It's been a strange year for boxing. There is still no clear frontrunner for Fight of the Year or Fighter of the Year, and much of the talk in 2010 has been about fights that weren't held as opposed to about ones that were.
The strong finish to the year, with quality fights scheduled on every weekend in November and in the first three weekends in December, is no doubt welcome and should clarify things to a large degree.
The best news of all, though, was a commitment from HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg to scour the lighter weight classes, going as low as flyweight, in order to broadcast the best fights. He's already agreed to broadcast a super flyweight bout between Nonito Donaire Jr. and Fernando Montiel early next year, probably in February.
Showtime has had some success in the last five years with flyweights, bantamweights and super bantamweights, but the sport has largely been a big man's game on television throughout the years, particularly on HBO.
It's no wonder, because heavyweights have traditionally garnered significantly higher ratings than any other division. Greenburg said a heavyweight title fight that the public views as competitive will generally produce 25 percent higher ratings.
The problem is that outside of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, there aren't many mediocre heavyweights around, let alone quality ones. The division is at an all-time low, so much so that the American networks have largely given up on broadcasting them.
That's a bad thing for those who like heavyweights and only heavyweights, but with so many great fights to be made in the lighter classes, it's a good thing for everyone else. Fewer heavyweight matches mean more room for fighters in divisions in which they actually, you know, fight.
"We've lured a lot of the casual fans back to boxing through our '24/7' franchise, and when we have a fight like [an Oscar] De La Hoya-[Floyd] Mayweather, 24/7 can turn it into the Super Bowl of boxing," Greenburg said. "But we have to now deliver them compelling fights and one of the ways we're going to do that is to look at all divisions, from 112 on up, and focus on making the best matches that can possibly be made."
Ken Hershman, the executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, noted there is a bias among U.S. boxing fans for fights at welterweight, middleweight and heavyweight.
That's because tradition has held that the heavyweight champion was the baddest man on the planet and because the best fighters were at either 147 or 160. Those classes were the domain of legendary fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
But the boxing heavyweight championship is no longer viewed as the most coveted prize in sports and, in some ways, seems like a booby prize. But divisions like bantamweight, featherweight and super lightweight are loaded with elite talent, so it only makes sense to mine it.
Showtime opens the strong close to 2010 with a featherweight match between Juan Manuel Lopez and Rafael Marquez on Nov. 6 in Las Vegas. It has a super middleweight doubleheader on Nov. 27, with Carl Froch meeting Arthur Abraham and Andre Ward taking on Sakio Bika. On Dec. 11, Showtime will hold a four-man bantamweight tournament, featuring Abner Mares, Vic Darchinyan, Joseph Agbeko and Yohnny Perez, and on Dec. 18, it will air a light heavyweight match between Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal.
HBO begins with a pay-per-view outing between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito on Nov. 13. On Nov. 20, it airs the rematch of the Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year from 2009 between Paul Williams and Sergio Martinez. On Nov. 27, HBO will have Juan Manuel Marquez face Michael Katsidis in what should be a sensational lightweight bout. It will conclude its year on Dec. 11 with a terrific super lightweight match between Amir Khan and Marcos Maidana.
Hershman said that while he agreed heavyweights tend to pull bigger numbers with all else being equal, he insisted it's not a lost cause to air the fighters in the lower weight classes, even if their names aren't instantly recognizable.
"When you go beyond the hardcore fan, who knows all of these guys, to everyone else, a good fighter is a fighter they know," Hershman said. "And our job is to create awareness about who is who and what they have done and what they can do."
The early part of 2011 is already shaping up to be strong. HBO has a Jan. 29 bout set between Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander that figures to be among the most highly anticipated of the year. Top Rank is working to put together a Yuriorkis Gamboa-Celestino Caballero featherweight title unification bout that HBO is interested in broadcasting. It also will have the aforementioned Donaire-Montiel match.
Showtime will have the finals of its bantamweight tournament and the semifinals of its super middleweight event in the first quarter and is working on several other bouts.
After a dry spell, it's looking to be a good time to be a boxing fan.
"Boxing is in a position now where we just have to get the best guys, regardless of what weight class they're in, and put them in the ring with each other," Greenburg said. "We're going to scope out the best fights we can, from 112 on up. If it's a good fight, we're at least interested in talking about it. We want to reenergize the sport and help create new stars and you do that by putting the best guys on in compelling fights."
It seems simple, but something has always seemed to have gotten in the way. But if Greenburg and Hershman are true to their word, the close of 2010 will just be a hint of what is to come in 2011.