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Original Issue

The networks fight it out

In the duke-out over ratings, boxing has proved that it packs a big punch

Ferdie Pacheco, the NBC boxing consultant and commentator, has been out of sorts lately. What's bugging him? "You need to have the cunning of a Venetian doge to make a fight," he says.

Ah, the wonders of boxing. Ah, the intrigue of a subworld in which promoters lie to you yesterday only to tell you the truth today, in which fighters drop out of scheduled TV bouts pleading manufactured ailments, in which promoters like Don King and Bob Arum try to take advantage of 54-year-old innocents like Pacheco. "If you go into this business like a lamb to the slaughter, believe me, you're going to be slaughtered," says Ferdie. "You've got to say, 'Hold it! I know you're a wolf, but I am also.' The fighters and promoters divide themselves into feudal states. This guy won't come out of his fortress to fight this guy, and this guy won't fight that guy. All of a sudden you have to be Machiavelli to make a fight."

In less time than it took Tony Ayala to knock out Robbie Epps (92 seconds. NBC, Aug. 1), Pacheco has made his point: Viewers are getting less competitive fights than they're entitled to because television is beholden to the promoters. TV develops a market for certain fighters and then watches the promoters swoop in, sign them to long-term contracts and pit them against tomato cans. The result? Mismatch City.

Earlier this year that dismal metropolis was otherwise known as ABC. In one of the network's fights, Caveman (or should it be Cavein?) Lee started seeing stalactites at 1:06 of the first round of a bout with Marvelous Marvin Hagler. ABC only wanted fights involving marquee names like Hagler, and whatever King dished up, the network gulped and swallowed. Thus, for years ABC had reluctantly accepted quid pro quos from King. For example, to get Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali, the network had to agree to carry such travesties as Holmes-Lorenzo Zanon and Holmes-Alfredo Evangelista. But beginning with a super bantamweight fight between Jackie Beard and Jose Caba last May, ABC has cleaned up its act, airing one good match after another. Bob Iger, the network's director of program planning for sports, should take a bow.

HBO, the pay-television arm of Time Inc., has also had more than its share of mismatches. Of the six bouts it has shown this year, only three could honestly have been called competitive when they were made. HBO would broadcast your Aunt Ethel if she agreed to fight Hagler. In fact, it has agreed to show Hagler's fight with Fully Obelmejias on Oct. 30, which may be worse. On the credit side is HBO's junior welterweight title fight between Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor scheduled for Nov. 12.

NBC also has had some dogs this year, largely because of an oral agreement the network has with Lou Duva and Shelly Finkel, who manage several promising boxers, including Ayala, Alex Ramos and Johnny Bumphus. As recently as a year ago, Pacheco was arranging surprisingly competitive fights featuring these fighters as well as other talented upcomers. However, once these youngsters showed what they could do, NBC had difficulty finding worthy opponents for them, but the network put them on anyway. "Now it's all over; the dance is through," says Pacheco.

The network that has best avoided mismatches is CBS, which embraced the lightweight division last year and held on for dear life. In the process CBS has made Boom Boom Mancini and Arguello TV household names. Mort Sharnik, CBS's in-house boxing adviser, has the same fear as Pacheco: The networks, blind to almost everything but the ratings, may be tempted to show their favorites against anyone instead of broadcasting competitive bouts between lesser-known boxers.

"The promoters watch the Richter scale," says Sharnik. "They watch what ratings a guy gets. Then they go around in your wake and tie the fighter up. So if you want a particular match, you've got to go to them. You don't want to get into their box. You don't want to be their captive. If you only have one supplier, the price is set by him."

But even Sharnik sometimes puts ratings ahead of artistry. He approved the July 31 Arguello fight with Kevin Rooney, who had about as much chance of winning as Czechoslovakia did in World War II. For Nov. 13 Sharnik has agreed to a dubious Mancini title bout against one Deuk-Koo Kim of Korea, the WBA's No. 1-rated contender. Kim, who has never set foot on Western soil, is an unknown commodity. Just because he is anointed by the WBA doesn't make him suitable for an appearance on national television.

Not surprisingly, this unsettling state of affairs occurs at the very time boxing is scoring a TKO over its TV competition. The networks covet fights, says Pacheco, "for the same reason that millions of people traveled to the Klondike and California and the Spaniards crossed oceans and deserts—gold, my friend, it's the gold rush." This year, CBS, ABC and NBC each will air about 30 fights. Even when a near cadaver is fighting an out-of-shape pants presser, boxing will prevail in the Saturday afternoon ratings. No wonder Gerry Cooney is hawking electric shavers with his mom and Ayala's pop appears on a national beer commercial.

Item: On June 5 a fight between Renaldo Snipes and Tim Wither-spoon on ABC beat the Belmont Stakes on CBS 9.9 to 8.8 in the ratings (the percentage of TV households tuned in).

Item: Two weeks later a brawl between Clint Jackson and Frank (The Animal) Fletcher on NBC beat golf's U.S. Open on ABC 6.8 to 5.7.

