Still Here: An Interview With Kathy Duva

Kathy-Duva-kovalev-alvarez

Interview with Kathy Duva, by Sean Nam. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>

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With a few months to go before the December 2008 cruiserweight title fight between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham—the country still in freefall from the most crippling stock market crash in recent memory—promoter Kathy Duva corralled her staff at the Main Events headquarters in Totowa, New Jersey. She had an announcement to make. With the exception of two employees, everyone would be laid off after the fight.

“It was going to be our last show,” Duva recalled in a recent phone call. “I was done.”

The recession, notwithstanding, Main Events’ talent pool had long dried up. With seemingly no one in its stable who could foreseeably fill the colossal vacuum left by Lennox Lewis, Fernando Vargas, and Arturo Gatti, the company’s three most valuable assets from the late ‘90s to the mid-aughts, Duva decided it was time to close up shop.

But Adamek, a Main Events fighter, would not only end up beating Cunningham (in a close and somewhat controversial decision), but he would do so in front of raucous Polish-American crowd at the Prudential Center in Newark. The arena’s executives, elated with the strong turnout, rushed over to Duva postfight and asked, “when can we do this again?”

Main Events was back in business. Sort of.

“We had a real skeleton staff at first,” Duva said, “but we made it out.”

Adamek would go on to headline the Prudential Center eight more times in his career, becoming, in the process, the kind of strong regional draw all too seldomly seen in the contemporary boxing scene. Though the days when Main Events was raking in a reported yearly $40 million in revenue during the late ‘90s were long gone, Adamek nevertheless offered an adequate lifeline for the company. Other means of support would soon open up for the promoter as well.

At around the time when the Adamek gravy train had come to a halt, in 2012, Main Events struck a deal for a televised boxing series with NBC Sports. It was on one of these shows that a little-known Russian light-heavyweight by the name of Sergey Kovalev introduced himself to an American audience. Six and a half years later, with a couple of title belts, PPV bouts, and multimillion-dollar purses in tow, Kovalev still remains the most important and relevant fighter on the Main Events roster.

“That’s why if there’s one thing that I have confidence in, it’s that we always find a way,” Duva said with a laugh. “You can never plan for this sport.”

And yet as Main Events enters its forty-first year in the notoriously mystifying business of professional boxing, it finds itself, once more, standing on tenuous ground, facing challenges as onerous as any in its history. Outside of the aging, yet-still-capable titleholder Kovalev, there are no other marquee fighters under its banner who can sell tickets and attract viewers. Its roster, which in its heyday boasted more than twenty fighters, is thinned out to about ten, a mishmash of largely unknown prospects from Eastern Europe and low-level American contenders. But perhaps the most pressing dilemma for Main Events is that it no longer has a consistent means by which it can develop its fighters.

It needs, in other words, a broadcaster.

When HBO, Main Events’ main television partner for more than three decades, decided to suddenly abandon the sport last year, Duva was deprived of the most important component of her business. She has been on the hunt ever since for an alternative platform, but that has turned out to be a difficult undertaking, especially in a rapidly changing boxing landscape that has become more factionalized than ever. “We’re still trying to figure that part out,” admitted Duva, who first learned about HBO’s farewell, like everybody else, through an article in the New York Times. “I gotta find a platform. It’s a must. That’s what my focus is right now.”

The hard reality today is that no boxing promoter can hope to put on decent cards, cultivate and publicize their fighters, and, most of all, make a profit, without the financial weight provided by a committed broadcast partner.

“It makes me cry the people that we can’t sign, because they’re so good,” Duva lamented. “If I don’t have a platform I can’t sign people. So when the platform comes, we can bring in others (fighters). At least I’m hoping that’s in our future.”

Duva sighed. “Again things are changing, it’s going to take time. I don’t know where this is going.”

One thing is for sure, it is difficult to sign fighters and negotiate a rights deal when the top-funded players have already snatched up most of the market.

By the time the HBO announced its exit from the sport, Top Rank, by many accounts the most successful boxing promotional company in history, had already entered into a seven-year rights extension with ESPN. A few months earlier, the London-based streaming upstart DAZN announced its bold entry into the sport by pairing up with UK impresario Eddie Hearn; they would add Golden Boy to the mix later. In December, the PBC, the brainchild of manager-cum-promoter Al Haymon, began its own exclusive rights deal with Fox.

“You have three players out there right now putting out crazy money,” said Duva, who believes that Fox and ESPN, through PBC and Top Rank, respectively, are fighting a “proxy war” with DAZN. “One or two things are going to happen: either DAZN is incredibly successful, in which case DAZN is going to be spending all their money for their franchise sports and will have less for boxing, or they won’t be successful and they’ll be gone. I think that’s part of what’s motivating Fox and ESPN (to spend so much).”

Given that the balance of power in the sport now lies firmly in the hands of three distinct entities, all with their own competing corporate agendas, less-well-heeled promoters like Main Events are left with considerably fewer choices. At the same time, such small-time promoters as Ken Thompson, Joe DeGuardia, Dmitry Salita, Greg Cohen, and Lou DiBella have found varying degrees of success signing their key fighters to network deals with DAZN and ESPN+. Duva stresses, however, that she prefers to maintain some semblance of autonomy.

“We can rely on another big promoter,” Duva said, “but it would be better to do it on our own, so we’re prioritizing that plan. Those are the choices right now. If that doesn’t work there’s always working with Top Rank or perhaps (Eddie) Hearn or Golden Boy, but it’s better to be independent and kind of chart your own course, you know? That’s why we have to find that next series. Once I get the platform, anything’s possible.”

Indeed, Main Events was tantalizingly close to consummating exactly that late last fall.

According to a December report in The Ring Magazine, Duva was on the cusp of announcing a press conference in mid-November to unveil a low six-figure rights deal per card with former partner NBC Sports. But the terms of the deal fell apart at the last minute after a third-party sponsor decided to withdraw their financial stake. Duva declined to comment on the fallout of the deal or if new negotiations were taking place.

“I am not going to talk about that,” Duva said. “But I can tell you that we’re always working on the next output deal.”

Whatever that is, one can assume that it will not involve Facebook. Last year, Duva collaborated with Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy on an inaugural boxing series for Facebook Live, as part of the social media company’s attempts to enter the over-the-top market. But the short-term deal was not renewed as Facebook executives were ultimately disappointed in what Golden Boy was delivering, according to Duva, who added that De La Hoya’s often outsized—and totally inaccurate—proclamations on Twitter did not help their case.

“We were trying to minimize expectations,” Duva said. “Facebook saw this as something that could grow over time, but unfortunately you saw Oscar out tweeting that they were going to get thirty million viewers or something. So that didn’t work out.”

But life after HBO hasn’t been completely bad for Main Events. With networks now hungrier than ever for content and, more important, willing to overpay for it, “it’s good to have guys that are in demand,” she said. “Now at least if you have a top guy you can go out and get top money.”

With Kovalev, Duva was able to do just that. Last winter she sold a highly attractive rematch between her charge and Eleider Alvarez to ESPN, in which the Russian went on to regain his WBO title belt by pitching a twelve-round shutout. Kovalev is expected to appear on the network’s OTT service, ESPN+, later this summer against mandatory challenger Anthony Yarde.

Similarly, Duva also helped negotiate a deal for the former HBO talent Dmitry Bivol, another 175-pound champion, to an exclusive deal with DAZN at the beginning of this year. And though Duva is not Bivol’s promoter per se—that distinction belongs to the Andrei Ryabinsky’s World of Boxing—she has been instrumental in marketing the fighter in the US and is compensated accordingly.

