Always there was Gerry Cooney lurking outside the tournament, a bigger problem retired than when he was active. For leaving Cooney out of the draw, Abraham was accused by Cooney's manager. Rappaport. of being a one-man cartel. Rappaport threatened legal action, said he was buying Time Inc. stock—who knew how much?—and promised to raise a ruckus at the next shareholders' meeting. "Did Dennis forget his fighter was retired?" Abraham wonders.
Then there was the tournament itself. "As noble as it was, it was just not happening," says Larkin. "There was nobody to watch, just a lot of fat, out-of-shape guys banging bellies together. The original idea was interesting, but through no fault of HBO, it was turning into a disaster." The parade of cholesteric contenders had turned boxing's most glamorous division into a running joke.
And then Tyson happened. His Cats-kill Concussions were beginning to draw a lot of attention, and Fuchs, who had never seen this kid, kept hearing about him. "If there's one guy outside this tournament who has more credibility than our guys," Fuchs told Abraham, "this whole tournament goes down the drain." Fuchs told Abraham to bring Tyson in.
You will not be surprised to learn that Abraham remembers exactly how he brought Tyson in. "The deal closed on my birthday. That night my wife and I were going out to a restaurant. Well, I was late. Every half hour I called my wife, who was sitting at the table, and I said, 'Lynn, just order me a Scotch, because we're gonna have this deal.' When I got to the restaurant there were six Scotches lined up."
That deal was both HBO's doing and its undoing. The prospect of fighting Tyson for an HBO-sized fee, then ridiculously low, drove Spinks and Lewis through a loophole. (When Spinks was stripped of his IBF crown for failing to fight the IBF's No. 1 challenger, Tony Tucker, he argued that because he was no longer champion he was not obligated to fight in the HBO series. The courts agreed.) Spinks and Lewis opted instead for a big-money pay-per-view bout with Cooney. When Tyson finally met Spinks in June 1988, long after the HBO tournament was over. HBO had to show the fight on tape delay.
All parties are aggrieved to this day. Abraham says he won't do business with Lewis or Rappaport. Lewis says he still can't believe Abraham asked him to sell out his own fighter to accept the $1.25 million and $2 million purses the HBO tournament was offering when Spinks could earn upward of $20 million outside the series. "He told me if I went along with this, my future at HBO would be secure," Lewis says. "I said, 'I like all that, but....' "
For all the contractual problems Tyson precipitated, he did save the tournament. More important, Tyson, through his relationship with King, continues to fight under the HBO banner. This is a comfortable arrangement for King and Abraham but not so wonderful for other promoters. Still, nobody except Lewis sees anything improper in this. "If Seth deals with King," says Larkin, employing his best boxing logic, "it's an unholy alliance. If he doesn't, then it's racism."
The problem may be not so much that HBO monopolizes Tyson, but that Tyson monopolizes the division. There are few attractive matches for Tyson out there, but thanks to HBO, Tyson is assured of being showcased in even the worst of them. "Tyson has the unrestricted ability to fight anybody he wants and get paid enormous amounts of money." says Duva. "If this were a competitive marketplace, we wouldn't be talking about Tyson-Ruddock. But Tyson doesn't have to respond to public demand. He almost has a hunting license from HBO." Nobody expects the Tyson-Ruddock show to be historic, but the numbers will certainly be there.
Meanwhile, Abraham continues to explore corners of the big picture. The day after he met with King at the U.S. Open—this would be September '89—he returned to the tournament with Fuchs. They were burdened with about 50 pounds of reading material, for between the points," says Fuchs. and they had plenty of ideas. These days are a little different from the time they attended that hockey fight. Now Tyson looms above the scene, HBO's walking billboard, promising high ratings for years to come. The network has set itself apart with its boxing and tennis programming. HBO now bids for NFL packages. These are exciting times for HBO and Abraham, both so powerful in this business that even their enemies strike conciliatory notes.
Rappaport. for example. "I can't say that I'm blackballed," he says. "I'd like to think that if I have a product that makes sense, the door at HBO would be open. I know it was fairly nasty and a long, extensive procedure, but I'd like to think I could deal with Seth." Rappaport, who is now promoting Wither-spoon, pauses. "I'd like to know what Seth would say to that." Pause. "Will you be talking to him soon?"