By Jake Donovan
If there’s a big fight to be seen in the United States, it will appear on either HBO or Showtime – most likely in that order.
That’s become the norm for the past couple of decades, to the point of being accepted by far too many as just the way it is in the sport today.
Premium network EPIX has done everything in its power to change that perception.
“We began with Vitali Klitschko and Odlanier Solis a year ago,” pointed out Travis Pomposello, chief creative officer of Epix who is also in charge of its boxing division as senior vice president. “It was a bust of a fight but having a Klitschko on our air was a blockbuster success.
“Ever since then we’ve been trying to up the ante with each broadcast, and the manner in which we pursue the highest quality of fights.”
EPIX entered the boxing mix last March with the aforementioned heavyweight title fight, in which Solis threatened to make a fight of it before suffering a knockdown and blowing out his knee all in one fell swoop towards then end of the opening round.
More was hoped of the broadcast, though it wasn’t the only downside to the network’s boxing debut. There were also technical difficulties with the online feed at EpixHD.com, though perhaps a good problem as too many subscribers logging on at once to sing on – upwards of 100,000 or so – caused many to miss the undercard portion of the telecast.
The main event went off without a hitch – save for the actual fight itself, though each broadcast improved with time.
An attempt to air a doubleheader from England last May turned into a singular event, though the highly anticipated grudge match between then-unbeaten prospects George Groves and James “Chunky” DeGale was enough to atone for the light heavyweight unification bout that fell off the show.
The only major problems that came with the remaining broadcasts were limited to what took place at ringside – highly controversial decisions turned in during separate broadcasts for Felix Sturm’s disputed points win over Matthew Macklin and Robert Helenius’ questionable call over Dereck Chisora this past December.
A silver lining is offered in the vision EPIX has for the 2012 season. The premium network is flying out the gate, going back-to-back-to-back with heavyweight title fights in three straight weeks from February 18 through March 3.
While UK-based network Boxnation has become every boxing fan’s dream, that it’s limited to UK viewing without the benefit of online piracy has handicapped the size of the audience available for many of the fights on its blockbuster 1st quarter schedule.
For everyone else able to access EPIX either through their cable/satellite subscription or online at EpixHD.com, a trio of heavyweight title fights coming out of Germany now player to a much larger viewing public.
The run begins with the February 18 clash between Vitali Klitschko – arguably the most dominant heavyweight titlist in boxing history – and Dereck Chisora, who wisely parlayed the momentum from the Helenius fight into the biggest opportunity of his career.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had anyone like him,” Pomposello confesses of the charismatic Brit, who threatened to “make love” to Helenius during the press hype prior to their fight. The fringe heavyweight contender has since toned it down, merely offering to kiss Klitschko at some point.
There remains skepticism as to how competitive he will be even against a 40-year old Klitschko who despite his advanced age continues to mow through the competition.
Such was evidenced in his one-sided drubbing of Tomasz Adamek last September on HBO, marking his first appearance on the network in nearly two years. The Ukrainian was limited to viewings on ESPN’s online feed (ESPN3.com) before returning to American airwaves in EPIX’ test case last March.
For whatever reasons, American powerhouse HBO is unable to translate the Klitschko brothers’ heavyweight success into heavyweight ratings – or at least the type of numbers that justify the paycheck that comes with airing their fights. Showtime hasn’t at all been in the mix since the elder Klitschko’s return to the ring in October ’08.
Somehow, EPIX is able to make it work. His appearance last March was enough convince the brass to bring him back next month. This time he returns with younger brother and lineal champion Wladimir Klitschko, who next defends his crown against former cruiserweight king Jean-Marc Mormeck two weeks later.
Wedged in between is an alphabet heavyweight title fight which will mark the third straight showcasing of unbeaten Alexander Povetkin. The Russian’s vacant title win over Ruslan Chagaev aired live on EPIX’ airwaves, as did his eight-round beatdown of Cedric Boswell last December.
That he’s featured in between Klitschko bouts and that all three are airing on EPIX is no accident. While it doesn’t guarantee head-on collisions in the near future, the buildup certainly doesn’t hurt.
