Defining the characteristics of what makes up a boxing superstar is not very easy these days. If those traits are a fighter who breaks through the American mainstream, sells out arenas, surpasses a million pay per view buys and is discussed largely on social media, there are only two: Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Puerto Rican pugilist Miguel Cotto comes close but he is thought to be on the backside of his career and the attendance numbers for his last fight at Madison Square Garden were down from what he previously did. Potentially, the list could include Pacquiao conqueror Juan Manuel Marquez but boxing experts are not bullish on the commercial viability of his October pay per view outing against Timothy Bradley. Also, middleweight contender Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. makes the cut because he does big business when he is not suspended for various drug offenses. The frequently injured super middleweight champion Andre Ward does not make the cut because while he can draw around 10,000 fans in Oakland, his fights in other locales are lightly attended and his television ratings are nothing to write home about.
If we modify the definition to exclude breaking through to the mainstream of America and a rigid pay per view requirement, but include other countries, there are a few other fighters we could mention. Certainly, heavyweight brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko do huge television ratings in Germany and regularly draw huge live audiences in arenas and football pitches all over continental Europe. Great Britain is currently doing huge business with heavyweight contender David Haye (whenever he chooses to fight) and unified super middleweight titlist Carl Froch. Similarly, Canadian former titlists Lucian Bute and Jean Pascal move the needle in their home province of Quebec. We should also mention middleweight champion Sergio Martinez as he just drew approximately 50,000 fans in a torrential downpour in Argentina and had a successful pay per view with Chavez, Jr. According the reported 300 million Chinese television viewers, we may have to include two time Olympic gold medalist and 1 fight “veteran” Zou Shiming. And, of course, 22 year old Mexican Idol Saul “Canelo” Alvarez had parlayed his Mexican stardom into a growing American constituency to the point where his last effort drew 40,000 fans in San Antonio, Texas and his next outing against Mayweather will be the biggest combat sports event of the year.
For boxing superstars, that is about it.
But if you ask Adrien “The Problem” Broner (26-0), who faces WBA welterweight titlist Paulie Malignaggi (32-4) this Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, his promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, his advisor Al Haymon (who wouldn’t speak to anyone on the records anyway), the two Watson Brothers who stand behind him during fight introductions (who probably would speak to you if you could get their faces on television), his hefty hair-brushing father or his numerous posse members, they would all tell you Broner is the superstar of boxing. They would point out that despite being only 23 years old, seven of his fights have aired on premium cable and three of them were main events (one other was the main event in the arena but part of an HBO split-site doubleheader). After winning a 12 round decision against former titlist Daniel Ponce de Leon in the first of those bouts, he won the next five by impressive knock outs. In the course of those fights, he picked up the WBO junior lightweight title and the WBC lightweight title. He also established a reputation such that British two division titlist Ricky Burns ducked him twice. That reputation was based on his well-schooled boxing skills, excellent defense, superb hand speed and thudding punching power. Team Broner would also point out that he created excitement during those fights by either being led to the ring by famous rappers performing hit songs or Broner, as Roy Jones, Jr. once did, rapping himself. That excitement continued following the bouts when his interviews would more closely resemble comedy shows with one-liners, asking his father to brush his hair and comedy skits (pretending to propose to his girlfriend and then asking her to brush his hair). Outside of the ring, Broner backers would refer to his appearance on HBO’s “2 Days” and a cameo on Showtime’s “Mayweather-Guerrero All Access,” his presence on Twitter, Instagram and gossip websites and his flashy appearance and personality. All of that, Team Broner would argue, makes him a boxing superstar.
Then there are those that would argue that is not the case and Broner has not graduated to the elite level yet. These nay-sayers would point out that Broner’s victories are not of the quality his supporters would say they are. In his victory over the smaller Ponce de Leon who moved up in weight for the fight, Broner stunk out the joint and barely won the decision. Keeping with that theme, his other recent bouts all featured smaller opponents. One fight even featured a fighter, Eloy Perez, who was most likely high on cocaine during the fight (he failed the post-fight drug test and has not been heard from since). Broner’s opponent in his first title winning effort was (and still is) completely unknown – his name is Vicente Rodriguez, yes, I had to look that up. His most recent fight featured Gavin Rees as an opponent, a Brit who is not well-regarded in his home country, and who was chosen because the first choice, Burns, didn’t want the fight and Golden Boy probably thought no one would tell the difference. Worst of all, Broner made Vincente Escobedo make 130 pounds for their June, 2012 fight when he did not bother to come within three pounds of making the weight while tweeting pictures of him eating Twinkies. Throughout all of those fights, none of those rivals could hurt Broner such that we would know if he has the heart, mental toughness and determination that we expect a superstar to have. Nay-sayers also downplay his move up two weight divisions to face Malignaggi as a calculated move to avoid the excellent group of fighters in the junior welterweight division such as Danny Garcia, Lucas Matthysse, Lamont Peterson, etc. This group would also refer to Broner’s attendance figures both in his hometown of Cincinnati and in Atlantic City which are not as good as the maligned numbers of Ward. The nay-sayers would also point out that while some find Broner’s shtick entertaining, there is a large number of boxing fans that find his routines annoying or disrespectful. Additionally, they would claim that his whole personality is just a Mayweather copycat act.
