Canelo, Hearn, others deserve blame for DAZN’s struggles in boxing

1185169685.jpg.0 - Canelo, Hearn, others deserve blame for DAZN’s struggles in boxingPhoto by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

After two years, DAZN have not really gotten out of the blocks in the US, and there’s plenty of blame to be passed around for how boxing has been handled by the platform.

Look back and remember. It’s harder now, the last half year has for so many people been so much heavier, darker, filled with uncertainty, that it makes looking backward a more difficult exercise. But try anyway.

It was May 10, 2018, and the news that a “new” entity, called DAZN, would be going all in to the boxing space made a splash in the sports world and even beyond. That doesn’t happen all the time when we are talking about the pugilism sphere.

The business press took note, because it contained a couple tasty elements. After uttering some version of, “DU-what,” when mulling the name of this OTT property, the price tag spurred chatter. A billion dollar deal, and the immense number perked eyebrows and interest among press who maybe hadn’t paid attention to boxing since Mike Tyson reigned as The Baddest Man on the Planet.

At front and center of the move, in front of the cameras giving out the sound bites which sounded sweet and juicy and optimistic, was Englishman Eddie Hearn.

“Since our expansion to the US, we have been looking for a partner that shares our vision and that can give us the volume of dates and rights fees required to build the strongest stable in world boxing and take it to a new level,” Hearn said, impressive with his vision and his dimples and his bearing.

Tall and lean, he looked and sounded like he meant business, and like he’d build the business, the brand of boxing, as a whole.

If you were doing a boxing film, and casting for the role of “boxing promoter,” Hearn wouldn’t get the part. But that was a good thing — he wasn’t in the throwback mold of what a fight game promoter is perceived to be. Put it this way: Hearn would be likely to be cast in a boxing “reality show,” because his “attributes” align nicely with what that genre rewards. Good aesthetics, good sound bites.

Hearn went to New York on May 10, 2018, to bang the hype drums and help introduce sports fans to a venture they’d not heard of. People weren’t even sure how to pronounce the name of this new platform, many didn’t understand where the content would be made available, even. The term “over the top,” via internet connection, got added to the vocabulary of boxing hard cores, especially the older ones who had not cut that cable cord.

DAZN, we learned, would be part of the hastening of a shift in the method of delivering shows and events on an “OTT” basis. Even a cynical reporter with decades of coverage under their belt could perhaps allow a tingling of optimism to wash over them. The tingle could be traced to different sources for different beings, of course, but one signature line item for me was this: DAZN would be an attempt to do away with a foundational pillar to boxing that made business sense for a narrow few, but struck plenty of us not sharing in the trickle down as being short sighted. By placing the superstar fighters when booked in their most alluring faceoffs on pay per view, you put your most attractive products out of sight and out of the mind of people who might be inclined to watch boxing, but don’t, because they are not willing to part with $80 for an a la carte purchase. The eyeball base of boxing didn’t grow in this decade, and the PPV model stands out one of the most glaring reasons why the boxing fan base is pretty stagnant.

1262284260.jpg - Canelo, Hearn, others deserve blame for DAZN’s struggles in boxingPhoto by James Chance/Getty Images

All that capital, a billion dollars, put to use with a brash POV, a move away from the decades long trend that put boxing into a different category than the other “big” sports that offered up their premium content on platforms that are NOT situated behind a moat filled with alligators. Dispensed by a fresh, vibrant “show-runner” who could move that stubborn needle with a comparative youthfulness and energy that could contrast with old guard promoters.

Even this reporter had to consider that this time, it might be different; that promises to be different, to be better, might in fact play out positively for once. I resolved to listen, try to do so with an open mind; as Hearn said, “We can build a formidable team of fighters and also put our stamp on events from production to talent to in-arena experience. Our plan is to make DAZN the home of boxing and, with 32 big fight nights [a year] already confirmed from the US and UK, we are nicely on our way. America, we have well and truly arrived, let the fun begin!”

Now come back to the present. And ask yourself how it’s gone. Go back, and go over the phrases.

“The strongest stable in world boxing.” Of course, strength of stable can be debated.

“The home of boxing.” Do you want to pick pro or con on that portion of Eddie’s vision share?

If you asked Hearn, surely he’d offer a persuasive defense of DAZN’s two years in the boxing business, and even a cynical wordsmith would probably find themselves nodding in agreement, seeing plenty of merit in the Englishman’s reasoning.

