Boxing's return on June 9th brought me a tremendous amount of joy. After months of that strange combination of external COVID-related chaos and the monotony of home confinement, it was comforting to have an old friend back. Actually, it was better than that. Sitting on my couch, watching the fights, I was happy – and there hadn't been a whole lot of happiness in recent months. And was that card, headlined by Shakur Stevenson, particularly good? No, it was not. But you know what? It didn't matter to me. Boxing was back.
Working with the Nevada Athletic Commission, Top Rank helped create protocols for testing and safety to be used in boxing's return. I can only imagine the myriad variables that came into play regarding the creation of "The Bubble": isolation areas, staging, lodging, etc. Brad Jacobs is a Top Rank executive that doesn't always have his name in bold print, but he was the point person for Top Rank in helping create these protocols, and he deserves a lot of credit.
|Shakur Stevenson, the First Bubble Headliner |
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams
Although boxing has returned, the high-end fights have not. Most of Top Rank's broadcasts since June have been good club-level cards – something you would see when Friday Night Fights was at its best 15-20 years ago. These cards have featured many types of fights not often seen on U.S. networks, including fighters with fewer than five bouts, and battles featuring lower-level journeymen. Star appearances have been few. With the exception of Stevenson, not one of Top Rank's current champions have appeared on the series (130-lb. champ Jamel Herring was scheduled to headline two different cards, but he tested positive for COVID).
The budgets for these Top Rank shows haven't been large. Perhaps the main event A-side was making six figures, but the rest of the fighters on the card earned far less. And as the series progressed, it became a cause for celebration if the main event actually transpired. Positive COVID tests and a slew of injuries played havoc with the schedule. By the end of the series, the viewer knew that the fights would be airing on Tuesdays and Thursdays on ESPN, but that was essentially all that was guaranteed.
I won't pretend that all of the cards were outstanding, that they were loaded with memorable fights, but I will say that I found something interesting on almost every show. Whether it was young undefeated prospects such as Elvis Rodriguez and Jared Anderson making great impressions, or seeing a journeyman such as Clay Collard build momentum in his career. How about the four-round slugfest between undefeated prospects Eric Mondragon and Mike Sanchez, where both boxers went down in the first round and battled to a hard-fought draw? Of course, there was Mike Plania's upset over Joshua Greer. Those wide left hooks were something else. The best fight of the summer series was Joshua Franco against Andrew Moloney, which featured ferocious close-range combat. With that performance, Franco demonstrated that he's ready for the top names at 115 lbs.
How about some more? What about unsigned heavyweight Kingsley Ibeh? Sure, he's crude, but he has some power. He notched two wins in the Bubble and was scheduled to fight a third bout against a legit Top Rank prospect before he failed a COVID test. What about the other repeaters on the series, such as Isiah Jones and Donte Stubbs? Both lost their first match in the Bubble, but came back within two weeks to win in their next outing against solid opposition. We saw a lot of good things.
Brad Goodman did the matchmaking for these shows, which featured dozens of fighters appearing on short notice. And far more often than not, the bouts were worthwhile. For fights that featured Top Rank veterans, one could understand why the opponent was selected. And a few Top Rank fighters lost during the series – Greer, Andrew Moloney, David Kaminsky and Andy Vences to name four.
But even in the bouts where Top Rank didn't promote either fighter, you could see the wheels turning, why certain opponents were being matched. Could they be useful as Top Rank opponents later on? Was there a prospect worth signing, or at the very least should be brought back to see more? There was purpose behind the fights, and to Goodman's credit, there was very little slop thrown against the wall. Yes, there were walkovers here and there, but most of the bouts, even with anonymous journeymen or untested young fighters, were competitive or at least held some degree of intrigue. This was no easy feat under such unusual circumstances.
Top Rank has over 100 signed fighters on their website. Less than half of them have fought since boxing's resumption in June. For a number of them, it came down to logistics. International restrictions have made traveling to the U.S. from certain countries very difficult. In addition, for the superstars, more time will be needed to figure out how big fights can get made in this new, fan-less environment. As late as this week, Bob Arum was quoted as saying that he still doesn't know how much money ESPN would be making available for Lomachenko-Lopez.