“The lineup has me super excited both as a boxing fan and as the network head of its boxing division,” Pomposello insists. “We have become the heavyweight network. The heavyweight division has always been about the big stars throughout history. There is a tradition of heavyweights on networks and we’re happy to do our part to bring it back.”
Don’t mistake the excitement for the folks at EPIX breaking their arms in patting themselves on the back. No matter how much is done, the mentality of the New York City-based network is that there is always more to do.
“I just wish that Helenius didn’t go down with the shoulder injury,” Pomposello says of the Nordic heavyweight, who has appeared twice on the network, both times on the same card as Povetkin.
Helenius’ EPIX debut came last summer, overcoming a tougher-than-expected challenge from Sergei Liakhovich before stopping the former heavyweight titlist in nine rounds. Less than four months later came the questionable decision over Chisora, which was attributed – by his handlers – to a busted mitt suffered early in the bout.
It has since been reported that the unbeaten contender is heading for shoulder surgery, which will put him on ice until summer time at the earliest. Such turn of events killed plans for a hoped-for showdown with Alexander Dimitrenko, which EPIX was fully prepared to purchase for its viewers.
Instead, the network for now remains content with what is coming up in the next few weeks, though is actively on the hunt for the future beyond March 3. The options are hardly limited to the heavyweight division, though will continue to fit within the parameter of late afternoon/early evening viewing on a Saturday in the states.
The time slot was chosen as a reflection of the era enjoyed by Pomposello and EPIX CEO Mark Greenberg – a former Showtime exec – when Saturday boxing matinees were routine. Its pairing with everything else EPIX has to offer has made for a solid combination to expand viewership, even if it means investing heavily into the European boxing scene.
“Our series has been mostly in Europe since it fits with the time slot,” Pomposello explains. “What better way to spend a Saturday evening then boxing right around dinner time, then a movie premiere right after that.”
It’s not exactly sure whether its vast movie collection – 15,000 and growing – or its inclusion of the type of boxing shows not normally made available to the American boxing scene has led to the network’s growth. What’s known is that all of the pieces fit into the puzzle.
“As the guy who runs boxing on this network, I’d love to say, ‘Hey boss we have 100,000 new subscribers thanks to boxing.’ We don’t have specific reasons for increased subscriptions, other than certain pinpoints. We got a bump after the Klitschko fight. We got bumps after big movie premieres or a major concert.
“What’s important is that we continue to grow.”
Helping the growth is the ability to think outside the box and not fall into the same formula all too often followed by other networks. Part of that comes with the two-week trial offered on the website.
“The advantage of having our fights on EpixHD as opposed to a linear channel is that I can give the fans a sampling for two weeks. It’s a lot easier for me to give people a guest account for two weeks on our website than it is to call the cable company and make the channel available to Joe Boxing Fan for the next two weeks.”
Those who happen to frequent Times Square around the time EPIX airs a major fight have certainly bore witness to a viewing experience like no other.
“Outside of this office is this screen controlled by one of our parent companies,” Pomposello says of the giant TV screen in the middle of Times Square which has aired EPIX boxing events to the outdoor pedestrians. “It was March and weather was nice and someone in the office came to me and said ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to air this on the big screen’?”
For the rest of the boxing world now given more options to take in its favorite pastime without having to delve into the world of online piracy, it’s the answer to our prayers – from the viewing platform to the product provided.
“A lot of these fighters are not popular in the US. It’s a great opportunity to bring these fights to the fans that don’t otherwise get the exposure. As long as the opportunities exist, it’s a programmer’s dream come true.”
If there’s a downside, it’s that – unlike the established series offered on other networks – EPIX remains a la carte. There is no guarantee of a steady stream of boxing to come from the network, but the promise that whatever is offered will always be well worth everyone’s time.
“We will remain on a fight by fight basis,” Pomposello reveals. “We’re not looking for a Friday Night Fight series. As a fight fan, I love it. As a premium network, I feel obligated to give them quality. I’ll continue to take the best fights when they are available.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]