Will the World Boxing Super Series reinvigorate boxing?
As implausible as it seems for longtime observers of boxing, the sport has done things right lately! IBF/WBA titlist Anthony Joshua ascended to the top of the heavyweight heap by defeating the most recognizable opponent, for the average sports fan, in a thrilling knockdown-filled fight. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is finally stepping into the ring against his most potent rival IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin. IBF/WBA/WBO light heavyweight beltholder Andre Ward has agreed to validate a controversial victory by attempting to defeat fan favorite Sergey Kovalev more emphatically in a highly-anticipated rematch. Now, you can add the “World Boxing Super Series,” choosing two intriguing weight classes to launch a new tournament format boxing series. The cruiserweight division has been one of the most exciting and competitive weight classes for the last decade and the super middleweight division is stocked with ethnic and international diversity like few others. Their bracket-style elimination tourney seems ideal; a knockout tournament in a knockout sport combines the theatric with the emphatic.
While not an ardent advocate of Richard Schaefer (controversial former CEO of Golden Boy Promotions/now founder of Ringstar Sports), I cannot deny his accomplishments or ability to craft alliances. When this World Boxing Super Series was announced, Schaefer exalted in a Swiss accent that had an inadvertently comic trace of Dr. Evil, “Those who know me, they know that I like to do things big. This is a big trophy.” Pointing at the “Muhammad Ali Trophy” designed by Silvio Gazzaniga, whose signature piece is the current FIFA World Cup trophy, which really is a fine object of art. Then Schaefer got back to the important part of the presentation, which should attract some big names in the boxing industry. “This is big money (a $50,000,000 pot for the boxers to fight over) and this is a big tournament. It is the greatest tournament.”
Like most boxing people, Richard Schaefer is imbued with a cynical streak and he had to be convinced this tourney was feasible, financially and logistically, “I was skeptical at first but went into the meeting with an open mind. When I started to see the quality of the material and the quality of the people, I immediately knew it was something I wanted to be involved in and know will succeed.” Schaefer understands what attracts fans, “The goal really is to try and attract two champions from each weight class. We want to have current champions; we want to have former champions and we want to have up-and-comers. We hope that the feel of the eight fighters participating is a representation of the best talent in a particular weight class.”
An aspect of the process that attracted Schaefer were the people tasked with formulating and executing this project. A new venture called Comosa AG was established, whose head of management Roberto Dalmiglio described the mission statement: “The tournament will set new standards, ensure coherent storylines and provide top-class boxing throughout the year. It is Comosa’s ambition to turn the World Boxing Super Series into the world’s biggest and best boxing tournament.” The three-pronged partnership is made up of Swedish digital entertainment Modern Times Group, Switzerland-based Highlight Event & Entertainment and German-based boxing impresario Kalle Sauerland. The team of experts convinced Schaefer, “These are people who not only have passion and deep pockets for the sport; these are people with the expertise to execute a tournament like this at the highest level.”
The tournament brings together 16 fighters total and features 14 main events, with eight boxers to compete in each weight class in a bracket-style, single-elimination format. High-profile boxers may be attracted by ability to make up to 10 million dollars for advancing and ultimately winning the competition. Admittedly, the 168-pound class just had a good cleansing with the James DeGale-Badou Jack draw, after which Jack left the division. Many think WBO beltholder Gilberto Ramirez can become the next big draw in the division and this tourney may be a suitable path for Ramirez toward that end. Boxing fans backed and still fondly remember the famous HBO tourney to crown a heavyweight champion, from which Mike Tyson emerged. The 2011 Showtime “Super Six World Classic” round-robin formatted tourney kickstarted the career of Andre Ward. So there is a history of boxers being elevated by tourneys.
