New HBO Boxing Opening Sequences Celebrate Boxing’s Aspirants and Its Heroes
By Kieran Mulvaney | Photos by Ed Mulholland
It is a Sunday morning; the southern California weather is, of course, fabulous and the sunlight is streaming through the windows in Studios 60, a converted warehouse in Los Angeles.
“God is smiling on us today,” says Christian Winters, HBO Sports Creative Director, as he surveys the rays of light that land, as if directed, on the seven youngsters in boxing gear who are lined up – four in front, three in back – awaiting their cue. The concrete floor has been doused with water and the heat from the sun is creating a shimmering haze.
The assistant director yells “action” and an actor, performing the role of their trainer, walks back and forth in front of the youngsters, exhorting them to shadow box to a beat.
“Uno, dos, tres, quatro. Uno, dos, tres, quatro.”
The sequence is being acted out for a new opening credits sequence for HBO Boxing After Dark and HBO Latino, which in combination with a new sequence for HBO’s flagship World Championship Boxing and its pay-per-views aims to tell the story of a fighter’s progression from gym to HBO debut to superstardom. It’s a progression that takes years of sweat and sacrifice, something that the Boxing After Dark and Latino sequences emphasize and celebrate.
“It’s aspirational: it’s the story of the contender,” says Winters. “It’s the story of the fighter who has made it to the level of being in an HBO boxing event. To be on an HBO boxing telecast is an incredible milestone in their career; it’s the beginning of something great but also the culmination of all the hard work that has led up to it.”
The shoot on this LA Sunday represents that hard work. So much so that those on camera are getting a real workout, sometimes of their own volition. One shot features a boxer pulling a weight sled, to which the actor insisted that more weights be added because the initial setup made the task look too easy. Another portrays a fighter pounding away on a tire with a sledgehammer before tossing the hammer to the ground – and that hammer is a real and heavy one, used in take after take, because the original prop was unconvincing.
The crew resets and takes position to film a boxer grinding out reps on a chin up bar.
“You guys are very stoic,” Winters tells the boxer and his trainer. “You take this stuff very seriously.” They should imagine, he continues, that they are in a small gym somewhere in Russia or Ukraine; each scene is set up to represent an athlete in a different corner of the world, a testament to the global nature of the sport.
And wherever they are, says Winters, the goal with the BAD opening is to show they “are striving for that platform, for that greatness. Their gyms aren’t fancy, their entourages are non-existent. There’s a humility to it, but also we have an empathy as an audience for their plight.”
That determination to achieve excellence is not limited to those unknown boxers across the globe. It is manifested as well in the actors portraying them on this sunny Sunday, and in particular in one man, himself an aspirant boxer, who has just spent several minutes pounding away on a heavybag as the cameras rolled in the late morning light. For the next shot, he is set to work out on a speed bag when the director calls lunch. Winters encourages his actor to take some time to rest and refuel. But he demurs, wanting to make sure his timing and technique are perfect, and while the crew eats, the actor throws his hands at the bag, drilling away, time after time, until he gets it just right.
Bernard Hopkins remembers those days, the days when he was anonymously striving in the hope that he would one day reach the very top of his chosen profession. He remembers them, not just because he carries images of them in his head, but because he has physical evidence of them.
“I collect a lot of stuff,” he says. “Even audio tape of me doing interviews. I got a spare bedroom that’s just all the stuff I accumulated over the years. Articles, magazines, VHS tapes, predictions. I started to keep all this stuff when I was just a dreamer.”
And he continued to collect them even as he piled up the honors, mementos of the greatest nights in his history, including the mask that sits on a table beside him: the very mask he wore to the ring on the night he defeated Felix Trinidad in September 2001.
He hasn’t worn it since that legendary night. In an hour or so, he’ll put it on for the first time in sixteen years.
In a neighboring dressing room, a robe hangs over a chair as Hopkins’ old rival Roy Jones, Jr. relaxes in front of a television.
The robe is not, he says, any specific piece from any one particular fight.
“It’s a lot like the one I wore for Jeff Lacy, though,” he offers.
Jones’ path from prospect to contender to champion to future Hall-of-famer was, in many ways, far smoother than that of the man holding forth at length next door. Hopkins was a grafter, fueled by resentment and a burning need to prove himself right and doubters wrong – hence the collection of career press coverage. Jones in contrast was an outstanding amateur, possessing an almost supernatural skill set, barely losing a round as a professional as he swept through the middleweight and super-middleweight divisions and then leaped up for one fight at heavyweight.
