For me, it wasn’t a main event. It was a co-feature, a bout atop a pay-per-view undercard, that made me fall in love with boxing.

I’d been an editor for The Ring magazine for about a month, not yet sure how I felt about this sport I’d stumbled into covering, when I attended my first live event. It was October 4, 1997, Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, a TVKO event — what HBO Pay-Per-View was called at the time — headlined by a heavyweight title fight, Lennox Lewis vs. Andrew Golota. Casual observer that I was, the main event had my interest, but none of the names on the undercard meant anything to me. 

By the time I finished watching the bout prior to the main event, in which some guy named Arturo Gatti overcame Gabriel Ruelas with a left hook in what would eventually be named Fight of the Year and dramatically crumpled to his knees in relieved triumph after the ref waved the fight off in the fifth round, I was in — for life, as it turned out.

The right undercard fight can change everything (and in this particular instance, help soften the blow of the main event ending in 95 seconds and feeling like a rip-off).

That’s just one random example, but the point is, when certain boxing promoters say, in not so many words, that undercards don’t matter much, they aren’t taking into account the whole picture. There are times when the main event is all the sales pitch anyone needs and the undercard won’t increase the bottom line. But undercards are always important for customer satisfaction — for growing the sport’s fan base, or, at the very least, not shrinking the sport’s fan base.

In a six-Saturday span in March, April, and May, boxing fans are being asked to shell out for three significant pay-per-view cards, and we’re seeing three distinct undercard-organizing philosophies on display.

Both before and after Keith Thurman dropped out with a biceps injury, PBC’s March 30 Prime Video debut was a card without a superstar atop it. What ultimately became the main event, Tim Tszyu vs. Sebastian Fundora, is the kind of fight that appeals more to hardcore fans than to casuals, so the undercard matchmaking was directed toward that same type of audience, mostly offering depth and value.

Isaac “Pitbull” Cruz vs. Rolly Romero was marketable as co-features go, fans of the little guys knew that Julio Cesar Martinez vs. Angelino Cordova shaped up as a quality flyweight bout, and Erislandy Lara vs. Michael Zerafa, well, that was a misfire/mismatch, but at least the two pre-show streaming fights helped make up for it.

This Saturday, DAZN Pay-Per-View (and PPV.com) will air Devin Haney vs. Ryan Garcia, a fight with far more star power than Fundora-Tszyu. Garcia has 10.5 million Instagram followers and was half the equation that sold 1.2 million PPVs a year ago when he faced Gervonta “Tank” Davis. And Haney isn’t exactly a nobody, with 2.7 million Instagram followers of his own.

You can’t question the quantity on the undercard for this one, with four bouts leading into Haney-Garcia. But the quality suggests a belief among promoter and network that the main event is all they need to generate the money they’re looking to generate. Perhaps there will be a pleasant surprise or two among Arnold Barboza Jr. vs. Sean McComb, Bektemir “Bek Bully” Melikuziev vs. Pierre Dibombe, John “Scrappy” Ramirez vs. David Jimenez, and Charles Conwell vs. Nathaniel Gallimore. But on paper, there’s nothing to generate additional excitement here.

Two weeks later, on May 4, it’s back to the PBC-on-Prime well, with the most reliable star in the sport — at least in North America and at least south of the heavyweight division, but possibly without either of those qualifiers — Saul “Canelo” Alvarez headlining against Jaime Munguia. Alvarez is always a threat to sell close to a million PPVs, and this fight is no exception.

Is it boosted at all by its undercard? The main objective here seems to be to get fighters in the deep PBC stable off the unemployment line, as Mario Barrios gets possibly easy work against Fabian Maidana, Brandon Figueroa shapes up as a lopsided favorite over Jessie Magdaleno, and Eimantis Stanionis takes on Gabriel Maestre in a bout that at least has the potential to be competitive.

It’s not as dreary as the Haney-Garcia undercard. It’s not as dreamy as the Fundora-Tszyu undercard. It’s the undercard Goldilocks chose. (Assuming the three bears left 80 bucks lying around.)

These undercards speak to different mindsets about sales expectations, and there’s a certain business logic to not spending big money to make fights that won’t necessarily generate much additional money. But that ignores the long-term health of the sport and the reality that every night of fights is a chance to create new fans and deliver for existing fans. The full Fundora-Tszyu card, though it presumably was not a threat to overburden the PPV distribution mechanisms, may have birthed some new boxing fans — especially those who don’t mind the sight of a little blood.

Which brings us to the most important undercard in recent memory. And it’s not for a pay-per-view. On July 20, live on Netflix, in a fight that may or may not be sanctioned, may or may not feature boxers trying their hardest to win, may or may not include a televised undercard, Mike Tyson will take on Jake Paul in what could prove to be the most viewed live boxing match since major fights were on network TV in the ‘70s or ‘80s.

There hasn’t been a peep yet publicly about the undercard. But one hopes there is serious thought being put into it. Fighters who otherwise may be lucky to have 100,000 viewers tune in when they ply their trade could suddenly have an audience of … what … 40 million?

This is a chance to create a mainstream superstar or two and also to deliver a fight that will leave boxing newbies buzzing. Could you imagine the lasting impact of some 40 million people witnessing a fight like Gatti-Ruelas (which instead made its way into only about 300,000 households the night it happened)?

Boxing’s powers-that-be have shown on all too many occasions that such long-term thinking is not their forte.

Anyone remember the Manny PacquiaoOscar De La Hoya undercard? The 1.25 million households that cracked open their wallets for that one got a Victor Ortiz KO 2, a Juan Manuel Lopez KO 1, a Daniel Jacobs KO 1, and a whole lot of broadcaster tap dancing.

The undercard for the biggest PPV of all-time, Floyd Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, wasn’t any better. It only included two fights. One was an easy win for Vasiliy Lomachenko. The other was a cakewalk for Leo Santa Cruz. Throw in the disappointing degree of action in the main event, and you had plenty of pugilism passers-by paying for boxing for the first and last time.

There’s little debate what the most attractive PPV undercard bout so far this century was: Danny Garcia vs. Lucas Matthysse, lineal junior welterweight championship on the line, in the co-feature to Mayweather vs. Canelo. That PPV was a huge financial success, selling some 2.2 million buys. Did Garcia-Matthysse influence that? Did it maybe make the difference between 2.1 and 2.2? It’s impossible to say. But it surely helped fans feel a little better afterward about the money they’d spent while significantly increasing Garcia’s profile.

Not every undercard fight needs to be like that, and not every fight can be like that, of course. A little variety on an undercard is good. Changes of pace are welcomed. A perfect three-fight undercard may feature a 12-rounder between a couple of championship-level boxers, an evenly matched women’s title fight, and a mega-talented prospect stepping up to their toughest test. Maybe they won’t all pan out as planned. But chances are at least one or two of them will, and if the show is paced properly viewers will feel like they’ve enjoyed a carefully curated experience.

What you don’t want is multiple A-side fighters in mismatches, invited guests falling asleep on the couch, or repeated variations of the phrase, “When is the main event coming on?”

Every undercard is an opportunity. Sure, most PPVs rise or fall financially based on the main event. But a little more investment in undercards would go a long way toward selling the next pay-per-view, and possibly creating fans who’ll be clicking the “purchase” button for the next couple of decades.

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