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Thursday, February 22, 2018
by Eddie Goldman
So far it has been a pretty crappy year for the boxing that has been televised on American TV.
The highest rated show in this young year was headlined by the Devon Alexander-Victor Ortiz PBC (Premier Boxing Champions) fight on February 17 and shown in the U.S. on Fox. It averaged, according to the Nielsen ratings, 1.36 million viewers, but ended in a majority draw according to the Texas judges, when almost everyone else had Alexander clearly winning. It was the kind of robbery that used to get people strung up in that state. It also was a lead-in to the PBC on Showtime card featuring Danny Garcia against Brandon Rios, which quite predictably ended with a Garcia stoppage victory. So now PBC is putting its hors d'oeuvres on free broadcast television and saving the bigger names for the premium network Showtime, perhaps signaling it is almost ready to throw in the towel on its business model of time buys in hopes of getting a big TV rights deal from a broadcast network. And the Alexander-Ortiz verdict reminded a broad audience that boxing was and is run by thieves, fools, and scoundrels.
Supposedly coming to boxing's rescue caused by the various failed strategy of keeping the best boxing on pay-per-view and premium networks, was Top Rank, who last year signed a multi-year deal with ESPN to put its shows on that basic cable network. It got off to a big splash, with impressive audiences watching Manny Pacquiao be upset by Jeff Horn, and Vasyl Lomachenko dominate the much smaller Guillermo Rigondeaux. But it didn't take long for the bait-and-switch, as it was back to purposeful mismatches (to borrow John Perretti's phrase) like the February 3 Gilberto Ramirez-Habib Ahmed fight, or meaningless second-tier fights like the February 16 Ray Beltran-Paulus Moses card.
Ramirez-Ahmed averaged 741,000 viewers and Beltran-Moses 703,000, numbers that are akin to the old, cancelled Friday Night Fight series on ESPN2.
But wait, we are told, there's more! Top Rank is planning a lot of top-level fights, such as Terence Crawford reportedly getting ready for a title shot after moving up to welterweight, against WBO champ Jeff Horn. And this card may also see the return of Pacquiao.
However, after the Top Rank suits breathlessly sermonized last year that they no longer were drinking the "Kool-Aid" of pay-per-view and premium cable, guess what the plan is for Crawford-Horn? ESPN pay-per-view, instead of HBO. Looks like they merely changed the flavor of their Kool-Aid.
But wait, there's more! A key part of the ESPN-Top Rank deal is for fights to be shown on ESPN's new standalone streaming service, ESPN Plus, that is supposed to launch soon this year. That will reportedly cost users $4.99 per month, on top of everything else like cable, pay-per-views, etc. So again, we are back to much of their best boxing being on a premium service, this time the difference being it is streaming-only. I wonder what flavor of Kool-Aid that one is.
On top of this, the dotards, dinosaurs, and oligarchs running American boxing and the networks which show it passed on making available, in any format, the competitive and compelling fights of the World Boxing Super Series. The cruiserweight semifinals, which were both title unification bouts involving unbeaten fighters, between Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis on January 27 and Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos on February 3, are the two leading candidates for 2018 Fight of the Year thus far. But in the U.S., you had to hunt for a working stream on the World Boxing Super Series YouTube or Facebook pages to see these battles. And what was left on American TV was much closer to Kool-Aid.
Before the two major heavyweight fights in March, between Deontay Wilder and Luis "King Kong" Ortiz, and Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker, there just might be one show to look forward to savoring this year. And that will take place on, of all places, that sick and sinking network for boxing, HBO: Superfly 2, at The Forum in Inglewood, California, on February 24.
HBO has been running what amounts to an informal tournament in the talent-rich 115-pound super flyweight division. Last March 8, on the Golovkin-Jacobs pay-per-view, they featured Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, then sitting atop most pound-for-pound lists, against the lesser-known Srisaket Sor Rungvisai AKA Wisaksil Wangek. Chocolatito went into that fight with a record of 46-0 and was a heavy favorite. Rungvisai had won his last 15 fights since losing a 2014 title fight to Carlos Cuadras, but against mostly overmatched opposition, including three fighters making their pro debuts in his fights immediately before facing Chocolatito.
As many recall, Rungvisai dropped Chocolatito in the first round (as the announcers were yapping away about something else), en route to a close, majority decision victory, to claim the WBC super flyweight belt. Both because this decision was somewhat controversial and very unexpected, a rematch was set, which took place on the first HBO Superfly card, on September 9, 2017. This time there was no doubt, as Rungvisai dominated Chocolatito and scored a fourth-round knockout.
Once again, instead of celebrating the unheralded Rungvisai as a fighter of the year candidate and a new star, HBO's talking heads presented this like they were reporting on a funeral, since the fighter they had hoped would win, Chocolatito, had been vanquished so thoroughly.
That first Superfly card also featured two other important super flyweight fights. Juan Francisco Estrada won a close, methodical unanimous decision over Carlos Cuadras, and perhaps the best fighter in that division, the unbeaten Naoya Inoue, stopped Antonio Nieves in six to retain his WBO super flyweight belt. Of course, HBO's gringo announcers again almost ruined everything by talking of "Carlos Estrada". But the show did fairly well in the ratings, by today's standards anyway, and especially for a card featuring fighters in the lighter weights, with the main event averaging 796,000 viewers.
Although Inoue is not on this card, two of the winners from the first Superfly show will face off in the Superfly 2 main event, when the 31-year-old Srisaket Sor Rungvisai tries to defend his WBC belt against the 27-year-old Juan Francisco Estrada.
Besides their most recent fights, there is an interesting backstory to this match. Rungvisai has a record of 44-4-1 with 40 KOs, but three of those four defeats, and the one draw, came in his first five pro fights. As he explained on this week's media conference call and elsewhere, he had been a Muay Thai fighter in his home of Thailand, but had to work as a sanitation worker and a security guard at the same time to stay afloat financially. In Muay Thai, you can punch like in boxing, but you can also use kicks and knees, and clinch to some degree, all of which of course is not allowed in boxing. In 2009, he was given a chance to box professionally, but with virtually no training in the techniques, footwork, and movement of boxing. Since he badly needed the income, he took the bouts, and promptly was knocked out in his first two tries.
Since then, he has won everything, except that 2014 fight with Cuadras, which ended in a technical decision loss for Rungvisai after a head butt to Cuadras made him unable to continue. Cuadras, who was leading on all scorecards at the time of the stoppage, thus won the WBC belt from Rungvisai. Cuadras held that belt until losing a decision to Chocolatito in September 2016, who dropped it back to Rungvisai in their first fight. So on this end, Rungvisai has landed in the top tier of the division. Cuadras will also be on this card, facing the 16-3 McWilliams Arroyo, who has lost two of this last three fights.
For Estrada, who lives in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, this is his chance to show that, with perhaps the exception of Inoue, he is the best in the division. His key loss was a unanimous decision to Chocolatito in November 2012. For that fight, the then-22-year-old Estrada, who had been fighting mostly at super flyweight, dropped down to light flyweight for the chance to defeat Chocolatito, then 33-0. It didn't work out, but since then Estrada has beaten a roster of top opponents, including Cuadras, Giovani Segura, and Brian Viloria.
This should be a genuinely competitive fight, with both boxers confident of victory. They were each on a media conference call this week, and discussed what they believe to be their advantages in this fight.
Rungvisai said, through a translator, that his surprise victory over Chocolatito was the result of "nothing super special." After he lost his title against Cuadras, he had to "wait three years to earn the title shot again" and made sure he did everything to prepare completely when the opportunity came against Chocolatito. He vowed not to let the title slip from him and "capitalized on that opportunity" to get where he is now.
Since that fight with Cuadras, Rungvisai said he was now faster, stronger, and more experienced. He said he now overall has became a better fighter and "learned from the past." As for advantages in this fight, he said he is very confident that his punching power "is better than Estrada."
In his remarks, Estrada, keeping to the respectful and professional tone of the build-up to this fight, did not think it was that important that Rungvisai was not well-known before facing Chocolatito.
"Srisaket maybe wasn't very known before he fought Chocolatito, but if you look at his record, he has a lot of fights. He's definitely been establishing a long record. Maybe he was unknown because he hadn't fought a lot of big names, and so when he fought Chocolatito Gonzalez and was able to destroy him the way he was, maybe it made him look like a monster because he knocked out Chocolatito.
"But if you look at my record, I've fought everybody," Estrada said, also through a translator. "So I also have the experience. Maybe people are very impressed because of the way he dispatched Chocolatito, but then we also got to take into account that Chocolatito was coming all the way up from light flyweight, flyweight, super flyweight. So maybe one of the factors was also that Chocolatito wasn't 100 percent anymore at that weight."
Asked about his advantages, Estrada gave a thoughtful answer:
"The one thing I see as an advantage, maybe not only in this fight but I think my fights in general, I think my style could be complicated for my opponents to adapt to it, to the timing, to the movement. Maybe it can be considered a traditional style because my technique is very traditional. But maybe it's also a technique that they don't find on a regular basis, and when they fight me, they have a hard time adapting to it. So I think I'm going to use the same type of fight plan and skills that I always do, which I think can be an advantage in the fight."
As to a prediction for this fight, "You never really know what's going to happen, and I don't like to make predictions," he said. "But if I had to, I think I see myself winning a decision, or maybe even being able to stop him in the last round."
This fight could come down to the punching power of Rungvisai vs. the classical Mexican boxer-puncher style of Estrada. And that might just make Superfly 2 a super show.
It seems unlikely, however, that Superfly 2 will be a ratings blockbuster. Not only does it suffer from the prejudices of big American fans against small fighters, but these days new methods are needed to create buzz for boxing in an overcrowded sports environment. That means loosening up boxing's almost paranoid penchant for controlling and sanitizing all flows of information, which we expect to happen around the same time that Trump is named King of Wakanda.
But watch it you should, and pay close attention as you observe. These are some of the best boxers on the planet, with the victor hopefully facing Naoya Inoue before too long. And the winner of that will surely be the man of the hour who has an air of great power.