By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Seems just a year or two ago that I was a young fight fan in Niagara Falls, N.Y., pedaling my bicycle every Tuesday afternoon to the local convenience store – Mario’s, on Pine Avenue – to grab the latest issues of my favorite boxing magazines.
OK, it’s actually been about 30 years now. Sue me.
Regardless, I still recall being excited each month when the new KO Magazine would arrive. It was the 1980s version of cool and cutting edge when compared to The Ring – with great photography, pull-out posters and a “not your grandfather’s boxing magazine” feel that I was instantly drawn to.
I still have nearly every copy produced from 1980 to 1986, all of which bear the name of its inaugural managing editor, Steve Farhood. It was the publication that made me want to be a boxing writer in the first place, once guys like Farhood showed me that the job actually existed.
All these years later, it’s no stretch to say that getting a chance to interview him for the first time – in the afterglow of show No. 200 for ShoBox: The New Generation last Friday night – is among the highlights of the post-KO career I’ve managed to cobble in the subsequent three decades.
Episode 200 came precisely 13 years and four days after the debut, and the 54 world champions who’ve appeared across that span were a predictable marketing drum beat as the milestone broadcast approached. With that in mind, we chatted about the show’s differentiating mission, the fighters who’ve hit (and missed) it big since appearing, and the behind-the-scenes grind that leads to fight night.
FITZBITZ: Talk to me about the series as a whole. Put it alongside ESPN's old Top Rank and now Friday night shows, the old USA Network series and some of the others that have been out there over the years. What are the similarities and differences?
FARHOOD: I was a dedicated fan of USA's "Tuesday Night Fights" and the old "Top Rank Boxing" series. Who wasn't? But ShoBox has a distinct definition: prospects being matched tough. The other regular boxing series might feature a prospect one week and a pair of 34-year-old veterans the next.
One other difference: Due to time concerns, the other series might feature four-round swing bouts; ShoBox pretty much limits itself to eight- and 10-rounders.
And the biggest difference: Our ring announcers work with the coolest microphone in boxing.
FITZBITZ: Was there a conscious effort to try to differentiate ShoBox from the other varieties?
FARHOOD: There was most definitely a conscious effort to separate ShoBox from the other series. We knew we had an original idea and an idea that would ultimately serve boxing. And with the exception of a few shows featuring world title fights, we've remained committed to our mission statement.
FITZBITZ: In your view, why is ShoBox a worthwhile watch for fight fans these days? What is its biggest selling point for those who are on the fence?
FARHOOD: I believe ShoBox is a worthwhile watch today for the same reason it's always been a worthwhile watch. If you want to see tomorrow's champions, this is the place to do so. Also, in the beginning of their careers, prospects are often fed subpar opposition. I don't have a problem with that, especially in the first 10 fights or so. But in most cases you're going to see ShoBox prospects matched reasonably tough. And that in itself makes the fights a good watch.
If you're a baseball fan, how cool would it have been to watch Mike Trout rising through the minor leagues? With ShoBox, dedicated viewers have gotten to do that with fighters like Timothy Bradley, Shawn Porter, Robert Guerrero, Andre Ward, etc.
FITZBITZ: Clearly, much has been made about the dozens of future world champions who've appeared on the series. That's got to be a pleasant stat to brag about, right? How much of the aim from the beginning was to focus on guys who had that sort of potential?
FARHOOD: Of course we've always wanted to feature the type of prospects who have championship potential. In the very beginning, Main Events and Frank Warren were the main promoters, and we saw fighters like Jeff Lacy and Ricky Hatton. It was no surprise when they won world titles.
Yes, we like to point out that we've featured 54 future world titlists, but it's interesting that the number of fighters who secured a shot at a world title but failed to win is about double that.
FITZBITZ: Among those champions, have there been guys whose rise truly surprised you? Guys you hadn't expected – after watching them live – to amount to as much as they ultimately did?
