You can hardly blame HBO Sports executive producer Rick Bernstein for getting a little excited as he watched the spectacle of Wladimir Klitschko pummeling Chris Byrd to win the International Boxing Federation’s heavyweight title last month.
After all, not only could the Ukrainian pugilist bring fans back to boxing, but he’s Bernstein’s best chance in a long time to bring boxing fans back to HBO—along with hundreds of millions of dollars in pay-per-view grosses. "We are just sitting back and hoping," says Bernstein.
Not since the heyday of the erratic yet captivating Mike Tyson has there been a charismatic heavyweight champion with the potential to draw non-boxing fans. Tyson’s 2002 fight with then-champ Lennox Lewis was the last big heavyweight event, a match jointly distributed by HBO and Showtime that grossed $103 million from 1.8 million pay-per-view buys.
Klitschko might have that magic combination of looks and personality that could bring back the big paydays.
Towering at 6 foot 6, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist looks like he could have played Ivan Drago, the Russian villain portrayed by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. But, often a fan favorite, he speaks English, holds a Ph.D. in sports science, and plays chess. Of course, Klitschko needs to keep winning. Before a recent string of victories, he suffered upset defeats in 2003 and 2004. Says Bernstein, "You are only as marketable as how well you can fight."