He pulls the strings for scores of boxers, from Floyd Mayweather Jr. on down, yet Al Haymon remains the fight game's biggest mystery—even as his move to transform the way boxing is televised could save the troubled sport
This is an article from the Dec. 22, 2014 issue
There is a man in boxing who is everything.
He advises the world's highest-paid athlete in Floyd Mayweather Jr. He handles the majority of fighters on Showtime's telecasts. His stable generates hundreds of millions in annual revenue. He seems to sign a boxer (or five) every week.
There is a man in boxing who is nowhere. His company does not have a website. He rarely uses a computer and has virtually no social media presence. He does not conduct interviews. He negotiates via flip phone. He has a handful of employees and just two offices, though he often works from his mother's couch. At news conferences he hides backstage—the man, literally, behind the curtain.
As Mayweather prepared for his latest triumph, a rematch against Marcos Maidana this past September in Las Vegas, cameras tracked the fighter's every movement. None caught a glimpse of the puppeteer who made Mayweather into an ATM. This man controlled the entire televised undercard, a block of premium tickets at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and Mayweather's contract for the fight, which stipulated that the boxer receive a percentage of everything from pay-per-view revenue to international broadcast rights to the hot dogs peddled at concession stands. Never one for understatement, Mayweather described the man as a "very shrewd businessman, one of the very best, if not the very best in the world." Indeed: Even before climbing into the ring, Mayweather pocketed a $32 million check.
At the undercard press conference, held two days before the bout, four of the eight boxers on the stage thanked God. Four thanked the man. One thanked both, in Spanish, the man first. The man was there, supposedly.
An Al Haymon could exist only in a sport like boxing, an alternate universe with no barriers to entry, no national governing body, inconsistent regulations and a hustler's spirit. And yet Haymon, who is in his late 50s, is the antihuckster, the handler who deflects credit others take, hides from the microphones others hog and disdains attention where others seek it. Everywhere and nowhere, he runs perhaps the most formidable mom-and-pop operation in sports.
After Manny Pacquiao battered Chris Algieri last month to again intensify the call for the Filipino star to finally square off with Mayweather, everyone but Haymon talked about probabilities that only Haymon knows. He, meanwhile, continued to work quietly on a potential groundbreaking deal with NBC, dangling Mayweather-Pacquiao as the ultimate carrot in a larger package.
"He's Don King for the new millennium," says Thomas Hauser, an author and boxing historian. "He's making a play to take over boxing."
IN THE past eight months Haymon has signed boxers at a faster rate than anyone in the sport can remember. He has signed current champions, former champions and retired champions. He has signed prospects and Olympians and relative unknowns. By some accounts, he now represents more than 100 fighters—including dozens of stars.
Yet even those who do business regularly with Haymon—who grants interviews about as often as the undefeated Mayweather loses—aren't sure exactly what he's planning with NBC. Here's what they do know:
• Haymon has offered to pay NBC $20 million for airtime on 24 upcoming dates, mostly on NBC Sports Network, according to promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events and six other boxing insiders with direct knowledge of the deal (who declined to be quoted because going on the record could affect their future business).
• Haymon is backed by CVC Capital Partners and Waddell & Reed—two investment firms and primary equity owners in the Formula One Group, which controls the rights and licensing of the world's richest auto racing series. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
• NBC also declined comment but is expected to make an announcement regarding the deal in the first part of 2015.
• The contract bundles the 24 shows with other programming, including reality broadcasts of boxers as they train for fights, similar to HBO's 24/7 and Showtime's All Access.
So a man whom most casual sports fans have never heard of is making a move to control a sport most casual sports fans long ago dismissed. That's boxing, in one sentence. But to what end? "I think Al believes the business is at a point where it can be revolutionized," says one person in boxing who has had dealings with Haymon.
Haymon has promised NBC fighter exclusives, ostensibly to lead boxing stars back onto network television, where in theory they can build a larger audience. Starting in the late 1970s, promoters took the best boxers off free TV in the first place, mostly because of greed—higher purses from HBO and hundreds of millions in PPV revenue—but also because of broadcast complications. That inevitably shrank the audience and made boxing a niche sport.
But how to handle advertising remains a hurdle to putting a bout of any magnitude back on network TV. A blockbuster between Mayweather and Pacquiao might generate record numbers of viewers, but the money is only in commercials. What if the fight lasts only one round? Or is canceled or postponed in the lead-up?
Then there's perception. "Sponsors will pay less for the eyeballs we deliver because the sport is considered to be tainted," Duva says. "On top of that, the early endings. On top of that, the judging, a sentiment that's unfair."
