Pacquiao-Rios, a 'night' to remember

Originally Published: November 20, 2013
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

HBO Sports president Ken Hershman took the podium at Wednesday's final news conference for the Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios fight and during his remarks realized he had better remind those watching the live stream in the United States that the card would begin at the same time as all other HBO PPV events -- live at 9 p.m. ET and 6 p.m. PT on Saturday.

When Top Rank promoter Bob Arum was at the podium he also mentioned the start time several times. Hershman said if he didn't remind everyone his team would be very upset with him, a comment that drew laughter.

However, there is nothing funny about the constant reminder of the card's start time. It is something everyone involved takes seriously and it has been a constant theme throughout the promotion since kicking off in late July.

The reason is simple: The Pacquiao-Rios welterweight showdown will take place at the CotaiArena in the Venetian Macao in Macau, China -- where day is night and night is day in comparison to the United States.

Macau is 13 hours ahead of New York and 16 hours ahead of Los Angeles. Putting on a major event overseas is hard enough, but it makes for a logistical headache when trying to get across the message to confused consumers about when an event in China will begin.

While the card will start at the normal time American consumers are used to watching boxing pay-per-views, it will be Sunday morning in Macau. That has led to some obvious confusion.

Rios and Pacquiao are on Chinese time and preparing for a fight on Sunday morning, so that's how they referred to it when making appearances on ESPN's "SportsCenter" on Tuesday night U.S. time. That sounded alarm bells for the public relations team, which has taken great pains to remind them that the fight is Saturday night in the U.S.

It's those kind of slips that have kept HBO PPV boss Mark Taffet tossing and turning at night.

"When Bob told us that Manny's next fight was going to be in China and he wanted to do something historic that would take him back to the past when some of the great fights took place overseas, like Muhammad Ali-George Foreman, Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas, Ali-[Joe] Frazier III -- 'The Thrilla in Manila,' Bob was excited like a little kid," Taffet said. "I was very excited too, and then the first question that came to mind was, 'What time is it there?'"

Those in the American boxing industry have long held the belief that putting on a pay-per-view outside the U.S. would significantly hurt sales.

With all the technology available today and the ability to cater the schedule of events in Macau to United States time, Arum does not believe going to China will have a negative impact but he admits he cannot be sure.

[+] EnlargeManny Pacquiao
Chris Farina/Top RankFighting on the other side of the world has been a challenge for fighters and trainers alike.

"Conventional wisdom is that if you do a fight outside the U.S., you will adversely impact the number of pay-per-view buys," Arum said. "But balancing that is that there is tremendous curiosity about an event in China. It's a selling point. Everyone talks about the fight and mentions that it's taking place in China. Will that curiosity help with the sales? Will having the fight in China help or hurt? The answer is we're not really sure."

Taffet knew it would be a daunting task to market and sell a pay-per-view taking place outside the United States, especially one where the time difference is so great.

"We needed to make sure our technical and production items would be addressed and we quickly concluded that fans would be able to see the same television pay-per-view experience they were accustomed to seeing," he said. "Everything necessary for a top-flight pay-per-view event is being accommodated in China and by the Venetian.

"We have ensured that fight fans will be treated to the identical experience they are used to for major pay-per-view events. Our fans won't have to calculate the time difference. We are on their time, but I never would have imagined after having done 187 pay-per-view events that the 188th event would feel like the first [Evander Holyfield-George Foreman in 1991]. It's exciting, it's historic and a great source of pride for people who love what they do at HBO PPV."

In preparation for the inevitable Pacquiao fight in Macau, Arum promoted two smaller cards there in April and July. HBO televised both on its HBO2 channel, using the events as essentially dry runs for a major show. The two cards went off without a hitch, paving the way for Filipino icon Pacquiao to fight in Asia for the first time since 2006.

Arum, who turns 82 on Dec. 13, has said that his opening the Chinese market to big-time boxing -- thanks to signing two-time Chinese Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming, who headlined the two previous Macau cards and will be on the Pacquiao-Rios undercard -- very well could be the last major accomplishment of his 40-plus-year promotional career. He is as enthusiastic about it as anything else he has done.

