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Bob Arum, 50 Cent and the Art of Promotion

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A long time ago (a lifetime, seemingly) Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, rapper, entrepreneur and now boxing promoter, once laced them up himself as a Junior Olympics hopeful. It’s all part of the constant evolution of a man in perpetual, positive motion.
 
“I competed a long time ago as an amateur,” 50 told Maxboxing.com’s Radio Rahim during a media day to inaugurate his career as a boxing promoter (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_fXgNI45Kg). On hand was Yuriorkis Gamboa, Jackson’s top fighter, who appears on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez IV this Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, NV. “I kind of got distracted and went across the street and got into the wrong things. Once they told me how to fight, I was a little more comfortable over there. But now I am having the opportunity to live vicariously through the fighters I represent. I try to stay in shape doing portions of the workouts. You see how hard these guys work. You’d fall out if you see what they are actually doing.”

Gamboa would display exactly what Jackson was talking about later on in the day. The meantime was all 50 as he worked the room, giving extended time to reporters, playfully answering questions and skillfully avoiding a few with a clever quip or a knowing smile. If first impressions are the most important, this initial glimpse into boxing life with 50 Cent was as good a first look as they get.
 
“[I’m here] to make exciting fights and I am lucky to be associated with fighters that are willing to take the tough fights,” said Jackson, who also represents IBF featherweight titlist Billy Dib and Andre Dirrell.
 
Jackson’s SMS Promotions was initially intended to be a joint venture with Floyd Mayweather Jr. called “The Money Team,” a name first appearing as a Twitter hashtag take on Mayweather’s “Money” nickname. But the two men recently had a falling out seemingly over Mayweather’s refusal to leave his adviser Al Haymon in favor of going into business with Jackson and another associate. Jackson expressed concern for Mayweather’s financial well-being, telling one reporter about a pattern he observed that saw Mayweather only making money through fighting. He worried his friend would end up like so many boxers do when the paychecks end. Still, he appeared to bear no ill will toward Mayweather.
 
“That’s my brother,” said Jackson. “Competitors? We’d be competitors if he was fighting Gamboa. I’d be more upset at him for not calling me if his son breaks his arm than deciding not to be financially involved in our business venture because Gamboa, he retains his value. Andre Dirrell, the same. You could feel he had done something wrong if he had made you invest in something that was worth nothing or had no knowledge of. And who should you blame at that point? You should probably blame yourself for not making yourself aware of what you were investing in.”
 
Soon after publicly announcing on his Twitter feed that he would go it alone professionally as a boxing promoter, Jackson (licensed in both New York and Nevada to promote fights) went at it with Mayweather a few days later in a much-publicized 140-character war that got personal before it got friendly. Jackson confused Twitter followers and boxing fans alike by seemingly taking back the fight and declaring the two men friends. The mea culpa further confused the public as to what was really going on.
 
“Oh, they shouldn’t be confused. I can say anything about Floyd Mayweather. I don’t know what they talking about. Don’t you say nothing about Floyd Mayweather while I’m standing there; you get it?” clarified Jackson.
 
There are many arts within the promotional world that a successful fight promoter must master. The arts of media manipulation, matchmaking and its many facets from building, sustaining and extending a fighter’s career to creating fighters that can fight and draw large audiences take years to learn. As Golden Boy Promotions likely learned in the last two weeks with the defeats of established franchises Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto against fighters a more experienced promoter would have never matched aging and lucrative stars against, it’s difficult to protect an established brand so it yields the highest return on the investment.
 
“With Miguel Cotto, you don’t sell out or have big attendance by accident. You work it,” said Top Rank founder Bob Arum, referring to this past weekend’s Austin Trout-Miguel Cotto fight at Madison Square Garden. The Puerto Rican Olympian Cotto spent a career under the Top Rank banner, being built as a draw in New York’s Puerto Rican-rich population. This weekend was his eighth time at the Garden as well as his first loss in the legendary venue. Cotto, who co-promoted the event with Golden Boy Promotions, lost to a style in Trout’s that is all wrong for him. At age 32, with years of wars under his belt, fighting a taller, quicker, southpaw with a movement-based style could not have been a worse decision for Cotto considering he was setting up a lucrative May 4, 2013 showdown with Mexican star Saul Alvarez.
 
“This will also be the smallest attendance since we broke him in at the Garden,” predicted Arum. That first fight against Muhammad Abdullaev drew a little over 10,000 people. The announced crowd for Trout-Cotto was 13,096. A club report breaking down all the numbers of the tickets sold, comped, etc. was not available at press time. Last year at this time, Cotto faced off against archrival Antonio Margarito, who had basically one good eye and a terrible reputation. The two men drew 21,239 to the Garden in Cotto’s last Top Rank fight. Granted, with Hurricane Sandy devastating much of the East Coast, sales would inevitably be down. At the same time, Golden Boy made a key mistake in pricing the tickets exactly like Cotto-Margarito II, except involving two fighters with much more brand recognition and a built-in storyline. 
 
“[Golden Boy Promotions] don’t know how to work it,” said Arum. “[Golden Boy CEO Richard] Schaefer, he doesn’t have the knowledge and experience that is necessary. He does everything cookie cutter. For example, this Saturday, he has a press lunch in New York at Gallagher’s for Zab Judah and [WBC junior welterweight titlist Danny] Garcia. Now it is one thing to do it in Vegas with all the media there and you give them a good lunch and then they go up to their room then come down and cover the fight.
 