Duva, the CEO of Main Events, long one of boxing's major promotional companies, has tried since the early '90s to maintain a network TV presence. Whereas the best fights were on HBO and Showtime and their PPV affiliates and the lesser fights were on basic cable, she wanted to create a middle class. She tried that most recently in 2012 with NBC, which has declined to renew her company's contract. Her critique of Haymon's plan can be viewed through the business that she lost. Still, she says, "I sit back and watch this guy and wonder if he's going to blow it. Because if he's successful on network TV, we can all be successful there. If he's not, we all won't be."
Even those who extol Haymon's business acumen struggle to make sense of the scale or the economics of his plan. Elite boxers fight at least twice a year, younger prospects more often. To keep even 100 fighters in regular work, promoters say, Haymon would need to stage at least 60 shows. But the vast majority of the profit in boxing is tied to pay-per-view and HBO and Showtime dates. Only so many of those shows exist, and Haymon and HBO are at odds, and Showtime could balk at exclusives offered to NBC.
Haymon continues to sign away, stockpiling fighters like soup cans for some sort of boxing/Y2K apocalypse. His standard contract doesn't stipulate any specific number of bouts, only a clause for Haymon to provide "best effort."
Speculation centers on Haymon's stated desire to start an online subscription service with his stable, bypassing both network television and the premium channels and PPV. Bob Arum of Top Rank Boxing sees that play as a move in the wrong direction. Indeed, WWE recently introduced a subscription model—and watched its stock drop nearly 50%. "Look," Arum says, "the smartest operators in sports are the NFL, as far as marketing their product. And that's all free television. People want free. Pay-per-view has seen its best days."
BEFORE HAYMON'S story turned into legend, boxing's version of Bigfoot, he grew up in Cleveland and studied economics at Harvard, where he also obtained an M.B.A. He seemed to know early that he wanted to promote, manage and produce, and he financed his first show, featuring jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, with student loans.
Haymon befriended the O'Jays after college, and that led to more inroads, and those inroads led to more inroads, until Haymon's roster of R&B live concert acts had ballooned like his boxing one would years later. Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, New Edition, Mary J. Blige, M.C. Hammer and Gladys Knight all worked with Haymon. Along with various business partners, and working out of Cleveland, Boston, L.A. and Las Vegas, he staged thousands of live concerts that featured dozens of such star acts. He helped create the Budweiser Superfest, a live concert series that ran from 1979 to '99; it resumed in 2010, although by then, Haymon was focused almost exclusively on boxing.
He ultimately started 14 related businesses, and each dealt with a different aspect of live concert promotion. That meant he could control every aspect of his events, from lighting to stage production to advertising. Local promoters and vendors did much of the setup work for the shows; Haymon and his partners handled the hard business. They developed an infrastructure, an exact blueprint, then simply plugged in various artists, even comedians like Eddie Murphy, whose Raw tour in 1987 became one of the highest-grossing comedy series ever.
Haymon also dabbled in television before he made his foray into boxing, around 2000. The genesis of that move has never been fully explained. The late welterweight and junior middleweight champion Vernon Forrest was his first client. Haymon told television executives, including Xavier James at HBO, that he was a fan of boxing, that his brother Bobby once took on Sugar Ray Leonard, only to be knocked out after the bell sounded for the third round. The Washington Post, in its recap of that 1978 fight, termed the final blow "an illegal punch but probably a merciful one for Haymon."
But sometimes Al Haymon let slip a larger, more grandiose plan. "If I wanted to, I could run boxing," he told James, more than 10 years ago.
That statement took on additional weight in recent months. "He recognized then that television was the key," James says. "He was very aggressive with the networks, and he approached us with a lot of guile. I often thought of Al like Charlie from Charlie's Angels. Just that voice in the darkness."
Haymon's place in boxing's power structure evolved from there. In 2006 he helped Mayweather buy himself out of his contract with Top Rank for $750,000. So many of his fighters appeared on HBO that critics labeled it the "Haymon Boxing Organization," at least until he took Mayweather and the rest to Showtime in February 2013. Though HBO stopped working with him, Haymon benefited from Mayweather's clout, as the fighter grew into this generation's biggest PPV draw.
Earlier this year Haymon opened Haymon Sports, which, according to one fighter contract obtained by SI, is "a Delaware limited liability company with its principal place of business in Nevada." While the details of his enterprise remain shrouded in mystery, what's clear is that Haymon is building his new company on the same foundation as his concert promotion empire: controlling as many aspects as possible of every event.
AS HAYMON stockpiled fighters, lawsuits followed. With each new filing, boxing insiders hoped Haymon would be deposed, or cross-examined, his business practices vetted in daylight. That hasn't happened yet.
