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HBO Boxing: The 1980’s

As HBO kicked off its 2016 campaign with an insulting rematch, we look back to the decade where the premium cable channel became the Gold Standard in airing live boxing into the living rooms; hard core & casual alike.

The 1980’s on the premium network started establishing the moniker of the “HBO Fighter”. The best of the sweet science laced ’em up on prime time premium television. The idea that you had to be the best of the best to fight on HBO made the network a must-have subscription, even for those folks who were not fans of the cinema. To be considered an “HBO Fighter” you had to be the supreme cream that rose to the top of the best brewed; making it a very exclusive group. Being a great fighter was just part of the criteria of landing on Home Box Office. A stiff jab and controlling distance was not going to cut it alone. A great knockout percentage, while helped the cause, was not the end all be all either. In order to get to fight on HBO on a consistent basis in the 80’s, you needed to have that X-Factor; which was never defined but always understood.

HBO began the decade by showcasing an Irish Heavyweight with a left hook that could knock out an elephant. Gerry Cooney was large in stature, soft-spoken, & labeled The Great White Hope. Cooney was the perfect fighter for HBO circa 1980. Drawing power and blistering excitement, Cooney had it all at the start of the decade. In October of 1980, Cooney disposed of respected heavyweight Ron Lyle  faster than you can say ‘I’ll have a burger and fries, well done’. Greg Page, another promising heavyweight from Louisville, Kentucky, and being compared to a young Cassius Clay, disposed of Larry Alexander on the under-card fight. This was the only boxing telecast in 1980 on HBO.

1981 saw the HBO debut of the Undisputed Middleweight Champion of the World; Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Hagler won the official 160-pound title in September in 1980 when he blitzed Alan Minter (many felt he was the uncrowned champion for years). Hagler’s first defense of the middleweight title, and HBO debut, saw him lace’em up against the mysterious WBA benefactor, Fulgencio Obelmejias. Fully Obel, as the phonically challenged referred to him, proved to be a worthy opponent as his showed great resistance and guile over 8 round of furious flying leather; The Marvelous Way.

As always, Hagler disposed of Obel even easier during their 1982 rematch, which also aired on HBO. Hagler had to travel all the way to Italy to take on Obel the second time, the Hall of Famer moved to Italy after his boxing career. The ties that bind us. Hagler fought 13 times after capturing the Undisputed Title from Minter. All but two (Caveman Lee & John Mugabi) were shown on HBO.  The epitome of the HBO fighter.

Hall of Fame fighters with multiple appearances during the 80’s included: Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes, Salvador Sanchez, Julio Caesar Chavez, Wilfred Benitiz, Edwin Rosario, Ray Mancini, Michael Spinks, Thomas Hearns, Hector Camacho & “Iron” Mike Tyson. An eclectic group of pugilists who do not have to take a back seat to any era,  of the rich history that is boxing.

The fighters and fights featured on HBO Boxing during the 1980’s may never be rivaled. What it did was entrench a framework, and expectations, of what boxing fans were to expect when they tuned into HBO. In no particular order, here are some of the highlights of HBO Boxing during the 1980’s, Pay Per View Replays not included.

Hector “Macho” Camacho vs. Edwin Rosario: This battle of Puerto Rican champions took place on June 13th, 1986. While Madison Square Garden was not packed to the rims, the passionate boxing fans who were there were treated to a simmering battle of skills & guts. Camacho built up an early lead with a stiff jab and fluid movement. Rosario could not seem to get it going and was just looking for that one punch game changer. It came for Rosario in the fifth round. A crushing left hook landed on Camacho’s face, changing the fighting style of “Macho” Camacho forever. Hector was hurt bad again late in the fight, however, the flashy southpaw survived and won a controversial split decision. While both Rosario & Camacho are no longer with us, this classic battle will be discussed and debated as long as time allows it.

Tim Witherspoon vs. Frank Bruno: The WBA version of the Heavyweight Championship was on the line on July 19th, 1986 in the famed Wembley Stadium in London. This was Spoon’s first defense of the title he won against Tony Tubbs on the premium channel. While that fight was one of the dullest HBO ever aired, the defense against the British power puncher was one of the best. A fast-paced battle between two 220-pound plus men is a rarity in boxing lure. While Spoon seemed to be out of shape, he kept up with the sculpted Bruno, and wore him down over 11 rounds in a unique combination of raw violence & majestic skills displayed on the highest level of the sweet science.

Livingstone Bramble vs. Ray Mancini II: This rematch aired on HBO, February 16th, 1985. Two days after Valentines Day, this pitched battle was not for the feint of heart. Mancini was primed to win his WBA Lightweight Title back from the awkward style of Bramble. After a slow start, Mancini rallied late to make it close on the scorecards. A bloodied and battered Mancini gave Bramble a reassuring nod as the bell for the 15th round rang. Only “Boom Boom” knows what that nod meant. The judges awarded Bramble a razor-thin unanimous decision. Pure savage action & skill, after 15 rounds, puts this fight on the short list of the greatest HBO Fight of All Time.

Julio Caesar Chavez vs. Roger Mayweather: On May 13th 1989 Roger Mayweather fought the Mexican Legend for the second time. This performance enhanced the already entrenched greatness that is Chavez. There have been very few fighters who have laced ’em up that can rival the combination of skills & love for raw violence that Sr. possessed inside the squared circle. While Uncle Roger came in much better prepared than their first battle (JCC stopped Mayweather in the 2nd round in 1985). and did some impressive work, JCC was better in every aspect, taking and delivering a punch the most glaring difference between the two great champions. While there is a slew of fights to choose from, I nominate this fight as the best performance of one of the best fighters to ever lace ’em up on HBO.