When Showtime made the huge announcement that they would be the network to air the May 7 fight between Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley, it sent shockwaves through the U.S. boxing landscape. For years, HBO had dominated the pay-per-view market and the "big event" market, while Showtime plugged away with what many felt were simply better fights, particularly in the lower weight classes, featuring fighters like flyweight Vic Darchinyan, fighters HBO had no interest in exposing to a large audience.
But this year, Showtime has re-entered the fray and become a competitor to HBO not seen since the days of Mike Tyson's affiliation with the network. First they aired Miguel Cotto, a longtime HBO mainstay, against Ricardo Mayorga on pay-per-view in March, and next weekend, they go for the gusto with Pacquiao-Mosley.
"Showtime started in boxing 25 years ago and since then we've evolved and grown," said Ken Hershman, the executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. "We are now associated with five different sports but boxing continues to be our rock and our foundation at Showtime Sports, and we're very proud of our history."
It has been Hershman who has been credit by most for the revival of major boxing at Showtime. He was the mind behind the Super Six World Boxing Classic, which started in 2009, and the bantamweight tournament which started last December. Though both tournaments have had their share of headaches, even the idea to do something so ambitious was an early warning, if you will, that Showtime was going to come on strong.
In 2010, the company paired with Top Rank to bring Juan Manuel Lopez to their airwaves, the first sign that they were going to compete for fighters who were thought to be HBO-branded, and then they brought back super middleweight star Lucian Bute, who had jumped from Showtime to HBO in a move that just didn't work out, on a multi-fight contract. In 2009 and 2010, they knocked on the door. In 2011, they've busted it open, and are expecting big things on the business side from Pacquiao-Mosley.
"We still own the record of five of the top ten pay-per-view events of all-time and we expect Pacquiao-Mosley to creep in there," said Hershman.
Putting together this scale of an event is nothing new for the competitors at HBO, but Showtime in some respects may be out to prove that not only are they ready to financially compete, but that they can simply produce a better overall product. Commentators in any sport take a lot of criticism these days. The internet age has brought together a lot of people who are probably just as well-informed if not -- at least in their minds -- better-informed than the commentary teams they listen to or the writers they read, and having an open forum to complain is a big part of what the internet has come to mean for many. Hershman, though, is confident in the broadcast team he has assembled.
"We think we've assembled the best team in television for this event," Hershman said. The team will consist of play-by-play man Gus Johnson, analysts Al Bernstein and Antonio Tarver, interviewer Jim Gray, and the host for the evening, James Brown.
All of them are excited about the chance to step into -- or back into, in some cases -- the world of major money prizefighting.
"I am thrilled to be back in the boxing arena, that Ken Hershman drafted me to come back and host this," said Brown, who is the anchor for the CBS NFL studio team and hosts Showtime's "Inside the NFL."
"Of all the sports I've been blessed to cover there is nothing like a a championship fight and the energy in the arena."
Johnson, whose bread-and-butter has been NCAA basketball's March Madness and NFL coverage for CBS, will be calling his first big event in boxing since starting with Showtime boxing in 2009. "I think what makes boxing so special is the intimacy in the arena, it's like we're all connected more than a college basketball game or certainly a NFL game because you have 70,000 people there," he said.
"There's nothing like a championship fight. Pacquiao-Mosley, honestly I have to pinch myself when I realize I'm going to be a part of this."
And of course, they all have their own takes on the fight itself.
"Mosley as an older fighter had his moments with Mayweather," said Bernstein, who called Mayweather a "defensive genius."
"Manny Pacquiao, while he's reinvented himself to be a boxer-puncher and one of the best in the sport in years, still attacks. And he will get hit with right hands from time to time," Bernstein continued. "(Mosley's) feeling is he can still land punches and make them count. I think we're going to find out about this fight over the first five or six rounds, because Shane Mosley is going to land a solid right hand. I think that's definitely going to happen. And we'll see if that impacts Manny Pacquiao."
Tarver, himself still fighting at the age of 42, offered some advice for Mosley. "He's going to have to trick him, set some traps, and hopefully he walks into them. I think Mosley has the ability and the boxing IQ to do that. That's what makes this fight interesting to me. And the upsets have been in the air lately."
"The great thing about Manny Pacquiao is he's fought everybody and he's always able to adjust," Johnson offered. "I think that at 39 years old Shane Mosley is going to come into this fight and you're going to see his best. I don't think he was at his best against Floyd. I think he's going to be sharp and he's going to be really prepared, and he does have great hand speed, and if he can pull the trigger like he did against Margarito, this is going to really be something to see."
Bernstein believes that Mosley and trainer Naazim Richardson are working on a surprise in camp -- and he has a feeling what it might be.
"We haven't seen Shane Mosley for a while be as effective with his left hook, which is a hugely powerful punch. I think that's the secret weapon. Everyone expects the right hand to land."
And of course, no Pacquiao discussion is complete, it seems, without bringing up you-know-who.
"It's been remarkable what the guy has been able to do, and he's fought everybody in front of him. We'll see what happens down the road with Mayweather," said Jim Gray.
"Manny Pacquiao has performed more, he's had more fights, I've never seen a fighter reinvent himeslf like Manny Pacquiao. To me that's an extraordinary thing," said Bernstein, who agreed with Naazim Richardson's assessment that Mayweather is the most talented fighter in the world, while Pacquiao is the best.
"It's something that we all obviously want to see and it just has the potential to be one of those fight of the century-type situations," said Johnson.
But for now, the Showtime team is simply geared up to prove they're the new top destination for big-time boxing on May 7.