It would have been something to be in those rooms, and on those calls, as the deal came together, as Perform Group cemented their play to grow beyond Japan, Germany, and Canada. Hearn, son of prominent Brit deal-maker Barry Hearn, had something of an edge, arguably, being that he knew the sport and how it behaves, business-wise. He certainly knew that better than Simon Denyer, then the CEO of Perform, and former ESPN chief John Skipper, Perform Executive Chairman.

They stood in New York City with Hearn and seemed to radiate an upbeat POV that their choice, to offer US sports fans a subscription model that would steer lanes away from the reliance on pay-per-view as a conjurer of revenue, would play out successfully.

But Denyer and Skipper couldn’t know what they didn’t know going in. They couldn’t know, even if they asked around, sought wisdom from long-term players who did more than dabble in the sport what a different animal boxing is. How a sport with no central authority figure that can corral parties with competing interests is an apples and oranges comparison to an established and far more predicable entity like Major League Baseball.

One would have to gain ample time with Denyer and Skipper and Hearn and get them to look back, and recollect how the deal came together. And you’d ideally get input from Perform chief Len Blavatnik, and probably a couple other principals. Then you could offer an analysis of DAZN’s conception, birth, infancy, and summation of the health and wellness of their boxing division. And it might be better suited as a book project, not a lengthy text slab on Bad Left Hook.

Denyer has been shifted, he isn’t CEO of Perform anymore. It was announced on June 29 that Denyer would be sliding over into other segments of that multi-layered conglomerate. Simon Denyer is leaving his role as chief executive of DAZN Group, press was told, and James Rushton, the company chief revenue officer, became acting chief executive. The news that Ed McCarthy, Access Industries’ “corporate director and portfolio manager,” would be taking on more power and prominence didn’t mean anything to fight fans who really don’t care a hoot about DAZN’s managment movement.

But some of the fight fans who do look into corporate dynamics a bit, because they realize the correlation between who is running things, and if indeed things will keep running is in play with a “roll of the dice” venture like DAZN’s boxing. Skipper has much more on his plate than boxing, that is known to folks who make it a point to have a handle on sports business. Fight fans, I dare say many people who subscribe to DAZN, which only launched in 2016, don’t actually know that they offer Premier League and Bundesliga football, too — but since late spring 2018, Skipper hasn’t just focused on the boxing arm in the DAZN sports portfolio. So he isn’t the one to best get at some of the micro moves that hardcores look at that has them wondering sometimes at the route DAZN has taken to get to here.

But if you are so inclined, who should you examine? What person or persons “deserve” most of the scrutiny to finish the assignment of getting a decent handle on what’s gone at DAZN, and what might play out there as we look to the last portion of the strangest year in world history going back maybe a hundred years?

Eddie Hearn? He’s a tempting “target” for scrutiny, being that he was out front, oozing that charisma when the kickoff vibes were still throwing off dopamine. Hearn has been in England, and was working on what looked on paper to be a pretty decent card that would play out in a ring situated on the grounds of the Matchroom UK headquarters. He’s been pretty tied up with that event, which served as the capper to a run of cards at “Matchroom Square Garden.”

A run of cards that were not really positioned as part of DAZN’s return to form, their return to some form of new normal after peak pandemic conditions settled down. Perhaps that wasn’t in your mind if you signed in to DAZN and watched the offerings running August 15, from — wait, where? Tulsa, Oklahoma? Yes, five bouts, topped by a Cecilia Braekhus-Jessica McCaskill main event, put together by Hearn and Matchroom, streamed from Oklahoma, and represented some of DAZN’s programming strategy coming out of peak pandemic.

Reflexively busting on the location wouldn’t be fair, I don’t think, but it’s not unfair to turn one’s head on a tilt and look at that Oklahoma event and look to slot it into the DAZN and Hearn performance to date. And it’s not at all unfair to be a boxing fan, one who subscribes to the OTT option, and assess your purchase. Fights from Oklahoma August 15, and then bouts streaming Aug. 22, from England, the finale of Hearn’s garden party series. I’m a subscriber, and I felt like I got a good bang for the buck, I didn’t rue the $10 that came out of my account and went into the Perform bucket after watching Katie Taylor get the better of Delfine Persoon in a rematch tussle, and Alexander Povetkin reminding us that it’s not wise to count out a vet like him, when he detonated an uppercut that sent Dillian Whyte to trauma town.