“You’re in New York,” Arum continued. “The writers live in New Jersey or…it takes them quite a bit of time to get to New York. So you are expecting them to come in for a lunch, go back home, and that’s like two hours and then come back for the fight. They’re not going to do it. They’re not going to do it. Why doesn’t [Schaefer] ask somebody? [They] do things stupidly because they work in Las Vegas.”
 
At age 81, Arum sees in Jackson someone who can help him and his company grow into the future and understand a market his company has historically not thrived in: the young African-American market.
 
“I think it is a real good plus for boxing because [Jackson] has the ability to attract another demographic, the urban market. And that is something to a great extent we are lacking in boxing,” said Arum. “If through his efforts, we can energize that urban market given the popularity of boxing among Hispanics and Filipinos, now we have something that really can’t be stopped. It will be absolutely huge.”
 
Most fight fans will hold it against Arum’s promotional prowess that he allowed Floyd Mayweather Jr., the biggest star in boxing, get away from him in the first place. Before they split, following Mayweather’s first pay-per-view fight against Arturo Gatti, Floyd asked for a match with Oscar De la Hoya, asking for upwards of $20 million for the fight. Arum refused, saying, at the time, the money just wasn’t there. When they finally squared off on May 5, 2007, the junior middleweight match broke pay-per-view records and instantly made “Money” the biggest star in the sport not named Manny Pacquiao.
 
“The point is that, to a large extent, we didn’t know,” ceded Arum in hindsight. “In other words, we were able early to see the Hispanic situation and to learn how to promote to the Hispanics, coming from an era where most of the fighters were black like [Muhammad] Ali and all the heavyweights. Or you had [Sugar Ray] Leonard, Tommy [Hearns] and Marvin [Hagler], we were marketing to a white audience even though they were black fighters. Then when the white audience fell off and you had to figure out how to reach the black audience, we didn’t have the knowledge or the feel to do it. We didn’t understand that market which Floyd instinctively did.”
 
Beyond that “urban,” “black” or “African-American” market, however you want to label it, it’s the young white male market that’s lost to MMA (generally) and UFC (specifically). With boxing programs in high school and college either extinct or few and far between (though wrestling programs in nearly every school are quite prominent), the battle for the young, white violence enthusiast may be a losing battle.
 
“The youth market is in boxing with Hispanics and Filipinos and to some extent with African-Americans,” said Arum. “That’s where the upside is, with young African-Americans. As far as white young people, that’s going to be a more difficult battle. And in order to reach and get more white Anglos paying attention to boxing, we are going to have to find a way to develop Anglo talent. That’s what we are doing. We have some very good white fighters that Cameron Dunkin is bringing in to us like Trevor McCumby and Mikael Zewski and, hopefully, we will be able to build on that.”
 
A big part of building a draw is familiarity. Train the local audience to come see your guy and build a relationship with him and they will follow. But in order to be successful, fights have to carefully manufactured. Audiences don’t just show up because you have a casino and a TV date. As they say in business, it’s all about location, location, location.
 
“They don’t know what they are doing,” said Arum of Golden Boy, who so far has put Chad Dawson-Bernard Hopkins in Los Angeles, Garcia-Morales II in Brooklyn, Robert Guerrero-Andre Berto in Ontario and are looking to do Kell Brook vs. Devon Alexander in Las Vegas. All of these are fights that make no sense when relating the fighters to the venues. “We know what we’re doing or we try and we work hard at it. We don’t make these crazy decisions they make. We would never take a Berto-Guerrero and put it in Ontario. What the f**k are they doing in Ontario? It makes no sense at all. Or what are they doing…they announced Kell Brook and the Alexander fight. Now where are they putting it? In Vegas. Vegas, like who gives a sh*t? We have nobody in Vegas to sell tickets to. We have people who want to come in and watch the fight. [Kell Brook?] Nobody ever heard of him. And Alexander? Nobody wants to hear of him. It just makes no sense. Two places for that fight or else you don’t do it: One is the United Kingdom or, two, St. Louis.”
 
Beyond criticizing the competition, Arum looks forward to teaching this new addition to the boxing world what he can about the art of promotion. And Jackson looks to learn what he can. Observing him interacting all day with the media, locking in with each interviewer and engaging everyone around him with eye contact and a genuine smile (or when he shuts out the world to focus in on his fighter as he worked), it was obvious why Jackson has been such a multi-platform success. He takes genuine care in what he does.
 
“Bob Arum is an 800-pound gorilla. We’re talking about Top Rank,” said Jackson. “You see Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto, Manny Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley, they all have one thing in common. That’s Top Rank. They have a better farming system and they actually invest in the future.”
 
As he learns from a master boxing promoter, one has to wonder what changes this master self-promoter will bring to a game that, more often than not, changes people for the worse. Time will tell.
 
“What you won’t see is fighters saying ‘50 took all the money,’ because that’s what you saw in the past,” promised Jackson. “This is not my sole source of income. This is really me being a part of boxing because I’m passionate about it. I look forward to make the best possible fights and bringing the excitement that you actually want to see.”
 
Who knows how long 50 Cent will stay in the game? From the sound of things, as long as he likes. 
 
If nothing else, maybe he’ll get Gamboa a guest spot on wax…
 
You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him every Monday on “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 p.m., PST.
 
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