But, he explains as his eyes move between the TV screen and his smartphone, it takes more than skills. It takes hard work too, yes, but even that is insufficient if a boxer wants to truly break through, truly wants to be seen as one of the greats. He rattles off the names of a few boxers, presently active, who undeniably have talent and are deservedly near the top of many pound-for-pound lists, but who aren’t, in the truest sense, stars.
“You have to entertain,” he says. “That’s what Ali did. He entertained. It’s what Hagler did. He entertained. That’s what I did. I entertained. ‘What’s Roy going to do this time?’”
Two men with different paths and different emphases on their way to the pinnacle of their chosen profession. But the pinnacle is what they reached, and it is the focus of the new World Championship Boxing opens, of which Jones and his robe and Hopkins and his mask are about to be a part.
If the BAD/Latino open is about aspiration, the one for WCB is, according to Winters, “the other side of the coin. This is really celebrating the icons, the legends of the sport, the absolute greatest of all time.”
The goal, Winters continues, “is to make it feel like an event, but an event that’s specific to boxing.” And so, the sequence tells a compressed story that unfolds over fight night, culminating in the final moments just before a world championship bout. It begins with lights bringing an empty ring to life. A caravan of police escorts main event fighters to a venue (unnamed, but actually The Forum in Inglewood, California; with the exception of a couple of scenes such as a jogger pounding the streets of downtown Las Vegas, the shots for both opens were filmed over the weekend of Jorge Linares’ win over Luke Campbell last September). The magnitude, significance and energy of the event are conveyed by quick cuts of the many different people who come together to provide all those elements, from photographers to fans from around the world, watching at home, on big screens in public parks, and in the arena. There is a shot of Max Kellerman and Jim Lampley introducing a fight – recorded as they rehearsed the introduction to the Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez tussle last September – and then Michael Buffer, in the center of the ring, rhetorically asking a crowd, “Are you ready?” (Buffer was also filmed on GGG-Canelo fight night; “He stayed for an hour after the event was over,” explains Winters.)
All of that leads up to the climax: ring walks from some of the greatest of all time, the likes of Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson. Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis, and Larry Holmes. Most of the ring walks are reenactments; none but the most recent bouts were filmed in High Definition, after all. But the acted ringwalks are interspersed with archival footage on monitors and in cutaways from cameras, and they are reproduced with unerring accuracy and loving care. The actors who don the various robes mimic the movements and mannerisms of the boxers they are portraying: Lewis’ swagger, Tyson’s head roll, De La Hoya’s shadowboxing flurry. And the robes themselves are either meticulously recreated or procured creatively – “We found a Larry Holmes robe on eBay,” says Winters; “We asked him if it was genuine and he said, ‘Yeah, probably.’” Some of the paraphernalia was donated by the legends themselves. “Oscar De La Hoya loaned us the robe he wore when he fought Julio Cesar Chavez,” Winters says. “It was in a display case at the Golden Boy offices. Chavez gave us one of the robes he wore to the ring. Roy Jones and Bernard Hopkins brought robes.”
While the actors’ movements are choreographed, Jones and Hopkins are given latitude to improvise a little. Jones makes the leap from chilled Roy Jones to about-to-kick-some-ass RJ with consummate ease, adopting a game face as he makes his mock walk. Hopkins, methodical in his approach, solicits some guidance and then embraces the role with characteristic thoroughness, once more inhabiting the role of the Executioner who had shocked the world, and Felix Trinidad, 16 years previously.
When his scene is over, Hopkins expresses astonishment at one unexpected difficulty.
“The mask doesn’t fit properly anymore,” he exclaims. “My head got fat.”
But he knows also that this was what he had been working toward, all those years ago when he set out on his journey: to not only excel at his craft, but to become a legend, to create a night that would resonate in boxing history.
“What we did – in New York, in the shadow of 9/11 – it was special,” he admits.
It is the kind of special night that World Championship Boxing represents and celebrates, the kind of night to which innumerable boxers around the world ultimately aspire, as they imagine the future while they toil away in obscurity, pounding the speed bag over and over and over again.