Showtime has long been known as little brother to cable giant HBO, but they made waves with the recent mega-signing of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Still, the network has produced little in the way of entertaining fights thus far in 2013, instead relying on the promise of better things to come.
They kicked off the year with a complete mismatch between power-punching Argentine Lucas Matthysse and Mike Dallas Jr., who was a late replacement for Hank Lundy (not that anyone was salivating over the original bout). No one gave Dallas much of a chance at putting up a fight. Sportsbooks in Vegas had him listed as a massive underdog, and Matthysse solidified everyone’s predictions by making mincemeat of his opponent with a first-round knockout.
The hits continued to come for Showtime. One of the network’s marquee spring fights was a welterweight title matchup between Devon Alexander and British fighter Kell Brook. The fight was postponed twice (first an injury to Brook, then to Alexander) and now may fall on May 18. The postponement left Showtime to televise Ishe Smith-Cornelius Bundrage as the main event of its Feb. 23 offering from Detroit. The fight was a snoozefest that saw Smith win his first title at age 34, a compelling story that was dreadful in the ring. The chief support that night, an ESPN 2-level bout between J’Leon Love and Derrick Findley (Findley replaced original opponent Bronco McKart), did little to help.
Then came last weekend’s Showtime affair: a main event between Sharif Bogere and Richar Abril that resembled more a UFC match than The Sweet Science, and a co-feature between ultra-talented prospect Gary Russell Jr. against another no-hoper in Vyacheslav Gusev.
This card, too, was derailed by injuries. It was originally slated to be a tripleheader at the famed Apollo Theater in N.Y., featuring a main event pitting Daniel Ponce de Leon against Jayson Velez in what was seen as an action fight.
Much criticism has come Showtime’s way under new head honcho Stephen Espinoza, who took over the reigns from Ken Hershman (now boss of HBO Sports) in Nov. 2011. Espinoza is the former top legal counsel for Golden Boy Promotions and since he took over, most of the cards have featured Oscar’s guys. There have been some questionable decisions for sure. Abril-Bogere was never going to be a fun fight on paper. Dallas was never seen as a threat to Matthysse. Smith-Bundrage was a fight no one was excited for. How can Showtime Sports fix this going forward?
“Fighters have to be looked at in the context of their opponents,” Espinoza told RingTV. “I know Abril has been in some less than entertaining fights, but going into the fight I believed that Bogere’s come-forward style would compensate for that.
“I don’t regret it. In the context of all the circumstances, I would have made the same mistake. I believed that the style matchup would have made for a pretty interesting fight. Unfortunately among other things, the fight got a little bit out of hand with the rough tactics on both sides. It made it not as enjoyable as it otherwise would have been.”
Though Showtime Sports is off to a poor start in the squared circle, the landscape becomes decidedly rosier in April.
On April 20, the network will air a stellar main event pitting Saul “Canelo” Alvarez against Austin Trout. The very next week comes the rescheduled bout between reigning RING junior welterweight champ Danny Garcia and Zab Judah, which promises to be an intriguing bout.
Hopefully the kinds of unfortunate circumstances that have derailed Showtime’s plans up to this date won’t further prevent these cards from going off as planned.
“We’ve definitely had a run of bad luck on injuries and whenever we lose a fight, especially a main event fight, the question becomes whether we try to go forward with the date and make the best of it or whether it’s a situation where we need to reschedule; we’ve done both this year,” said Espinoza, who once legally represented Mike Tyson. “On Feb. 9 when Danny Garcia was injured, we decided to move the whole show, which caused disappointment for fans and also for the undercard fighters who were ready to go.
“We’ve also gone forward with cards in the wake of losing the main event. In those situations the card has not been as strong as we would have liked. The reality is that when you have an unexpected fallout there really is no optimal solution in the short timeframe.”
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Espinoza has been his connection to Golden Boy. Each card that has aired or is scheduled in 2013, Golden Boy has been the lead promoter (the Feb. 23 show was billed as a Mayweather Promotions card, but it isn’t a licensed promotional outfit and was co-promoted with Golden Boy.) Bob Arum, CEO of Golden Boy’s rival, Top Rank, has suggested that Espinoza is freezing him out in favor of Golden Boy. There have been rumors circulating since Espinoza took over last year, but is there any truth to it?
“I have a different perception of what has gone on with Top Rank,” Espinoza said. “I think the reality is we did some Top Rank events early last year. As late as October, November of last year there were conversations about doing more Top Rank events. That fact really flies in the face of any perception or any argument that Top Rank or anyone else is locked out. I wanted to do [Orlando] Salido-[Mikey] Garcia and tried to get that done, until it didn’t get done and went to the other network. That’s one example of why from my position the concept of Top Rank or anyone else being locked out simply isn’t accurate.
“I’m not sure [of Arum’s] motivation, to be quite honest. But the reality is I need a variety of different programming in order to be successful. It wouldn’t serve this network well and it wouldn’t serve me well to limit my programming to just one promoter regardless of who it is. I’m on the lookout for the best possible content. If I have the ability to acquire a fight or series of fights that is entertaining to our subscribers, I’m going to do it regardless of promoter.”
With Canelo-Trout, Garcia-Judah and then the all-important May 4 showdown between newly-acquired Mayweather and Robert Guerrero, Showtime Sports is on an upward trajectory. Injuries be damned, if Espinoza finally is able to see the fights play out in the ring the way he scheduled them, the boxing world will soon forget about Showtime stumbling out of the gate in 2013. Instead, Showtime may no longer be in HBO’s shadow.
Photos: Naoki Fukuda; Stephanie Trapp-Showtime
Mike Coppinger is a contributor to USA TODAY’s boxing coverage. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger