,” “stars,” and “pound-for-pound” candidates that no one can step into the ring any more without an imaginary superhero cape trailing behind him. Ephemera, in boxing, at least, has never been so ephemeral.

Now we have Adrien Broner, who has earned a disproportionate amount of HTML huzzahs by parlaying an obnoxious personality—the current lingua franca of boxing—into a palpable cyber-buzz. Ah, charisma! It certainly has changed since the days of Jack Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali, whose Gorgeous George shtick often veered into cruelty and shameless race baiting, but who could be genuinely funny most of the time. When Robinson took offense to the incessant yammering of his paler-than-pale imitator George Costner, Sugar Ray confronted him at the weigh-in. Costner said he was merely trying to build the gate, and Robinson responded that he, Sugar Ray, built the gate by praising his opponent, a concept as quaint today as flagpole sitting or steamboats are. Boxing is the only pursuit in America—other than reality TV, perhaps, and maybe politics—where acting like an idiot is considered a virtue.

Enter Gavin Rees, about as recognizable to the American public as the current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, is. Having hitched its corporate wagon to the Adrien Broner star, HBO appears obliged to broadcast all of his mismatches in the unholy name of narrative continuity and a skewed sense of branding. How airing set-ups does a brand any good is a mystery, but HBO remains feverishly committed to squash matches. Rees, 32, is a scrappy veteran, but he is being sent across the Atlantic for the same reason The Crown used to ship felons from London to New South Wales: a whole lot of suffering.

Rees has come a long way since he was accused of socking a mourner at a wake nearly a decade ago. Or has he? After losing his junior welterweight whatnot via stoppage to Andriy Kotelnyk in 2008, Rees disappeared from the ring for a year-and-a-half. Then he returned to action in a six-rounder before winning a Prizefight tournament in 2009—a trio of three-round decisions—in the kind of novelty act not even Americans, with their lust for schlock, go for. (One-night tournaments in the U.S. were spectacular failures; think of ThunderBox or the bizarre heavyweight circle jerk that took place in Mississippi in 1993 and featured the dynamic coke-fueled duo of Bert Cooper and Tony Tubbs, bare-knuckle blowhard Joe Savage, and future suicide Craig Petersen.) Rees won the tournament and reappeared in more six-round fights. In fact, from March 23, 2008, to November 6, 2010—a span of over two-and-a-half years—Rees did not enter a ring for anything more taxing than a sparring session. Even today, this is not the schedule of a world-class fighter. Although Rees is the current British and European champion, he presents little threat to Broner. So why air this fight?

Recently, HBO has allowed some of its long-time sub-standard bearer—Andre Berto, Amir Khan, and Victor Ortiz—to pursue the boxing equivalent of free agency: headline slots on Showtime. (Berto had his Showtime debut nixed by PED use, whereupon he returned to HBO to be hammered from proverbial pillar-to-post by an ex-featherweight, a fitting series of unusual events for one of the most unusual boxing careers of the last decade.) If an HBO darling is scheduled to face yet another fall guy, why not just pass on the slaughter? If Showtime buys it, then consider the airing of inferior product as free advertising for Broner—who will be back sooner or later under an HBO banner sewn and patched together with $100 bills. Despite losing 300,000 viewers from the Vicente Escobedo fiasco in July 2012 to the Antonio DeMarco thrashing a few months later, Broner is still considered a hot commodity. This is boxing, after all, where performance and declining ratings are irrelevant to network programmers. Take Amir Khan, for example, who was signed to a multi-fight contract by Showtime on the heels of consecutive losses.

But Rees is part of a larger trend of importing anonymous (to U.S. viewers) Brits and Welshmen just to lose. By flying in so many UK fighters as part of their extraordinary rendition program, HBO ostensibly acknowledges the worldwide appeal of boxing. But it refuses to acknowledge, except on rare occasions, that Old World fighters are good for anything other than being abused in HIGH DEFINITION. The last time a fighter from the United Kingdom won a fight on HBO was April 11, 2011, when Amir Khan had his hand raised. But, like much in boxing, you can add an asterisk even to this seemingly innocuous stat: Khan stopped Paul McCloskey from Derry, Northern Ireland. There are plenty of talented fighters in the U.K. Whether or not they are good enough to be on an HBO undercard is a loaded question, since they are apparently good enough (or not good enough, more likely) to be in select main events. Maybe HBO should have matched Rees with current WKRP lightweight titlist Ricky Burns. They could even stage it in Atlantic City—it would certainly draw more paying customers than Andre Berto and Chad Dawson. Viewers could then familiarize themselves with some of the Welsh, Scot, Irish, and British fighters who work at their trade as the anointed ones on HBO do. More important, perhaps, HBO would even have a competitive fight on its hands.

As for Broner, he has fast hands, a quick counter left hook, solid defense, and, even keeping the level of his opposition in mind, he appears to be a legitimate puncher. What really differentiates Broner from some of the other de facto stuporstars in boxing is the fact that he does not answer the opening bell looking to apply an assortment of armbars and half nelsons. Nor does he seem particularly interested in shooting for the National Fastdance Association Hall of Fame the way Yuriorkis Gamboa and Javier Fortuna seem to. In spite of his antics, Broner is also professional enough to recognize an overmatched opponent when he sees one. Too bad the same cannot be said of his corporate backers.

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Tags: Adrien Broner Gavin Rees HBO

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