When Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports, said in a recent interview with me that he would not buy heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko's September fight against Alexander Povetkin, it came as quite a surprise to the Klitschko camp.
The reason: Klitschko and his team, namely manager Bernd Boente and adviser Shelly Finkel, say HBO promised it would air the fight on Sept. 11 and that they had agreed on a price ($250,000 to show the bout on same-day tape delay).
Frankly, I absolutely believe them, because long before Greenburg said HBO wouldn't air the fight, Finkel told me several times that he had made a deal for the bout with Kery Davis, the HBO Sports senior vice president whose job it is to make such deals and who wanted to do the fight.
Obviously, Davis' boss cut his legs out and trumped his decision after the fact, leaving Klitschko angry about the broken promise from HBO, which has generally done good ratings for Klitschko fights.
"We are really frustrated. Shelly is furious. Wladimir, too," Boente said Wednesday. "We were counting on it. This cost us a quarter of a million dollars. If they had told us this at the beginning, we would have had the fight on Showtime. Now we have neither. Not only is HBO screwing us, they are screwing American boxing fans. I am not only surprised, I am shocked."
So without HBO or Showtime as a U.S. platform, Klitschko will fight Povetkin on Sept. 11 at the 55,000-seat Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany. The deal was finalized this week after Klitschko's K2 Promotions won a recent purse bid for the fight, one of the best you can make in the division -- which is, granted, not exactly loaded with big fights. Povetkin is at least a deserving mandatory challenger and universally regarded as the No. 4 heavyweight in the world behind Klitschko, brother and fellow titleholder Vitali Klitschko and titlist David Haye, who is ducking the brothers.
Boente contends that HBO breaking its promise cost him the chance to make the same deal for $250,000 with Showtime, which was interested in the fight. However, Boente said Showtime could only accommodate it on Sept. 18, when it would have aired as a lead-in to its live featherweight title fight from Las Vegas featuring Juan Manuel Lopez defending against Rafael Marquez.
By the way, Boente understands the TV fight-buying business because, before working with the Klitschkos, he had a job similar to Davis' with a German network.
"When I promised a promoter I would do a fight, that promise stood," he said. "There were no excuses."
The only reason Boente even made a deal for Sept. 11 instead of Sept. 18 is because that is when Davis told him HBO was available. Boente had been dealing through the German soccer league, which was putting together its upcoming schedule, and one of those dates was going to be a home game for the Frankfurt team. Boente said he worked with German soccer officials to clear one of the dates for the fight. It gave him Sept. 11, which he requested because of HBO. Then HBO bailed, leaving him unable to move back to Sept. 18 to accommodate Showtime because the soccer schedule was already set.
"What HBO did to us is absolutely disgusting," Boente said. "Kery promised me and also Shelly on the telephone that he will do the fight. We had agreed. The worst thing is that Kery said, 'We can do the fight on the 11th but not on the 18th.' Showtime could do it on the 18th but not on the 11th. We made a deal with HBO for the 11th and we said to the German soccer league before they planned their schedule to please make sure that on the 11th there is no home game for Frankfurt because we have an American TV station on board. They said OK. And then HBO screwed us and now we lose $250,000."
The Klitschkos are so upset with HBO that Boente said they will never again fight on the network, which has had a long association with them. He said they'll go so far as to ask HBO to remove their photos and bios from its website.
"If we knew HBO wouldn't do the fight, we would have asked for [the stadium on] Sept. 18 and Showtime would have shown the fight," he said. "Now we lose all that money completely, and it's HBO's fault.
"[Davis] should have talked to his boss first before you promise something. You can't promise me and Shelly and then not do it. Showtime played it very straight with us about their situation. HBO did not. I'll tell you one thing: If either brother ever fights David Haye, I will make sure and the brothers will make sure that HBO doesn't cover the fight and that it will go to Showtime.
"HBO's lie cost us $250,000. It's not like Wladimir is fighting a bum. Povetkin is undefeated, he's an Olympic champion and everyone ranks him very highly. A lot of people want to see the fight.
"Wladimir is totally pissed and really disappointed. He thought a promise is a promise, and if you promise someone, you have to stand by your promise. We have been on HBO for 23 fights [between the brothers], but I guess that doesn't mean anything. Maybe Ross has something against Germany or Ukrainians. I don't know what it is. You'd think maybe he would call Wladimir and Vitali and say he's sorry."
Greenburg made the point in our interview, as well as in interviews he did with other outlets afterward, that HBO was no longer interested in doing heavyweight fights unless it involved a Klitschko brother facing Haye or perhaps Tomasz Adamek.
Based on the way Boente spoke, even if those fights are put together, HBO won't get them under any circumstance.
"Whether Wladimir or Vitali fight Haye eventually, we will make sure the fight is not on HBO," he said. "HBO will not cover anymore Klitschko fights. On the Haye fight, Wladimir said to me that HBO thinks that they will have it 100 percent because they always overpay if they want something. But for him it is not about the money, it's about fair play."
When I asked Boente directly if that meant they would take less money from Showtime for a Haye fight, he said, "Yes, absolutely."
As for the Povetkin fight, Boente said he's looking for a U.S. partner and has been in touch with ESPN, which confirmed they were having conversations. However, that deal appears unlikely given the limited boxing budget and the fact the ESPN networks are loaded with college football on Saturdays in the fall.
"If it's not ESPN, we'll do it pay-per-view," Boente said.
HBO refused to address Boente's assertion that it promised to buy the fight, but spokesman Ray Stallone said this in a statement to ESPN.com: "HBO's goal, as always, is to televise the biggest fights in the sport. We recognize that both Wladimir and Vitali are among the sport's most accomplished performers. With a combined total of 23 appearances on HBO, it's reasonable to say that the relationship has been productive for all parties. Going forward, our position is clear: If a heavyweight title fight between Wladimir or Vitali and David Haye can be made, regardless of the site, we will be first in line to make an offer to televise it in the U.S. In addition, if any other opponent emerges that we think will get the U.S. market excited about a prospective title fight, we will surely be in line to try and buy the fight for the U.S. market.
"HBO wants the heavyweight division to thrive, and when Wladimir or Vitali fight in the U.S. or take on any opponent that we think will register in this country, we are prepared to discuss those fights."
By the sound of it, that's going to be a one-way conversation.