Top Rank Goes Outside the Box – On Monday, Sept. 26, Bob Arum announced the broadcasting team for the Top Rank show on Nov. 5 featuring Manny Pacquiao vs. Jessie Vargas. In the press release, ESPN sports personality Stephen A. Smith is accorded top billing. Smith will be joined by Brian Kenny, Charissa Thompson, and Top Rank fighter Timothy “Desert Storm” Bradley, a former WBO world champion in the 140- and 147-pound divisions. Crystina Poncher fills out the cast in the role of a roving reporter.
It’s odd to see Smith’s name listed first as he won’t be the lead announcer. Brian Kenny will be handling the blow-by-blow. In sports, protocol dictates that the play-by-play guy gets top billing, not his sidekick, the so-called analyst or color commentator. Here’s it’s the other way around. That speaks reams about how far Stephen A. Smith has come in his chosen career.
Smith, who hosts “First Take” on ESPN2 with Max Kellerman, has worn many hats during his 13-year tenure with the cable TV giant. In addition, he’s hosted nationally syndicated radio shows and written on a variety of sports topics for the Philadelphia Inquirer. However, he has zero experience working a boxing event and his brash in-your-face style of “talking head journalism” (or quasi-journalism) rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Longtime ESPN basher Phil Mushnick, the resident curmudgeon of the New York Post, echoed a widely held opinion when he wrote that the “A” in Smith’s middle name stands for “annoying” (it actually stands for Anthony).
It’s not as if everyone finds Smith abrasive, however. His loudest detractors are older white men and this is a demographic becoming less relevant to advertisers each year. Smith reportedly has 2.1 million followers on twitter. He turns 49 in October but has embraced social media in the fashion of a man half his age. His demographic is young and urban. He resonates with the hip-hop generation that Bob Arum failed to cultivate when he failed to keep Floyd Mayweather in the Top Rank fold.
Smith, who is most closely identified with the sport of professional basketball, says he has been passionate about boxing since he was a toddler, more specifically since October of 1970 when he watched the first Ali-Quarry fight on television with his father. That’s hardly a guarantee that he will provide the “expert” commentary that Top Rank promises, but this isn’t brain surgery. And if Smith needs some tips, he won’t have to look far. His “First Take” partner Max Kellerman knows a thing or two about how this works, as does the aforementioned Brian Kenny. Smart as a whip but never pedantic, Kenny was a lead announcer for boxing telecasts on ESPN2, Showtime, and FOX before concentrating on baseball, his first love. (Kenny’s widely acclaimed book, “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution,” was published this year by Simon and Schuster.)
Charissa Thompson, whose role is defined as that of the hostess, is even more outside the box than Stephen A. Smith. Thompson hosts an NFL kickoff show on FOX, co-hosted the reality TV show “Splash,” and works with Mario Lopez on “Extra,” the syndicated entertainment news magazine that is driven by the doings of Hollywood celebrities. “We wanted to give the viewers a different perspective,” says Top Rank president Todd duBoef, adding that “we will expand the reach of this event beyond the boxing fan.”
That remains to be seen. Arum’s last two PPV promotions – Pacquiao-Bradley III and Crawford-Postol – were PPV busts. There are some outstanding fighters on the undercard of his forthcoming Nov. 5 show, but their names, with the possible exception of Nonito Donaire, don’t connect with casual boxing fans in the English-speaking world. And when has anyone purchased a boxing event to watch on television because of an emotional connection to one or more of the announcers?
The fact that Arum is going it alone by distributing the event himself adds yet another level of intrigue. He’s swimming upstream and if he pulls this off and shows a tidy profit his rivals will grudgingly tip their hats in wonderment. We wish him well.
Top Rank Goes Outside the Box / check out more boxing news and vidoes at The Boxing Channel.