By Lyle Fitzsimmons
It's a pretty good time to be Stephen Espinoza.
Though the chill from a Super Bowl week in Minneapolis may linger awhile, the Showtime executive surely has a lot to look forward to once he returns to work in midtown Manhattan.
He was elevated to president of the network's entire sports operation in late January, in conjunction with the latest in a series of buzz-generating moves for its boxing operation.
Showtime unveiled its schedule for the first half of 2018 in a "Boxing Upfront" at Cipriani's in New York City, where Jimmy Lennon Jr. listed matchups across 10 events that'll feature 14 unbeaten fighters and 12 title fights through mid-June.
Among the fighters on hand were Deontay Wilder, Danny Garcia, Jermall and Jermell Charlo, Mikey Garcia, Erislandy Lara, Adrien Broner, Keith Thurman, Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares and Errol Spence Jr. -- and Espinoza said the blowout provided attention for the network along with a user-friendly practicality for fans.
"We started with quarterly slates or roughly quarterly slates and we wanted to continue maybe progressing and maybe adding a little more predictability and order and organization to the scheduling," he said. "Getting everybody together really highlights the depth of talent that currently exists in boxing. Sometimes we don't get to see the big picture. But when you get everyone on one stage you realize this is really an impressive crop of young and established boxers really in the primes of their careers.
"Aside from that, I think we also wanted to address one of the flaws of boxing. Sometimes its difficult in boxing even for the hardcore fans to know when fights are happening and how one fight relates to another and what the big picture is. The hope is by laying out the first six months of the year maybe it'll make a little bit more sense to people, it'll be easier to follow."
That could be delivered via a simple press release, he conceded, but the impressions left by a gathering of elite-level fighters make up for the logistical headaches of putting it all together.
"It does send a message about the depth of talent that we have here at Showtime and the range of guys that we have," Espinoza said. "And actually seeing them all together on one stage, it reminds you how marketable the sport is. These are all walks of life, all ethnicities, some really good looking, articulate guys. They clean up pretty well. They all put their best foot forward. It was pretty impressive. Even more impressive than what we hoped."
Boxing Scene spent 20 minutes with Espinoza to discuss his favorite upcoming matchups, the strides Showtime has made since it began working with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2013, and his guess for Mayweather's successor as the sport's top man.
Boxing Scene: When you look at the schedule, are there one or two fights that you're excited about just as a fan?
Espinoza: The one that jumps out is probably Wilder-Ortiz, a real marquee matchup. But I think the ones that have generated a lot of reaction are the ones that are arguably a little bit more of the sleepers. The heavyweights and the Keith Thurmans and the Errol Spences might be the sexiest matchups. But Badou Jack and Adonis Stevenson is I think a really interesting, intriguing fight that sort of is tough to call one way or the other. And the unification fight between Erislandy Lara and Jarrett Hurd is a great clash of styles and personalities. They may not be the first two fights that jump off the schedule, but those two might be the sleepers because they're a great combination of styles and matchups and of course they're 50/50 fights.
Boxing Scene: Garcia-Rios has a chance to be entertaining, too, if nothing else.
Espinoza: Absolutely right. With those two styles, the ref might as well go to the corner and have a cup of coffee. There's not going to be a lot of moving or clinching or anything. I think it's just gonna be both guys throwing bombs for as long as it lasts. It's an important fight for both guys. Brandon has been at the top of his division in the past and he's trying to get there again. Danny really wants to reestablish himself at the top of the division and make sure people don't forget about him when they talk about the top welterweights in the world.
Boxing Scene: Showtime has a long history with big-name fighters, but rightly or wrongly there's been a perception that the other network was the gold standard and Showtime was next. But perception since 2013, when Floyd came, is that the landscape leveled out or even tipped in your favor. When you got Floyd, did you believe that would be a perception changer?
Espinoza: It certainly was our plan when we did the Floyd deal that it would at least send a message symbolically that Showtime was committed to operating at the highest level of the sport. And it was our hope that practically speaking it would signal sort of a new generation of talent and of commitment to the sport at Showtime. Simultaneously, although the effect wasn't felt until a couple years later, we sort of embarked on developing what we hoped was the next wave of talent coming up behind Floyd.