If you look through that list of Top Rank fighters, you'll see a number of young boxers who didn't appear in the Bubble. For some of these fighters, the phone definitely rang, but no one was there to pick it up. It's clear that some boxers weren’t in fighting shape, or didn't like the prospect of fighting on short notice.
|Oscar Valdez stopped Jayson Velez in the Bubble|
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams
There's always an interesting dilemma in boxing between making your own luck and making a stupid mistake. The Bubble fighters picked up the phone from Top Rank. A number of them seized the opportunity, performed well, and breathed fresh life into their respective careers. How about Gabriel Muratalla, Felix Verdejo and Carlos Castro? But I'm also sure there were more than a few who said yes, but were far from their best, whether it was Giovani Santillan, Orlando Gonzalez or Andy Vences. Maybe they shouldn't have picked up the phone? It's always a tough decision to make.
I'm sure that there were some fighters who turned down opportunities during the summer series, potentially leading to ill will with the company. The door swings both ways of course, and if Top Rank has 107 fighters under contract right now (just throwing out a number), it wouldn't be surprising or particularly harmful for the company if soon they went down to, say, 95 signed fighters. It's a tough economy. Those who turned down fights may have had their reasons, but come contract renewal time, those decisions may have significant ramifications, especially for the non-stars and non-champions in Top Rank's stable.
After a couple of rocky weeks (much of which was understandable), ESPN hit its stride in televising the Bubble fights. Streamlining the broadcast to usually five live fights in a three-hour window, the network found an excellent flow and its commentators shined.
I had been critical of ESPN's broadcast in a recent piece and despite the challenges of having all of their broadcasters in different locations for this series, they produced some fine work. The attributes that often had detracted from ESPN's broadcast in the recent past – endlessly hyping future fights, ignoring a lower-level bout to focus on the main event, talking about topics far removed from the action at hand – did not manifest during the Bubble series. Each of their broadcasters gave the fights and the boxers the respect that they deserved, whether it was a main event or a match between two journeymen.
In particular, something clicked for Joe Tessitore. Instead of playing grabass with Andre Ward and Tim Bradley or trying too hard to display his erudition on topics unrelated to boxing, he kept his attention on the fights, and he called them with aplomb. When Tessitore is at his worst, he can give off a vibe that he's a little too cool for school, that lower-level fights are beneath him. But during the Bubble fights he was engaged throughout the series, and was able to highlight his considerable abilities as a boxing broadcaster. He knows the sport intimately and it was great to see him dialed-in.
Furthermore, with Tim Bradley and Andre Ward, ESPN now has the best tandem of analysts among U.S. boxing broadcasters. They make for great television. They're critical when they need to be, but it's not just about cheap shots (although there were a couple of amusing ones during the series). To them, if they see a flaw, they want a fighter to correct that and the audience to understand why it's imperative that the fighter does so. And Bradley has turned out to be pretty damn funny. Whether it's eating a sandwich on air to gently mock Jerry Forrest's late meal before his fight, or sprinkling in a zany analogy or one-liner, he's really found his groove.
It took ESPN a long time to figure out how to best use its assets to make for an entertaining and quality boxing broadcast, but their production team deserves a lot of credit. They have found a formula that works. A little of Mark Kriegel goes a long way, but that little can help place boxers and their struggles in a meaningful context, which raises the stakes for the viewer. In addition, Bernardo Osuna has demonstrated that he's a wonderful jack-of-all-trades for a boxing broadcast. Whether it's reporting, calling play-by-play, interviewing or translating, Osuna knows the sport inside and out and he's a real asset.
For many years I have wanted American boxing broadcasters and promoters to televise more fights on each card. I thought that the British broadcasters, who routinely televised five and six fights a card, did it right. Now, not every boxing consumer wants that much content, but there are many who do, and the upside in providing additional exposure for young prospects and fighters on the rise can be considerable.
It used to be that fighters wouldn't sniff major U.S. broadcasts until they had 15 or so fights (yes, there were some exceptions). Much of this followed the HBO model, and before that the U.S. network paradigm. These broadcasters believed that only the most important fights or fighters needed to be televised. And quite frankly, they were the major game in town. They were the ones paying the big bucks, so they got to make those decisions.
But as the U.S. boxing broadcasting map has changed over the last few years, it's been a pleasure to see Top Rank, PBC, Golden Boy and Matchroom take a new approach. All of them now show nearly their entire cards, even if they are streaming on a company website. Now we don't have to wait 15 fights to see Jared Anderson or Diego Pacheco or Vito Mielnicki. As a result, we can form attachments and emotional connections sooner. We become more invested in them. I hope this trend continues. It's good business and it plants valuable seeds for future success.