One large question still looms over this project.: Does it have the appeal to attract a major American television network? To date, no one has signed a check but Showtime is paying close attention. Network boxing chief Stephen Espinoza was in attendance at Schaefer’s unveiling and acknowledged an interest, saying he liked the framework. The pair had discussions but nothing was agreed upon. Production costs may be high, given half the events will be held in Europe, while the others are likely to be held in New York City and Las Vegas, with the usual prominent bidders. The rest are to be dispersed in London, Paris, Copenhagen, and probably a German city, given the former head of Sauerland Promotions is a decision maker.
A second sticking point is that Schaefer does not bring any boxers of his own to the tourney. In a sense, he is looking for freelancers. What boxers will take part and how can different promoters be satisfied in order to entice their clients? Schaefer is confident that will not be a problem, citing exposure and a good pay structure, “I have no problem working with other promoters as well and giving them opportunities. No strings attached. How great is that?” In other words, a boxer is not obligated to Schaefer or a television entity beyond the tourney. Schaefer wryly added, “I’m really not a threat to (Top Rank Promotions CEO) Bob Arum or to (Golden Boy Promotions CEO) Oscar De La Hoya or to whoever. I’m a start-up, so they shouldn’t be threatened.” Kalle Sauerland is of like mind, “We are not here to conquer and divide; we are here to add to the sport. This is about putting the best fights on and ultimately we are talking about a sizable check here, which is better for all promoters.”
This is a format that I have hoped would emerge as an option to the sanctioning bodies’ monopoly. It has the global appeal of resembling a World Cup soccer event if the organizers ensure the entire global market is represented. Whenever possible, they should guarantee a boxer from South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States each is part of the pool to stir interest in those regions. This is very good timing for this tourney in America, as the stigma of foreign-based boxers has reasonably lessened with personalities like WBO welterweight beltholder Manny Pacquiao, Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev and WBO junior lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko emergent as bona fide attractions of the sport in the U.S. of A.
This Tuesday, there was a lot of interest from media organizations around the world as Schaefer made the announcement that the super middleweight and cruiserweight divisions were selected for this unique knockout tournament, where, again, Schaefer reiterated his belief in the style and scope of the tourney, “The cruiserweights and super middleweights have time and time again thrown up thrilling contests but nobody has ever pitted the top fighters against each other in a fan-friendly, easy-to-understand way, within a short period of time. Our revolutionary KO tournament will take less than a year and deliver the crème de la crème in these weights with a blend of past, present and future from the world’s finest fighters.”
The next media-motivated step is a draft gala, after the boxers chosen to participate are announced, where the top four seeded boxers will be able to have input on their opponent. It’s a fun twist, in which one boxer may inadvertently choose the manner of his demise. They also announced all participants will be tested in accordance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) standards. No boxer can participate if he is in breach of any doping regulations and testing will run throughout the tournament schedule. The pool from which boxers are chosen consists of Top 15-rated fighters from within the four major sanctioning bodies rankings.
Timing and scheduling is key to their success, according to Kalle Sauerland, “Importantly, they will also have a schedule to stick to in order to guarantee fans something to look forward to, like a regular league schedule. We have an exciting format, two exciting divisions and now we will sign exciting fighters.” Matthew Hooper, Executive Vice President of the Modern Times Group, echoed the sentiment that the series strives to provide continuity to keep fans interested in storylines the tourney’s boxers produce, “We will set out a clear and consistent schedule and stick to it. The fighters can earn a lot of money in the World Boxing Super Series and also prove that they are the number one in their division.” Additionally, and to insure there are no delays in the fight schedule, a pool of substitute boxers will be announced as substitutes, in the case of injury.
Richard Schaefer can see a clear launch now, that most of the hurdles have been cleared or are in the final stages of negotiations. Schaefer said, “These weights give a great opportunity for us to deliver a huge geographic spread. On top of that, I can imagine some current champions and challengers in the weights around the two, for examples, light heavyweights making steps up or down to join the quest for the Ali Trophy.”
Season One will commence in September with four quarterfinals (eight fighters each) per division, with the semifinals held in early 2018 and the finals taking place next May. Let’s hope boxing continues its current run of top form with this tourney!