The money is real: The World Boxing Super Series rolls on
Few things are more deserving of a skeptic’s wary eye than a newfangled undertaking in boxing. To that end, when it was first announced last March that Richard Schaefer, with Kalle Sauerland in arm, had been approached by fledgling European event promoter Comosa AG to supervise an eight-man tournament – “The World Boxing Super Series” – in two weight classes, with $50 million at stake, the thinking was: Which divisions and whom are the contestants? That the success of the endeavor would depend largely on the strength of its participants was a point lost on no one. Nobody, save perhaps for the most jaded bottom-feeders of the internet, wants to see so much effort exerted to crown the best third-stringer of, say, the middleweight division. Moreover, there were larger questions about Schaefer’s ability to convince cagey promoters and managers to part with their top assets – this in a sporting landscape long blighted by political schisms and preternaturally hostile to concepts like cooperation. But perhaps the biggest question concerned hard cash. When asked if he had any interest in getting his fighters involved with the tournament, Egis Klimas, the manager for a number of world champions, had a simple request: “Show me the money. I won’t believe in it until I see that the money is real.”
Well, it’s safe to say that the money is indeed real. Klimas’ cruiserweight Oleksandr Uysk, is the latest undefeated titleholder to enter the fold of what is clearly, on paper, the best lineup for a tournament-style format boxing has seen in a very long time. An official rollout of the names involved – including the reserves – takes place in Monaco on July 8 but, from the looks of it so far, Schaefer and company seemed to have lived up to their word, particularly in regard to the talented but underexposed cruiserweight division (the super middleweight division is another story): All four cruiserweight titleholders – Usyk (WBO), Murat Gassiev (IBF), Mairis Briedis (WBC) and Yunier Dorticos (WBA “regular”) – have joined, along with Russian knockout artist Dmitry Kudryashov, former champion Marco Huck, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk and Cuban Mike Perez, the last fighter to round out the roster. Should all fighters remain healthy throughout the process, there is every reason to believe the winner of the World Boxing Super Series can lay unconditional claim to being the division’s consensus best. The tournament, in other words, is boxing in rare meritorious form. It is also boxing at the highest order of internationalism – that is, if you count out the United States.
If the lack of notable American cruiserweights in the tournament implies that its reception is, in any way, lukewarm and limited, Schaefer, the one-time banker turned boxing promoter, has a different story to tell you. “I was just looking on the web last Friday, when somebody wrote a story about the strength of the tournament,” Schaefer said in a phone interview with UCNLive.com last week from his office in downtown Los Angeles. “You see all these blogs and comment boards and responses from fans. There’s really just been here in the United States an overwhelming support for this tournament.”
While it’s true that American television executives and promoters have traditionally steered clear of the cruiserweight division, thus turning it into a commercial dead zone, their reluctance has not stopped the division from becoming something of a competitive force elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where, in countries like Germany, promoters have put up top money to feature fighters like Huck. None of this has gone unnoticed by the average American boxing fan, whose rabid enthusiasm for the tournament, Schaefer believes, is emblematic of a broad-minded, global sensibility.
“I think it’s really refreshing to see how the U.S. media and fight fans have clearly realized that boxing is a sport without borders,” Schaefer continued. “No matter where the talent comes from, you embrace it. I think you see that in other sports, as well. If you are a super talent, the American sports fan readily embraces you.”
Furthermore, in a year that has, so far, seen 90,000 people gather in England’s Wembley Stadium for Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko and over 50,000 in Australia to witness Manny Pacquiao take on once-anonymous Jeff Horn, there is less credibility these days in the argument that the American marketplace dictates the health of boxing.
“There are no American cruiserweights probably in the – oh, I don’t know – in the Top 15 or 20 or so,” Schaefer explained. “The same can be said about 168, other than the Dirrell brothers. But, other than that, there is no highly-ranked American cruiserweight. It was clear to us and everyone involved, at the outset, that these two weight classes featured the best in the world and the best of the world does not always include the United States. I mean, if you’re going to do a ping-pong match, you’re probably not going to find an (elite) American (ping-pong player) either.”
