By Jason Keidel
The fight between Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter on June 25 is more than a welterweight title bout on a Saturday night. It’s the first time CBS will hoist the primetime boxing flag since Muhammad Ali fought Leon Spinks in February, 1978.
The symbolism now has sad, accidental heft with the recent death of Ali, whom many regard as the most important athlete of the 20th Century. His cultural eminence was too varied to list here. And in a strict, boxing sense was either the best or second-best boxer of all-time (depending on where you rate Ray Robinson).
No one doubts that the sport has taken its share of PR body blows since Ali’s epoch, since the golden heavyweight era of the ’70s and the reign of the Four Kings (Duran, Leonard, Hagler, and Hearns) in the ’80s.
No central, governing body, promoters with personal agendas, and the best fighters not often fighting each other have made for a mutating mission statement and a sliding presence down the totem pole of preeminent American sports.
“Boxing became laissez-faire capitalism run amok,” says Al Bernstein, the renowned reporter and pundit. “There’s no overriding body to force the best matches. It’s only by osmosis that they sensed that if they didn’t start doing so they would lose fans.”
Over the last decade, since the last fertile era of Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones, Jr, etc., boxing has devolved into a small stable of premium fighters groomed for premium cable. Long gone is the wide palate of free, network fights.
As fellow commentator and historian Steve Farhood says, boxing has often applied an inverted business model. “Boxing is the only sport where the bigger the event, the smaller the audience,” says Farhood, who will be the unofficial scorer on June 25.
He has a point. Only boxing promotes its best product over the sprawling swath of media, then narrows its showcase events to cable entities. Imagine watching the NFL for four months across the litany of free-TV networks, only to have the Super Bowl broadcast on Spike for $89.99.
So it’s not hyperbole to suggest that this is a hallmark event at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Not only because it’s beamed into exponentially more homes than any cable or pay-per-view event, but also because of the quality of the fights.
Maybe it’s not the Thrilla in Manila, but Thurman/Porter is hardly a boxing afterthought. “It’s two fighters in their prime,” says Bernstein. “It’s a 50/50 matchup. If you talk to ten hardcore fight fans, you’d get five for Porter and five for Thurman.”
“It took something very special for CBS to step back in,” says Stephen Espinoza, Showtime’s executive vice president for sports programming. “We’ve got, for my money, the two best active welterweights in the world fighting each other.”
Bernstein also sees this as refreshing, old-school clash of strengths. “Stylistically, it’s a good matchup,” he says. “Thurman is a boxer-puncher and has really good mechanics. Porter is a charging fighter who uses a lot of strength and tenacity and conditioning to win fights.”
And unlike the high-priced PPV events, which are really little more than a few, soporific exhibitions leading up to the main event, this is a classic fight card.
“It’s important to put fights like this on CBS,” says Bernstein. “This is a really good card. I’d be shocked if at least two of these fights weren’t really exciting.”
Indeed, it will take mass public consumption for boxing to return to the mainstream, to shed its tattered robe as a niche sport.
“There’s been much PBC stuff over the last year and a half,” says Farhood. “The more good fights you show, the better. CBS will have way more eyes than premium cable.”
That’s not to say boxing will abandon the lucrative business of pay-per-view. But network television can serve myriad roles, especially as a de facto farm system for young fighters, so that by the time they reach PPV orbit, the public will know who they are.
“It makes for an easier marriage between CBS and Showtime,” says Farhood, who is no stranger to the CBS cable subsidiary, having been a vital part of the ShoBox series for over two decades.
For their part, Porter and Thurman, who are fast friends outside the ring, are even more eager for the fight and the night than those who put it together.
“I’m back at my regular weight, at 147 pounds,” says Porter, who’s coming off a big win over Adrien Broner, at a catch-weight of 144 pounds. “No struggle to make the weight. And I know I’m going to be strong and healthy coming into the fight.”
Unlike Broner – the former golden boy of the sport who was supposed to assume Floyd Mayweather’s pound-for-pound crown, but has succumbed to poor performance and legal roadblocks – Porter does most of his fighting with his fists, not his gums.
“I’ve been working extremely hard, like I always do,” says Porter. “And we’ll be prepared for any and everything that Keith has. And we’ll see if he’s prepared for any and everything I got.”
Though they have to table their friendship for 12 rounds, it doesn’t seem to keep their keen eyes off the prize. “I look forward to this challenge of this rivalry that we share,” says Thurman. “Growing up together, never getting to fight one another but always pushing one another and trying to make one another better. But, come next week, we’ll know who’s the best.”
And while most boxers are used to overcoming more bumps and cuts than the average pro athlete, Thurman has the added hurdle of an injured neck from a car accident in February.
“It’s just been a little different,” Thurman said of his training for the bout. “We couldn’t spar early in the camp. For the safety of my neck and not to risk or jeopardize anything, and just follow my doctor’s instructions.”
Then there’s the dual-symbolism of boxing’s return to CBS and to the Big Apple. You don’t have to be Burt Sugar to know that New York City is boxing’s ancestral home.
Going back to MSG’s older iterations, from the Felt Forum to 49th Street, it was quite common for the sport’s luminaries fighting in the smoky arena, from Joe Louis to Ray Robinson to Rocky Marciano. Maybe Brooklyn isn’t quite midtown Manhattan or Madison Square Garden, but it’s an important statement night and fight.
“More fights on free television is good for the sport,” says Farhood. “For too long, boxing took its greatest events to its smallest audience. Going back to Floyd Patterson, you had to go to a movie theater to see it.”
Which brings us back to Thurman vs Porter, and a bell ringing for a new era in boxing and broadcast television. Maybe it doesn’t have the cachet of Ali/Spinks, but it’s a great way to remodel the face of the sport.
“I was a senior at NYU when Ali fought Spinks the first time,” says Farhood, of the February 15, 1978 bout. “In fact, it was my birthday. The fight did a 34 rating, the second-highest primetime rating that week.”
Even for a sport trying to adjust to a new world, anyone would take those old-world numbers.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.