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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.