The most serious allegations ever made public against Haymon came from Main Events. Last April in federal district court in the Southern District of New York, the company filed a lawsuit against Haymon and several other parties, including Golden Boy Promotions and Showtime. It charged Haymon with tortious interference and alleged violation of the Muhammad Ali Act, a federal law designed to distinguish between managers (who are beholden to individual fighters) and promoters (who are beholden to putting on the best cards). The suit also suggested that Haymon had made a power play to wrestle control of Golden Boy Promotions from Oscar De La Hoya. The defendants filed a motion for dismissal, but Main Events dropped the suit when its light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev signed to fight Bernard Hopkins rather than WBC champion Adonis Stevenson, the fighter Haymon was accused of steering away from Kovalev. "We ended up with a better fight," says Pat English, the lawyer for Main Events. "There was nothing left to sue over."
Meanwhile, Mikey Garcia, a former super featherweight champion, is suing Arum and Top Rank to be released from his contract. Arum is certain Haymon is behind that move, and he says he plans to countersue on the same grounds laid out by Main Events and others. (Top Rank also filed suit in August against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., who signed with Haymon, although the suit does not name Haymon specifically.) "Top Rank has exclusive rights to another Chavez fight, the matter is pending in court, and anyone, including Mr. Haymon, who disregards this runs the risk of serious liability for interfering with Top Rank's rights," says Daniel Petrocelli, Top Rank's lawyer.
"He can hide in the shadows only for so long," adds Arum.
In recent months these lawsuits, and all the maneuvering behind them, produced a shift in the boxing landscape. HBO, Arum, Main Events and now, it appears, even De La Hoya, who recently returned with star Saul (Canelo) Alvarez to HBO, stand opposite Haymon. Showtime, NBC and Richard Schaefer, who once ran Golden Boy and insists he is currently "retired" and "has no idea what the grand plan is," stand—or will stand—with him.
This schism is the reason that a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight is about as likely as an Arum-Haymon yoga retreat. Not going to happen. Not with all the litigation. Not with Mayweather voicing his intentions after the Maidana rematch to shake up the team around him but not Haymon, never Haymon, because, as Mayweather said in Vegas, "Al Haymon is the truth. He might make me a billion dollars."
Even those who speculate that Haymon's move will end with unhappy fighters and angered investors and the sport worse off than before remain scared of his reach. Bernard Hopkins, De La Hoya, Michael Yormark of Roc Nation, the former HBO executive Ross Greenburg and dozens of others decline to discuss Haymon, even off the record.
Others who were once Haymon critics—the boxer Paulie Malignaggi, the lawyer Leon Margules—now work for or with him.
BOXERS, MEANWHILE, don't complain about Al Haymon. His boxers, anyway. For all the allegations, lawsuits and criticism lobbed his way, his fighters remain loyal, fiercely loyal.
Take lightweight John Molina Jr. He knocked out a Mayweather Promotions boxer, Mickey Bey, in 2013. The next day a blocked number came up on his cell phone. It was Haymon. He had an offer. It was for more money and better bouts than Molina, a boxer who describes his career path as the "scenic route," had ever imagined. Molina declines to go into specifics but calls Haymon an advocate who squeezes promoters to benefit boxers, when boxing has traditionally worked the other way. He says Haymon bought a house for Mexican super bantamweight Leo Santa Cruz's mother. Molina says, "If Al Haymon told me to fight Godzilla and King Kong in a parking lot tomorrow, I'd be there."
He's not alone. Amir Khan wanted a shot at Mayweather. He signed with Haymon. Stevenson apparently didn't want a shot at Kovalev. He signed with Haymon and told reporters, "I'm going straight to the bank."
Haymon charges boxers a lower percentage than most managers, often around 10--15%. One contract obtained by SI was between Haymon and featherweight Marcos Forestal, a Cuban defector with some 300 amateur bouts whom Haymon ultimately let go. It granted sole discretion concerning Forestal's career to Haymon and includes a termination clause should the boxer ever make comments that reflect "unfavorably" on Haymon in any news outlet. Both the email and the fax number on the contract are for Haymon's assistant, who is based in Massachusetts. In another contract obtained by SI, between Haymon and former WBO middleweight champion Peter Quillin, Haymon's take is 10% after the first $1.8 million, all of which Quillin pockets.
Fighters sign their careers over to Haymon because "Al can help you more than anybody else in boxing," says Malignaggi, who signed with Haymon. "He can maximize potential better than anyone I've ever seen. The frustrating thing is not being with him."
Malignaggi is a former light welterweight and welterweight champion near the end of his career, and he also works as a Showtime analyst. He has spoken critically of Haymon in the past. Still, he says, "Nobody looks out for the business of boxing. They're all looking out for themselves. They're not looking out for the fighters. There's nobody like George Washington Duke in Rocky V, a bad guy who shows up and you can tell. They say all the right things. With everybody else, it's a front. With Al, it's not.
