Why is Manny Pacquiao still fighting at age 40? What does he have left to prove? Hear the answer from Manny’s camp in Defiant: The Manny Pacquiao Obsession, only on SI TV.
It’s 2019, which means another year of a time–honored boxing tradition: The blame game. Over the next few months, fights will crumble and fingers will be pointed. Network relationships will be cursed, promoters will be decried and social media timelines will be filled with more fans firing off criticisms of Al Haymon than there are fighters that thank him.
And you know who will come out the cleanest in all of it? The fighters.
It’s strange, isn’t it, how when a fight fails to materialize a fighter is often deep on the list of those shouldering the blame. Oh sure, Anthony Joshua is taking some heat for his seeming indifference to a showdown with Deontay Wilder. But isn’t Eddie Hearn taking more? And when talk turns to why Errol Spence and Terence Crawford are not barreling towards a welterweight clash, the nasty history between Haymon and Bob Arum gets top billing.
Why is that? Boxing is the rare sport where athletes control their own destiny. LeBron James can’t pass on playing the Warriors when he sees Golden State on the schedule. Tom Brady can’t skip out on Kansas City because he doesn’t know if he can keep up with Patrick Mahomes. Fighters are their own bosses, yet too often they are allowed to be viewed as employees of the promoter.
I thought of this in November, in a green room on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, where a collection of PBC fighters were on hand to roll out the first quarter of Fox’s schedule. In one corner was Shawn Porter, a welterweight titleholder. A few feet away was Spence, who holds his own piece of the 147-pound crown. In September, Spence stepped into the ring after Porter’s win over Danny Garcia and challenged him to a unification fight. Porter looked at Spence—who, like Porter, is advised by Haymon—and declared the fight to be the easiest to make in boxing.
In March, Porter will defend his title against Yordenis Ugas, a skilled but unheralded opponent. A week later Spence will face Mikey Garcia, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world but one that is jumping up two weight classes.
So what happened? Spence cited Garcia’s persistent efforts to make a fight with him; Porter said the mandatory challenger he had to face in Ugas got in the way. But, really—neither were real obstacles. The real answer is Haymon decided making Porter-Spence now wasn’t the right play. And Porter and Spence went along with it.
The question is: Why? Why do fighters routinely allow promoters and managers to dictate their futures?
“You can make big fights happen, but when somebody’s been doing the business side for you since your pro debut and they guide your career and they tell you, ‘We’re not going to do that fight right now’ or ‘You’re not going to be the one doing that fight right now—we’re going to take this fight and then we’re going to do that fight later,’ you tend to listen to them because they’ve been working the business side and they’ve been basically guiding your career and got you to the point you are now,” Spence told SI.com. “A lot of times you don’t want to go against the grain on them because then if you mess up, they’re like, ‘I told you so.’ You didn’t listen, and then you feel bad. I think that’s what a lot of fighters do. They listen to the person that’s been guiding their career.”
Added Porter, “I think boxers are starting to develop more independence than we’ve had in the past. In the past it was all about what the manager and the promoter wanted. A lot of times the boxers are like robots. I think now because we have a voice, because we have social media, things like that, there’s more opportunity for us to make fights, and I think the big prize will come.”
So who works for who, exactly? If a fighter went to his promoter or manager and said he wanted a specific fight, how much power does he wield in that situation?
“Fighters have a lot of power in this market, a great deal of power,” said Lou DiBella, a longtime boxing promoter. “A lot of times they don’t want to fight the toughest fight. Easy fights sound nice to them. Sometimes they are not adequately represented. There are a million reasons. If you think fighters instinctively want to take the most difficult fights, that’s not all fighters. There’s a lot of risk/reward assessing going on out there.”
Promotional contracts can cause problems, which raises another question: Why do established fighters even have them? Why not maintain maximum flexibility to float between promoters and networks for the biggest fights?
Miguel Cotto did. In 2012, Cotto’s contract expired with Top Rank, his longtime promoter. At 32, Cotto left Top Rank and aligned himself with Golden Boy, which positioned him to face Floyd Mayweather—and earn his first eight-figure payday. In 2013, Cotto returned to Top Rank, which guided him into a middleweight title fight against Sergio Martinez. In 2015, Roc Nation, eager to make a splash in boxing, signed Cotto to a three-fight, $50 million deal. Two years later Cotto moved back to Golden Boy, which agreed to not only promote Cotto but provide valuable television exposure for the young Puerto Rican fighters under the Miguel Cotto Promotions banner.
There’s a level of star power needed to maneuver like Cotto. But Spence has been courted by every major promoter. Porter, Garcia and Keith Thurman would be, too. Why are fighters so unwilling to try?
“Maybe the answer to that, the short answer to that, could be loyalty,” Porter said. “I know right now, all of us guys here with PBC, we’re happy. We’re fulfilling everything that we want to fulfill. We’re doing everything that we want to do. We’re all getting very good paychecks, so there’s really no need for us to bounce away, you know? And we also know that most fighters are trying to come our way. So, I think most of us understand that we’re in a good position.”
Perhaps. There are several top tier welterweights in PBC, if Haymon will ever match them up. But no welterweight can stake his claim to the top spot at 147-pounds until he faces Crawford, a Top Rank promoted fighter who fights exclusively on ESPN. For a fight like that to happen, fighters on both sides would have to exert significant influence.
“Put it this way,” Thurman said. “I would not let Al Haymon stop me if it was in my best interest to fight Terence Crawford. I would not hold back, and we would have to have a big sit-down with Fox and ESPN and let them figure out how does this fight happen, what network does it go on, this and that. You know what I mean? But currently, right now, Terence Crawford is not necessarily in Keith Thurman’s best interest. It’s not a must-have fight. It’s definitely a well-wanted, well-deserved fight for both of us, but honestly, he made his name in the lower weight classes. He hasn’t done one thing to impress me at 147. Beating Jeff Horn is not impressive. I think Amir Kahn beats Jeff Horn and maybe even in a better fashion.”
The division of boxing, with deep-pocketed networks like ESPN, DAZN, Showtime and Fox in the mix, could be more maddening than ever. But before you blame Haymon and Arum, ESPN and DAZN, remember—fighters decide who they fight. If a major fight doesn’t happen, don’t get bogged down in the minutia—everything starts at the top.