Top Rank takes another crack at basic cable

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – Bob Arum has promoted boxing for nearly half a century, but little he has done in his Hall of Fame career has been as satisfying as the work his company did in producing the Top Rank Boxing series on ESPN.

The show had a 15-year run on ESPN and was often its highest-rated program.

Many of the greats of the game, men who went on to earn spots in the International Boxing Hall of Fame – or who soon will – grew up fighting regularly on the series.

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson first gained notoriety as a fearsome knockout puncher while fighting for Top Rank on that series. So, too, did Hall of Famers Donald Curry, Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Michael Carbajal, former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison, former super middleweight champion Iran Barkley and ex-lightweight champion Ray Mancini, among many others.

The show was a resounding success because Arum put quality fighters in tough bouts and didn't try to protect any of them.

"We worked hard to make the best possible fights and we didn't get involved in trying to use the series only to build our own fighters," Arum said Thursday. "Once you do that, you get non-competitive fights and the series goes down the drain."

Arum and Top Rank president Todd duBoef vow to remember the lessons they learned from the success of Top Rank Boxing on ESPN, which ran from 1980 -95, as they launch a new series on Fox Sports Español and Fox Sports Net.

The debut show will be on Saturday from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and will feature former U.S. Olympian Vanes Martirosyan against ex-world champion Kassim Ouma and highly regarded prospect Mikey Garcia against Joksan Hernandez.

The show, dubbed Top Rank Live, will be broadcast three times a month on Fox Sports Español and once a month on Fox Sports Net. It will reach, when the show is on both networks simultaneously, 80 million homes. It will also be distributed internationally.

It provides an exceptional opportunity for Top Rank, because the exposure can be used to reignite interest in the sport. Many of the regular boxing series that have followed Top Rank Boxing on ESPN have failed, largely because either the fights were routinely non-competitive or because the series was not broadcast on a good night.

Top Rank Live will regularly be on Saturday night in a two-hour block beginning at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT. Saturday's debut show, though, will begin at 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. ET. In either case, it's a prime time for boxing broadcasts and should open the widest possible audience for it.

DuBoef said he has worked with Fox Sports Net officials and estimates the show will air live on the regional Fox Sports Net affiliates about 80 percent of the time despite the vast amount of other content, such as Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL and college football and basketball, that those affiliates broadcast, which could potentially cause the program to air on tape delay.

Top Rank had a huge chance several years ago with a series on Versus, because Versus was paying $250,000 a show, enough to make quality matches regularly. Though expectations were high, the series turned out to be a dud for a variety of reasons. Arum conceded that one reason was that the fights weren't as good as they should have been.

"To a large extent, yes, that's true," Arum said of the Versus shows.

But he said it also went beyond that. The Versus series was once a month on a Thursday starting at 8 p.m. ET. It was difficult to find because it was on so infrequently and it largely eliminated West Coast viewers because of the start time, when many were just getting off work and beginning the commute home.

"The timing was bad, because it was on a Thursday night at 8 o'clock Eastern," Arum said. "There was no crowd, nothing, if you went on the West Coast. Now we have the opportunity to put the show on at a great hour and on a Saturday night, which is the money night."

The show will be produced differently than most. Like the Ultimate Fighting Championship does, Top Rank will retain editorial control. It will hire and fire the announcers and will control the look and feel of the broadcast.

DuBoef said Top Rank will spend 35 to 40 percent more on producing Top Rank Live than it had been on its "Latin Fury" and "Pinoy Power" pay-per-view shows it has been producing.

Much of that will go into better lighting, which Top Rank actually debuted on a pay-per-view card from the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York in October. The difference in the quality of the broadcast was stark.

The high-definition picture was spectacular as a result of the improved lighting and it appeared as if the bouts were being held in your living room. That, duBoef said, will be the standard the company keeps for Top Rank Live.

"People channel surf, and when they come upon a show and it looks rich, like WWE shows with a vivacious crowd, they're going to stop," duBoef said. "A lot of times, these networks cut their budgets in advertising and production, and the result of that when you cut on production is that the product looks aged.

"We're going to put out a product that has a modern, quality feel and people are going to stop and watch. And when they do, they'll see the kind of product we're giving them and hopefully, this is something that can grow and go on and do what Top Rank Boxing on ESPN did for us for so many years."

Arum vowed to have competitive fights weekly, but the proof will be in what actually comes on the air. If Top Rank puts quality fighters in difficult bouts and doesn't try to protect the stars it's building, this series could have an enormous impact, not only for Top Rank but for the entire sport.

But if the stars are undermatched and it gets easy to predict the winners, it will be yet another in a long line of blown opportunities.

"Todd has the right idea and the perfect vision for this," Arum said. "There's going to be no protecting anyone. We're going to take two kids, evenly matched, and tell them, 'This is your chance. Get in there and fight your (butt) off and you'll have an opportunity to do great things.' We're making the commitment that we're going to do this the right way, and go back to what we were doing when we did the ESPN series."

It has the opportunity to be a game-changer for the sport. It's now up to Arum and duBoef to deliver on their promises.