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HBO boxing strategy: More knockouts—lots of them

CBS's Showtime unit may have the biggest name in boxing—Floyd Mayweather—but rival Time Warner is drawing fight fans to its premium HBO channel, thanks in part to a previously little-known knockout artist from Kazakhstan who may become the next hero of the sport.

Middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin after recording his 11th title defense in July.
Source: HBO
Middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin after recording his 11th title defense in July.

Middleweight Gennady Golovkin (a.k.a. "GGG"), 32, is an extraordinarily dangerous person to fight. He's won all 30 of his professional bouts, but most telling is that he's taken 27 of them by knockout—making for a staggering 90 percent KO rate, the best among active titleholders. Only three of his opponents have made it as far as the eighth round.

Almost inevitably, he's drawn comparisons to other knockout aficionados like Mike Tyson.

"There's something to buying a ticket (to the arena) and feeling like something is going to happen. That's what happened with Tyson, and that's what happens with GGG," said John Daniel, an inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission who worked the undercard of Golovkin's November 2013 bout against highly regarded Brooklynite Curtis Stevens at Madison Square Garden.

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"Before the Curtis Stevens fight, there was a buzz in that room. With Golovkin, there's a feeling that it's going to end unequivocally. There's not going to be any judges coming in to decide the bout. Right now, there's not another boxer at the elite status that I feel that way about," Daniel said.

Golovkin put away Stevens in eight rounds. The Stevens bout drew 1.41 million viewers to HBO—though Golovkin had fought for the first time on HBO only a year earlier—making it the third-best performing fight on cable television in 2013. By comparison, the top-performing fight last year, featuring long-established Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto, drew 1.6 million fans.

"People are either talking about his last knockout, or they're talking about his next bout." -Tom Loeffler, managing director, K2 Promotions

The Stevens fight was Golovkin's fourth on the premium cable channel, and also the fourth consecutive increase in viewership. The Stevens fight was on regular, subscription-service HBO—Golovkin has never fought on pay-per-view.

That regular, premium-channel viewership is the metric that HBO is watching. Though the pay-per-view industry can easily exceed $300 million annually in overall revenue, it's not really HBO or Showtime that profits there. After promoters and boxers get their share, the premium channels may be left with as little as 5 percent to 10 percent of the total take.

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A major function of pay-per-view, as far as the premium channels is concerned, is drawing new subscribers, and a niche sport like boxing with a dedicated fan base is tailor-made for attracting viewers who are willing to pay to get what they want every week.

Pay-per-view "is an event, so it draws you into the channel. They get paid by selling subscriptions, so they do need awareness," said Jim Goss, managing director at Barrington Research Associates, who specializes in the media and entertainment sectors.

Ken Hershman, president of HBO Sports, said Golovkin is a "genuinely good guy" but it's the KOs that keep people coming back for more.

Golovkin "is going through people," Hershman told CNBC. "It's led to an accelerated audience for him, and demand for him."

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Golovkin's star has also risen because he fights more often than most professional boxers. He made four middleweight title defenses in 2013 and is averaging three or four fights per year overall. Most big stars such as Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao fight once or at most twice a year.

Golovkin promoter Tom Loeffler of Los Angeles-based K2 Promotions said his fighter's frequent appearances keep him at front of mind within the boxing world.

"People are either talking about his last knockout, or they're talking about his next bout," said Loeffler, who confirmed to CNBC that Golovkin will fight challenger Marco Antonio Rubio on Oct. 18.

No controversial decisions

The Rubio matchup is to be fought on the West Coast. Golovkin has gained a following among Mexican and Mexican-American fans, in part because trainer Abel Sanchez has taught him to fight in the Mexican style.

HBO will hope for an improved ratings number from that bout. A Golovkin fight last month against Daniel Geale garnered fewer viewers than the Stevens matchup; HBO chalks up the slip in part to July being a tough month for ratings. Moreover, the fight had less than 11 minutes to attract viewers—Golovkin knocked out Geale in the third round.

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Loeffler professed faith in the allure of another GGG knockout to draw the fans, even if it means a shorter event.

"They know they're not getting some 12-round, possibly controversial decision," he said.

—By CNBC's Ted Kemp

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