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ESPN May Step into Big-Fight Arena with Chris-Arreola-Bermane Stiverne II

By Ivan G. Goldman

The rematch between Chris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne May 10 promises to jolt the listless heavyweight division with a high-kilowatt blast of electricity. What’s more, it looks like the contest for the vacant WBC belt will kick off a new prime-time Saturday night show on ESPN that aims to compete with HBO and Showtime.

Yes, ESPN (not ESPN2, mind you) apparently plans to make a place for itself at boxing’s adult table, which has long been a territory divided by the two feuding premium networks. This new turn of events could shake up a sport suffering from the blood war between the two global corporations that own Showtime and HBO. Of course ESPN is owned by yet a third global corporate monolith, but another network spending big money on big fights could raise the competitive bar and provide fans and fighters with new options.

ESPN, after all, a division of the $140 billion Disney Corporation, has pockets deep as canyons. It’s bigger than Time-Warner and CBS (respective owners of HBO and Showtime) put together. The tentative new ESPN plans were revealed by ESPN boxing columnist Dan Rafael, who presumably has excellent sources within his own network. He wrote on his blog that he spoke to “multiple sources” about the Arreola-Stiverne match, which has yet to land a venue.

It’s fitting that the new ESPN series, if it really comes about, will premiere with a heavyweight contest. The division is mostly just a rumor to Showtime and HBO. Arreola is promoted by Goossen-Tutor and Stiverne by Don King, which takes them out of the network war between HBO and Showtime. Top Rank has lined up with HBO and Golden Boy with Showtime. However, Arreola is “advised” by boxing Godfather Al Haymon, who has been pulling his stable one fighter at a time over to the Showtime/Golden Boy axis.

Rafael said HBO, which carried the first Stiverne-Arreola contest last April, had no interest in the rematch. I’m guessing that had much to do with HBO’s aversion to Haymon, who helped negotiate the deal that brought Floyd Mayweather from HBO to Showtime. The corporate revenge motive is yet another example of how the nasty politics of business damages the sport.
A third alternative like ESPN could help break up the corporate logam, but not if the network signs fighters to exclusive network contracts. In that case boxing would be further Balkanized, with yet another set of fighters that can’t face fighters on rival networks. Rafael says ESPN at this point plans only about three or four big shows a year. That would make exclusive network contracts less likely.

Epix, another premium network, had tried to slip into the heavyweight vacuum by carrying some overseas fights between big men that Showtime and HBO didn’t want. But apparently Epix and boxing are at this point undergoing a trial separation.

Heavyweights get so little respect from Showtime and HBO that Wladimir Klitschko’s defense of his three major titles April 26 against Australia’s Alex Leapai has at this point no spot on the U.S. network spectrum.

Wladimir’s brother Vitali vacated his WBC title in December when he retired to enter Ukrainian politics full-time, so Stiverne and Arreola, the top two contenders, will now battle for the belt. In their first bout, Stiverne, 23-1 (20 KOs), a 35-year-old fighting out of Canada, won a twelve-round decision. Arreola, 36-3 (31 KOs), was pretty much out of the fight after Stiverne crushed his nose with a heavy-duty shot in the third round. Arreola, 33, bounced back last September when he blasted Seth Mitchell out of there in the first round. Arreola, who grew up in South Central L.A., now campaigns out of Riverside, California.

Wladimir, assuming he beats Leapai, will probably look to unify the titles against the winner of Stivenre-Arreola. Although he can’t seem to click with U.S. fans, he’s never been known to duck anybody. Wladimir didn’t do much for his reputation when he clinched his way to victory over Alexander Povetkin last October using a tedious punch-and-grab strategy for twelve dull rounds.

sick Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag, by New York Times best-selling author Ivan G. Goldman, was released in 2013 by Potomac Books, a University of Nebraska Press imprint. It can be purchased here

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