The next day Abraham called Arum, Hagler's promoter. "We had breakfast at the Dorset Hotel," Abraham says. "We stayed in the dining room four hours. The reason I remember is, the maitre d', Vito. asked if we wanted lunch. We didn't."
Arum recalls, "They were paying more than the networks, but barely." King remembers that HBO was paying quite a bit less. That same year. 1979, he was trying to peddle a Holmes fight with Mike Weaver, a guy with an 18-8 record. King's price was $1 million, ABC's was $750,000. "I gave HBO that fight," says King. "Seth came in hollering they didn't have no money, they had to scuffle along, and he could maybe get me $125,000. I started laughing. But I was dogged determined not to give the fight to ABC. which could afford my price. And I kind of liked the way that Seth talked." King took the paltry $125,000. This seems patently unbelievable, but both King and Abraham insist that the story is true.
The fight, which Holmes won by a TKO in the 12th round, turned out to be a thriller. In The New York Times, Red Smith wrote a glowing account of the bout the networks had passed over, and suddenly HBO had working arrangements with the two most important suppliers in boxing.
All this encouraged HBO to think increasingly in terms of original programming and, specifically, sports programming. The cable companies all seemed to show the same movies, so how could you tell them apart? HBO's sports programming as it existed then was a hodgepodge of 150 different events—volleyball. Wild West Roundup, man versus shark. "It filled up airtime," Abraham says.
Back then boxing might not have seemed an upgrade from man versus shark, but now there are plenty of people who can explain the logic of broadcasting fights. Jay Larkin, the director of original programs at Showtime, has followed Abraham's lead into boxing, though with a smaller budget. Showtime does only four to eight fights a year, while HBO does an average of 12. Larkin thinks boxing is a natural. "A fight brings out celebrities and generates press attention," he says. Larkin believes HBO made boxing acceptable for prime-time viewing, although he feels that HBO overproduces its fights ("Oh, look, this must be a 12-camera shot!"). "You've got to give HBO a lot of credit for recognizing the compatibility of cable and the sport," he says. "They put the tuxedo on boxing."
They also recognized the numbers. HBO soon discovered that while its movies were averaging a 19 share—the percentage of viewers watching a show—in HBO homes, Hagler was averaging a 26 share. Hagler has come and gone, but HBO still averages a 27 share for its fights.
Abraham believes HBO has done more than stumble upon a viewing phenomenon. He believes the company has fine-tuned a particular kind of programming, made an art of it. "We don't just do boxing, we do boxing that tells a story," he says. He has been trying to make a story out of Chavez, nursing him along from division to division until, someday, he fights as a welterweight. Abraham is also waiting to make a story out of IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn. HBO is presenting Nunn as "the princeling in waiting."
"We bought a whole bunch of fights to tell the story, to take us right to Leonard-Nunn if that would develop." Abraham says.
Occasionally the drama drifts into burlesque, as it did in a recent program involving Chavez. Just keeping his hand in, Chavez was an 18-1 favorite over Sammy Fuentes. HBO and Caesars Palace hoped to dress up the card by adding Julian Jackson in a defense of his WBA junior middleweight title against Troy Wortham. But Jackson dropped out with an eye injury eight days before the fight, and the promoters were left with a rather lackluster event. Chavez won by a TKO in the 10th round.
Duva says Abraham is a tough sell because fighters have to meet, after everything else, a test of theatricality. "Do they think he's special? Can his fights become events? Are there a number of quality opponents to be featured, and is there a superfight that can be pointed to?" Duva asks. "In the case of Nunn, there was Leonard. That was Nunn's edge over Taylor."