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HBO Pulls Its Punches

7/11/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Floyd Mayweather Jr. won most of his boxing matches with ease, but he's apparently been punched in the head one too many times after all.

In a surprisingly under-covered story, the temporarily retired fighter and former Dancing With the Stars contestant told the Grand Rapids Press that HBO is a racist network when it comes to covering boxing, a longtime mainstay of the cable outlet.

Being one of a dwindling population of people who watch enough boxing to know, I can categorically say that is ridiculous. But HBO didn't come back swinging. That's because they know Mayweather's “retirement” is about as legitimate as Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre's, and they astutely want to cash in when he fights again.

Up until he “retired” last month, Mayweather was undefeated and the best fighter in the world. He basically ran out of guys to beat. He brought in hundreds of millions of dollars for HBO's network and pay-per-view service, and was beginning to go mainstream at a time when boxing desperately needed it.

From Dancing With the Stars contestant to Indianapolis 500 honorary starter to WrestleMania main-event personality, he was on fire. He has serious star quality, is a great speaker and is downright hysterical. Like carry-a-sitcom funny. You know—if there were still sitcoms to carry.

Then Mayweather came out of nowhere and not only bit the hand that fed him, but laid into it like me at a TCA press tour buffet, saying HBO only pumps up non-African-American fighters.

“Is it racial? Absolutely,” he said. “They praise white fighters, they praise Hispanic fighters, whatever. But black fighters, they never praise…I've noticed it for a long time but I couldn't say anything because I had to do business with them.”

As I said, I just don't see it. So I caught up with former heavyweight champion and HBO commentator George Foreman and, um, “grilled” him on the subject.

“That's a horrible thing to say,” Foreman said of Mayweather's assertions. “You can't take a company like that and say bad things about them unless you know something, and I don't know anything like that at all. They let me say whatever I wanted to say.”

HBO's response to all this? With apologies to the great Cassius Clay, they floated like a butterfly instead of stinging like a bee. No PR offensive, just a statement if anyone called. “[Mayweather's] remarks regarding HBO broadcasters and executives are unfortunate and we could not disagree more,” read the statement. “We will not engage in a debate. We are very disappointed in hearing about this. We wish him well in retirement.”

Could HBO's decision not to go after Mayweather be considered gutless in the testosterone-filled world of boxing? Maybe. But was it smart? Absolutely.

That's because as soon as Mayweather blows through his first 8-10 million dollars and doesn't have the cash flow coming in to replace it, suddenly he will be “inspired” to fight again. You know, for the love of the sport. And for the fans who demanded he return. Of course, those “fans” being his accountants.

But when he does fight again, boxing fans (present company included, unfortunately) will line up to see his “comeback.” And HBO will line up to put on the fight, because the guy still prints pugilistic coin.

Thus, they're not about to rip him and create business for a competitor. The last thing they want is for the best fighter in the world to end up on Showtime, which already is firing uppercuts to HBO's jaw by building entertainment buzz and picking Inside the NFL up off the mat.

So for this round, HBO execs lay down. But they know Mayweather will be back in the ring, and they'll be waiting to deposit the checks that will accompany his comeback. Taking one on the chin was the right business move, even though HBO Sports chief Ross Greenburg and his staff probably wouldn't have minded landing one good punch.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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