Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza helped network become home for big fights

Editor's note: Yahoo Sports boxing columnist Kevin Iole begins his year-end honors Monday with Boxing Person of the Year. The schedule for the rest of Yahoo Sports' year-end boxing honors:

Dec. 16: 50 Most Influential People in Boxing
Dec. 23: Prospects of the Year
Dec. 24: Trainer of the Year
Dec. 25: Fighter of the Year
Dec. 26: Fight of the Year
Dec. 30: Up-and-Coming Fighters to Watch

For years, HBO Sports executives chafed at the notion that Al Haymon was, in essence, running their boxing program.

It was hard to dispute, though, as Haymon managed and advised fighters who appeared regularly on the network, frequently in one-sided bouts. The Haymon-led Andre Berto made a career of fighting lesser talent for big money on HBO.

But in 2013, things changed dramatically. Most of Haymon's clients now fight on Showtime. Of the 16 boxers who appeared on the network Dec. 7 or will compete on Saturday's four-bout card in San Antonio, 11 of them are Haymon fighters.

But there are far fewer complaints about it now, because Haymon fighters are regularly taking on legitimate and frequently high-level opposition.

Much of that is thanks to the work of Stephen Espinoza, the general manager and executive vice president of Showtime Sports, who almost single-handedly overhauled the perception of the network.

Though HBO continues to dominate the ratings – according to Nielsen Media Research, 18 of the top 19 most-viewed bouts on cable television through Nov. 30 aired on HBO – Espinoza has made Showtime the go-to network for great fights.

Showtime has closed the gap considerably on HBO, and its share of the audience is actually higher. HBO has a roughly 29 million to 22 million edge in subscribers.

Since Espinoza took over in 2012, Showtime has been the network with the deepest cards with the matches that carry the most significance in the sport.

He has overhauled its production and given a pay-per-view/big-fight feel to each of its events.

He engineered and pulled off the complex deal that saw Floyd Mayweather Jr., boxing's biggest star, jump ship from HBO and wind up at Showtime.

And once he had Mayweather, he showed he knew what to do with him. In Mayweather's two fights on Showtime pay-per-view, he sold more than 3 million units combined.

For the Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez bout on Sept. 14, Espinoza helped organize one of the great promotions in boxing history, which helped Showtime set a single-fight revenue record with over $150 million in sales.

For that, and much more, Stephen Espinoza is the first Yahoo Sports Boxing Person of the Year, an honor that considers everyone in the boxing industry.

It was an easy choice and was aided greatly by Espinoza's obvious love of boxing.

He's as much of a fight fan as those who tune in to see the bouts on Showtime, and it's reflected in the type of fights he buys. He became a fan when he was a child watching matches with his grandfather, and he buys bouts that please the fight fan in him.

And when he judges whether it's been a good year for Showtime, he does so first based on the action in the ring. All of the bells and whistles are great, and ratings and production value are important, but if there regularly aren't consistently good, meaningful fights, the audience isn't going to hang around.

"It's a combination of several things, but first and foremost, it's the quality of the fights," Espinoza told Yahoo Sports. "Boxing is the flagship of Showtime Sports, and as with all of our other properties and our entertainment programs, we always want to present a premium product, a top-tier, high-quality product. And so, the quality of fights is clearly No. 1."

Showtime has primarily worked with Golden Boy Promotions, and a large majority of Golden Boy fighters are managed or advised by Haymon. But that's only a bad thing if Haymon refuses to put his fighters in against difficult competition.

Boxing fans and media sometimes get far too caught up in the business aspects and inner workings of the sport. Fans, for instance, love to debate how much Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao deserve to make if they ever fight each other. Of course, what matters most is not the percentage each gets, but that they'll hopefully step into the ring against each other.

In this vein, Espinoza has received criticism for relying too heavily on Golden Boy/Haymon.

But it's not like the Berto days on HBO, when his opponents were essentially boxing's version of The Three Stooges.

On Dec. 7, Showtime aired four fights, and seven of the eight fighters were contracted with Haymon. The quality of the matches was good, however, and the fight card was intriguing.

On Saturday, the Haymon-advised Adrien Broner will take on power-punching Marcos Maidana, so it's not as if Broner is getting a free pass. Broner began the year fighting on HBO, remember, and essentially got a free pass when he was paired with Gavin Rees.

Showtime's ratings for its flagship "Showtime Championship Boxing" series are up 60 percent since Broner's arrival.

"We have momentum on the audience side, and I couldn't be prouder of the fights we put on this year," Espinoza said.

He's also been a vigorous advocate for Showtime Sports, speaking out publicly about his successes. He's sometimes gone too far, but his advocacy brings needed attention to the happenings at Showtime.

It's a great contrast to what is happening at HBO Sports, where many of its executives operate out of fear of reprisals from above.

Espinoza has done a magnificent job of buying quality fights, laying out the stakes and then presenting the bouts in a compelling manner. He's also increased boxing's visibility so much that CBS is interested in airing some matches in 2014.

It's all part of why he was such an easy choice as the first Yahoo Sports Boxing Person of the Year.