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Ross Greenburg's complicated HBO exit

7/20/2011

I've always liked, or at least empathized with, Ross Greenburg, the recently ousted head of HBO Sports. He has been straight with me in our phone interviews about the network's fights and the state of boxing in the U.S., even though the first time we met in person, he thought I was somebody else for about five minutes. (I eventually figured out he believed I was former Everlast scion Seth Horowitz, who, like me, also has a shaved head. The mistaken identity went on long enough that it would have been too embarrassing -- for both Ross and I -- to bother correcting him.)

There are many theories in play to explain Greenburg's exit: HBO's apparent too-coziness with Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions; Greenburg's loss of Manny Pacquiao to rival Showtime (for one fight, which turned out to be phantasmagorically unentertaining but a pay-per-view moneymaker); his profligate spending on duds, most notably the Timothy Bradley Jr.-Devon Alexander snoozer in January. That fight was a channel-change excuse for many cable viewers, but insiders are focusing their critiques less on what happened in the ring than on the backroom deal-making Greenburg apparently made to get the Bradley-Alexander match done. Supposedly, he committed millions of precious HBO Boxing Bucks promising both Bradley and Alexander follow-up fights on the network as part of the deal. Word is that he also promised Bradley's promoter Gary Shaw a two-fight deal for junior middleweight Sergiy Dzinziruk, the first of which was a dream-on challenge stepping up in weight against middleweight champ Sergio Martinez.

I guess you might also include on the list of transgressions the recent Wladimir Klitschko-David Haye disappointment. Greenburg previously had given up on the Klitschko brothers. He once semi-notoriously told me that HBO abandoned the big bros, in part, because the average American TV viewer couldn't really distinguish one from the other. Die-hard boxing fans went a little berzerk about that assertion, but ask your friends at the office -- it's kind of true. You could also add to the misdeed file HBO's random questionable calls in recent years, like letting the first thrilling Bernard Hopkins-Jean Pascal fight go to Showtime, as well as HBO's inclination to give boxers lucrative multifight deals against opponents to be named later, a practice that leads to frequent why-is-this-happening? mismatches.

Of course, a good dose of matchmaking in boxing is pure luck. Letting Hopkins walk to Showtime at age 45, to fight anyone, had to seem like a high-percentage play at the time. Who had any inkling that Bradley versus Alexander -- the first boxing match in decades between two undefeated, American, reigning champions -- would have casual sports fans scrambling for the remote to switch to the Lady Gaga Takeover on FUSE? Or that Klitschko-Haye would go down pretty much the same predictably dull way as all the other Klitschko fights that had led HBO to abandon the Ukrainian brothers and their stupid European time zone in the first place?

What has really galled boxing fans, especially insiders who follow the money, is how HBO has supposedly frittered away its precious Boxing Bucks -- which, as premium cable and PPV extortion-payers, really belong to us (sort of). From what I've gathered from sources, HBO has had a budget for boxing that's about five times that of Showtime's (think $100 million-ish versus $20 million-ish per year). We expect our hard-earned dollars to be spent well, not poured into pork-barrel deals that keep a few boxing insiders happy but in the end make it harder to invite friends over to watch boxing because last time it was pretty lame. Showtime has been getting lucky with its lower-budget fights ever since the epic Round 10 of Diego Corrales -- Jose Luis Castillo in 2005. It's not that HBO hasn't consistently put up thrillers. Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto in April was awesome, and boxing writers named Amir Khan's win over Marcos Maidana the 2010 fight of the year. It's just that when you have a much bigger pile of chips, you're supposed to get lucky a lot more often.

My own first response to Greenburg's departure was: That's showbiz. Jobs in television tend to be as stable as Charlie Sheen, and can last as long as a Marvis Frazier title fight. Greenburg started at HBO in 1978 and became head of HBO Sports in 2000. That's an eternity, during which he won 51 Sports Emmy awards and produced some of the greatest sports documentaries ever televised. HBO already was dominant in boxing before he became boss -- Seth Abraham and Lou DiBella made that happen -- but it remained the pace-setter under Greenburg (though Showtime has pulled ever so close). Since 2000, HBO has televised the topsy-turvy Roy Jones-Antonio Tarver-Glen Johnson battles, the redonkulous Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy, the great featherweight scraps amongst Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and Pacquiao, and the rise of Hopkins that started with his 2001 upset of Felix Trinidad. During the past decade, most of the BWAA's "Fights of the Year" have been on HBO or HBO PPV. So there's that. But all things must end.

Other observers suggest it wasn't showbiz that did Greenburg in so much as the boxing biz, where you can receive distinguished humanitarian awards simply for not screwing anybody over too much. There's too much smash-and-grab money on the table for the business of making big fights not to be brutal and back-stabby. Greenburg indicated that his fatigue in dealing with promoters and managers, if not the reason for his departure, at least would finally get some relief now.

With Greenburg leaving, some fans seem to be hoping for a new, miraculous change in how TV will give us fights. I wouldn't bet on it. To me, the problem is how we could get to the point where it's possible to blame HBO for not being the savior of boxing. Plenty of players have helped decimate the sport as mainstream entertainment. The Scrabble-tile sanctioning organizations keep outdoing themselves, now even undermining their own paper champions by naming multiple paper champions in each weight division. Fighters and promoters went overboard demanding pay-per-view fees, making watching a handful of "big" fights a year cost more than buying a package to watch every NFL or MLB game played.

I've often heard fans express hope that HBO, with the most money to spend and theoretically the most clout, could restore order to boxing and return it to a new golden era. That hasn't happened. But even with the crummy contracts you hear about and the occasionally lousy fights the network has aired, to say HBO or Ross Greenburg could have done it is very wishful thinking.