The relationship between Sugar Ray Leonard and Home Box Office has gone sour.
Yesterday, the cable network announced it had "released" five-time world champion Leonard from his broadcasting contract because Leonard and his attorney-adviser, Mike Trainer, had shut out HBO from telecasting Leonard's next bout, against World Boxing Council junior middleweight champ Terry Norris early next year.
But there is more to the story. Apparently, a long-simmering feud between HBO on one side and Trainer and Mirage Hotel owner Steve Wynn on the other resulted in yesterday's split. The Leonard-Norris fight, scheduled for either January or February, will be telecast by Showtime, HBO's chief cable rival in boxing. And HBO executives already were smarting over losing the delayed-broadcast rights to the Oct. 25 Buster Douglas-Evander Holyfield heavyweight title fight to Showtime, a deal made in part by Trainer, who is being paid $1 million by Wynn to work as a promotion consultant on the bout.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Mike has new friends," said Bob Greenway, HBO vice president of sports programming, referring to Wynn. There is bad blood between HBO and Wynn, stemming from a months-old dispute over the broadcast rights to a performance by Cher at the Mirage. HBO says that it had reached agreement with Cher's manager to televise the show live; Wynn, claiming no such agreement existed, sold the rights to CBS.
"None of that had anything to do with this," said Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports, HBO's parent company. "If [HBO is] not offered the opportunity to bid on the fight, then . . . it's inappropriate for Ray to continue as an HBO broadcaster."
"I understand business is business, but you've got to wonder, how much does all this cost Ray Leonard?" said HBO analyst Larry Merchant, who worked with Leonard for 12 years. "Because of a feud between HBO and Mike Trainer, Ray loses 7/8 7/8 TC job and potential income. I think Ray is a victim here."
Trainer, however, said Leonard's deal with HBO had expired more than a year ago.
"As it turns out, it's not a big deal," Trainer said. "Ray did not intend to renew his contract anyway."
Trainer contends that HBO's decision was made only after Leonard informed the network Friday that he would not be available for its next boxing telecast, the Dec. 8 Mike Tyson-Alex Stewart fight.
"The timing is a little fishy," Trainer said. "It seems kind of cheap, like they wanted to beat him to the punch."
But Abraham said that the decision to fire Leonard had been in the works for three weeks, when it became apparent that HBO would have no role in the Leonard-Norris fight.