That was starting to build the Keith Thurmans and Errol Spences, continuing to build Danny Garcia and Shawn Porter and even continuing down the road of Deontay Wilder and the Charlo brothers. The hope was at some point in the future this talent would mature and become a good wave of really attractive marketable talent. That's what has happened. In some ways, it's felt overnight because 2017 was such a great year and hopefully we're poised to continue it, but in reality, the seeds were sown really back in 2013 with the Floyd Mayweather deal and the investment in some of the up and comers who have now matured into stars.
Boxing Scene: Did it accomplish everything you wanted it to in terms of both perception and talent developing? Five years later, did it do everything it was supposed to do?
Espinoza: The deal did everything we could have hoped and much more. The Canelo fight happened very quickly into the deal. The long-awaited Pacquiao fight happened and of course, Mayweather-McGregor was something that no one saw coming but was really the icing on the cake. It's important, too, that we also got a lot of benefit from it from Floyd as a promoter. Badou Jack and Gervonta Davis have both developed into headliners. Both are former world champions who are looking to establish themselves as world champions again. It paid off not just in terms of Floyd's fights but also Mayweather Promotions and the general tide lifting all boats in terms of the perception and visibility of Showtime boxing as a whole.
Boxing Scene: Is Floyd done?
Espinoza: It's interesting. MMA will be a topic of conversation. I think it's unlikely that Floyd really takes on the challenge of MMA, but you can never say never with Floyd. There was a point at which we were all saying that the McGregor fight was a dream and a fantasy fight. So one thing I've learned over the years in terms of Floyd is never to really doubt what is possible in terms of what Floyd can achieve and will into existence. If he gets the itch and wants to take on a new challenge I wouldn't bet against him. Just in case, I'll carry a blank contract around with me.
Boxing Scene: Now that Floyd's gone, Klitschko's gone, Cotto's gone and Manny seems on the way out, the pedestal is open for a number of guys. If we talk again in five years, will the new star have come from this list of fights, or is there someone in the weeds who could be the top guy?
Espinoza: The strategy has really been to develop as broad and deep a group of talent as we can and let the chips fall where they may. There's always an element of luck in who becomes a superstar in terms of timing or circumstances or other factors. Could I see Deontay Wilder or Anthony Joshua developing into a household name? I think that's absolutely possible. Do I see Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia and Errol Spence and Shawn Porter developing into sort of a Hagler-Hearns-Leonard-Duran type of generation? Those are lofty names to be throwing around, but it's a really good core group of talent. I'm very bullish on boxing right now. There's a great wave of young marketable, likable talent that's really skilled. I'm excited about seeing those guys mature to their full ability in the next couple years.
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This week's title-fight schedule
IBO super featherweight title -- Ekaterinburg, Russia
Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov (champion/No. 16 IWBR) vs. Malcolm Klassen (No. 16 IBO/No. 27 IWBR)
Rakhimov (11-0, 8 KO): First title defense; Three KOs in three fights at venue (12 total rounds)
Klassen (33-7-2, 17 KO): Seventh title fight (3-3); Held IBF and IBO belts at 130 pounds
Fitzbitz says: Klassen has succeeded on the top level and has a clear edge in experience, but the Russian is 13 years younger and appears to be a legit entity. That'll matter. Rakhimov in 9
WBC super featherweight title -- Cancun, Mexico
Miguel Berchelt (champion/No. 2 IWBR) vs. Maxwell Awuku (Unranked WBC/Unranked IWBR)
Berchelt (32-1, 28 KO): Second title defense; Second fight in Cancun (1-0, 1 KO)
Awuku (44-3-1, 30 KO): First title fight; Fifth fight outside Ghana (2-2)
Fitzbitz says: Berchelt has shown himself to be even better than most people thought prior to his initial title fight, and he doesn't figure to get more than an early challenge here. Berchelt in 9
Last week's picks: 4-0 (WIN: Gassiev, Ancajas, Ramirez, Higa)
2018 picks record: 10-0 (100 percent)
Overall picks record: 931-304 (75.3 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.