HBO commentators Lennox Lewis and Jim Lampley discuss a fight on May 19, 2007 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Keidel: Boxing Losing A Great Friend In HBO

Network Broadcasting Final Fight Saturday Night

Jason Keidel
October 26, 2018 - 11:06 am

At the end of each episode from the celebrated series, "Real Sports," host Bryant Gumbel follows his postscript by reminding viewers of an exiting fight card to be broadcast on HBO. 

But after Wednesday's show, Gumbel was oddly silent, thanking the "fine folks" behind the scenes who make "Real Sports," then the screen faded to black. 

That's because the renowned cable network -- founded by James Dolan's dad -- is pulling the plug on its longtime, historic relationship with the sweet science. After this weekend's televised fight card, there will be no boxing as we knew it on HBO. 

Ten years ago, boxing was plunging from relevance, relegated to the back alleys of the sports page, nestled somewhere between horse racing and high school wrestling. There has since been an uptick in high-end fight cards, just not enough transcendent stars for HBO to commit to regular broadcasts. It costs upward of $3 million to televise a fight, while some of HBO's documentaries -- like the five-part series on Serena Williams -- draw more viewers at a fraction of the price. Plus, the mushrooming realm of dramatic series, like "Game of Thrones," has its boxing programs with a bloody ratings nose.   

Fittingly, HBO's maiden boxing broadcast was an epic. In 1973, the network debuted with heavyweight champion Joe Frazier defending his title against George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica. Despite entering the ring as a heavy favorite, Frazier was battered by the hulking Foreman -- who literally lifted Frazier off the canvas with one punch -- during a stunning knockout in two savage rounds.  

Among the classics over the subsequent 45 years were the first fight between Thomas "Hitman" Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard in 1981. After 13 rounds, iconic trainer Angelo Dundee famously told Leonard he was blowing the bout, fueling Leonard to come out desperate, landing just enough punches to KO a gassed Hearns, the Motor City Cobra from the famed Kronk Gym, who was trained by the great Emmanuel Steward. 

Lest we forget a Brooklyn kid who survived a brutal Brownsville childhood and headlined 16 HBO broadcasts. Perhaps no fighter is more synonymous with HBO boxing than Mike Tyson, who rose to heavyweight eminence on the cable network. In 1986, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion ever, pounding Trevor Berbick into submission in the second round. HBO televised Tyson at his savage best in 1988 when he destroyed Michael Spinks and at his reckless nadir when he lost to Buster Douglas in Tokyo in 1990, the biggest upset in boxing history. 

That same year, HBO brought us a classic bout between 1984 gold medalist Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez. The bout was known in equal parts for Taylor's skill and Chavez's will. Though Taylor clearly beat Chavez for 35 minutes, referee Richard Steele stunningly stopped the fight with two seconds left in the final round, handing the victory to the Mexican warrior.

Boxing is celebrated for character and characters. Recall the 1997 HBO bout between "Prince" Naseem Hamed -- who was known for his spastic, choreographed, strobe-lit ring entrances -- and Kevin Kelley at Madison Square Garden. HBO also televised the classic 2002 slugfest between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward at Mohegan Sun casino, part of the best boxing trilogy this side of Ali-Frazier. 

Overall, HBO has been the TV mainstay of boxing, a virtual red carpet for iconic fighters, covering a wide swath of weights, styles and personal stories, from hardscrabble champs such Frazier and Marvin Hagler to more polished and aesthetically pretty fighters like Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. 

Perhaps HBO's most profitable fighter, along with Tyson, was Floyd Mayweather Jr. Appropriately nicknamed "Money," Mayweather made his celebrity bones on HBO before the loquacious champion signed a five-fight deal with Showtime, who combined with HBO on the most lucrative bout in history, between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. 

While its boxing slate has fanned the globe, it's fitting that boxing and HBO touch gloves for the final time at Madison Square Garden Saturday night, when Daniel Jacobs fights Sergiy Derevyanchenko for the vacant IBF middleweight belt. Born and bred in the Big Apple, Jacobs is an inspiration by any metric. Not only has he risen to the top of the fight game, Jacobs also overcame a harrowing cancer surgery to remove a tumor so large it wrapped around his spine. Some doctors thought he wouldn't walk again, much less fight Gennady Golovkin. 

HBO has not demurred on single-event, pay-per-view broadcasts. Nor is boxing dead by any measure. Showtime -- which presented 22 live boxing events in 2018 -- still carries a robust schedule into 2019. ESPN just finished a seven-year, 54-fight deal. And the "Premier Boxing Champions" series has helped restore the sport to network television, its latest entry a four-year extension with Fox Sports. 

But with ever-mutating technology, boxing, boxers and broadcasters are finding new ways to make money. If you need an example of boxing's viability among the key demo, consider Saul "Canelo" Alvarez. Perhaps the planet's most famous active boxer, Canelo just signed a $365 million deal with John Skipper's sports streaming network, DAZN, which can be purchased by viewers on their smart phones for $9.99 per month.  

This final bout at MSG will be fought at the Hulu Theater, which used to be called the WaMu Theater. All of which used to be the Felt Forum, the true home of prizefighting. MSG, like the people in it and the city surrounding it, is not the same. Back in 1979, my dad took me to my first pro fight, between Roberto Duran and Carlos Palomino. Duran needs no preamble. Nor did the Garden back then, when cigar-chomping reporters pounded typewriters and a halo of smoke crowned the ring. Maybe my 10-year-old lungs didn't love the smoke, but my 10-year-old eyes loved the sport. 

Boxing may not be the same anymore, but it's hardly dead. It's just losing a great friend, HBO, which helped make the sweet science the singular sport of Saturday night.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel​.