Showtime continues their boxing-rich tradition
Story by Mariano A. Agmi
Photos courtesty of Showtime/Tom Casino
“Promoters call us all the time to say ‘I have the new Mike Tyson or the next Oscar de la Hoya’. We say great: if you really believe that, we’re going to throw them in tough – there are no walkover bouts on Shobox. Some of these fighters stumble; some of these amazing prospects fade away. Others have risen to the occasion and gone on to win world titles on Showtime Championship Boxing, HBO and Pay-per-view.” - Ken Hershman, Showtime Senior VP & General Manager of Sport & Event Programming
Over the years, Ken Hershman and Gordon Hall have consistently provided Showtime subscribers with top-notch boxing programming via their respective series, Showtime Championship Boxing and Shobox: The New Generation. With about a quarter of the budget of HBO, Showtime Championship Boxing has televised ‘fight of the year’ caliber bouts such as Corrales-Castillo and the Marquez-Vasquez trilogy. Meanwhile, Shobox has provided not just American prospects, but also the best young prospects from Canada and the United Kingdom with wide exposure and stern tests at young stages of their careers.
Hershman, a former legal counsel for the cable network, took over Sports Programming duties in 2005 when Jay Larkin left the company to serve as a boxing consultant. From the beginning of his tenure, Hershman kept his predecessor’s “Great Fights, No Rights” policy alive as he delivered the unification of the cruiserweight division, the emergence of Joe Calzaghe and Vic Darchinyan to prominent status in the sport, and scintillating match-ups such as the aforementioned Vasquez-Marquez series.
Shobox: “Young Prospects Matched Tough”
Since it’s inception in 2001, Shobox has served as both a testing ground and a spring board for boxing’s top prospects. The show develops fighters unlike any other program, providing boxing aficionados with competitive boxing featuring the future stars of the sport.
Hershman refers to Gordon Hall, the architect of the series, as the “heart and soul” of Shobox. “From the beginning, Gordon worked with all the promoters and dug wherever he could to find fight footage to make sure that these kids are matched as tough as possible while treating the brand as his own,” explained Hershman. This led to critical acclaim for the series, from both fans as well as the ever critical fight-scribe community.
Hall’s goal for the show has always been to develop young fighters by showcasing them a number of times in stern tests. These tests allow fighters to gain invaluable experience while exposing them to the public at very early stages of their careers. While the experience helps prospects to develop at a faster pace, it also provides promoters with an idea of the caliber of talent they are dealing with.
Gordon honed the idea for Shobox after serving for years as a producer for NBC’s “Sportsworld” in the 1980’s. The show featured then-prospects Bobby Czyz, John “the Beast” Mugabi and James “Hard Rock” Green. Hall recognized that introducing the fighters to the public on network television at a young stage created nationwide interest in them as they continued their ascent in the sport.
Hall has some impressive statistics to back his show’s significance and contribution to boxing. Gordon is most proud of the 30 prospects that were developed on ShoBox and “graduated” to become world champions, most of them on Showtime or HBO Championship Boxing and some of them on pay-per-view. Examples include current champions Chad Dawson, Nonito Donaire, Paul Williams, Kelly Pavlik, Andre Berto and Carl Froch.
The impressive list goes on and on. Kendall Holt and Tim Bradley are ShoBox alums that will collide on April 4th on Showtime to unify their respective jr. welterweight titles, with the winner becoming a viable opponent for the superbout between Manny Pacquiao and yet another Shobox standout, Ricky Hatton. Hall explains, “Tim Bradley and Kendall Holt are great examples of what we are trying to achieve with the series. There is no doubt in my mind that it was their growth in fights on Shobox that propelled them to their title opportunities.”
Before becoming champion, Holt (25-2, 13 KOs) made three successful appearances on Shobox against undefeated prospects David Diaz (TKO 8 in a bout where both men tasted the canvas) and Isaac Hlatshwayo (W12). Holt “graduated” with a win in a WBO Jr. Welterweight eliminator against “Mighty” Mike Arnaoutis to setup the first of his two championship bouts against Ricardo Torres. After picking up the WBO strap, Holt defended it for the first time last year on Shobox against Demetrius Hopkins.
Similarly, Bradley (23-0, 11 KOs) worked his way to the WBC Jr. Welterweight title with Shobox appearances against Manuel Garnica (W8) and Donald Camarena (W10). Bradley is an exceptional case in that ShoBox also televised his title winning effort against Junior Witter in Nottingham, England.
Showtime’s commitment to televising the sports best prospects in tough outings has created a brand that Hall and Hershman hope will continue for a long time: “We know what it is to say, ‘He’s a Shobox fighter’” states Hershman. “It points to the success of the franchise. There is no such thing as a ‘Boxing After Dark’ fighter, but there is a ‘Shobox’ fighter because we’ve been true to our message.”
The Gift & The Curse
Despite ShoBox’s accomplishments in developing top-rated fighters, both Hershman and Hall are aware of the fact that their popular franchise often serves as a farm system for the competition. The executives are not noticeably bothered by this reality. Instead, they confidently march forward knowing that boxing is ultimately benefitting in a situation where everyone wins: “When we develop fighters from prospects to contenders, it not only benefits Showtime and HBO, but all of boxing,” states Hall. “Alfredo Angulo and James Kirkland are prime examples of fighters we showcased 2-3 times. We gave the public their first TV exposure ever – and that is good for the sport.”
But what steps do Hershman and Hall take to mitigate the risk of Shobox fighters migrating from Showtime to HBO once their development is complete?
One way that Hershman works to avoid losing talent is to continue his predecessor’s tradition of producing “Great Fights, No Rights” on the first Saturday of each month. Fans have come to rely on watching competitive bouts on specific dates instead of witnessing contract fighters make one mandatory mismatch after another.
Another way in which Hershman works to keep his program competitive is by showing loyalty to the fighters he features: “fighters may lose on our shows, but if they perform heroically in defeat, we put them back on.” This good faith approach allows Hershman to make the best fights available while providing fighters with the incentive to perform at their very best regardless of the ultimate outcome.
Finally, throughout the years Showtime has focused on competitive divisions that are sometimes unfairly ignored by other outlets and the fans. If it weren’t for Showtime highlighting the flyweights, cruiserweights and super middleweights, would fans be as familiar with Vic Darchinyan, Tomas Adamek and Joe Calzaghe?
Hershman and Hall plan on continuing to spotlight these divisions, as evidenced by their current push to televise super middleweight fighters in different stages of development. The network is already primed to showcase Carl Froch’s first title defense against former middleweight champ Jermain Taylor on April 25th, with contenders Allan Green against Carlos De Leon Jr. on the undercard. Shobox has already featured blue-chip 168lb prospects Andre Dirrell and Andre Ward, as well as scintillating title fights such as Lucian Bute vs. Librado Andrade on their airwaves. Add names like Mikkel Kessler and Jean Pascal to the mix, and the culmination of a series of fights between these pugilists will provide the public with great fights and a clear ruler for the 168lb. division.
Showtime has gotten off to a great start in 2009. The Shobox series has already televised two world championship bouts in Adamek-Banks and Bute-Zuniga and several prospects, including Andre Ward, Gary Russell Jr., and John Molina.
The rest of 2009 looks to be solid from top to bottom thus far for the channel in general: In addition to Bradley-Holt and Froch-Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Ronald Hearns will continue their development while WBA/IBF champ Celestino Caballero continues his assault on the bantamweight division against Jeff Mathebula.
With a schedule like this one, it seems as if boxing as a whole will continue to benefit from Showtime’s quality programming.