All of the arguments above are valid. Basically, there are three things that cannot be disputed: (1) Broner is a rising talent whose promoters and managers are pointing him towards stardom; (2) Broner has the physical gifts, boxing skills and natural talent to be a star; and (3) getting to the next the level will not be easy. Recently, his ascent to stardom experienced some turbulence. Broner and his management were negotiating an exclusive long-term contract with HBO. Such a contract is the sign of a talent on the rise… they were issued to past young stars who turned into pay per view stalwarts such as Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Mayweather and Pacquiao. Then, the “cold war” conflict enveloping Golden Boy, Top Rank Promotions, HBO and Showtime led to HBO issuing an edict that it would no longer do business with Golden Boy. As such, Broner, like other Golden Boy fighters, essentially became persona non grata at HBO. Thus, the machine which had been helping to promote Broner has shut down and needs to be re-set under Showtime. It should be noted that Showtime is a smaller platform than HBO because its subscriber base is smaller by millions. Additionally, Showtime’s main mission appears focused on Mayweather and Canelo and there may not be sufficient resources to develop to growing stars (and if there is, Broner will need to share those resources with other rising stars such as Garcia, Matthysse, Gary Russell, Jr. and others).
Further complicating matters, Broner has not had a well promoted fight against a marquee opponent that could make him into a star. For example, Mayweather was a well-regarded young fighter with a title belt (not unlike Broner) but after he beat Diego Corrales, his career jumped to a whole new lever. Broner needs that next level opponent. With all due respect to Malignaggi, he is not that guy. Although Malignaggi only loses to those at the elite level (Cotto, Ricky Hatton, Juan Diaz and Amir Khan), none of his losses were the signature wins of those elite fighters careers Additionally, Malignaggi is seen as being on the downside of his career and has already been stopped twice. The oddsmakers agree and have Malignaggi listed as high as a -1400 underdog (www.bovada.lv). Even an impressive victory by Broner wouldn’t be breaking new ground.
What he needs is a victory in a massively promoted event over a prime world class fighter who is perceived to be at the top of the junior welterweight or welterweight divisions. Fighters who would fit that bill are the winner of the proposed but not finalized September bout between Garcia and Matthysse (such a fight at 140 pounds, following a win over Malignaggi, would give Broner titles in a fourth weight class and his first division championship), Marcos Maidana or the winner of the proposed December fight between Khan and Devon Alexander. In a perfect world, we would also mention the winner of the October Marquez-Bradley fight and Mike Alvarado but the aforementioned “cold war” make such bouts nearly impossible to make. Aside from that little problem, the makeable fights also may run into scheduling problems given the upcoming fall schedule. If that is the case, Broner will need to take a fall fight against a tough challenger with good credentials but who is considered a level below the aforementioned fighters. Fighters such as Lamont Peterson, Zab Judah, Robert Guerrero, Kell Brook, or the winners of the July bouts between Andre Berto and Jesus Soto Karass and Keith Thurman and Diego Chavez. In other words, his next fight won’t be a “stay busy” fight but probably won’t quiet the increasing volume of those who don’t believe he has beaten a marquee opponent to earn superstar accolades.
By the way, if Broner faces the shell of the once great Shane Mosley, that would be a stay busy fight. More appropriately it could be called an “I’m Busy Fight” because most boxing fans will find something other than watching that bout to do should it be made.
With keeping those problems in mind, it needs to be recognized that Golden Boy and Al Haymon have not gotten to their industry leading positions by being dummies. They are extremely bright and they know how to build stars. Although it was Top Rank that developed Mayweather, you can argue that he did not become the mega-superstar he is now until he hooked up with Haymon. Similarly, Canelo was fighting the similar caliber of opponents that Broner has faced and endured the same criticisms Broner hears before Golden Boy found the right spot for him against Austin Trout and turned him into a big enough attraction to face Mayweather in the fall. Long story short, these guys know what they are doing and are up to facing the Broner superstar “problem.”
All of this is a moot point if Broner doesn’t defeat Malignaggi. Or if he doesn’t defeat his future marquee opponents or if he allows his outsized personality to distract from his career. To that end, it really doesn’t matter what Showtime or Golden Boy or Haymon do. Broner’s future is quite literally in his own hands. He can punch his way to mega-events, pay per view success and mainstream celebrity. Over the next year, it will be fascinating to follow whether he does or not.