SBJ/Sept. 20-26, 2010/Media

Showtime boxing tourney takes a few hits

Andre WardNewsCom
Negotiations are deadlocked for a proposed bout between Andre Ward (above) and Andre Dirrell.
For the last two months, the head of Showtime cable network’s sports division spent many of his waking hours on the phone with five fight promoters, wrangling, massaging, cajoling and compromising, all in an attempt to bring direction to a rudderless sport.

That’s what Showtime set out to do when it announced its Super Six tournament last July: bring together six of the world’s top super middleweights from two continents, guarantee each of them a steady calendar of mid-six-figure fights, and deliver a resolution at the end.

While all three of those goals remain in play, the path has proved arduous, particularly of late. Two of the original six entrants have withdrawn because of injuries. Injuries also have forced the postponement of bouts, most recently the push back of a Carl Froch-Arthur Abraham fight set for Monaco on Oct. 2.

There also have been setbacks that are more difficult to comprehend. Negotiations for the current round of bouts, the final third of the group stage, have proved to be as arduous as those the Super Six set out to avoid, with promoters bickering about venues and fighters squabbling over purse shares.

As recently as a month ago, Showtime expected all three fights in this stage to have come off by the early days of October. Now, none of them will, despite the network’s attempts to push forward through the past six weeks.

“I’ve been on the phone from 6 a.m., driving in, to 10 o’clock at night at home, and I’ve been scratching my head the whole time,” said Ken Hershman, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. “I don’t understand what the exercise was. I couldn’t for the life of me figure this one out.”

The current round promised three fights, all initially planned for September. One was canceled late in August, when Mikkel Kessler withdrew because of an eye injury. A second bit the dust early last week, when Froch reported he injured his back in training. The third, pitting 2004 U.S. Olympic teammates Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell, has been a headache since its inception, occupying a place on Showtime’s September calendar but never getting close to the start line.

Ward is promoted by Dan Goossen and managed by James Prince, a Houston-based rap label owner who now has a burgeoning fight stable. Dirrell is promoted by Gary Shaw and advised by Al Haymon, the most influential manager in boxing. While Shaw said he has been left out of the loop on talks, the others have been deadlocked since late June.

At the core initially was a dispute over venue. Ward has fought both his fights in his hometown of Oakland, where he earned purses of $250,000 and $437,500, according to documents filed with boxing regulators in California. Shaw said Dirrell would not fight in Ward’s hometown. Goossen has been reluctant to agree to put the fight elsewhere because other venues are not likely to generate as much site revenue.

While Hershman would not reveal the details of the contracts, he said that Showtime has multifight agreements with both promoters and both fighters, and that he expected those agreements would massage, if not preclude, this sort of holdup. Taken individually, the payouts might seem slightly below market for the top fighters, Hershman conceded. But because they were guaranteed multiple fights that otherwise might be hard to come by, the sacrifice made sense.

“It was all worked out in advance,” Hershman said. “That didn’t stop people from trying to disrupt things and take things in a different direction.”

Hershman said he hoped Kessler’s withdrawal last month might spur things between Ward and Dirrell, allowing the network to eliminate a group round and make their fight a semifinal, thus upping the pay for both fighters. He couldn’t get all the parties to agree to it. Early this month, he sent letters to Shaw and Goossen, reminding them that they were obligated to provide the fight and asking whether they were prepared to do so.

“It was a shot across the bow to say we’ve run out of patience,” Hershman said. “How much more are we going to talk about this?”

Now, Hershman said, Showtime plans to stick with the intended format, replacing Kessler with a new entrant. All three bouts should take place in November, with specific dates and venues to be determined. He said the tournament remains on schedule, with semis targeted for the first quarter of next year and a final later in the year.

Still, Showtime has been stung by the instability. The network had slotted Ward-Dirrell behind a stout lead-in, the TV premiere of Best Picture Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker.” Showtime planned to air Abraham-Froch a week later. Now, it’s trying to jam three fights into a busy fall sports calendar chock-full of competition, including the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito pay-per-view on HBO on Nov. 13, with a re-air set for Nov. 20.

“In retrospect, I think when the tournament was planned it was looking too far out for boxing,” Shaw said. “The idea is spectacular. But injuries do happen. Fighters get stale. Everybody knows what they signed up for, and it all should happen, but it’s boxing.

“You can’t figure out everything that will happen, no matter what.”

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