"You don't hear any fighters complaining about Al," Malignaggi continues. "Guys used to thank Don King, then call him an a------, a scumbag, a bloodsucker. I haven't heard one fighter say that about Al."
In fact, they thank him and God so often it can be hard to tell the difference. Mayweather started that trend years ago, and it grew along with Haymon's roster, until viewers could not watch a fight without hearing the same two sentences. "I'd like to thank God, because without God, none of this would be possible." Followed by "I'd also like to thank Al Haymon"—for whom the very same could be, and often is, said.
STILL, IT'S not hard to make the argument that Haymon can be bad for boxing. That starts with the matchups. Fans want Mayweather-Pacquiao. They want Kovalev-Stevenson. They get noncompetitive bouts instead. They get Top Rank fighters against only Top Rank fighters, or Golden Boy boxers against only Golden Boy boxers. With the outcome of so many fights all but decided at the outset, the sport has come more and more to resemble professional wrestling. Gone are the toss-ups, the tension, much of the intrigue. Haymon's not the only offender there, but he is the worst.
For all the loyalty he inspires, Haymon isn't exactly Robin Hood. He recruited the heavyweight Lamon Brewster from Sam Simon, a cocreator of The Simpsons, after Brewster toppled Wladimir Klitschko in a 2004 upset. Brewster later submitted false medical records for a bout in Cleveland in 2006, records that were faxed from A. Haymon Development, and despite multiple eye operations and retinal tears, he continued to box. Simon described the ordeal a few years ago as being "like a bad boxing movie." But Brewster continued to defend Haymon. In a 2011 email, he declined to say whether he is blind in one eye. He signed off, "Who God bless, no man can curse."
There are other examples. Welterweight Josesito Lopez signed with Haymon and moved up to super welterweight, a bad decision that got him pummeled by Alvarez. Both Quillin and the heavyweight Deontay Wilder in recent months turned down seven-figure offers from Roc Nation Sports to fight at the Barclays Center, career paydays that went uncollected because Haymon was calling the shots.
Haymon also continues to find bouts for Jermain Taylor, who suffered a brain bleed in 2009 and recently released a series of Instagram videos in which he sang, held a semiautomatic firearm, wore a cowboy hat and said, "F--- you" and "God bless you" and "I'll never lose to another white boy." While Taylor's brain scans passed a number of medical tests in recent years, he was also charged in August with battery and terroristic threatening (both felonies), for shooting his cousin and firing a gun at another person. (He has pleaded not guilty; a trial is scheduled for next June.) Taylor boxed again in October, won and secured an IBF middleweight belt. He thanked God.
Then he thanked Al Haymon.
HAYMON'S MOVE fails to account for something that can hardly be accounted for. What boxing needs—beyond a national commission and more stringent drug testing—is another superstar, another Mayweather, another Pacquiao. There are candidates but no obvious replacements.
That's what Haymon cannot fix, what no one can. If the long-term health of a sport depends on the emergence of once-in-a-generation talents, that's at best an unstable business model, whether promoters have 15 prospects or 150.
History shows that boxing rarely changes. That's part of its charm and part of its downfall, and why someone with no background and no contacts and no boxers can gain so much control over it from his mother's couch. "That's an absolute indictment of the sport," James says. "Name me another business where someone can do that."
Haymon, who declined SI's requests for interviews, may not speak about boxing, at least not publicly, but he does speak to boxing. He's not the sport's problem so much as a symptom of its problems. The question, then, is whether he can fix them, or whether he will make them worse.
Back at the Mayweather fight, during a press conference, Floyd Mayweather Sr. scans for Haymon from the back of a theater. He can't find him. No one can. "Al Haymon is the guy who stays on the case and runs this place," Senior says. "He has the chips and the dip. That's what he do. And then, poof, he's gone."
Haymon, it turns out, was behind a curtain, 20 feet from Mayweather but out of public view. All around, boxing insiders wondered what Haymon was planning, how they might get involved, cash in, what it could mean to a sport that exited the mainstream landscape about when Mike Tyson started biting people's ears.
Most agreed that boxing needs to change. "Anyone who doesn't admit the sport is basically at a nadir is an idiot," says a person in boxing who has done business with Haymon. "When a sport is at a nadir, it creates an opportunity for a smart person to go out there, raise a lot of money and attempt to change the paradigm."
Enter Haymon, everywhere and nowhere, and his investors, and his play to consolidate the most fragmented of sports. That's the move. This year. Next year. However long it takes.