1179702122.jpg - Canelo, Hearn, others deserve blame for DAZN’s struggles in boxingPhoto by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Then, silence. No, silence isn’t the right wording, not if you are a fan who signed on to the direct to consumer player because you adore Canelo Alvarez. Canelo devotees are well aware that they have not seen the redhead glove up since Nov. 2019, when he showed that his skill set is present and must be accounted for in the light heavyweight division as well. Canelo beat Sergey Kovalev, the third outing for him under the DAZN banner, and then we pretty much only heard from him when info made its way to The Athletic reporter Mike Coppinger.

If the Boxing Writers Association of America gave awards that didn’t just judge quality of writing, but widened the scope out to career arc achievements, zero doubt that ol’ “Copp” would have been a shoo-in for something good.

Case in point — on Sept. 2, Coppinger reported that Canelo might not fight in 2020 at all. “That’s because Alvarez and Golden Boy Promotions are engaged in a heated dispute with DAZN officials regarding the streaming service’s refusal to pay Canelo the $35 million guaranteed in his contract,” he wrote. “… [S]enior officials at DAZN are underwhelmed by the matchups Golden Boy has delivered for the Mexican star. … Alvarez is caught in the crosshairs. DAZN offered approximately $17.5 million, half of his guarantee, for a proposed fall matchup with Callum Smith, per sources.”

DAZN, reliant on live sports action to keep money streaming in, lost leverage when the pandemic shut down live sports the world over. The brain trust gathered and said, essentially, these are unparalleled times. Time for a paradigm shift, they decided — the games and matches and contests won’t be staged. Then they’d like for their partners to acknowledge the harsh reality, and share in the pain. We will start cutting checks to the leagues when sports are actually able to function like they were, that was the message.

And as can be imagined, people being asked to share the pain, many of them balked. A contract is a contract, that would be favorite response when a DAZN rep would inform a partner of the concept of the paradigm shift. Team Canelo balked, when some of that new guard installed laid out their thinking. Not being on the line when some of those chats, which have been going on for months, played out, we can’t say how often it was pointed out that to a large extent, Canelo got signed to the DAZN boxing focal point with one marquee matchup in mind. A third clash with Gennadiy Golovkin would be a stellar sub builder, that was probably the primary point being considered when Skipper and subordinates started getting serious about making Canelo (and Golden Boy) an offer impossible to refuse.

And when that megabucks alliance got announced, did anyone involved, or any fans assessing the move think that by fall of 2020, the third Canelo vs GGG fight would not have been fashioned? If so, step right up, and announce yourself, because you have psychic abilities that are far beyond what the average person possesses.

Now, we can add to the word count here and talk about what might have played out already if COVID-19 didn’t start its virulent creep in November 2019, and then touch down in America, and since late February, wreak havoc on almost all sectors of the economy. But the virus making the rounds has made the Canelo-DAZN-Golden Boy relationship round robin go from bad to much worse. On Sept 8, Coppinger reported that Canelo Alvarez has taken his fighting skills into a new arena. The 30-year-old native of Mexico filed a complaint against his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, Golden Boy Promotions and DAZN on Tuesday in Los Angeles federal court. Breach of contract is the basis for the Canelo complaint.

“I’m the pound-for-pound No. 1 in the world,” Alvarez told Copp. “I’m not scared of any opponent in the ring, and I’m not going to let failures of my broadcaster or promoters keep me out of the ring. I filed the lawsuit so I can get back to boxing and give my fans the show they deserve.”

He also filed it because he wants to get paid what he was making when he beat Sergey Kovalev last year, of course.

Strange times, these are. Here is what the other The Athletic boxing writer, Lance Pugmire, wrote in summing up this development in the Canelo/Golden Boy/DAZN frayed menage: “DAZN got into combat sports as an opening push to pursue baseball and NFL partnerships, but Tuesday’s news leaves the streaming service on the ropes.”

Hey, has the fun begun? How much of that soaring vision Eddie Hearn presented in 2018 has played out out and become reality? We can rightfully ask, if you are open to Pugmire’s take, was DAZN getting whacked and a candidate for getting stopped a couple months into the start of their US fight game foray? And you can rightfully wonder that if different moves had been made back in 2018, even, DAZN would not be the subject of speculation and concern.

Outside the inner sanctum, we can’t predict how meaningful those front office moves mentioned earlier are or will be. We’d heard that the elevation of Ed McCarthy, Access Industries’ corporate director, would signal that DAZN would now be playing a different brand of ball. Rushton is seen by some as a more of a “consensus builder” type, we hear, in contrast to Denyer, who would be described by some as having a more entrepreneurial bent. Was this shuffling of the management deck in the works near the end of 2019, when young gun exec Joe Markowski went on record stating that there’d be a reining in of the loose purse strings? I’d guess so. McCarthy might be part of that push, a new installation at negotiating tables for DAZN’s fight craft sessions who is looking less on maintaining collegiality, and more so to work on resetting expectations at what size checks get cut to content providers. That would be part of a potential re-set not just at DAZN, but for fighters contracted to doing business with Top Rank, for example.

Terence Crawford has publicly made clear he’s not so keen to take a purse cut, with the pandemic being pointed to as the catalyst for that. Indeed, Top Rank’s Crawford isn’t alone in his lobbying. Ryan Garcia, the 22-year-old Golden Boy lightweight prospect, has also taken to social media to announce that he wants checks that more resemble the ones that, for example, Matchroom’s Devin Haney has been so pleased with the last year.

Fans have seen these athletes speaking up, as laborers. And the last three months, they’ve heard promoters, like Bob Arum and De La Hoya, banding together in solidarity, and pointing out that you can’t draw a crowd of patrons to marquee fights. That removes a sometimes considerable source of revenue. Nobody embraces taking a pay cut, Arum has especially done well at pointing out that no-brainer. But if the pot has shrunk, then shouldn’t some of these fighters recognize that, and adjust their expectations level regarding their ask? That’s playing out, right now, for all the promoters, though it seems encouraging that Bob Arum and company were able to make everyone happy enough that the Vasiliy Lomachenko-Teofimo Lopez lightweight super fight got made.

It wasn’t an encouraging time, I dare say, when you kept seeing that monthly fee come out of your bank account, while DAZN seemed to be working more on achieving a marketplace reset than in making existing subscribers happy.

Golden Boy’s scheduled Aug. 28 card on DAZN got called off, you recall, when the Jorge Linares-Javier Fortuna fight was scrapped, after Linares popped COVID positive. The show must go on, that is usually the dictum which rules. But not so this time. Did DAZN executives finally acknowledge how this business works, that promoters are basically loathe to risk their cash cows in coin-flip fights, because losses are so radioactive? It seemed like we were seeing DAZN getting more comfy saying “no” to their partners, yes?

Is that why fans saw Vergil Ortiz Jr featured instead of Ryan Garcia in the first DAZN boxing show after a COVID hiatus? The Garcia/Golden Boy relationship is a bit too tangled for us, so parsing “blame” or responsibility on that one, we’ll take a pass. By the end of June, if you recall, GBP and DAZN were comfortable announcing that Vergil would be spotlit on July 24. He got paired with Samuel Vargas, a respectable name, and the fight went rounds, and got decent buzz, it wasn’t a mismatched showcase.

DAZN wanted to get back into gear, to a degree, and mark off Aug. 28 in their tip-toe back from corona, but the hassling and haggling to find something palatable after Linares’ health issue came forth finally reached a break point. Ryan Garcia vs a gimme foe wasn’t to DAZN’s liking. Names were floated to save the Aug. 28 show. Would a Javier Fortuna vs Hector Tanajara fight subbed in be acceptable enough to all parties? Maybe, but then Tanajara said actually he’d like more time to prep for the vet Fortuna. Mixes and matches, including Rashidi Ellis and Alexis Rocha, those got floated. But perhaps now the new realities kicked in. The recognition, by some, that just placing any boxing on a schedule won’t result in an eyeballs surge. That was one takeaway many had with the numbers Top Rank drew in their first Bubble run in Vegas, that matchups can’t be showcases, coin flips are needed to get ratings. Seven-figure license fee checks won’t be as easy to come by, that is the reality that some fighters and managers were now fully comprehending.

Back up again, it’s necessary, because ideally you have a good grasp on what route was driven to get to where we are now.

Back in NYC on May 10, 2019, Hearn said, “This is open season for fighters in the U.S.. If you’re out there, if you don’t have a promotional contract, if you’re a world-class fighter, we want you. If you’re a world champion, no more fighting once a year. No more waiting on your date. We’ve got the dates, the money and the platform to give you regular championship contests.”

He didn’t pretend to be humble. “I needed artillery and we’re dangerous with artillery, let me tell you,” Hearn said. “And now we’ve got it, $1 billion over eight years. We have by far the biggest rights budget in the sport of boxing and we’re going to be ultra-competitive. We’re going to put on the greatest shows with the greatest talent. This is a brand new era for boxing in the U.S. We’re here and we mean business.”

The business, he assumed, would involve some talent aligned with Al Haymon, people like Deontay Wilder, Jermall and Jermell Charlo, Jarrett Hurd, Errol Spence Jr, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, Shawn Porter, Mikey Garcia, Leo Santa Cruz, and Abner Mares. He didn’t think everyone would jump from Haymon’s ship and board his new vessel, but he figured he’d have a decent ratio. It turned out the loyalty to Haymon is and was of a stronger variety than fight game folks are used to seeing.

1187202647.jpg - Canelo, Hearn, others deserve blame for DAZN’s struggles in boxingPhoto by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Also, Hearn crowed that he didn’t have to make Anthony Joshua, the alluring heavyweight signed to Matchroom, part of the billion dollar deal. He’d be able to satisfy all parties without having AJ in the DAZN fold, he implied.

“This is not ‘we’re coming to fuck everybody,’” Hearn stated. “This is ‘we’re going to have a lot of fun and we have money never seen before in the sport of boxing.’ I can’t fail. If I fail here, I’m a disgrace.”

The resistance popped up pretty quickly. Adrien Broner made public that he turned down an entreaty from Hearn two weeks after the NYC trumpeting. Signing news didn’t come gushing forth. Dmitry Bivol got added to the stable in June 2018, a fine get but not a tenth of a game changer. In early July, Hearn brought middleweight standout Demetrius Andrade to the party, the Rhode Island 154/160 a technical ace, without a massive fan base to draw subscribers. Maurice Hooker, then a 140-pound titleholder, came aboard weeks later. He also didn’t bring a huge fan club along with him. Jessie Vargas and Daniel Roman would also be in the DAZN mix, Hearn said. And flirtations were announced. Hearn said maybe he’d snag Manny Pacquiao. He didn’t. The landing of cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk in early September got thumbs up from fans, and it didn’t hurt that some of the billion went to Michael Buffer, the Bondian emcee who’d help give a sheen to any card that didn’t float boats from a quality standpoint.

The securing of Sugar Ray Leonard in mid September 2018 to do on camera analysis got less love, from hardcores who knew SRL’s forte wasn’t his color work. And then, was it a timing coincidence that on Sept. 27, 2018, word dropped that HBO would drop their boxing program? Young department head Peter Nelson read the writing on the wall that boxing’s ability to attract subscribers was lessening, and when you are trying to be head to head with Netflix, you want fewer mega niche attractions, and more shows that might appeal to a mass bloc.

Looking back, the Oct. 7, 2018 US DAZN debut from Chicago wasn’t the fireworks display you’d want or think you’d get after securing that capital dump. Jessie Vargas and Thomas Dulorme fought to a majority draw, Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller fought in a showcase, it was kind of meh, for how Hearn had talked. But DAZN’s next Matchroom Boxing USA broadcast would feature WBO world middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders vs Demetrius Andrade on Oct. 20 at TD Garden in Boston. That would be an upgrade in fare. Would have been, if Saunders hadn’t tested PED positive.

But the news of DAZN signing Canelo to an 11-fight, $365 million dollar deal, on Oct. 17, 2018, drew the sort of buzz befitting a billion bucks. When, we do wonder, was it decided that DAZN would target Canelo? Sometime after July, when GBP boss Oscar De La Hoya publicly busted on Hearn for being the new Al Haymon, meaning he was flashing cash, but the results in the ring wouldn’t measure up? Ah, but when that cash got flashed to Canelo, and Golden Boy came along for the ride to provide content to DAZN, then Oscar’s tune got switched up. Now, he was on board, and he did a decent job stirring the pot, playing up “the death of pay-per-view,” and what a superior value the OTT outlet would give boxing fans.

Then, by the end of Oct. 2018, word leaked that DAZN would also probably lure GGG into their fold. Their stacks would beat out Haymon’s and Arum’s, people guessed, and they guessed right. And even a dim bulb casual knew what this was about. DAZN would have Canelo fight GGG for the third time, and they’d have their first obvious signature fight. Canelo’s first DAZN fight, against B-minus Brit Rocky Fielding on Dec. 15, 2018, would not be a signature fight.

