The Start-up: Richard Schaefer announces the ‘World Boxing Super Series’
A whiff of fresh air from the Swiss Alps descended on Manhattan’s palatial Pierre Hotel, where a hastily-announced press conference was held to usher in the newest player/savior in the fight racket: the newly-founded “Swiss-registered” and curiously named “Comosa AG.” The product they are peddling is the “World Boxing Super Series,” a global, single-elimination tournament, flush with $50 million to dole out among its contestants. Financed for at least three years, the tournament’s first season begins this September and ends in May 2018. And to add a bit of cache to its newfangled venture, Comosa has licensed Muhammad Ali’s name. The trophy the winner earns is literally The Greatest Prize in Boxing.
Its four principal partners – call them the “Davos Men” – all dressed in crisp black suits and variously accented English, sat on the stage and kicked off their enterprise with a glitzy hype trailer ala a James Cameron epic. (The only thing missing was some cheese fondue on the spread table.) But the newest body to pass through the saloon doors has a familiar face, that of none other than ex-Golden Boy Promotions chief Richard Schaefer. Schaefer did not ease on the superlatives. “Those who know me, they know that I like to do things big. This is a big trophy,” Schaefer intoned, pointing to an image of the trophy behind him. “This is big money. It is the biggest tournament. It is the greatest tournament.”
Seated next to him on the dais was longtime European promoter Kalle Sauerland, whose toothy grin would find no rest on this day. Sauerland initially brought the tournament idea to Schaefer. Together the duo will be in charge of steering this new behemoth into the mucky, slime-ridden waters of boxing. Like so many intrepid voyagers before them, Schaefer and company seem convinced that El Dorado is before them. But don’t call them the new colonialists. Stressing that this wasn’t a takeover, Schaefer and Sauerland were especially careful to note that the tournament would be “adding” to the current configuration of the boxing industry. “We’re not here to conquer and divide,” Sauerland insisted. “We will work with open arms with promoters,” Schaefer repeated throughout the conference.
The new venture is organized by an entity called Comosa AG, which is, in turn, backed by investors from two European companies, one in broadcasting (Modern Times Group) and the other in marketing (Highlight Event & Entertainment). If you’ve never heard of them, well, that is par for the course, as nebulousness is boxing’s preferred status quo. But in an era in which we’ve seen already seen the flare-ups of opaque boxing deals and shell companies, Schaefer stressed transparency and made pointed remarks throughout his spiel to make it clear that he came bearing gifts of friendship, not strife. If Premier Boxing Champions and Al Haymon played the part of Attila the Hun, Schaefer would play Father Matteo Ricci…or maybe a more updated analogy is in order.
“I’m a start-up” Schaefer quipped. “They shouldn’t feel threatened.”
In “they,” Schaefer, of course, was referring to the other side of the pond: The loose group of promoters who do not work with Al Haymon or Showtime, including Top Rank Promotions, Golden Boy Promotions and Main Events, to name a few. How serious and conciliatory is he about bridging the divide between rival promoters and networks in an increasingly fractious industry? More importantly, how does Schaefer intend on executing this plan? Or is this tournament simply the money grab it resembles on the surface and an extended pipeline for Haymon-contracted fighters? Whatever the blueprint is, Schaefer will need to pull out the equivalent of a Treaty of Versailles to smooth over the still-open wounds.
The most challenging hurdle for Schaefer, and the biggest argument against him, is the existence of network contracts. How does he get a network like HBO to showcase one of its contracted fighters to appear on, say, a Showtime telecast? When asked, Schaefer told UCNLive, “You know I have no problem working with HBO, so there’s no like…you know…”
Schaefer paused for a moment, then continued.
“Lets say, if the fights were to happen on HBO and Showtime has an exclusive contract with a certain fighter – then that fighter is not obviously going to work and vice versa. If there is a fighter who has an exclusive contract with HBO and the fights are happening on Showtime, then that fight is not going to happen unless the network allows it to participate. Now if you are HBO or you are Showtime and you have an opportunity to put one of your fighters in a tournament where he could potentially come out as a big star and you don’t have to invest any money and after the tournament is over, when he wins the trophy at your network – why not?”
But Schaefer, a realist, conceded that one or two of the elite may not make it on board.
“We will potentially have a pool in one particular weight class of the 20, 30 best fighters. Out of that pool, you want to pick the (top) 8, which are available, so I understand – some of them might be available. Some of them might not be available – that’s just the way it goes.”
In other words, Schaefer is banking on the allure of a $50 million pot and a tournament style that has vastly improved on the “Super Six” model from the Ken Hershman years at Showtime (“reserve” fighters will be in place so that any injuries or disqualifications to the eight contestants won’t prevent the tournament from continuing), as incentives worthy enough to entice the best fighters to join, regardless of their contractual allegiances.
“But I understand,” Schaefer went on, “if deals are being turned down. Look, I mean (Sergey) Kovalev and (WBC light heavyweight titlist Adonis) Stevenson never fought because Kovalev had a contract with HBO. But (life) goes on. Kovalev had other fights and Stevenson had (others) as well.
Still, the network issue can’t be ignored, not when HBO has arguably the best fighters from nearly every major weight class, be them Vasyl Lomachenko at 130, Terence Crawford at 140, Manny Pacquiao at 147, Gennady Golovkin at 160 and Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward at 175. For a tournament purporting to offer a champion in a single weight class, it would look ludicrous to proceed without the involvement of the aforementioned; wouldn’t it?
“Well, there are other weight classes,” Schaefer pointed out, “and, in each one of those weight classes there are other champions as well. Are you going to be getting the best eight of every weight class? That likelihood is very small but are you going to get, out of those eight fighters, maybe five of the eight best fighters? I think that’s possible. And if you have a tournament of the eight best fighters in the world participating then that’s a pretty good thing already.”
Half of all the fights – 14 shows in total – from the first season of the World Boxing Super Series, will take place in the United States. Showcasing the fights will require a major commitment from a network keen on developing the various narratives that the tourney can create. Moreover, from a pure work-flow standpoint, the tournament will need access to a large stable of fighters and the entity with that manpower is the Premier Boxing Champions. “We haven’t reached out to anybody yet,” Schaefer claimed, even to Al Haymon, “because we needed to announce the tournament first.” Still, sitting across from him at the reporters’ table was none other than Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza, whose matches consist of Haymon clients. And if that isn’t a clear enough sign, there was nobody at the table from HBO.