By Jake Donovan
Boxing on ESPN2 has already witnessed a considerable boost in viewer interest, thanks to the continued success of a pair of Boxcino tournaments showcasing the lightweight and middleweight divisions. Now its flagship network, ESPN is ready to try something a little different in its efforts to rally behind the sport.
The new idea is actually an old one, which is to throw some shine on the heavyweight division. Once boxing’s glamour division, the heavyweights have devolved into the running joke of the sport for the better part of the 21st century.
Still, when it came time for ESPN to showcase the sport on its main network, the old rule of thumb was brought to light – when there’s a good heavyweight fight to be made, you simply make it.
With that in mind, the network – already airing the May 10 showdown between Bermane Stiverne and Chris Arreola in primetime (8:00PM ET) live from the USC Galen Center in Los Angeles, California – has decided to pick up the rights to this weekend’s lineal world championship between reigning heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko and challenger Alex Leapai.
The surprise move to pick up the rights to Klitschko’s ninth lineal title defense and 16th consecutive alphabet title defense live from Koenig Pilsener Arena in Oberhausen, Germany (Saturday, ESPN, 5:00PM ET/2:00PM PT) means ESPN will have the entire heavyweight championship picture on display in the span of four Saturdays, after rarely if ever showcasing the sport outside of its long running Friday Night Fight series on ESPN2.
“I’m a big believer in that you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect success,” claims Brian Kweder, ESPN Senior Director of Programming and Acquisitions, in explaining the decision to pick up the pair of heavyweight championship fights.
The addition of Klitschko’s title defense lends even greater relevance to the May 10 rematch between Stiverne and Arreola, which will be fought for a vacant heavyweight title. There are already a slew of storylines surrounding the fight – there has never been a heavyweight champion of either Haitian or Mexican descent, meaning a win by either fighter will produce a historic moment.
Arreola is fighting for revenge – having dropped a landslide decision to Stiverne last March – in addition to his second crack at a major title. The belt for which he contends is the same one he tried and failed to capture, suffering a 10th round stoppage loss to Vitali Klitschko in Sept. ’09.
Stiverne patiently waited for his own title shot at the elder Klitschko, but instead settled for a shot at the vacant title after the long-reigning titlist chose politics over boxing. Civil unrest in the Ukraine prompted Klitschko to take a stand – at one point running for office, but since dropping out of the race – which meant vacating the heavyweight title he carried for more than five years since returning to the ring in Oct. ’08.
Three weeks before the vacancy is filled (barring a draw or no-decision), his younger brother will attempt to extend his run as the best heavyweight on the planet. Given what’s at stake down the road, there stands a chance the boxing world could bear witness to something special this weekend.
“I'm looking forward to see Wladimir fight on ESPN,” insists Dan Goossen, who has faithfully served as Arreola’s promoter for the duration of the heavyweight’s pro career. :I truly believe with the emergence of Stiverne and Arreola fighting for his brother's title, I believe he's got a responsibility to his viewership. He will go out there and try to knock out Leapai.”
Klitschko (61-3, 51KO) has just one knockout in his past three fights, that coming in a 6th round stoppage of Francisco Pianeta last May. The feat is bookended by decision wins over previously unbeaten heavyweights Mariusz Wach in Nov. ‘12 and most recently Alexander Povetkin last October. The win over Povetkin was carried on HBO, but did more harm than good to his – and the division’s reputation – as the fight was a clinchfest with little offensive flow.
HBO and Showtime have been hesitant in general to showcase non-American heavyweights in recent years. HBO was once upon a time all the way behind the Klitschko brothers, but have since been selective in picking up the rights to their respective fights.
The fight with Povetkin marked the first time in more than two years that Klitschko was showcased on HBO. The previous occasion was his July ’11 bout with David Haye, a dud of a fight largely in part to Haye’s extreme reluctance to take any chances. The only chance American boxing fans have legally enjoyed Klitschko in real time came when premium network EPIX decided to pick up live feeds of overseas boxing action, including several heavyweight fights.
EPIX has since bowed out of the boxing business, whether permanently or just for the time being. That left the heavyweight division – and a good chunk of action in Europe- on the table for anyone stateside willing to make the investment.
There existed the opportunity for HBO or Showtime to pick up the rights to Stiverne-Arreola II. HBO aired the first fight, the last night the network showcased any fighter advised by Al Haymon (Arreola) or promoted by Golden Boy Promotions (Bernard Hopkins, who beat Tavoris Cloud in the main event of a split-site televised tripleheader).
Given HBO’s now frosty relationship with Haymon, there stood little chance of Arreola’s attempt at heavyweight history airing on the network. Showtime – who now enjoys a cozy and near-exclusive relationship with Haymon (and Golden Boy, who is not involved in either upcoming heavyweight title fight) – declined to pick up the fight, leaving an opportunity for the next willing buyer.
In came ESPN, though it doesn’t necessarily mean the network will now serve as heavyweight headquarters. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, either; just that there was the opportunity to grab not one, but two intriguing heavyweight title fights it felt was worth showing on its airwaves.
“While I can't promise big fights like this in the future, it certainly opens the door for such opportunity,” Kweder points out. “There's a lot to offer the boxing world. Each network has its own priorities. ESPN stepped up and chose to showcase (the heavyweights) for these two shows.”
Now comes the time for the participants of these two fights to step up and give ESPN a reason to remain in the heavyweight business.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox