By Jake Donovan
You don’t pass on the opportunity to showcase a good heavyweight fight.
That was always the logic in boxing circles, only for that dynamic to dramatically change in the past several years.
Premium cable network EPIX is hoping to restore an old tradition, while hoping to make a name for itself as a future player in the boxing industry.
This weekend begins EPIX’ foray into life in the squared circle. Its boxing premiere features Vitali Klitschko’s alphabet heavyweight title defense against undefeated mandatory challenger Odlanier Solis, which airs live from Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany (Saturday, 6PM ET).
The fight choice is an interesting one for the new kid on the block. The network was first launched on October 30, 2009 – one month after the elder Klitschko’s 10-round dismantling of Chris Arreola, which was the last heavyweight title fight to air live on any American televised network.
Klitschko’s follow-up bout – a 12-round shutout of uninspiring contender Kevin Johnson – aired via same-day tape delay on HBO, the last time the American cable giant elected to get involved with a heavyweight championship bout.
Simply put, the folks at EPIX have yet to witness a heavyweight title fight in real time since the inception of their own network, not unless you count the pair of Klitschko fights that streamed live on ESPN3.com last September and October, respectively.
So perhaps it’s only fitting that the multi-platform premium entertainment channel begins where its competition last left off.
Or perhaps it will prove to be a case of not learning from past mistakes. Those who ignore history… and all that good stuff.
But in viewing the measures taken to ensure that the fight is taken in one way or another, it’s clear that the folks at EPIX have observed the landscape and are prepared to change the way America takes in its boxing coverage.
“Our multi-platform, which is on the channel on demand, and in this case, EpixHD.com, our Web site, will be streaming the fight live,” reveals Mark Greenberg, CEO and President of Epix after having enjoyed lengthy tours at both HBO and Showtime. “We think that our web site has been a unique opportunity to draw younger audiences to the paid TV category, and we're hoping to do a similar thing for boxing.”
The fight will be available on the network’s website, to both subscribers and non-subscribers. The latter group – particularly those whose cable or satellite provides doesn’t carry the network – can stream the fight live as long as they are willing to sign up for a two-week free trial.
By free, it doesn’t mean you will get sprung with charges the second the trial ends. No credit card information is solicited by the network, as the intent is to show to fans that they truly have a product worth buying.
So anxious are the folks at EPIX to get the word out, that one more revolutionary concept has been concocted to ensure that as many people as possible get to see tonight’s bout. In an unprecedented move, the fight will be streamed live on the jumbotron that oversees Times Square in New York City.
Tourists and pedestrians beware – no matter where you turn, heavyweight action awaits.
This, of course, is what the folks at EPIX believe will help turn things around for the sport, and perhaps the division itself, long overdue for a positive headline.
“We’ve always believed that the heavyweights have been the bellwether for boxing,” Greenberg insists. “[T]here are always fight fans who love different classes of fights and fighters, but certain;y the heavyweights have always drawn in the casual sports fan. And for Epix… this became a really interesting opportunity for us to go and explore the boxing world.”
Along for the ride is Lennox Lewis, who enjoyed three tours as a heavyweight titlist include two reigns as the lineal champion. The Hall-of-Fame fighter will be part of the broadcast, along with veteran radio sports announcers Sam Rosen and Tony Paige, the latter a former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.
As for the fight itself – it’s certainly better than what has been offered by the heavyweight division in recent years.
Vitali Klitschko (41-2, 38KO) has been on a role ever since returning to the sport in late 2008. Six straight wins have followed, although 2010 saw the hulking Ukrainian tread water while awaiting more meaningful fights to materialize.
The downgrade in competition – wins over journeyman Albert Sosnowski and badly faded former champ Shannon Briggs – came on the heels of a Fighter of the Year-level campaign in 2009, one that saw the elder Klitschko barely lose a round against a trio of Top 10 contenders (Juan Carlos Gomez, Chris Arreola, Kevin Johnson).
Where exactly Odlanier Solis ranks among today’s crop of heavyweights is wide open to debate. At the very least, the Cuban export provides a different look than what Klitschko has seen in recent years.
The biggest knock on Solis (17-0, 12KO) is that he has become the typical 21st century heavyweight – uninspiring and often grossly out of shape. In short, a far cry from his days as a highly decorated amateur, an era that included a gold medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics.
Solis’ pro career started out promising enough, joining stable mate Yuriorkis Gamboa in being matched ambitiously right out the gate. Not quite as inspiring has been his conditioning, with his weight as high as 271, not at all a good look on a 6’2” fighter whose greatest in-ring edge – aside from ring smarts – is his hand speed.
Few will question that Solis has by far the fastest hands in the division, though many have questioned whether or not he truly boasts the work ethic to do more than just get by on his natural tools.
The scale watch indicates that he knows what’s at stake this weekend. With a heavyweight title at stake in just his 18th bout in career not even four years old, Solis enters Saturday’s bout at his lightest weight in three years, registering at 246.9 lb.
For the first time in a long time, Solis has shown a serious commitment to legitimizing his credentials.
That has to be good news to Greenberg, whose commitment to restoring interest in the sport cannot at all be questioned. Yet if you ask the long time executive, he’s merely grateful for the chance to prove what he’s capable of when given the chance.
“We’re just really excited to be having this event on our network. It’s fun when you do something for the very first time – a network that’s as young as we are – in our second year to do your first fight, to be a heavyweight championship fight… you know we’re delighted that we can participate.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected].