It began innocently last fall, a waiter at Craig’s restaurant in West Hollywood telling Leslie Moonves, the president and president and chief executive of CBS Corp., that he should talk with another frequent diner, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach.
They had a drink together, Roach assuring Moonves that Pacquiao, an eight-division world champion, fiercely wanted to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr., who had two bouts remaining with the CBS-owned premium cable network Showtime.
Moonves, a devout boxing fan, badly wanted to push for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight that had fallen apart since late 2009 for multiple reasons, mostly personality conflicts.
According to Roach, Moonves expressed hesitation about Pacquiao’s promoter, Bob Arum, who put one Pacquiao fight on Showtime during a leadership change at HBO, but then turned his back on Showtime with Moonves believing two more fights were coming.
“You’re going to have to deal with Bob,” Roach told Moonves. “Manny just signed a new contract with him.”
Roach said he urged Moonves to meet with Arum, and an October session at Arum’s Beverly Hills home took place, the pair exiting arm in arm, Roach said.
On Friday night, after Mayweather signed a contract to meet Pacquiao in a long-awaited mega-fight between the sport's top two pound-for-pound boxers May 2 at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Arum and Showtime Executive Vice President Stephen Espinoza said Moonves’ presence was the key to brokering the deal.
“It was the persistence of Les Moonves that got everyone talking rationally,” Arum said. “With Les pushing it, people around this started acting like adults. Myself included.”
Espinoza, a former lawyer in past failed negotiations, said, “When we look at the history of these negotiations and ask why this one was different, the obvious answer was Leslie. I don’t think he had a doubt in his mind that this deal would close.
“He was deeply committed to making it and was someone that all parties in this negotiation really respect. He was really the catalyst for seeing this through and refused to take no for an answer from any side.”
With Mayweather, Moonves had performed the good faith of paying the fighter more than $30 million for four fights, three of which didn’t deserve that kind of purse.
Arum, whose promotional work started with Muhammad Ali, has deep respect for Moonves’ business acumen in leading the country’s most popular television network.
Moonves sought to bridge Mayweather, his powerful manager Al Haymon and Arum despite years of strain by pushing them to embrace a shared focus.
“Both sides realized how important this fight would be,” Moonves said. “There was a real desire on everyone’s part to get this done.”
The problem had long been that despite that joint interest, the parties couldn’t effectively communicate.
At one point, amazingly, given their past bitterness, Moonves had Arum and Haymon together inside Moonves’ home, describing the session as “fine, very respectful, with a lot getting accomplished in those two hours.
“You have a lot of strong personalities involved in this thing. These negotiations are always tough, but I’m not in unfamiliar territory. I’ve obviously done a lot of big negotiations with entertainment shows, with the NFL.
“I’ve never been in anything quite as complex and tricky as this, but there was never a point I felt frustrated to the point I’d give up. Both sides are to be congratulated.”
Part of the deal involved a joint pay-per-view broadcast with Showtime rival HBO. The broadcast will feature shared talent.
Said Espinoza: “I don’t know that there was one sticking point I felt would crater the fight, but the sheer number of issues. The boxers, the promoters, the networks. There was a time in looking at it, I thought it’d be too much to overcome.”
It helped that Pacquiao accepted Mayweather’s push for a 60-40 purse split and that the fighters agreed on a drug-testing plan with little difficulty.
As the network haggling delayed things, Mayweather was stunned to look across courtside at a Miami Heat game in late January and see Pacquiao, the two meeting later at Pacquiao’s suite with the two convincing each other that they each wanted the bout.
That unexpected meeting “certainly greased the wheels in getting through the final stages of the process,” Espinoza said.
Moonves and HBO Chairman Richard Plepler agreed, “We have a shot to make this thing happen,” Moonves said. “We’re arch-enemies, but they’re good guys over there. I have respect for the HBO guys, it’s a true partnership.”
By Mayweather signing, Moonves said it proves “all the noise about Floyd not wanting this fight is absolutely untrue. … Floyd has proven himself to be a champion, and I don’t think he was never not wanting this fight.”
Mayweather-Pacquiao is expected to shatter previous pay-per-view and live-gate records, with ringside seats at $5,000 apiece and the pay-per-view price expected to be in the $100 range.
“The sky is the limit. This event has a scale and stature we may never see again,” Espinoza said.
Moonves plans to be ringside.
“I’m extremely excited,” he said.