“I found that I could not eat enough to vomit enough.” – Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian
Adrien Broner was to return to the ring on May 19th at the Mandalay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. Broner’s contests thus far have served as public grooming exhibitions for the undefeated lightweight from Cincinnati; nary has a nick been suffered outside of a close shave courtesy of Daniel Ponce De Leon.
The U.K’s Gary “Five Star” Sykes, 20 – 2 (5KO), had the honour of playing the role of opponent in this less than stellar production. Sykes, like all who submit themselves to the virulence of schooled fists, is deserving of respect. Nevertheless, the question remains: how was a fighter one fight removed from a loss, whose last bout was a scheduled six round affair, fighting for Broner’s WBO accessory on HBO?
A powerful promoter, influential manager, and indiscriminate network might each venture an unsatisfactory answer were the question posed to them (and deliver it straight-faced while munching on the last cucumber sandwich). Like Schopenhauer’s consolation for failed relationships—which was predicated on the lack of procreative compatibility between partners—the businessmen are likely to provide an explanation for gross mismatches that ignores how people feel about the issue. There would certainly be an element of truth in a defence of Broner – Sykes that is rooted in business reasoning, in particular an absurdly favourable risk-vs-reward ratio; but this explanation speaks only to the interests of Broner’s manager and promoter, Al Haymon and Golden Boy Promotions respectively. It is hard to see how HBO benefits from airing such a dreadful product. Broner – Sykes is the boxing equivalent of the Flobee: a ridiculous idea advertised with the phony enthusiasm of an infomercial.
Though the aforementioned troika are guilty of dragging competition through the mud, there is another motivation at play. La Rouchefoucauld captured this motivation when he wrote, “The world more often rewards outward signs of merit than merit itself.” HBO’s preoccupation with “outward signs of merit” is evident in the making of Broner – Sykes.
This is not to say that Broner is completely devoid of merit: he has flashed an impressive array of offensive and defensive skills, albeit against generally suspect competition. But his resemblance to the meritorious Floyd Mayweather Jr., could hinder the chances of seeing Broner in competitive fights.
Mayweather, whose aura depends heavily on his undefeated record, is nearing the end of his career (a career soon to be interrupted by a prison sentence). Since he is one of the sports’ few legitimate attractions, there is pressure on HBO to find his replacement. Broner, who is likened to Mayweather with contrived regularity, looks like a winning candidate.
It isn’t simply that Broner is undefeated and resembles Mayweather stylistically: Broner, like Mayweather, is African American. This is the crucial similarity, as HBO looks to garner and preserve an African American fan base during the twilight of Mayweather’s career. To add substance to the assertion that HBO is indeed focusing on this particular market there is this from Thomas Hauser’s “HBO and the State of Boxing Part 1:” “Sources say that, on September 16, 2010, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg made a presentation to the CEO and outlined a plan to raise ratings among African-American viewers.” While Greenberg has been replaced by Ken Hershman, the implication contained in this quotation is that HBO is concerned with their African American viewership. With that meeting occurring barely 1.5 years ago, it is likely that this concern is still relevant, and influencing HBO’s boxing programing.
The futility of operating according to such a foolish understanding of fan allegiance is evident in the returns on HBO investments like Paul Williams, Andre Berto, and Chad Dawson. All three men have been heralded as the sport’s future, with that same rhetoric reverberating off the walls of the empty arenas that play host to their fights. Although focusing on this superficial association misses the point, it is partially responsible for Broner’s “outward signs of merit” being rewarded.
Mayweather, while guilty of avoiding many of his high profile opponents at their apex, did not achieve his success simply because he’s African American. Sykes is Broner’s 24th professional opponent. In his 24th bout as a professional Mayweather scored a stoppage of Emanuel Augustus, and dismantled the late Diego Corrales in his next fight. He had already defeated Jesus Chavez, Genaro Hernandez, Angel Manfredy, and Justin Juuko. Mayweather has taken risks in his career, and he has risen to each challenge; his perfect record spellbinds so many in part because it has recognizable names on it. Mayweather has genuine merit. While many of his recent fights can justifiably be decried as mismatches, he manoeuvred himself into the position of fighting in foregone conclusions by beating quality opponents and understanding self-promotion. These are qualities that are not promised by a particular ethnicity, and they are unlikely to develop in a fighter spoon-fed an interminable stream of no-hopers before a disgruntled viewership.
The purpose for Broner – Sykes was not to develop Broner, or to expose him to new challenges in order to fortify his game—the purpose was to capture the attention of a specific audience by means of a familiar aesthetic. To this extent, the opponent is irrelevant. Regardless of public dissatisfaction, Broner will continue to be rewarded with televised mismatches and disproportionate paydays if for no other reason than it is erroneously assumed that looking the part is sufficient for playing it. To maintain the resemblance Broner must continue to win, which means more than just his opponents will lose.