LAS VEGAS - Ask anyone familiar with the pay-per-view industry, at least its boxing subsidiary, and they'll tell you that the events that do the really brisk business succeed for reasons that extend beyond the fighters' skill in the ring.
Boxing purists forever prepared to increase their monthly cable bill, the hardcore fans with at least some idea of who that up-and-coming flyweight from Thailand is, constitute a comparatively small percentage of the viewing audience. It's the curious, the fringe fans and the celebrity-addicted who drive a profitable PPV boxing show. Those passers-by with disposable income need more than the fighters' glossy records, bejeweled championship belts and lofty Ring magazine ratings before they decide to plunk down their $49.95, or whatever, for an evening of pugilistic entertainment.
They require a nicely baited hook, in the form of a compelling story line, before they allow themselves to be caught and reeled in.
HBO pay-per-view chief Mark Taffet understands that tonight's pairing of WBC welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. (38-0, 24 KOs) and British challenger Ricky Hatton (43-0, 31 KOs) is likely to soar past the million-buy mark in no small part because of the four-part documentary-type series, "Mayweather-Hatton 24/7," episodes of which have been shown repeatedly by the premium cable giant in the weeks leading up to the fight.
These little slices of a boxer's life are, in essence, infomercials.
HBO subscribers who a few weeks ago might not have known Ricky Hatton from Margaret Thatcher have been afforded intriguing glimpses of the blue-collar brawler's home life, his training, his relationship with trainer Billy Graham and his zeal to bring glory to his island nation. For all intents and purposes he has been cast as "Everyman," a working-class hero not unlike Vince Papale.
Mayweather, appeals to, or repels, a different audience. He is cocky, loud, supremely talented and in-your-face. A lot of people, the same crowd that presumably was smitten with Dennis Rodman and adores the over-the-top antics of wide-receiving divas Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, want to see the Grand Rapids, Mich., native continue to thumb his nose at polite society. And those who can't stand his act are just as apt to pony up in the hope of seeing "Pretty Boy Floyd" get the sort of comeuppance that can be most definitively delivered only in the prize ring.
Boxing's morality plays sell best when they at least offer the possibility of bloodshed.
HBO Sports, with producer Rick Bernstein providing the award-winning concepts and Taffet the marketing acumen, have elevated certain fights, and fighters, into must-see TV. It is a tradition that dates back to 1991, when Evander Holyfield and hamburger-chomping George Foreman squared off in "Battle for the Ages," the first offering by TVKO, which is what HBO's fledgling pay-per-view arm was then known as.
Foreman employed boxing as the platform from which he was able to sell millions of grills, but none of it could have happened had he not recast himself as the jovial fat man who, despite the encroachment of middle age, still could turn the lights out on a succession of young whippersnappers.
A snarling, slightly unhinged Mike Tyson represented undistilled violence, a dangerous beast unleashed upon society.
Oscar De La Hoya, the undisputed king of PPV, is the Olympic gold medalist and handsome Latin lover whose superstar status owes as much to Rudolph Valentino as to Jake La Motta. No fighter ever has had more devoted female fans, many of whom cringe whenever a punch lands to the heartthrob's matinee-idol face.
Years ago, HBO executives properly concluded that to sell a fight, particularly a pay-per-view fight, the sizzle was as important as the steak. The half-hour preview show, meant to whet fans' appetites, has become a staple of HBO's boxing division, but that concept was expanded upon last year when cameras followed De La Hoya and Mayweather around for the first multiepisode "24/7." That fight would not have done a record 2.4 million PPV buys without the extra boost provided by the documentarians.