Eyes on the prize fight, but one fight too few

The Oscar De La Hoya farewell tour kicks off this weekend, and it's a time for celebration.

It's a time for fans to pay tribute to his Hall of Fame career, for writers to wax poetic on what he's meant to the game, for everyone to give him the Brett Favre treatment, where we all conveniently ignore the interceptions and let ourselves get choked up over the ones that memorably hit their target.

De La Hoya says he'll fight thrice more: against Steve Forbes this Saturday, against Floyd Mayweather in September and then one last time against an opponent to be named in December. Let the seven-month-long party begin.

And then let the panic set in.

It's a little bit like the final week before you graduate college: You try your best to focus on the good times and maybe do the Senior Scramble, pushing aside the ominous feeling that in a few days, the real world awaits and you have no idea what comes next.

Boxing fans might not care to admit it, but life after Oscar is a scary proposition. Oh yes, the sport will go on and thrilling fights will be made. But will the mainstream's recognition of the fight game retire with "The Golden Boy?"

Boxing is a cult sport that becomes a big deal to those outside the Kool-Aid club just a handful of times each year. Without De La Hoya, it might belong exclusively to the cult all 365 days.

The heavyweights are as uninspiring (and, importantly, as un-American) as they've ever been. And several of the most mainstream names in the game, specifically Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley, are only mainstream names because they shared the stage with Oscar.

Sure, there are explosively entertaining, highly talented, pound-for-pound-rated fighters in their 20s, such as Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto and Kelly Pavlik, who give the hardcore fans plenty to look forward to. But would any of them ever be able to sell a million pay-per-views with anyone other than De La Hoya in the opposite corner?

Never mind that; us boxing fans don't really care about how much money the fighters generate. But we do care about getting to see them argued about on "Pardon The Interruption" and profiled in Sports Illustrated. Such attention rates to diminish significantly once De La Hoya officially completes the transition from boxer to businessman.

Rather than wait until Oscar is gone, now is the time for boxing's power brokers to be proactive and positively shape the future. And what better way to do that than to expose the massive audiences De La Hoya generates to the sport's brightest prospects?

With De La Hoya fighting Forbes on "free" HBO this Saturday, Oscar's first non-PPV fight in more than seven years, you couldn't ask for a better opportunity to build a future audience by putting an ultra-talented young fighter in a televised co-feature.

Immediately before Joe Calzaghe fought Peter Manfredo in April '07 (a star fighter coming in as an overwhelming favorite against a graduate of "The Contender," just like De La Hoya-Forbes), HBO viewers got to see Olympic silver medalist Amir Khan wipe out Steffy Bull in three rounds. It didn't matter that it was a thoroughly noncompetitive fight; Khan's offense was dynamic, and casual fans were left wanting to see him fight again.

De La Hoya-Forbes is a considerably grander stage than Calzaghe-Manfredo.

There are approximately 29 million HBO subscribers -- 12 times as many households as purchased the biggest fight in pay-per-view history. Given the unlikelihood of big-time fights finding their way back onto the major free networks, this Saturday's fight is a shoo-in to be the most-watched boxing match of 2008.

HBO's publicity department declined to estimate the audience for De La Hoya-Forbes, and frankly, in this era of constant replays and On Demand options, live ratings don't mean much anyway, as they represent only a fraction of the eyeballs that will eventually watch a broadcast.

Just know that an Oscar fight is not just a fight -- it's an event. The solid 3.9 rating for Hopkins-Calzaghe a week ago will be dwarfed.

The point of all of this is to illustrate how meaningful it could have been for an up-and-comer along the lines of Khan to appear on this telecast. Everyone knows De La Hoya-Forbes is an infomercial for Mayweather-De La Hoya II. But this show could have also been an infomercial for the sport of boxing by allowing a young phenom's fan base to explode.

"I tried to convince HBO that it is important to have a platform like this to give some exposure to some of the young kids," Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer told ESPN.com. "HBO really only wanted to put one fight on, just like they did this past weekend with Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe. For these mega-fights, where they pay good money, they feel that if you put another fight on, that will not have a positive impact on the ratings."

HBO Sports Senior Vice President of Programming Kery Davis was on vacation for the past week and unavailable for comment, while messages to other HBO executives were not returned.

But Davis was given major credit by Schaefer for spearheading a compromise.

The network will not show a co-feature, but it will include highlights of two undercard bouts. Two of GBP's brightest prospects, 21-year-old Brooklyn super middleweight Danny Jacobs and 20-year-old Philadelphia welterweight Danny Garcia, both sporting records of 5-0 (5 KOs), will be seen on HBO in brief clips against nonthreatening opposition.

"I'm actually very happy that instead of just having to pick one fight, we're going to have the opportunity to feature two young kids, so I'm very thankful for HBO for doing that. I was actually hoping to maybe even show three kids, but I guess I was pushing my luck," Schaefer said with a laugh.

On the plus side, a highlight package means a trimming of the fat and, given the fighters involved, probably a couple of spectacular knockout endings.

On the minus side, a 30-second clip of a fighter can't leave the same imprint that a few rounds of live action can.

What Schaefer and GBP originally had in mind, more so than not-ready-for-prime-time players like Garcia and Jacobs, was to try to get a more advanced young contender on the air. Names like bantamweight Abner Mares and featherweight Jorge Linares (who was recently labeled by Max Kellerman on ESPN Radio as a potential future pound-for-pound king and who just happens to be nicknamed "El Nino De Oro," or "The Golden Boy") were tossed about.

Linares' only U.S. TV exposure so far has come on a pair of pay-per-view undercards. A spot like this could have been a major coming-out party for the 22-year-old.

Mares, also 22, has already been on HBO once, but that audience was a small fraction of what De La Hoya-Forbes will reel in.

Pardon the obvious pun, but this would have been a golden opportunity to turn a fighter only hard-core fans know about into someone the mainstream sports world takes notice of and begins buzzing about.

And with the De La Hoya farewell tour underway, there are a limited number of golden opportunities like this left.

Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.