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.