Now it really seemed that DAZN had a focal point to build around, in a marquee attraction, and a compelling clash for that magnet to gear up for. When, when wasn’t cemented, but all the parties involved felt flush, from the newness of the venture, and the over spilling bank accounts. Goodwill was assumed, I guess you could say.

John Skipper, who joined ESPN in 1997, became the president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks in 2012. He’d overseen content across all ESPN platforms so skillfully, and worked the tables on rights deals, that he succeeded George Bodenheimer as president. One could argue it’s harder to fail when you are able to write checks with XXL Sharpies. Skipper and ESPN Major League Baseball extended their rights deal in 2012, paying for $5.6 billion from 2014 to 2021. At an average of $700 million per year, ESPN paid double what it was. That came on the heels of an NFL-Monday Night Football elongation, at $1.9 billion per year, to kick in also in 2014.

Skipper, then 62 years old, parted ways with ESPN at the end of 2017. He got scooped up quick, even though he departed the Worldwide Leader because of a substance abuse issue, coming aboard Perform/DAZN in May 2018.

Right away, his Carolina cool won him fans at the company, but people wondered what moves Skipper would make, being that most rights to big sports live action were off the market for awhile. Enter boxing, which existed at ESPN on the margins, with their “Friday Night Fights” being essentially a Triple-A level setup. Skipper looked left, right and center, and understood that content is king, and to attract subscribers, DAZN would need it. Live sports were and are sticky, people can’t DVR the games, because you need to watch live or the drama seeps out, unless you stay off media and manage to not see a final score of the game you taped three hours ago. DAZN would be, in the US, “a boxing channel.”

How Hearn became the guy who’d be tasked with buying the groceries, and who else would be considered, that’ll be left for the book. But in America, Eddie was basically a blank slate, it was Brit hardcores who you could tell saw him as something of a “Fast Eddie,” a guy who could do well setting up a kebab stand at a vegan food festival. But we gave him the benefit of the doubt, by and large, thought I’ll admit that I privately shook my head at the immensity of the sums being flung about. That’s the side of me that wears the Bernie Sanders 2016 t-shirt, who doesn’t think lowly of millionaires but has a hard time wrapping my brain around the uptick in billionaires in a nation that hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour since 2009.

I think back, and I try to recall, was there a moment when I decided that I felt I could have steered the ship away from rocks as well if not better than Hearn? Nope, it wasn’t when in November of 2018, we heard Hearn admitting he still needed to make inroads, that he still wanted to get a Mikey Garcia, or the Charlos into the fold, to better the brand.

The burn rate would have intensified if the early 2019 DAZN offer to Deontay Wilder got accepted by the Alabama boxer. It didn’t. Wilder mulled it, and then stuck with his alliance with Al Haymon and Shelly Finkel. Hearn went with Plan B or C, maybe, grabbing Jarrell Miller to be foil to Anthony Joshua for a June 2019 welcome party for AJ in America. Nice fight — but still not one that would strike boxing fans in the way DAZN brains would’ve liked. They wanted a bout that would run on the platform which they could crow about, tell fans with righteous certitude that THIS is why they are subscribing. This fight as a PPV would cost you $100, and you are getting it for $10! AJ vs Miller would not be a fight they could sell that way. And in fact wouldn’t be a fight at all.

Summing up where Eddie and DAZN were by February 2019 — Tyson Fury had committed fully to Top Rank and ESPN, and on Dec. 1, 2018, Fury and Wilder and Top Rank and ESPN were able to brag that they’d put together a clash between two titan sized trash talkers. Hearn could talk up what a star AJ would be built into in America, and DAZN was still looking to figure out exactly when they could get some bang for their bucks alloted to Canelo. Hey, maybe Canelo-GGG 3 in May 2019, in Vegas? Those guys hoped they could get that made, and then their subscriber base would leap to a place where they could leak the number, and be proud of the growth.

1197370858.jpg - Canelo, Hearn, others deserve blame for DAZN’s struggles in boxingPhoto by Eric Espada/Getty Images

It seemed like maybe Hearn felt the pressure when on March 20, 2019 he told IFL, “It’s sad because the hatred is so deep that people are losing sight of what their jobs are. My job is to provide the best opportunities for my client, and I will not let any personal relationship, any grudge, get in the way of it. Because I don’t give a fuck. You think I lose one second of sleep over Shelly Winkle and Al Haymon? They don’t mean nothing to me in my life. What matters to me in my life is Anthony Joshua becoming the undisputed champion.”

So April comes around, and at least Hearn can proudly announce that another solid talent will be doing their thing on DAZN — Devin Haney, 21-0, age 20, a possible future bright light, would call DAZN his platform home. But let’s put a pin it right now, and point this out. Since Haney got with DAZN, he’s fought Antonio Moran, Zaur Abdullaev, and Alfredo Santiago. And bless him, he’s rustled up some enormous paydays while doing it. But anyone over at DAZN who sees these spreadsheets want to leak to me what the purse to sub growth ratio is perceived to be for Haney? You don’t have to tell me. The deal has made sense to Haney, if making money is the object. But his profile hasn’t grown noticeably, and he’s gotten frustrated not getting booked into fights he believed his skill set commands. (By the way, sub in the name Demetrius Andrade for Haney, and the same points can be made.)

Publicly, by the end of April 2019, things seemed copacetic enough between Canelo, Golden Boy, and DAZN. “This relationship is one of trust,” said John Skipper to Lance Pugmire regarding Alvarez’s contractual agreement to meet fighters approved by DAZN. “We both have some leverage, but if we each don’t want to do something, the outcome is stalemate, so we have to figure out how to do something that is beneficial to all … it’s mutually assured destruction if we don’t make it work.”

Skipper spoke as he lauded the forthcoming May 4, 2019 tussle between Canelo and Daniel Jacobs. This was the second bout of mega deal, and again, Canelo would be making well over what the market would have gotten him if he’d fought Jacobs, who’d lost previously to Dmitry Pirog and Gennadiy Golovkin. Using that rear view mirror, should Skipper by that juncture have eased up on the sweet talk and instead employed some bluster, or at least some reverse psychology?

Skipper still did that dance, trying to get Alvarez to commit fully to that third GGG fight, and over at the Hearn house, more headaches. PED fan Jarrell Miller got flagged for EPO, HGH and GW1516, so he got tossed from the June 12019 Madison Square Garden title challenge against Joshua.

And more signings; Joseph Parker, decent fighter, not a seat filler, not a sub base builder, signed to Matchroom in May 2019, the same month Hearn said he’d be happy to offer a juicy check to Wladimir Klitschko to come out of retirement. What was he? 41? 42? 43? Didn’t matter so much after Joshua looked flat and got flattened by Andy Ruiz, the chubby chin checker, at MSG. Hearn actually got lucky with that one, the fight stands out as a fight of the year for 2019, and on paper, it was supposed to be a showcase for the Brit Joshua. So, not being gratuitously mean to Hearn, but this feather in his cap came to him accidentally.

In July, Hearn told media that he wanted to land Mikey Garcia to DAZN. Mind you, Garcia in March got handled with ridiculous ease by Errol Spence, and that fight came after decision wins over Sergey Lipinets and Robert Easter. To sum up, Garcia, less than compelling outside the ring, with a lack of power which can make many of his fights ho hum, coming off an embarassing loss, is heavily pursued by Hearn. Eddie’s judgement has to be called into question, one could argue.

But if the Skippers and them were by this point wondering if they’d picked the right dude to steer, and secretly whispering to themselves they’d wished they’d instead asked New Yorker Lou DiBella to be the helmsman in America, then the Canelo Alvarez situation would bring them back to the unpleasant present. Canelo by now started telling people that he’d be happy to not fight GGG a third time. Not in September 2019, as had been presumed would take place, not in Neveruary. Hearn could spend excess time on bringing the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz sequel to Saudi Arabia, which would make AJ a boatload, Eddie a rowboat load, and lessen the load for DAZN. The streamer wouldn’t pay crazy money to screen that fight, which would take place in Riyadh on Dec. 1, and play out as a snoozer, after Ruiz partied like a rock star, and kind of fought like one, too, his excess weight making him look plodding while AJ worked harder and snagged back some belts.

One year in, and DAZN still couldn’t announce that their subscriber base had topped 1 million. Fanagers and fauxmoters like to craft fantasy fights and dismiss the no-brainers, but Canelo vs GGG 2 on Sept. 15, 2018 generated almost $100 million in revenue. But rather than do No. 3 one year later, and fill an arena and probably send DAZN over the million subscriber plateau, fans saw Canelo diss the Kazakh and freeze him out. No trilogy for you! Instead the Mexican met Sergey Kovalev, and stopped him in round 11. Swell for him, he got named Fighter of the Year by a bunch of outlets. But by putting his feet down and not giving DAZN what they wanted — well, I’m just not going to pretend to think Canelo doesn’t have a hand in this promising arrangment going off the rails so hard.

