By Jake Donovan
It’s been a long overdue revival for the men and women part of the entity that refers to themselves as “America’s #1 Boxing Network.”
This past year for Showtime was no longer about keeping pace with HBO and having to play second fiddle in the industry’s pecking order. It was a year in which they made all of the right moves, gave the fans the fights they wanted to see, and broke new ground with its critically acclaimed Super Six World Boxing Classic.
And unlike last year, they get to end this one with a bang.
Of course, it’s never Showtime’s intention to simply go out with a whimper. There’s always a Plan A in place, only to sometimes have those visions compromised for the sake of staying on schedule and not leaving its target audience empty-handed.
It was 52 weeks ago when the network planned to end its 2008 run with a rubber match to one of the wildest rivalries in recent time. Kendall Holt and Ricardo Torres were prepared to meet for the third time in 15 months, with the plan for a conclusive ending to finally come of a wild series that has seen both fighters score controversial knockouts.
Those plans were shot to sunshine when Torres pulled up lame late in training camp, leaving Holt without a dance partner late in the game. Demetrius Hopkins was brought in as a pinch hitter, which meant an anticipated shootout was replaced by a bout that turned out to be more entertaining than expected, though not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of things.
What it certainly was not was the ideal way to end the year.
Barring injury or any other crazy reason to disrupt what’s currently in place, this weekend’s doubleheader, which airs from the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (Saturday, 9PM ET/PT), is far more befitting of the strong 2009 campaign Showtime has enjoyed, as well as the perfect springboard to shape up its 2010 calendar.
For the second straight year, the network’s final championship fight of the season comes in the super lightweight division. This time around, it carries major implications in the shape of a division that has a leader not exactly accessible to the masses.
Until the day comes when Manny Pacquiao decides it’s financially worth dropping back down to 140 to defend his lineal championship, it can easily be argued that Tim Bradley is the best active super lightweight on the planet.
Amidst a title reign already that will run five fights deep come Saturday, Bradley (24-0, 11KO) continues to take on the best of the rest of the 140 lb. division. It began with his title win more than 18 months ago, when he traveled out of the United States – in fact, out of his home state of California – for the first time in his career to defeat Junior Witter, traveling to the Brit’s homeland to deliver what at the time served as his career best performance.
It may still rate as his best, though the fact that such a thing can be debated speaks volumes of how far the muscular Californian has come in such a short time. Some turn to his twice climbing off the canvas to outlast Kendall Holt in their alphabet unification earlier this year.
Others will argue that his best performance to date was a fight where he didn’t even wind up with the win. It’s certainly how he left the Agua Caliente Casino this past August, when former lightweight titlist Nate Campbell was forced to retire on his stool after three rounds due to a cut suffered over his eye and his vision being compromised earlier in the round.
At the time, referee David Mendoza ruled that while he saw a headbutt (in fact, several) he didn’t see blood until a punch landed, which was his defense for declaring the bout a technical stoppage in favor of Bradley, fighting 20 minutes from his hometown of Palm Springs, Calif.
The beleaguered California State Athletic Commission would get one right for a change, overruling the official verdict and determining that Campbell’s cut was in fact caused by a butt, and declaring the fight a no-contest.
What doesn’t change is the fact that Bradley was enjoying perhaps the best three rounds of his career to that point - or as he described afterwards, making Campbell look “older and older throughout the fight.”
There’s nothing old about his next challenge. If anything, there isn’t a category on paper in which Lamont Peterson doesn’t enjoy a statistical advantage, save of course for experience at the highest level.
But then, it mattered little when Bradley graduated overnight from untested prospect to undefeated champion before and after the Witter showdown. Not to mention the fact that Peterson (27-0, 13KO) doesn’t come into this weekend’s fight with the same cloud of mystery surrounding his background.
The story of Lamont and his younger brother Anthony Peterson is well-documented by now. The boxing brother act was forced overcome homelessness and the lack of a credible role model as kids growing up in the far less showcased side of our nation’s capital. Their lives changed for the better when Barry Hunter came into the picture, serving as their surrogate father and boxing trainer.
