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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Topics: Adrien Broner, Gavin Rees, HBO

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  • HitDog

    To be fair on one point here, Lewis-Grant was a two-round blowout. Banks-Mitchell II was to be a interesting opportunity for an American heavyweight prospect (which is to say, someone who can kinda punch) to come back from having no idea how to get hit hard. Many of us were intrigued by what would happen the second time, and most of us weren’t idiots to be intrigued. At least compared to the drivel often served to us in HBO undercards.

    • thenonpareil

      Hi JD,

      I sort of hear you, I guess. Lewis-Grant was for the heavyweight title, though, and there was no rematch, rightfully, because it was a blowout. To me, Mitchell is very limited and not much of a prospect at all, but that’s just a personal opinion. You’ve been around here long enough to know I don’t do prospect mongering–which is as big a waste of time as rankings and p-4-p lists, since most “prospects” are beneficiaries of the dreaded BUILDUP. The way some folks refer to everyone with an 0 as a prospect, you’d think they weren’t aware of the tomato cans and tank artists that pad so many records. I saw many of the CHIN CHECKERS’ early fights when they were all the rage in NYC and it was frightening seeing them blast out men who entered the ring wearing Spider Man beach towels (and also appeared to be mentally ill or unstable).

      Neither Mitchell nor Banks are world-class fighters and if HBO is not a place where you can see world-class fighters, then what’s the point? I’ve been to fights in Paterson, New Jersey, and at the Arena in Philly. Maybe I’m overstating it, but the Paterson vibe is starting to show up too often on HBO and Showtime. I don’t pay X amount of dollars per month to see Harry Yorgey and Seth Mitchell and Mike Dallas (although the flipside for me is knowing that some of these guys on the margins make a little money). But it’s true–like you mentioned–that some of the stuff HBO/Showtime airs is so bad that even mediocre matchups look good by comparison.

      • HitDog

        I’m stunned by how little I believe in my previous argument, except I guess I truly have no expectations in what HBO brings. I saw entertainment in that matchup. Your vision is more utopian. I can’t help but respect that.

        • thenonpareil

          To be honest, I thought you were drunk at Enid’s when you typed that…

  • http://thelivingdaylights.co/ Andrew Fruman

    Well said, CA.

    I have to admit that I kind of like Broner – but I’m not interested in tuning in to a broadcast that doesn’t offer the prospect of real competition. This is like the San Francisco 49′ers against a CFL team. And we’re supposed to be excited? And sadly, that’s what most cards on HBO & Showtime are these days. It’s all a lot of rubbish.

    • thenonpareil

      Hi AF,

      thanks, sir. I like Broner, too, because of his style in the ring. This is a man who is interested in dramatizing his skills in order to pique public interest. Yes, he seems also to do that deliberately with his persona, but what matters is what happens between the ropes. Of course, his competition has been sadly been lacking, but most of the time, he gets the job done spectacularly. He’s not interested in going 10-12 dull rounds with Litzau or Rojas.

      I’m sort of surprised that people are blase about what we are seeing on HBO and Showtime. Some people even think Showtime had a great year in 2012…possibly because we got to see Shawn Hawk, Antonio Tarver, and Saul Alvarez versus a junior welterweight. Oh well…what can you do?

      I like Gavin Rees and it’s a shame his big payday is being attached to such a cynical mismatch. He’s a solid domestic-level fighter, but HBO is only interested in plucking longshots out of Europe for one-night stands on WCB. There is no thought to developing a solid b-side, no thought to actually having a two-way fight, no thought at all, it seems.

  • timstarks

    Genuinely interested in your answer to this, not saying you’re wrong about anything in this piece: Ricky Burns was who GBP/HBO wanted for this fight, but he’s off fighting Miguel Vazquez instead. My personal suspicion is that Burns isn’t remotely interested in facing Broner, but even if he is, he wasn’t available to Broner in early 2012. What should HBO have done, in the absence of that possibility for early 2012? Should it have not aired a Broner fight at all until Burns became available?

    It seems to me that HBO has a dilemma on its hands — Broner has some buzz, and even if you take into account the DeMarco ratings dropoff, he still does better for them than most any other fighter who appears on their network. (I don’t know how to explain that ratings dropoff, either — ratings are a fickle beast, if Broner steps up in competition and does WORSE ratingswise than in his bigger mismatches.) But there also is a dearth of available/willing/appetizing opponents at 135 who would make for anything that isn’t a mismatch. Maybe Gamboa? All I’m saying is, I’m not sure what I’d do if I was in HBO’s position here and I’m interested in your thoughts.

