Nearly a month has passed since an injury to Mikkel Kessler knocked the Danish super-middleweight out of a fight against Allen Green that would have taken place this Saturday night and into retirement, leaving Showtime’s World Boxing Classic in a state of disarray that was further exacerbated by subsequent events.
Less than five weeks ago Showtime viewers could anticipate watching three Super Six bouts in the space of eight days. In fact, none of the three took place. In the time since Kessler fell out, (a) an injury to Carl Froch torpedoed his fight against Arthur Abraham that would have taken place in Monte Carlo next weekend, and (b) the Andre Ward-Andre Dirrell scheduled for this Saturday did not happen. And, oh, yes, (c) the WBC declared Kessler “champion emeritus.
In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we’ll accept that Froch’s injury is genuine, but you’d have to say that Showtime didn’t come off looking particularly good in the process. Last week a Showtime channel was still airing a “Fight Camp promo from which a casual channel-surfer could easily have concluded that all three fights were still on for Sept. 25 and Oct 2.
Showtime’s announcement on Friday officially confirmed the delay, but since everybody in boxing has known for at least a month that there was no way the reluctant Andres were going to fight each other this weekend, Showtime, by going right down to the wire still clinging to the pretense that the fight was still on, created the impression that the inmates were running the asylum.
Which, in a sense, they were.
The day after the Kessler-Green fight blew up, we noted in this space that it might have been a blessing in disguise, in that it provided Showtime an opportunity for a mid-course correction. And we also noted that, if the initial goal of the preliminary stages was to identify the top four 168-pounders for the semifinal round, that had already been accomplished. The wheat had successfully been separated from the chaff, and simple logic called for going straight to the semis.
As it turned out, this pretty much mirrored Showtime’s thinking, and to their credit, they tried to do the right thing. Going straight to a four-man knockout round with Ward, Dirrell, Abraham, and Froch would have been the best solution from Showtime’s standpoint, since it would have restored a vitality to the battered tournament. It would have been the right thing to do for the fans and it would have been the right thing to do for boxing, but given a choice between the welfare of the sport and their own economic self-interest, boxing promoters are guaranteed to opt for the latter every time.
Remarkably, the most strident opposition to the four-man format didn’t come from the guy who would have been the odd man out. Cognizant of its sticky contractual situation, Showtime was apparently prepared to throw Green, and his promoter Lou DiBella, a bone. (Green, who has had trouble making 168, might have been offered a Showtime date against a credible but beatable light-heavy, with perhaps the added inducement of a shot at one of the 175-pound titles if he won.)
Rather, the guys who were kicking and screaming about the proposed reconfiguration of the format were the promoters of the very four boxers who would have comprised the field.
The situation was (and is) this: Under the terms of the agreement everyone signed when the tournament was conceived, each participant was guaranteed a certain number of bouts going in. The minimum guarantees in each instance were well over a million dollars per fight, and in some cases more. And while there is a manifold increase in the purse sizes in the semifinal and final rounds, from the standpoint of the respective promoters, the notion of abandoning the group stage, which would have entailed passing up an extra chance to dip into their fighters’ purses for their own end of the proceedings, was like being asked to create a bonfire of more than a thousand hundred-dollar bills.
Ward, for instance, as the present leader in the point totals, is on the books for two more fights no matter what. He could lose to Dirrell and still be assured of making the semis. There’s no way Dan Goossen was going to sit still for a streamlined format that would have taken a payday off the table to put his guy in a situation where it could have been one-and-done, and to one degree or another the other promoters (Gary Shaw, Mick Hennessey, and Herr Sauerland) were equally reluctant to pass on the extra payday.
So even though Showtime’s Ken Hershman earnestly tried to pursue a course that would have been preferable to everyone save Mssrs. Goossen, Shaw, Hennessey, and Sauerland, his hands were tied because he was effectively stuck with the monster he had created in the lab.
“Injuries and delays are inevitable, Hershman seemed to be sighing in announcing the new dates, throwing in the towel on the idea of reducing the tournament to a four-man field.
