I come as the Lorax, if he spoke for uncomfortable boxing realities instead of trees, was less Eco Danny DeVito than strung-out pugilism pedant.
Specifically, I’m all about the Rafe Bartholomew’s recent Athletic piece on the World Boxing Super Series, the first sentence of which credits Kalle Sauerland, pan-European second-generation boxing jive artist, with the tournament’s genesis:
“Perhaps the greatest trick this devil ever pulled was creating an event format that culminates with some of the toughest SOBs on the planet hoisting a giant, golden slinky.”
Rafe is right – the tournament fixtures have been gripping. Usyk-Breidis was a highly technical toss-up between 200-pounders. Dorticos-Kudryashov was a KO I watched on repeat for the latter’s Uzo Aduba eyes as he fell.
There have been wars and walkovers but a kind of inescapable truth-seeking process no matter the action. We fans have been given four chances (soon to be five) to discover who the true top dog is (a role Jose Ramirez may earn but not from me, not until he opts in, so to speak, to this no-ducking methodology).
The Rafe strafe that went low:
Kalle Sauerland doesn’t deserve credit for the instigation of the tournaments. A man named Jørgen Madsen Lindemann, who was the actual chief executive officer of this operation from day one, does. And in the gap between that first dude, who speaks at the pressers, and his counterpart, whose face I wouldn’t recognize even if Rougarou tattooed it on his chest, so many of boxing’s dirtiest issues lie.
It starts with a fancy notebook.
I am in Midtown Manhattan, at the southeast corner of Central Park, in the very posh Pierre Hotel, which I’ve entered only once previously, as a groomsman for a college buddy who had me and some other dude walk down the aisle to Coldplay’s “Yellow” (having never heard it before, I was moved; also, Coldplay ripped off “Viva la Vida” from Joe Satriani – give it 50 seconds).
So it’s March 2017, and a small number of boxing writers are gathered in a conference room with tables and a dais, and there’s music playing and signage with Muhammad Ali’s face. Swag bags for attendees contain Moleskine notebooks and USB drives, all adorned with a logo for the “World Boxing Super Series.”
A dais of unguent industry men are here to explain what that is, including:
Kalle Sauerland (the younger face of his father Wilfried’s boxing operation, and who, for that reason and his slicked-back hair, might be compared to Don Jr, no moral assessment implied) and Richard Schaefer, the Swiss banker who built Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy promotional outfit and then betrayed that effort by letting his talent sign with éminence grise Al Haymon instead.
There’s an undercurrent of sadness attendant to all prizefighting promotion, a pathetic quality to its PT Barnums – and no small element of unconvincing puppetry. The Pierre event is no exception.
Under the company name Comosa, the execs promise to hold multiple boxing tournaments in different weight classes as a running venture and disburse $50 million per season. They’ve licensed the name and likeness of Muhammad Ali for the trophy for an undisclosed sum and they’ve paid the arranger of the UEFA Champions League theme to create a similar sound for their broadcasts (the dude’s named Matt Clifford and his label loves mentioning the work he’s done for Mick Jagger).
But despite the presence of Showtime execs at the table behind me, no TV rights have been sold, and it only gets messier from there. Here’s what’s not emphasized at The Pierre – but can be sensed, in the vagueness of the thing juxtaposed with the specific, large outlays (an Ali trophy?). Here’s all that follows:
Schaefer is tasked with securing an American broadcast deal – perhaps specifically with persuading Haymon to fork over some Showtime dates or just to give his consent to this programming being slotted alongside his own on the airwaves – but Schaefer fails and leaves the group altogether in the first season.
(Supposedly, Sauerland met with Bob Arum without Schaefer and the group was in ultimately unsuccessful talks with premium movie channel Epix,)
Previously unmentioned Roberto Dalmiglio, who’s also seated at the dais, has served at sports-rights handler MP & Silva for the seven years prior to 2017. By absolutely no coincidence, his former firm is tasked with selling TV rights in most of Europe – more on that in a moment – an effort he’ll oversee.
Yet the speakers at the event promise worldwide TV rights have already been sold everywhere on Earth but America -- which is just a deception. The reality is a kinda-quid-pro-quo, WeWork-y instance of self-dealing: All Dalmiglio has done is drop those rights in the collective lap of his former company.
And that must not go too well either, because Dalmiglio will be gone by the second season, and he’ll falsely reduce his tenure at Comosa on his own LinkedIn page – to just two months spent in Zurich in the summer. Of the following year.
See, nobody on the dais has actual control of Comosa, though the event suggests otherwise (Sauerland's family firm, Sauerland Promotions, does own a minority slice, but not an empowering one), which is actually controlled by a Swedish outfit named Modern Times Group (MTG) and a Swiss one named Highlight Event and Entertainment (HLEE).