"For Mark, this is the first time around doing something like this," Arum said. "But I've done this before with Ali and Frazier in Manila. There was no pay-per-view then when I promoted that fight. We relied on closed circuit, having people go to theaters. But the timing is the same. Ali and Frazier fought at 11:30 in the morning, for prime time in the U.S. It's exactly the same with Manny and Brandon. That's why I am confident."

Organizers did a few basic things to keep them focused on their key American audience.

"Once you hit Macau, you adjust your clocks and everything is done on U.S. time," Arum said.

"In other words you have a press conference at night in Macau."

Sure enough, Wednesday's news conference took place at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday Macau time, 8:30 a.m. ET.

The weigh-in for the 147-pound fight will take place at the unusual time of 7:30 a.m. Saturday Macau time, which is Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET, a convenient time for live airings in the United States. And then, of course, there are the fights, which will begin Sunday morning Macau time in order to accommodate the Saturday night American pay-per-view.

"There are real issues but I knew what they were and how to deal with them," Arum said.

Said Taffet: "By the time you get to the day of the fight, just think: Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios will wake up in China, brush their teeth, change from pajamas into boxing trunks and step into the ring so a U.S. pay-per-view audience can watch them live on HBO PPV on Saturday night just like every other previous pay-per-view mega fight."

So obsessed with making sure that consumers would know that the pay-per-view is live at the usual time, Arum and Taffet purposely didn't include the fight location on the marketing materials. The HBO PPV poster, for example, doesn't mention Macau.

"We don't want to confuse people," Arum said.

In another effort to market the fight in the United States and keep it on people's minds, they set up a virtual media center at the Venetian in Las Vegas, bringing in 13 radio shows (some English, some Spanish-language) to broadcast from there Thursday and Friday.

To give them fight content for their programs, a slew of boxing stars were recruited to do interviews: George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, Marco Antonio Barrera, Timothy Bradley Jr. and Mike Alvarado. They'll talk about the fight as well as their experiences of fighting outside their own country. Bradley, of course, faced Pacquiao and Alvarado split two fights with Rios.

Taffet, who is in Las Vegas this week, went so far as to create a three-column spreadsheet for the roughly 75-person staff working on the event for HBO, Top Rank and the Venetian. It breaks down the day hour by hour with the time in Macau, Las Vegas and New York.

"It's to eliminate any errors in planning and execution," he said. "I did it on a spreadsheet on my phone and when you open it the entire 24-hour grid fits in a single view."

The fighters on the card also went to Macau well ahead of time in order to adjust to the time change. Rios left his Oxnard, Calif., training camp Nov. 11. Pacquiao trained in the Philippines, where he was already on the same time as Macau.

The fighters will box in the morning, another adjustment that had to be made in deference to the American pay-per-view start time. It has not been an issue for Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KOs) or Rios (31-1-1, 22 KOs).

"We are getting [Pacquiao] used to having two meals before the fight and I think that's a big factor, as long as he gets those two meals in him it shouldn't be too much of a problem," Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer, said of getting him ready to fight in the morning. "We'll be ready to fight."

Said Robert Garcia, Rios' trainer: "The fact that we are fighting in the morning, it is different and we have never done that. It's not only different for us but for everyone on the card and is new for everybody. One thing about Brandon is that he always trains at that time anyway. He is always at the gym at 11 and by noon he is already sparring and doing his work. So that is already something we do, so it could benefit us."

Rios also said he is not thinking about the time change, just that he will be ready when the bell rings.

"It's going to be different, but not really," Rios said. "Once you get in the ring and fight you are not even thinking about, 'Oh, it's going to be too early for me.' It's in the morning, but to me, I'm just ready to fight, to get It on, to show the world what I can do when I'm in top shape having the best training camp ever."

Arum had his own thoughts about a morning fight.

"People say, 'Fighting in the morning, how unusual.' Yeah, it's unusual, but ask yourself, 'When do you have the most energy or the most strength? Is it in the morning? Or is it in the evening?' Most people will say it's in the morning," Arum said. "So that's why I expect an even greater battle than if the fight was taking place at the usual time in the evening."

It is, however, as you might have heard, taking place on Saturday evening U.S. time.

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