FARHOOD: Kermit Cintron was so nervous in his ShoBox debut that I thought he'd freeze when fighting for the highest stakes, but he made it all the way to a title. K-9 Bundrage and Luis Collazo were both stopped in their ShoBox debuts, so their ultimate success was a bit of a surprise. But the best surprise of all was Ishe Smith, who overcame so much before winning his world title. He's my personal favorite of all the ShoBox fighters, and the poster boy for the series.
FITZBITZ: And on the flip side, who have been the guys who you thought were slam dunks that never made it?
FARHOOD: Panchito Bojado looked like a future multi-division titlist, but his early success and hype wasn't handled too well. I thought Rico Hoye was going to make it much bigger than he did. Same with Shamone Alvarez and Jaidon Codrington, and maybe Anthony Thompson and Marcus Johnson and Fernando Guerrero, too.
FITZBITZ: Along those lines, too, who's the best fighter you've seen – champion or no – on the show?
FARHOOD: The best fighter I've seen on ShoBox? Andre Ward would have to be at the top. Guillermo Rigondeaux was the most polished and skilled. Ricky Hatton, at his best, was an awesome force. On the night he overwhelmed Kostya Tszyu in Manchester, he would've beaten almost any 140-pounder you can name. And Timothy Bradley and Nonito Donaire are up there as well.
FITZBITZ: When you get a guy or a fight that's clearly not living up to advance billing and you know people at home might be picking up the remote and preparing to scan, how do you drag them, and yourself, through it?
FARHOOD: Every announcer has to deal with a fight or a fighter that isn't living up to expectations. Good fights on paper sometimes turn out quite disappointing. It happens on every network.
As an analyst in that situation, all you can do is explain as best you can what adjustments need to be made, maybe sprinkle in some anecdotal material, etc. But nobody watches a boxing show to hear the announcers. A bad fight is a bad fight, and you make the best of it.
FITZBITZ: Take me through a show week. What is your typical grind like? How much behind-the-scenes work is there to put on a few hours of live TV? What are the best and worst parts from your perspective?
FARHOOD: Whenever we firm up a date, I begin researching the fighters. This is much easier than it was 13 years ago, when the show debuted, mostly because of YouTube. In the old days, Showtime would send me VHS tapes, then discs. Now it's done via links, etc.
Sometimes we feature a fighter who isn't on YouTube at all. In that case, I'll make a phone call or two and find out what I can from people who've seen him fight. That's a rare occasion, however.
We receive bio info as well, and then, a day before the show, we sit down with the fighters and interview them. After that's done, we have a decent idea what we're dealing with.
In addition, I'll compile the Behind the Numbers info, write a preview article for Showtime's Boxing Blog, study the format, help out on the script and share storyline ideas with the rest of the staff.
For me, preparation is everything. Without it, I'd never feel comfortable on air.
FITZBITZ: You're more a boxing guy than any 100 of us out there. When you're home with the remote, what boxing shows are you most likely to watch? Who do you really like, or really not like?
FARHOOD: Watching boxing shows on TV and YouTube is my homework. I try and watch most everything that's available – and there's more that's available than ever before. It's quite time-consuming, but it beats the hell out of watching reality TV.
Every show has its own personality. Sometimes that's because of the type of production, other times it's because of the announcers. I enjoy most of the regular televised boxing series, and my favorite announcers are Al Bernstein, Brian Kenny, Mauro Ranallo, Paulie Malignaggi, Jim Gray, Brian Custer, Raul Marquez, and Barry Tompkins.
Bet I really surprised you with the names on that list.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBO light heavyweight title – Atlantic City, N.J.
Sergey Kovalev (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Blake Caparello (No. 10 contender/No. 13 IWBR)
Kovalev (24-0-1, 22 KO): Third title defense; Last 12 wins by KO/TKO (40 total rounds)
Caparello (19-0-1, 6 KO): Second title fight (1-0); Second fight outside Australia (1-0)
Fitzbitz says: The challenger is tall and left-handed, which could present some style issues for Kovalev. But ultimately, the guess is that he’ll wind up pretty much like the last 12. Kovalev in 9
Last week's picks: 1-0 (WIN: Golovkin)
2014 picks record: 52-14 (78.7 percent)
Overall picks record: 599-208 (74.2 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.