And Hearn, too, was fending off annoyance. “Eddie Hearn doesn’t belong in the United States, promoting fights,” promotional rival Arum said to Keith Idec on Sept. 13, 2019. “He doesn’t understand this market. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. All he can do is write checks, and stupid checks. Look what he paid me for [Jose] Ramirez to go over for one fight to DAZN and knock out [Maurice] Hooker. I mean, that’s madness, total madness. And that didn’t do any kind of numbers. And really, they would be better off, in my opinion, if they got rid of Hearn and turned over a lot of the DAZN business to Oscar [De La Hoya], whose fights have been out-performing Eddie’s on DAZN, and get guys like [Lou] DiBella involved. I mean, Eddie Hearn doesn’t belong here. He doesn’t. He says the wrong thing. He does the wrong thing. You know, you’re promoting Devin Haney in Madison Square Garden. Talk about fucking Haney.”

By November 2019, purists feared that Hearn would start stacking cards with fighting YouTubers. Part of you didn’t dispute that angle, if you admitted to yourself what a small niche boxing takes up in the world of sport. Logan Paul has 18 million followers on Instagram, while Mikey Garcia has 279,000.

By the start of the year, how many folks who had felt optimistic at the May 2018 announcement fete had shifted in their thinking? Can’t know — but surely the interview Hearn did at the start of 2020, when he said he told Skipper and company that they should raise the monthly fee from $19.99 ($99 if you pay for a year), to $50 a month birthed a few more Hearn haters. By now, Eddie’s dimples don’t disguise the lines of thinking quite as well. Hearn’s announcing that he’d be happy to promote Canelo if the redhead and Golden Boy divorced also got slammed in the Twittersphere as classless, and needlessly divisive. If you were John Skipper and company, you didn’t want or need that sort of sophomoric banter from a partner.

By now, you completely get the points made on Hearn. Thing is, he will admit some of those same missteps. But will then tell you that the lack of success in building the Matchroom and DAZN brand in America stems from how unpopular boxing is.

The Libra in me knows this: the blame for why DAZN hasn’t succeeded like perhaps it should have after two years can be spread around, generously.

  • Hearn isn’t wrong, we are a pretty minute niche, this sport of ours. In many ways, societies have progressed, and part of that progress shows up in the widespread belief that activities like boxing, which feature excessive head trauma, are throwback sources of entertainment.
  • A third Canelo vs GGG fight happening in September 2019 would have given DAZN an energy infusion they needed. And why that didn’t happen, and who deserves the most blame, that maybe depends on some of your biases.
  • I don’t see just about anyone taking Canelo to task, but I think his pride and ego are influencing him too much. So the Golden Boy-DAZN and GBP-Canelo contracts are not iron clad, and don’t demand a third fight by a certain date. C’mon. Everyone knows that third fight made that $365 million dollar deal a reality. Give the check signers what they paid for, man.
  • Can’t wait for that interview when John Skipper has some distance from this period of his career, and he shares some of what’s gone on behind the scenes since he hopped on the DAZN train. Yep, I think he bears some blame, for not educating himself on the business nuances of boxing, and how gentlemen’s agreements are not advisable. I could have told him, for what he was trying to do, make more use of vinegar, less use of the honey.

And speaking of vinegar, this week has been rough and it isn’t over. We still don’t see a content schedule for DAZN boxing. Now we seemingly know why. Partner Golden Boy is tied up with a deeper level of animus with Canelo. DAZN has just done layoffs, two percent of their staff, globally. And word is that Hearn’s grocery buying budget got cut by more than a third, maybe up to 40%.

I’m not digging a grave, mind you. I’m not even sure I’ll go as far deeming DAZN to be fighting off the ropes, perhaps in danger of being stopped. I don’t see signals that tell me a push into more markets, more nations, is being curtailed.

As I said on the Chris Mannix podcast that runs on the DAZN platform last week, though, “Even billionaires have budgets.” Len Blavatnik clearly got tired of signing checks, and not seeing the subscription base rise like projections promised. It’s a shame for him, but he’ll be all right, he won’t be relegated to having to buy Swanson Hungry Man to fill his belly. But more so, the shame is this: tens of millions of dollars were spent, and the fans still got served way too many showcases and mismatches.

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