LAS VEGAS — All eyes are on the man who doesn’t want to be seen.
Floyd Mayweather made his grand arrival at the MGM Grand, kicking off a festivity-filled week that culminates Saturday with one of the most anticipated bouts in years, the undefeated Mayweather against Manny Pacquiao, an eight-time world champion. But as a marching band played, cameras flashed and fans gawked, the controversial man pulling the strings was nowhere to be seen Tuesday afternoon.
And while he couldn’t to be spotted anywhere in the arena, Al Haymon was still impossible to miss. His fingerprints are on every part of the fight — from the signed contracts and lucrative terms of the deal, to the venue, to the television deals that will score both fighters — and Haymon, too — millions of dollars.
Saturday’s bout will be seen around the world, and it’s doubtful the man who helped make it happen — the man who many say is the most powerful figure in boxing — will get much camera time. Depending on whom you ask, the mysterious Haymon, who rarely grants interviews and wasn’t available to comment for this story, avoids the spotlight, is either an unmatched pillager in a sport never lacking in scoundrels or just maybe, the man who holds the keys to boxing’s future.
In addition to helping negotiate the Mayweather-Pacquiao showdown, Haymon boasts a stable of 150 boxers, far more than anyone else, and he brokered the deal to return the sport to network television. The Sports Business Journal reported he’s backed by Waddell and Reed, a prestigious asset management company, to the tune of $400 million, and many think he’s positioning himself in a way that will make the entire boxing world essentially beholden to him.
As Haymon, 59, tries to plow new ground for the embattled sport, he’s unapologetically left in his wake a long trail of embittered feelings, burned bridges and endless speculation about his motives.
“He don’t care what you guys say about him. He don’t care what nobody says,” Sam Watson, the public face of Haymon Boxing and close friend of its namesake, said recently.
If Haymon is to receive credit for finally making Mayweather-Pacquiao happen, he also deserves blame for almost sinking the bout, for the years of hold-ups and bickering that threatened to thwart the fight from ever taking place.
“To me, there was a guy behind the curtain — Al Haymon — who was stalling it,” said Pacquiao’s promoter, Bob Arum.
Because Haymon represents Mayweather — officially, he’s the fighter’s “adviser” — he’s had to negotiate with Arum, who says the two met face-to-face just once to discuss the fight and chatted a second time last week on a conference call. He calls Haymon “a guy who was up to no good,” and accuses Haymon of trying to drive other promoters out of business.
Many inside the sport have watched as Haymon’s stockpiled fighters and influence, and boxing has splintered into two factions: one seemingly under Haymon’s control and one not, with the money and the power increasingly tilting in Haymon’s direction.
While his fighters and associates — particularly those with television partners Showtime and NBC — go out of their way to laud Haymon for all he’s done for the sport, Thomas Hauser, the veteran journalist and boxing historian, notes that, “Al Haymon is not Mother Teresa.”
“Al Haymon’s goal isn’t to save the sport. Al Haymon’s goal is to make money for Al Haymon and his investors,” Hauser said. “In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in some respects, Al Haymon is Don King for the new millennium.”
But while King sought fame and fortune that rivaled his best prizefighters, Haymon is comfortable operating in the shadows, his anonymity only stirring mystery. At a January news conference in New York where NBC announced the landmark deal to return boxing to network television, Mark Lazerus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, was bombarded with questions about Haymon. “I feel like I’m being asked about the Wizard of Oz here,” he said.
“My dealings with him have been terrific. He’s, as you might guess, an understated type of person,” Lazerus said. “But he’s direct and honest and forthright.”
Stephen Espinoza, the head of Showtime Boxing, points out that when Haymon was strictly in the concert business, he stayed in the background then, too, preferring the artists to grace the stage.
“He doesn’t need to be seen, doesn’t need to be heard,” Espinoza said. “Not because he’s up to anything sinister, but if there’s an interview with him or a photo of him, that’s fewer column inches and [less] photographic space that’s left to talk about the fighters themselves.”
Unlike so many in the sport, Haymon is not a boxing lifer. He attended Harvard, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s in business administration. He became highly successfully promoting concerts, also dabbling a bit in television, before signing his first boxer more than a decade ago, Vernon Forrest. His role in the sport — and his influence — grew rapidly.
Once he began working with Mayweather more than a decade ago, Haymon suddenly held the biggest negotiating chip in the sport. After Mayweather split with Arum, the fighter formed his own promotion company, which allows him to earn a percentage of every dollar spent on his fights, whether it’s pay-per-view buys, ticket sales or concessions.
“It’s a model that never will be duplicated again,” Leonard Ellerbe, CEO of Mayweather Promotions, said in an interview last year. “It’s a model that’s been carefully thought out from a strategic standpoint. . . . Myself, Floyd and Al Haymon, we put this whole puzzle together.”
Haymon took full advantage of his leverage in negotiations with both promoters and TV networks. He favored Showtime over HBO and rather than work with other promoters, he pitted his own fighters against each other. “It’s silly because some matches that could easily be made weren’t being made . . . King and I were tremendous rivals and competitors,” Arum said last year. “But that never stopped us from working together to put on a big fight.”
As much as other promoters might question both Haymon’s practices and intentions, his fighters are among the most loyal. Middleweight champion Peter Quillin says in boxing, “fighters are mistreated, misused, and abused all the time.”
“That’s why people thank Al Haymon so much,” he says, “because he’s able to know what we’re worth as fighters.”
That’s also why Haymon has become such a lightning rod. Golden Boy Promotions, an ally-turned-foe, is preparing to sue Haymon, according to a Sports Illustrated report this week, alleging Haymon’s operations are in violation of both state and federal laws, including the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The potential lawsuit, similar to one filed last year, also charges Haymon with serving as both promoter and manager to his fighters, which would violate the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. Signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, the federal law establishes a clear firewall between managers and promoters: “it is unlawful for a manager (i) to have a direct or indirect financial interest in the promotion of a boxer.”
Like his public persona, Haymon’s business practices are shrouded in mystery. Many in boxing have watched Haymon carefully maneuver chess pieces, one methodical step at a time, most believing his grand plan is to upend the chessboard entirely. In addition to helping stage the biggest fight in years, Haymon earlier this year announced the NBC deal, plus similar agreements with Spike TV, ESPN and CBS, exposing the sport to an audience that no longer has to pay premium cable or pay-per-view fees to see a big bout.
The televised fights, known as the Premier Boxing Champions, don’t necessarily hinge on the myriad championship belts, and with such a large stable of boxers, Haymon could be creating a fight universe of his own — his own weight classes, rankings and titles, exclusive TV deals and a singularly recognized champion — that could bring structure to a sport that has operated like the wild West for more than a century.
Even as the boxing world has come to accept this as the likely blueprint, Haymon has announced nothing of the sort, apparently content to allow speculation define both him and his motives.
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