When Tim Leiweke was handed a contract over the weekend signed by Vitali Klitschko, it would have been understandable if Leiweke’s first reaction had been to hire a handwriting expert for verification.
Any belief that the Staples Center’s president had in the integrity of boxing had to have been sorely tested in recent weeks, although Leiweke still professes a desire to remain in the boxing business.
Leiweke believed he had an agreement with promoter Bob Arum to put on the Oscar De La Hoya-Shane Mosley rematch, only to lose the fight to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Leiweke believed he had former two-time heavyweight champion Mike Tyson as part of a heavyweight doubleheader at Staples on June 21, only to see Tyson turn his back on a $7.5-million offer to fight outclassed Oleg Maskaev, causing considerable downsizing in the financial possibilities of the show.
And finally, Leiweke was told Klitschko would agree to step in for Tyson in the semi-main event, before heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis’ match against Kirk Johnson, only to see negotiations with Klitschko drag on.
With ticket sales starting last Saturday, Leiweke had a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline for submitting newspaper ads for the fight card. Ultimately, the ads ran without Klitschko’s name as the Ukrainian fighter and his manager, Klaus-Peter Kohl, bargained over the number of tickets Klitschko would receive and where his name would be on the marquee.
A two-fight deal was finally agreed to Saturday, guaranteeing Klitschko a match against the winner of Lewis-Johnson. Still to be determined is Klitschko’s June 21 opponent. Maskaev is one of several candidates.
The loss of Tyson has prompted these changes for June 21:
* The highest-priced tickets will be $950. Promoter Gary Shaw had originally estimated they would go for $3,000 with Tyson on the card, but that was quickly lowered to $2,000. When it became apparent Tyson wasn’t interested, it dropped to the current price.
* The site fee agreed to by Leiweke has been reduced by more than half. Originally $8 million, it will now be $3.5 million.
* The card, originally scheduled for pay-per-view, will be shown on HBO.
One other possible change, which could benefit Staples: With Klitschko’s participation, the Lewis-Johnson fight might be for the World Boxing Council title, which would add validity to a card in desperate need of it. Although he initially turned down a $4-million offer to fight Lewis, Klitschko subsequently sued the WBC. As part of a settlement, the WBC agreed it would not sanction Lewis-Johnson. But now, it is in Klitschko’s best interests that Lewis-Johnson be for the WBC championship since Klitschko gets the winner.
But Lewis, disgusted with the whole affair, has said he isn’t interested in the WBC sanction.
Meanwhile, Leiweke is trying to present a positive picture.
“Maybe if we had hung in there long enough, we could have gotten Mike to fight,” he said. “But we had to get on with our lives. I think this worked out fairly well.”
That, of course, remains to be seen. With Tyson on the card, it was a major show. With Lewis-Johnson and Klitschko-whomever, it will be a major selling job in a city that has never shown enthusiastic support for the heavyweights.
Tyson had initially demonstrated an interest in being on the card, then dropped out of sight when he was lured into negotiations by promoter Don King, who was offering him $20 million. King was Tyson’s promoter until Tyson accused King of stealing from him and sued King for $100 million. That suit is scheduled for trial in September.
Tyson ultimately rejected King’s latest offer but, by then, he had also cooled to the idea of fighting at Staples, even though the California State Athletic Commission was willing to grant him a license.
“These kinds of things are not unexpected,” Leiweke said. “It hasn’t ruined my taste for boxing at all. This is an industry we still want to do business with. Bob [Arum] can’t ignore L.A. If you’re in the boxing business, this is one of the two or three most important markets, either with pay-per-view or live television. We need Bob and Bob needs us.”
“If Mike wants to come here, he can call us,” Leiweke said. “He knows where I live. No, actually, he only knows where I work.”
And Leiweke plans to keep it that way.
When Lennox Lewis takes on Kirk Johnson at Staples Center on June 21, it will be the first major heavyweight bout in Los Angeles since Muhammad Ali beat Ken Norton at the Forum 30 years ago:
* Heavyweight main event: 12 rounds, Lennox Lewis (40-2-1, 31 knockouts) vs. Kirk Johnson (34-1-1, 25 knockouts).
* Undercard: Vitali Klitschko (32-1, 31 knockouts) vs. TBA. Other undercard bouts TBA.
* TV: HBO.
* Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com. Or call (213) 480-3232.