(Not alleging those two companies are Spectre-like or criminally secretive. Someone at the NYC event may mention them aloud -- can't remember and won't go back and listen to a an hour and a half of audio again -- but Kalle Sauerland certainly doesn't seem to be a Sam Watson-esque talismanic hustler -- a franchise face for an agoraphobe. No, Kalle acts like the boss man. And then there are the press releases.)
The Swedish company promotes e-gaming. The Swiss company, based in the canton of Basel-Landschaft, on Netzibodenstrasse 23b, Pratteln, markets the Eurovision song contest. Both deal in the sports market – which is likely the reason both hid behind Kalle Sauerland – nothing screams sports expertise like utter silence.
The Swedish company's CEO and president –Jørgen Madsen Lindemann – has already had press releases issued to European, non-English publications, which read, in part: “We know how big the fan base is and how big the potential of this product is, which is why we have helped create this unique sporting IP.”
The press release handed us Americans in the Carlyle omits any mention of Jørgen and contains a single line about MTG and HLEE in itsby-bitsy text. See if you can spot a difference...
Back to Roberto Dalmiglio (the man whose tenure shrunk from two years to two months by virtue of a resume whitewash): the press materials issued in Europe mention that while his former firm will be handling the sale of worldwide TV rights – and let’s dwell again for a moment on how bizarre it is for Dalmiglio to be in the position of bossing around the company he was just employed by – the “Nordic rights” won’t be touched.
I don’t know what sort of hometown deal these Swiss and Swedish companies have made, but they don’t want to include any third party in it – that dough they’re determined to keep. And why shouldn’t they? While I’m in sitting in The Pierre in New York, Jørgen’s deputy, Peter Nørrelund, is telling the European press they’ve been working on the WBSS idea for three years.
And maybe it’s due to those companies having no sense of the money-suck all boxing promotions eventually become that the venture will fail to pay fighters in a timely fashion or give them their due bonuses, according to reports and a lawsuit, but for whatever reason, it won’t.
And the funding shortages will be made up by shady, self-interested entities worldwide. Russia’s state ministry for sports will pay to host the first season’s cruiserweight final in Moscow. The 168-lb. final will take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (see, Eddie – I don’t give anyone a pass on Arabia – it was never personal).
This year’s 140-pound tournament, featuring Scotsman Josh Taylor, will involve an undercard in Glasgow dominated by Dubai-managed dudes.
The Nov. 7, 2019, bantamweight final to be held in Saitama, Japan, just north of Tokyo – the “Monster” Inoue show – will be run by Nippon knuckling poobah Akihiko Honda, the 72-year-old head of Teiken Promotions and the Japanese partner of Top Rank – though Inoue isn’t yet promoted by either entity.
One could go on forever.
So here’s the pedant’s pseudo-Seussian point: The World Boxing Super Series has been so good that I’m afraid we’ve ignored its actual underpinnings for two and a half years now – and they’ve been ambiguous at best and ugly at worst, primarily due to the fact that those who started it didn’t necessarily keep it going.
Are the Swedes and Swiss still involved -- or have their shares been bought out entirely -- and by whom? Did DAZN's second season fee cover only a small fraction of bills -- and did a notorious gang or government take care of the rest?
Will Kalle sub-license from the Swiss Miss mates all of the tourney's expensive IP (the commissioned theme song, the Ali rights, that trophy)?
I can only shrug for an answer.
And if the plan was always to partner with local dudes regardless of ethics, to prioritize rubles and dirhams, I'd feel better if I knew to/from whom those currencies flowed. There are some people whose coffers I specifically don't want to fill.
That’s not new – I know all about Imelda Marcos’ shoes and the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Ours will always be a school for scandal – I read Sheridan and Liebling both, I get it. And even if we had addressed our Scandinavian benefactors -- who very well might be pious folk, of pure heart -- what would we have found anyway?
Surely, their money and documents are all in a Basel/Geneva/Zurich vault whose underground operations make Gringotts’ seem minor.
Nor do I want storytelling in boxing to devolve into constant underbelly examinations, Twitter announcements, drug test revelations.
I want fight stories to be about people – and a major shout-out to Rafe for his own work. Obviously, this piece never had anything to do with him -- he just provided me a helpful open (arigatou gozaimasu).
Still, prizefighting can't be handled the same way my high school girlfriend did handsiness: There’s no going halfway with someone here.
Once we let hidden owners remain that way, we are fully fucked. Because they might be upstanding. They might be wealthy. Or they might simply be businessmen locked away from my obnoxiously loud voice and Kim and Copp’s constant texts.
From Rafe's writing.
From the cajoling of honest boxing fans who can be truly brilliant and kind when they're not thrashing each other.
At which point we are, as above-said, effed, 'cause once we've okayed a shadow player, we've forfeited our chance to hold that entity to account. And now they can they hand off something we care deeply about to the highest bidder.