In a trend that has been growing since the second half of the Aughts, some of the best talent in the world comes from regions outside America and its sphere of influence – Ukraine and Russia, for example. Many of them, like unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, have thrived on the U.S. boxing scene, performing in front of sold-out crowds on both coasts, proof for Schaefer that an audience exists for his tournament. In fact, in the half-hour interview, Schaefer’s sincerest gratitude was reserved for three fighters, none of whom are ostensibly connected with the savvy cosmopolite. “You know, I think we really have to thank Mr.(Manny) Pacquiao and Mr. ‘GGG’ and Mr. (Sergey) Kovalev. “(Their contributions) have made it so that the American fight fan doesn’t seem to care that much anymore if it’s an American (fighter) or whatever that is put in front of them, as long as they get a good fight – that’s what fight fans want to see.”
Schaefer scoffs at the notion that the cruiserweight division is somehow unmarketable here and stresses that the fighters selected for the tournament are in command of the only lingua franca that matters in the fight racket: knockouts.
“If you look at the records of these cruiserweights, and you look at the four champions, I mean, they are all knockout kings!” Schaefer exclaimed. “They are all undefeated (with the exception of WBA “super” titlist Denis Lebedev). The ratio of number of knockouts they have is unbelievable. You mix and match and you’ll have the most exciting matchups in any weight class to take place. Whether they involve an American or not doesn’t really matter.”
Indeed, a glimpse of the division’s possibilities was offered by the Premier Boxing Champions in 2015’s thrilling slugfest between Huck and Glowacki in Newark, New Jersey, in which Glowacki rebounded from a knockdown to put Huck away in the 11th round. While the fight was more a one-off than harbinger of things to come, its resonance with the fans was unquestionable. Schaefer credits a discerning American fan base for keeping an open mind and recognizing the entertainment value of fighters who have historically been neglected by the more parochially-minded power brokers of the sport, at least as it pertains to the U.S.
So this is Schaefer, in the second of leg of his career since his fiery exit from Golden Boy Promotions, playing the role of liberal, globetrotting ambassador, open arms and all, full in the belief that boxing’s upswing is a momentum from which all players can benefit. In response to the recent partnership between Top Rank and ESPN, Schaefer sang the praises of his rival, dismissing any notions that the latest ventures in boxing would take away shares in a crowded boxing marketplace. “You know, with ESPN, and all the eyeballs they bring to the table, they are going to have a stake in the sport. They are going to help build up fighters and give exposure to fighters than anybody who is involved in boxing, whether you are a fighter or fan, trainer or manager, network, sponsor, venue – whatever. This is great! The more the merrier!”
Of course, major hurdles still abound. By choosing the cruiserweight division, and, to a lesser extent, the super middleweight division, Schaefer and company have conveniently bypassed the need to go through the promotional gridlock posed by U.S. boxing politics. Sooner or later, should the tournament move forward, he will need to contend with Top Rank/ESPN and, perhaps, even Golden Boy. Schaefer, however, was adamant that, for future iterations of the tournament, he has every intention to explore those weight classes in which the top fighters are controlled by U.S. promoters.
“I have absolutely zero problem working for either (Bob Arum or Oscar De La Hoya),” Schaefer stated unequivocally. “I think, if it would be the right scenario, I would assume that Bob or Oscar would have no problem having one of their fighters participating in the tournaments. I mean, imagine how great is it that you can give one of your fighters an opportunity to participate in a unification tournament of a global nature and to earn more money than they would otherwise…I mean who the hell wouldn’t want to sign up for $50 million?”
Forever the ugly stepchild of the weight classes, the cruiserweight division, via the World Boxing Super Series, is poised to reinvent itself as one of boxing’s glamour groups. If Schaefer keeps it up, he may even get boxing’s most cynical denizens to think twice before scoffing.
“The money is real and everything is good,” said a gleeful Schaefer. “I really can’t wait.”