Item: Even NBC's atrocious Ayala-Epps fight on Aug. 1 was victorious. Final score: Ayala-Epps 5.9, ABC's National Sports Festival and CBS's Talladega 500 both 5.0.

"In the last six months, boxing has been used as the greatest counterprogramming tool in sports history," says Mike Cohen, former director of sports information at NBC and now a boxing promoter. "Golf, tennis—it kills those events. Basketball and horse racing, same thing. The only sport boxing probably can't beat is professional football."

There used to be an unwritten rule, mentioned sotto voce around the networks, that on TV a black couldn't fight a black and a Hispanic couldn't fight a Hispanic. The apparent demise of that rule testifies to boxing's current acceptability in the hinterlands. So does an interesting trend in the networks' "overnight" ratings, which measure viewership in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. A few years ago, boxing averaged some two points higher in large cities than it did elsewhere. Now the ratings are roughly the same for all sections of the country.

One unwritten commandment in television that survives is "Thou shalt not put on a fighter who has lost more than two bouts—or, pushing it, three." This chew-'em-up, spit-'em-out approach leads some observers to predict that TV will exhaust the supply of boxers just as it did in the 1950s. That's nonsense, at least as long as today's two cable networks, ESPN and USA, continue to act as the sport's farm system.

ESPN is to boxing today what the old fight clubs were to it 25 years ago. ESPN's Thursday night boxing series, promoted by Arum, has helped develop for the major networks such fighters as Bobby Czyz, Donald Curry and Dwight Braxton. Some of ESPN's worthies are as incompetent in the ring as Too Tall Jones, but at least viewers are warned of the fighters' inexperience by the announcers. The real problem comes with ESPN's "big name" Saturday night bouts, which began Sept. 4. Also staged in conjunction with Arum, they can charitably be likened to a meat market sweepstakes. One month does not a season make, but ESPN's need for a boxing adviser has quickly become apparent. This Saturday night it plans to carry Czyz against Chris Linson, who shouldn't be in the same ring with Czyz.

Two weeks ago, ESPN featured Gerrie Coetzee against an alleged opponent, Stan Ward. "If I lose to Stan Ward, I no longer belong in the ring," said Coetzee, whereupon he dispatched Ward at 2:10 of the second round. The fight reportedly cost ESPN $150,000.

So where does this leave us? Because the FCC doesn't allow the networks to promote fights directly, television isn't likely to get out from under King, Arum, et al., anytime soon. Having Sharnik, Pacheco and Iger serve as quasi-matchmakers—saying no to this fight from King, no to this bout from Arum, and yes to this match from a new promoter such as Phil Alessi—is the best TV can do at the moment.

But the networks could stop lending credibility to the WBA's and WBC's rankings of boxers, which are outlandishly political. How about using the ranking system of an independent organization with no sub-rosa ties to promoters, such as the International Boxing Writers Association? Also, no network should cede power to a promoter by signing long-term contracts with fighters or agreeing to quid pro quos. There should be no rematch options. Let "one contract, one fight" be TV's manifesto. Finally, there's a need for more journalism from the networks. Tell us how many heavyweights King has hidden beneath his wings and why Greg Page most likely will never fight Michael Dukes. (King controls both Page and Dukes, and he doesn't permit his boxers to fight one another.)

As Pacheco says, boxing has turned into a gold rush. With a few broadcast rules, we'll all be richer in spirit and much better served.


Albert (right) plays the foil for the witty Pacheco.


ABC gets the nod for best camerawork. Its mixture of tight and wide shots allows viewers to see which fighter is cutting off the ring. The lack of commercials on HBO should give us time to hear the corner men between rounds. Indeed HBO mikes the corners, but chatterbox Barry Tompkins keeps drowning out the handlers. More on ring talkers:

ABC—Using one announcer works only with Howard Cosell, who's more tolerable here than on football. He has a knack for detecting subtle shifts in momentum. Keith Jackson runs out of insight at the weigh-in.

CBS—Manager-turned-matchmaker-turned-analyst Gil Clancy tells us exactly what we want to know: the strategy Balboa should use to defeat Palooka. Clancy's street-tough accent also is fitting. Tim Ryan rates an A as straight man. Glamour boy Sugar Ray Leonard adds nothing but his name.

NBC—Together with Clancy, Ferdie Pacheco is the cr√®me de la cr√®me. He's humorous, incisive, opinionated. Subject to a possible conflict of interest because he announces the fights he buys, Pacheco has proved himself to be evenhanded. Marv Albert? The perfect foil for Pacheco.

ESPN—Resident barker at its fights is Sal Marchiano, a screamer who also works for ABC. Analysts Randy Gordon and Al Bernstein are, respectively, knowledgeable and cliché-prone. Their round-by-round scoring of lopsided bouts puts you to sleep faster than Love Boat.

HBO—Will someone please tell Sugar Ray to stop parroting the points his partners make? Why not replace him with tough, perceptive Larry Merchant, the third member of the HBO team, during rounds?

USA—The talkers are furnished by Madison Square Garden and L.A.'s Olympic Auditorium, which provide the Friday night cards. It's usually amateur night at the mike, but the Garden's monotonous John Condon at least has been around the ring.