Like so many before them, boxing became means to escape from the ghetto. Both served as gifted amateurs, though their dreams of joining the 2004 U.S. Olympic boxing squad ended with at the Olympic Trials in Tunica, Mississippi earlier that year.
The location became significant as it is serves as the operating base for another pair of boxing brothers – Russ and Brian Young, who run Prize Fight Boxing. Lamont and Anthony signed with the leading mid-South promotional group, becoming regional draws in Memphis, which serves as their home away from home.
Both could box like a dream, but if there was a question mark surrounding Lamont’s career, it was his desire to close the show – or lack thereof. Often showcased with his younger brother, it was noted that Anthony was better suited for TV, while Lamont’s style suggested win today, look good the next time. Only it reached a point where networks were beginning to wonder when exactly “next time” would come.
The past seven or so fights have shown a different side of Peterson – one that wants to return to television the moment his fight ends, and one that’s not always content with fights going to the scorecards or leaving any doubt as to who won once the contest ends. Though boasting a modest knockout to win ratio, five of his past seven bouts have ended inside the distance.
One way or another, that figures to change this weekend. Few, if anyone expect anything short of a distance fight, though one that never disappoints.
Bradley rarely if ever knocks you out, but never for a lack of trying. Peterson has learned to sit down more on his punches, though not without completely abandoning his stellar skill set, particularly his ability to avoid getting hit without having to travel very far.
If the main event provides the anticipated mix of entertainment and skill level, then the night figures to have most likely been a rousing success. Even if a pure boxing match breaks out in the evening’s top bill, anything short of a shootout in the televised co-feature will be among the year’s biggest upsets.
More so than getting back into the win column, this weekend’s fight for Vic Darchinyan is about reestablishing his dominance in the super flyweight division, as he defends his lineal crown against fringe contender Tomas Rojas.
The brash Armenian, based out of Sydney, Australia, returns after a failed title bid three pounds north earlier this summer. Then-bantamweight titlist Joseph Agbeko proved to be a little too much for Darchinyan to handle, falling short in a fight where he reverted back to old form, ignoring the advice doled out in his corner and forgetting what led to this opportunity in the first place.
Prior to the loss to Agbeko, Darchinyan was enjoying by far the best run of his nine-year career, and that includes a lengthy stay as a flyweight champion. Two fights removed from a devastating knockout loss to Nonito Donaire to end his days as an undefeated titlist, Darchinyan (32-2-1, 26KO) ran roughshod over the super flyweight division in 2008.
That it began with a controversial draw on the road against Z Gorres speaks volumes of what he went on to accomplish, scoring violent one-sided knockout wins over Dmitry Kirillov and Cristian Mijares to score major divisional hardware, three belts in all as well as lineal claim.
The momentum carried over into 2009, which began with his third straight lopsided ass-kicking of a top 10 super flyweight. The victory was double sweet, as the 11th round stoppage came against longtime bitter rival Jorge Arce. Given their back and forth trash talking through the year, the fight was perhaps two years too late, but savored all the same by Darchinyan, who never eased off of the gas before forcing the Mexican to quit on his stool after 11 rounds.
Not quite as much motivation surrounds this weekend’s fight, other than the need to return to the win column. Rojas (32-11-1, 22KO) appears to be the perfect opponent on paper for Darchinyan to accomplish that mission, though nowhere is it written that it comes easy.
The Mexican southpaw has only been stopped once in his 13-year career. That moment came via one-punch body shot knockout two years against Jorge Arce in a terrific action fight in which he was more than holding his own against the former champion.
He hasn’t lost since then, riding a seven fight unbeaten streak (6-0-1, 4KO) into this weekend.
Aside from two fights that should prove to entertain, what’s most rewarding for Showtime is the fact that they’ve had a tremendous hand in developing three of the four featured fighters on this weekend’s telecast. Bradley and Peterson cut their teeth on the Shobox circuit, while Darchinyan appears on the network for the 10th time in his past 12 fights.
All appear on this weekend’s telecast facing must-win scenarios if they are to carry onward in 2010 and beyond as leaders of their respective divisions. Such results should translate to Showtime’s already stellar year, ending with a bang.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com and an award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Contact Jake at JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .