Things are certainly looking up for boxing as 2012 comes to a close, and nothing is better evidence of that than the fact that two cards will be broadcast on network television in back-to-back weeks before the end of the year.
Golden Boy Promotions and Showtime Sports announced on Saturday that they will broadcast a card on Dec. 15 on CBS from the Los Angeles Sports Arena that will feature IBF bantamweight champion Leo Santa Cruz and 2012 U.S. Olympian Joseph Diaz Jr. in separate bouts.
The following week, NBC will air a show that is headlined by a superb rematch between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham.
The CBS show is an extension of the partnership between Golden Boy and Showtime that began last year when Stephen Espinoza, then Golden Boy's legal counsel, was named executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports.
Nearly all of Golden Boy's competitors have moaned about the favoritism Espinoza has shown toward CEO Richard Schaefer and president Oscar De La Hoya. Though Espinoza denies favoring Golden Boy, it is unquestionably true. The broadcast schedule speaks for itself.
That, though, is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Golden Boy has a fantastic roster of fighters and Showtime has aired a string of sensational fights in 2012. And with Showtime allying with Golden Boy so heavily, that has forced HBO to work more collaboratively with other boxing promoters in order to compete. Competition has clearly made all sides present improved offerings.
The great thing about boxing going to network television is that it is free and reaches a far greater number of homes. CBS is in roughly five times more homes than Showtime, so far more people will be exposed to the card.
There is a danger in that, though, because history shows it will be difficult for promoters to resist the temptation to save money and not put on evenly matched, quality fights. CBS certainly isn't paying huge money to attract the high-priced stars of the sport to its air.
Diaz, who is making his professional debut, will undoubtedly be matched with a total stiff. It was almost embarrassing how poor the opponents were for the American Olympians who fought on Golden Boy's "Night of the Olympians" card on Showtime on Nov. 9. The bouts were complete mismatches and were a disgrace for an audience looking for something remotely competitive. Young fighters in the early bouts of their careers aren't going to be matched tough, clearly, so there is a risk associated with putting them on television.
Santa Cruz is a brilliant technician who is among the front-runners to be named the 2012 Yahoo! Sports Fighter of the Year. He's already 4-0 in 2012 with wins over Alejandro Hernandez, Vusi Malinga, Eric Morel and Victor Zaleta. He won the title against Malinga and made successful defenses against Morel and Zaleta.
He should have no trouble getting past the 16-0 Alberto Guevara.
It will be a treat for the audience at large to see Santa Cruz, who is developing into one of the sport's best. He's an outstanding body puncher and technical boxer who is aggressive and puts on a show.
Give Schaefer much credit for recognizing the need to get Santa Cruz in front of as many fans as possible, because he clearly has the ability to be one of boxing's brightest stars. In addition to airing the bout on CBS, Golden Boy has chosen to give away tickets at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for free (yeah, boxing insiders, hold the jokes about the free tickets), making the show a big opportunity for fans to become familiar with Santa Cruz.
But fights on network TV should not just be showcase events that build toward other matches that will air on premium cable or pay-per-view. To regain the status it once had as one of the country's leading sports, boxing needs to put its best fighters in competitive matches on network television.
What do you think would happen to the NFL's popularity if games between the 1-9 and 2-8 teams were shown for free on the networks but the games between the 9-1 and 8-2 clubs were moved to pay-per-view? It wouldn't be good, but that's what has happened to boxing over the last quarter century or so.
NBC has a terrific fight on Dec. 22. In 2008, Adamek edged Cunningham in a spectacular fight at cruiserweight that many felt was the year's finest.
Though neither is a household name to the casual sports fan in the U.S., those who tune into NBC on Dec. 22 will see a pair of boxing's best going at it in what should be a heated battle. That's the kind of fight that needs to be on network television regularly if, in the long run, this is going to mean anything.
Promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events has been airing a series of shows on the NBC Sports Network, but realizes that moving over to the big-boy network is a massive step up with great implications.
That's a big, big thing, a giant milestone we're crossing in the sport. We hope this is the first of many fights we get to see on network TV. We've had a great relationship with NBC this past year. This will be our seventh show with them, with the biggest difference is that this one will be on the network.
I don't know how different a fight this could be at heavyweight than the first one. It's why I want to watch this one and see what happens. (The) time slot is exclusive and it's a very sweet place, for the time and the date. People will be home and it's the holiday season and it's a great opportunity.
Hopefully, all promoters and all networks see it as an opportunity and work together to try to make it work. Boxing did phenomenal ratings on network television in the 1970s and 1980s. Muhammad Ali lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks in prime time on CBS in 1978 and then won it back again in prime time on ABC. The shows did massive numbers.
Network television is only a boon for boxing if the best fights are put on. In recent history, in the few forays boxing has made onto the networks, that hasn't been the case.
Boxing has had a great year, though, and putting back-to-back shows on network TV is a fine way to end it. Let's just hope it's the start of a trend.