Life is not easy for promoters who can't attract Abraham's interest. Duva has excuses not only for Taylor but also for another of his fighters, Pernell Whitaker. "They have the ability at HBO to be a starmaker, but they do only a dozen fights a year, and three or four of those are Tyson," he says. "Now, if they decide to make Nunn or Chavez their next star, that eliminates Pernell. I'm not questioning their motive, but I obviously disagree with their judgment. The difference is. Nunn makes $1 million a fight and Meldrick not even $200,000. Just because he's not on HBO."
Some other cable companies believe HBO's lavish approach to boxing productions is only so much corporate preening. Face it, what mostly works these days is not HBO's storytelling presentation, but the bludgeoning power of Mike Tyson. Tyson has put the HB—heavyweight boxing—back into HBO. Tyson is the man Abraham calls HBO's most important employee. He is certainly the best paid. Having starred in HBO's $22 million title-unification series, Tyson is now the featured attraction in an eight-bout series for which HBO has been glad to pay him $26.5 million.
Can he be worth that? Well, Tyson is the one piece of continuing programming that demonstrably generates new subscribers. "Here's a snapshot," says Abraham. "On the day of the Holmes-Tyson fight, Cablevision, which serves Long Island, reports a record number of sign-ups. Snapshot: In '87, when we started with Tyson in earnest in the heavyweight series, 40 percent of the men who subscribed to HBO for the first time said they did it because of boxing." Tyson, even including his three nontitle bouts, has averaged a 35 share of HBO viewers, and in a fight with Frank Bruno he hauled in a 55 share. These bouts. Abraham points out, might last no more than 93 seconds. That minute and a half refers to Tyson's demolition of Carl Williams, which drew, incidentally, a 51 share. "Earthquake numbers," says Abraham.
Obviously Tyson's dominance does not hurt his—or HBO's—drawing power. The viewers are not put off by the noncompetitive nature of a fight between Tyson and, say, a contender like Ruddock. While the date for that fight was up in the air, the rest of the broadcast industry was on hold. When HBO announced a date that interfered with other fights, says Larkin, "shows began falling like dominoes." Larkin says Showtime had planned to hold its Evander Holyfield-Alex Stewart fight on the same date. "For about half a second we thought about it," he recalls. "You know the saying. Where does a 400-pound gorilla sit?"
But Tyson, like everything else in boxing, was an accident of inspiration and perseverance. Abraham didn't invent him, but at the time of Tyson's miraculous appearance Abraham was pushing forward his heavyweight tournament, a bit of genius that everybody agreed would go down as a noble failure. In the end it turned out to be the ideal vehicle for Tyson. Without the tournament Tyson might be as dominant a boxer, but he would not hold the unified championship.
In unifying the title, Abraham was asking promoters and fighters to enter an era of uncertainty, one in which only the best man would win. Such a notion is contrary to the business of boxing. At the time—"this was late spring of 1985"—Abraham was being besieged by King, who controlled WBC heavyweight champion Pinklon Thomas, among others. King was trying to sell Abraham on a Thomas-Berbick fight.
"I said this fight means nothing." Abraham recalls. "Even if it's an evenly matched fight, it means nothing. All through the summer. King keeps badgering me—phone calls, phone calls. The man has got tremendous energy. I said, 'Don, it's not gonna happen.' I'm home in October '85, and I'm watching the Kansas City-St. Louis World Series. Don comes to see my new daughter. Sari; she was 13 days old. We had lobster. During dinner Don says, 'Lynn, please tell Seth to buy the fight. It's a good fight.' Finally I said, 'Don, you really want to make history?'—and this idea had been percolating while I watched the World Series. That's where I got the idea, seven games, seven fights. Don stayed until 2 a.m."
After all their negotiations, it is almost impossible for these two men to surprise each other. King submits wearily to the rituals of their deal-making. "Many times Seth tries to shift me to his subordinates, find out what my modus operandi is, get the lay of the land, and then he comes in and tries to circumvent it," King says. "He always wants two. three bites of the apple." But Abraham knew he would have to come up with something special to force King. who already controlled two heavyweight champions, into a partnership with Butch Lewis, promoter of champion No. 3, Michael Spinks.
So Abraham read up on Tex Rickard and all the other great promoters, men whose places in boxing history were secure. "I kept going back at King, 'You call yourself the greatest promoter? Prove it, prove it.' I'd say, 'Don, where's your epitaph? That you promoted Ali? Arum promoted Ali.' The appeal was history."
The idea of unifying the heavyweight title was soon revealed as not so much a piece of history as a colossal act of naiveté. Abraham quickly found that each bout would be a nightmare to negotiate. In fact, immediately before the first fight of the series, the whole affair was plunged into uncertainty when Tim Witherspoon tested positive for marijuana after his bout with Tony Tubbs, and the WBA said Wither-spoon's title would be declared vacant. "I thought there would be a honeymoon," Abraham says. "But it was like the Russians had invaded on Inauguration Day."