To this end, Duva denied that the past year has been a “financial blow.” In fact “it’s been a very good one,” she said. “Because if you’re working with elite fighters, you’re going to make money. We’re actually almost able to make better money with ESPN than we were with HBO at the end because HBO was just starting to shut down their budgets so much. So we’re doing fine. We’re not having a bad year. We’re having a good year.”

And yet as talented as he is, Kovalev, thirty-six, is clearly on the back end of his career, with two brutal losses recently. When it was suggested that Kovalev needed to continue winning and command A-side purses to help keep the company afloat, Duva bristled: “Like, people keep losing sight of this,” she said. “He’s still Sergey Kovalev. He still makes money; he’s still a big name. He still fights. If he were to lose a fight they would still need to fight him.”

That said, Duva knows that she needs something more consistent to ensure her company’s long-term survival. “I would feel much better if we had a different structure, if we had regular money coming in for a lower-level series and could maintain with that and not have to worry about having stars (to pay our bills),” she conceded.

At this point in the interview, Duva recalled wistfully the days when her late husband, Dan, who founded Main Events, promoted the likes of Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker. “He would do four HBO shows a year,” Duva said. “(It) paid your overhead, made you a profit, and gave you money to invest in the other fights that didn’t make money and everything was fine.”

So what are the options? Ideally, Duva wants something close to what she achieved with NBC Sports in 2012: A mid-level series geared strictly at developing prospects and contenders with little or no ambition to compete with the larger networks. In the original NBC deal, Duva contends that “the goal was not to put on the biggest fighter in boxing.” The goal, instead, was to showcase the fighters who would one day appear in world-title bouts on HBO or Showtime. “That was the metric,” she said, while naming Bryant Jennings, Gabriel Rosado, Jesus Soto Karass, Joseph Parker, and Jarrell Miller as examples of fighters who went on to do exactly that.

Duva claims she “never made money off NBC,” but that was because back then “we made all of our money when Sergey fought on HBO.” For a series to work for her today, she noted, it will have to “not only pay for itself, we have to make it pay my overhead, too. That’s a little different.” And, one figures, a far more difficult proposition to achieve.

If a series does not end up materializing for her, however, Duva would seek a more significant rights deal with the promoters who currently have the major output deals. Top Rank and Matchroom are both reasonable possibilities, since she has healthy ties with both, provided that the promoters are interested. Working with Haymon, on the other hand, seems unlikely, given the bad blood that exists between the two sides. It was Haymon’s time buys, after all, that caused NBC to scuttle its existing deal with Main Events back in 2014. Shortly after, in a separate issue, Duva sued Haymon on grounds for violating the Muhammad Ali Act by acting as both a manager and promoter to fighters.

“I would love to work with Showtime,” Duva said, “and that’s another possibility that we can explore, but Haymon (has all the dates there).”

Still, Duva remains hopeful that, amid the larger “streaming wars” going on, something will open up for her stable. “Maybe in time ESPN will bring other promoters along or Top Rank will bring other promoters along,” Duva mused. “It’s impossible to say right now where this goes. But if OTT works for ESPN and DAZN perhaps others will emerge and there’ll be places for us there. I believe there’s a niche for us. But I just don’t know how any of this is going to turn out, nobody does.”

Nobody does indeed. But as boxing enters a brave new world of sorts, perhaps what accounts for Duva’s shaky optimism is that being aware of the unpredictable nature of the sport is the first step in surviving it.

“At the end of every single year we say, ‘Okay, we got through this year but oh, shit! What’s going to happen next year?’” Duva explained. “And somehow, every year, something works out and we’re still here. Thus far we’ve always been able to adapt, and we’re going to adapt again.”

 

About Sean Nam 24 Articles
Sean Nam has written for The Cruelest Sport, Undisputed Champion Network, and The Sweet Science. His non-boxing writing has appeared in New Rambler Review, Slant Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Rain Taxi, Mubi Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cineaste. In 2017, he curated the Boxing on Film series for the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.