    • http://thelivingdaylights.co/ Andrew Fruman

      Hi Tim,

      I know you were asking CA, but I figured I’d give my 2 cents. If HBO wants to feature Broner, that’s fine, feature Broner, but why as the main-event to a show in which the other televised bout is a pairing of 3rd-tier heavyweights. When one considers that HBO has more money than other network bidding for fights, it just feels like they don’t really care about the overall quality of what they’re giving fans.

      A fight like Banks-Mitchell II, IMO, should be almost a bonus. HBO occasionally does triple-headers, and that’s the sort of bout that could have been added on to an already solid show. Instead, it was scheduled as the only appetizer to a mismatch.

      There are plenty of solid fighters that would jump at the chance to be on HBO, and I can’t believe that with a little bit of imagination, they couldn’t be giving us consistently well matched bouts. So when there’s a situation like this, where a favored guy like Broner is up against a huge underdog, why not try and bump up the quality of the rest of the show?

      If it happened only once in awhile, that would be one thing – but it just feels like HBO (& Showtime) have been regularly green-lighting mismatches in order to placate promoters that don’t want to match their guys tough. From a business perspective, I don’t get it, as where are these promoters going to go to get a better deal? If HBO/Showtime raised their standards, wouldn’t the promoters be forced to take more risks? And wouldn’t that raise the quality of what we’re getting?

      • thenonpareil

        Hi Tim,

        I’m basically with AF here–except he seems to think that Mitchell-Banks II might have been interesting! Also, I’d note that HBO made mismatches in the “glory days” as well, but they had the numbers to justify it. I didn’t want to see Jimmy Ellis or Tony Tubbs fight, but I couldn’t argue that their respective opponents–Foreman and Tyson–were not overwhelming Nielsen stars. This is not the case with many fighters today who are pushed for reasons other than competitive matchups. A lot of this has to do with, it seems, demographics, “potential,” and politics. Think of a guy like Pacquiao, who came out of nowhere for HBO, and the hard road he had to take after his first fight on HBO. He didn’t fit in with the politics/demographics model, and so there he was, fighting Barrera and JMM (and the underrated Agapito Sanchez).

        Broner can fight whomever–Rees included–but why should I bankroll this–and other–mismatches? Maybe Burns won’t fight Broner, but my idea was to pit Rees and Burns and have a potentially decent fight. I understand that lightweight is pretty bare these days, but that doesn’t mean HBO can’t pass on 30-1 to 80-1 underdogs. HBO is knowingly putting on dreck here. Maybe they should wait until a solid opponent presents himself to air a Broner fight. Even Pacquiao fought off of HBO a few times. I hope Rees acquits himself better than I–and many others–think he will, because I basically just want to see a competitive fight more than three or four times a year on the premium networks. If not for Claire Danes, I would’ve dumped Showtime long ago!

        • timstarks

          Thanks, gents. Those are fair points. First off, I did misread your comment about Rees-Burns; I thought you were saying Broner-Burns, so my mistake.

          I think having a better show than this would be a good idea in a more “showcase” main event. Banks-Mitchell II falling apart hurt on that count (not that I was thrilled by that fight, but it’s more interesting to me than the Bika fight), but this is definitely a show that could’ve benefited from a tripleheader with a cheaper but more evenly matched third fight.

          Vis-a-vis consistently better matchmaking by the big boys — I do think HBO is a bit over the barrel with Broner. The competition here specifically is Showtime. They’ve shown with GBP/Haymon fighters that they’re happy to overpay just to lure them over to their network, and, perhaps intentionally, to go easier on the matchmaking demands. So HBO was trying to sign Broner to an exclusive deal (not sure if they succeeded — can’t find the follow-up reporting) because he does well for them in the ratings and they don’t want to lose him, too. He ends up with a date without an opponent like he did here.

          This kind of case is one of the reasons I think Nielsen ratings as the be-all end-all is a bad idea. Ratings can and should matter, but sometimes you get ratings off showcasing a fighter in a bad match-up and there’s less incentive to put him in tough… the long-term result is the erosion of the fan base, with some people being all “Yeah, I’ll watch Broner-Litzau because I love Broner!” and other people being all “Broner-Litzau is criminal” and deciding HBO isn’t worth paying for if it airs that kind of bs.

  • TheJPF

    CA,

    Great stuff, as always. Like AF, Broner is sort of growing on me; at least the guy in the ring. But, what were the odds when C. Thomas Howell squared off against Rutger Hauer? If we were all so cynical there is no way The Hitcher gets made.

    • thenonpareil

      Hi DS,

      thanks. Personally, I like Broner in the ring. He’s not there to dance or hold: he wants to get the job done in a memorable way, which is what prizefighting is about, exciting the public. I mean, imagine if The Hitcher was boring! Then, you wouldn’t even care if C. Thomas Howell could whup Hauer, the celluloid personification of evil! I seem to recall Elizabeth Mcgovern in that flick, too. She cute!

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