What we’re left with instead is the lineup announced on Friday. Ward-Dirrell (at a U.S. venue) and Abraham-Froch (probably in the boxing hotbed of Helsinki, Finland) will now comprise two halves of a split-feed doubleheader telecast on the evening of November 27.
Friday’s announcement also included a cryptic but telling notation that “a decision on Green’s Stage 3 bout is expected in the coming days.
From this two things can be inferred. One is that the network is committed to solidering on with a six-man field. The other is that since Green-TBA isn’t exactly must-see TV, it will probably be slotted in as the co-feature of an extant Showtime telecast, possibly the Nov. 6 Juan Manuel Lopez-Rafael Marquez card at the MGM grand.
Since it’s Showtime’s money, could the network have flexed more muscle instead of being held hostage by the promoters and letting the tail wag the dog?
Possibly, but the one persuasive weapon Showtime had at its disposal was one it seems to have been extremely reluctant to use. A couple of weeks ago the network’s attorneys filed papers putting Ward, Dirrell, and their promoters on notice that they would be in breach of contract if Saturday night’s fight failed to take place. Once it didn’t, Showtime could have sued the balls off Goossen and Shaw, and probably won, but that course of action would pretty much have meant the end of the tournament in any guise.
What happens now is the Super Six reverts to its original format, with yet another replacement super-middle disinterred to take Kessler’s place. Since the lucky substitute will inherit Kessler’s bout schedule but not his point total, he will start off in a deep hole – though not as deep as you might suspect.
So as of this morning the standings look like this:
Ward (2-0) 4 points
Abraham (1-1) 3 points
Froch (1-1) 2 points
Dirrell (1-1) 2 points
Green (0-1) 0 points
Mystery Man (0-0) 0 points
Logically, the sixth man will almost certainly have to be a European to maintain the 3-3 balance of power. The fact that both would bring a world title to the mix would argue for Robert Stieglitz and Dimitri Sartison. Steiglitz (38-2) of Germany is the WBO champion. (Before assuming his current name, Steiglitz was previously Sergey Shtikhlits of Yeysk, Russia. The anticipation of hearing Antonio Tarver pronounce that name is in itself reason to hope he gets the nod.)
Another German-based super-middle, the Kazakhstani-born Sartison, is the WBA “world champion. (And you thought that was Ward? Hah! He’s the WBA super super-middleweight champion.)
Two other possibilities are a pair of Irish southpaws from different sides of the border, Andy Lee (Limerick) and Brian Magee (Belfast).
In theory Lee ( 23-1) is a middleweight, but in fact he has technically been a super-middle for each of the eight fights he has had since his 2008 loss to Brian Vera, and three years ago he won the Irish super-middleweight title with a stoppage of Jason McKay. That he is probably the best known of the bunch to American audiences argues in his favor, but he’s still only 26 and progressing, and jumping into this company would represent a big step up. It’s unclear that manager Emanuel Steward would willingly throw him into the deep end at this stage, but for a million dollars, who knows? (Another potential complication could be how HBO might view watching one of its announcers working a corner in a Showtime tournament.)
Ranked No. 1 by the WBA, Magee defended his European super-middle title on a Brian Peters card in Dublin two weeks ago when Germany-based Armenian Roman Aramian failed to answer the bell for the ninth. Magee is 34-3-1, and hasn’t lost in more than four years. (On that occasion, he was life-and-death with Froch before he was stopped in the 11th round of their British title fight.)
While the addition of a sixth man will obviously add no wheat and more chaff to the mix, in playing the hand it was dealt Showtime can probably find a silver lining – particularly if the newest entry assumes Kessler’s schedule of fights. Under normal circumstances Green against any of the above might barely qualify as a good ShoBox bout, but in the bigger picture of the World Boxing Classic, it offers some interesting marketing possibilities: Somebody is going to win the fight and pick up two, and possibly three points – and the Nov. 27 losers won’t get any. So despite having started with an almost insurmountable position in the standings, right now the also-rans are one lucky punch away from a spot in the semis.
Or, as Hershman said, somewhat bravely, “I couldn’t have scripted it any better.