Boxing is a business. Before any heroics can happen inside a ring, contracts have to be signed, money for the fighters found and, of course, the opponents agreed upon. Who decides that? Who decides which contender gets a title shot and which wallows in obscurity? How do you choose one C-level club fighter over another to face a blue-chip prospect? That is the art of matchmaking. And in today's boxing news, there is probably no better study of the mysteries of matchmaking than the rematch between Manny Pacquiao and Tim Bradley.
To be a great matchmaker, you have to be part chess player and part fortune-teller. Even though today there aren’t as many pieces on the boxing chess board as there were back in the 1950s, there are still enough that keeping track of every fighter’s record is still a daunting, if not impossible, task. Matchmakers must know how an average pug is progressing, whether a prospect is living up to his promise and where a champion is in the arc of his reign. All the while, the matchmaker must understand how these fighters fight. Which fighters fight face-first with a granite chin? Which are defensive wizards, and which have thunder in their right hands and lightening in their lefts?
A matchmaker needs to know these things in order to use his fighters (or himself) like pieces on a chessboard, knowing which hold strengths over others and the limitations of each. That’s the only way to protect a fighter on the way up, to position a prospect correctly for a title shot and to make sure a champion walks away from the sport with enough cash to have made a lifetime of sacrifice worthwhile.
But all the planning in the world only goes so far. In an age where fighters' records are only a few keystrokes away on the Internet, matchmakers have advantages over those of years gone by, but numbers aren’t enough. At some point a matchmaker must rely on his otherworldly powers to see into the future, to divine how his fighter will fair against heavy favorite or whether a potential opponent will still be there a year or two down the road when his fighter is actually ready for him.
In mid-2011, the hottest fight in the light welterweight division was between Amir Khan and Tim Bradley. At the start of the year, Bradley earned his first million-dollar payday against Devon “The Great” Alexander in a fight marred by the ugliness that comes in bouts between southpaws and orthodox fighters. Despite the clumsiness of the fight, Bradley showed that the sum of his skills was greater than any single aspect of his boxing game and that he was certainly a star in the making. Six months after defeating Alexander, however, there was nothing on the table for Bradley. No dance partners in sight.
Then came the talks with Amir Khan. After months of posturing, negotiating and a career-high payday offer for Bradley, the best fight that could be made in the division fell apart. Instead, Bradley went on to demolish an old and shot Joel Casamayor, who later tested positive for marijuana, which might explain his lethargic look that night. Bradley’s pay was, unsurprisingly, magnitudes lower than what was offered Khan. Pundits and fans turned on him. They branded the Palm Springs-native as greedy and scarred. Cameron Dunkin, Bradley’s well-respected longtime manager, also faced the critics. Everyone asked him, “How could you let Bradley pass up on the biggest fight of his life?”
Fast-forward three months and rumors surfaced that Manny Pacquiao was considering Bradley as an opponent. Then the fight was quickly signed and delivered. Leading up to the fight, many still weren’t convinced of the matchmaking skills of Bradley and Dunkin — thinking that Bradley was merely an expensive lamb for the slaughter. After 12 rounds, however, when Bradley was announced the victor in the biggest fight of his life, he and Dunkin had gone from the suckers of the boxing business to the savants. They had wagered big by giving up the Khan fight and won even bigger.
It’s been a year and a half since that night, and the pundits and fans are once again questioning the matchmaking skills of Bradley and his team, which no longer includes Cameron Dunkin. Bradley’s signed on for a rematch with Pacquiao, making $1 million more than in their first fight, and he signed a contract extension with his promoter Top Rank. Many think Bradley’s making a worse decision now than when he turned down Khan. Why?
Top Rank is run by Bob Arum, the former promoter and mortal enemy of Floyd Mayweather Jr. If you followed boxing at all last year, you couldn’t help but hear about the promotional Cold War between Top Rank and Golden Boy. Although Mayweather is not signed with Golden Boy, he is firmly in the Golden Boy camp when it comes to the fight against Top Rank and has repeatedly stated that he will not do business with Arum. So in extending his contract with Top Rank, Bradley has effectively closed the door on an immediate match-up against the pound-for-pound king. But before people start to cast their stones against Bradley, they need to take stock at the matchmaking gold he’s produced before, as well take a closer look at the facts.
Yes, the contract extension does make an immediate fight against Mayweather a virtual impossibility. Bradley has wisely noted, however, that there was no guarantee that Mayweather would have picked him this year, or at all, for a shot at the crown. Amir Khan thought he was a lock for a Mayweather fight in May and now is in a crazed panic that the shot will go to Marcos Maidana. Moreover, the contract extension may not actually be a complete bar on a match-up with Mayweather. The beef is with Arum, who is 82 years old. If the aged CEO passed away — I recognize this is a bit morbid, but the inexorabilities of life must be recognized — I have little doubt that a fight with Mayweather could be made.
Then there’s the math to consider. As a part of the contract extension Bradley received, by all accounts, a very lucrative increase in his fight minimums, win or lose. Combined with big-money rematches against Ruslan Provodnikov and Juan Manuel Marquez ready to be made, the new minimums mean a sizable increase in Bradley’s bank account. Removing Canelo Alvarez and Miguel Cotto from the mix, both huge draws in their own right, Mayweather’s recent opponents have made significantly less than what Bradley is guaranteed for the Pacquiao rematch ($6 million). Even if Bradley got the Mayweather fight (a very big “if”) and if Bradley made more than recent similar Mayweather opponents (Victor Ortiz received $2 million and Robert Guererro $3 million), it still wouldn’t likely add up to what Bradley is guaranteed with Pacquaio, along with the minimums he’ll get for the Provodnikov and Marquez rematches.
Throughout his career, Bradley has been undervalued and overly criticized. Never has he proven the pundits and fans more wrong than when he gave up the Khan fight to go on to beat Pacquiao. Now, faced with another career–defining decision, he deserves the benefit of doubt, and for those unwilling to give him that, they best brush up on their boxing economics.
Bradley is sitting pretty. He’s about to begin training camp against a fighter he believes he’s already soundly beaten, he has new, very lucrative options regardless of the outcome of his upcoming fight, and after two years of further honing his craft, he’s more dangerous than ever. Bradley might once again show that in the art of matchmaking, his crystal ball sees more clearly into the future than anyone else's.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.