Sports media by and large has to often figure out their boundaries on when to report and when to opine, when to editorialize, when to push back, when to go with the flow, when to save your powder.
There will be no shortage of things to critique, to take issue with, within the boxing sphere. But if one is focused the majority of the time on that, one can find oneself getting too cynical to be as useful as one should be.
I bring this up in the context of discussing the Saturday faceoff between Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer.
It has been billed as “arguably the most significant women’s boxing event in history.” I pondered this description when Showtime started hyping the clash which screens on the cabler Saturday evening, on a show promoted by Dmitriy Salita.
We could spend time debating the merits of that assessment, and doing a deeper dive into the history of the women’s side of the game. Indeed, some media members — including me and Brin Jonathan Butler and Bryan Armen Graham — did touch on the subject during a Wednesday media luncheon held at the fight game perennial, Gallagher’s Steak House on 52nd St, as we politely peppered the Showtime boxing boss, Stephen Espinoza.
But what Espinoza said during his time at the mic lessened my desire to probe excessively about the chosen angle to hype this fight.
“I want to acknowledge Claressa and Christina, because it’s easy to forget that this is a fight,” Espinoza said. “That may sound strange, but it’s because there is so much discussion about the meaning and symbolism of this fight.
“You still have to remember, that beyond all that, these are two athletes preparing for a fight. They each want to win. Each of them has taken on the challenge of representing women’s boxing and that should not be overlooked.
“It would be very easy as a competitor to say that you’re not going to get into that extra stuff. That would be the easier thing to do. But what Claressa and Christina have done is accept that mantle and that challenge. They’ve taken on those discussions. Not just promoting their fight, but engaging in discussions about the future of women’s boxing.
“I’m sure they’re tired of talking at this point and just want to fight. That challenge is something that makes the process more difficult and something they’re doing for selfless reasons. It’s really for the advancement of the sport as a whole. Both women deserve a lot of credit for that.
“This fight is already a success. I know there’s one big piece that still remains, and I’m very excited to see the fight take place. I know they’re anxious to get in the ring. But what this promotion has done is advance the conversation and advance the dialogue. It’s all of our hopes that this will persist beyond this event and lead to a new era of women’s boxing.”
IBF, WBC and WBA champion Shields (age 24; 8-0, 2 KO) will unify with WBO champion Hammer (age 28; 24-0, 11 KO) for the undisputed middleweight world championship, for the record.
Yeah, so, we can look back at Laila Ali and Christy Martin and a couple few others; but I’m choosing to look at this event, and sit ringside for the first time for a Shields fight, and more so just look to enjoy the action.
Certainly, the promoter and the network and the athletes have done a pretty darn solid job in whetting appetites for the middleweight clash, which has all the meaningful belts up for grabs in Jersey.
I do confess, I’m not a “belts” guy. I don’t look down at them, I generally wish that there were fewer of them, but neither do I over-glamorize their presence. It isn’t exactly insulting, but it isn’t quite fair to play them up as if there wasn’t some dilution in play. Anyway, back to Espinoza, who took questions while he ate three-quarters of his steak and didn’t reach once for the bread basket.
“I’m excited about the overall reaction to this fight,” he said during the informal Q-and-A. “I hoped it would generate the attention that it deserves. We worked to make sure that happened. I think you could always wish for more publicity, but the highest compliment I’ve seen and hear a lot of heard, ‘I don’t usually follow women’s boxing, but...’
“All we can ask is the opportunity to change the minds of people (who maybe aren’t inclined to want to follow women’s boxing).”
The name of Ronda Rousey came up; makes sense, being that she transcended her sport, she surpassed pretty much all the fellas as a draw in the MMA sphere and she’s now an ace in the sports-entertainment/pro wrestling realm. Espinoza noted that she elevated in increments, and was aided by those that came before her. Remember Gina Carano?
She helped set the table so Rousey could feast. The cable chieftain admirably didn’t over-sell, try to convince the press people by adding excess sauce, like how you’d slather a cup of béarnaise on a tough cut of beef.
The jury is still out, he admitted, and yes, Showtime and Shields and the state of the women’s game will be judged on Monday, when numbers come out. But, he sagely stated, prodding me to take that long view which we all so often aren’t so stellar at choosing, “We maybe didn’t know Floyd would be Floyd after nine fights. But Claressa definitely has that potential.”
That’s a high bar of “possibly.” I think this nation proves every day that there are tens of millions of citizens who aren’t as open minded as we’d hoped we all were, that have different sets of boundaries for men and women and white people and black people.
I will say this, Shields has been making me think, and has been spurring conversation as I watch her progress, and see how she handles this ascendance, and see how the general public reacts to that rise.
Will she be attracting the masses who wanted to watch Floyd fights to see him lose? I better understood today, though, that it is to her credit that she does make me think. After all, in this boxing game, and within sports-entertainment, the greatest sin if one wants to make it, is to be boring. You can be loved, you can be hated, ideally hated in a way that has people loving to hate you, rather than being so turned off they actively steer away from following you, or “hate following” you. But if the masses shrug their shoulders on you, and don’t find something to latch on to, then your progress will slow.
Espinoza said, when I asked about how much his people pondered when the marketing hooks for this fight were crafted, when it was decided that it would be pitched as maybe the most important women’s bout of all time, that indeed they did debate.
“It features the highest profile female contest in some time,” he shared at the lunch table. “From a quality standpoint we decided to call it that. It’s very rare that two women of this caliber are fighting on TV in the US.”
To a large extent, he continued, he sees Shields vs Hammer as already successful, from a buzz generation standpoint, because he’s seen it being touched on in mainstream publications and platforms. And the women’s side as a whole will get to another level when their skill, rather than the novelty aspect, is most discussed.
The event promoter, Salita (seen in the middle, above) conveyed his enthusiasm during his time at the mic at the steak house.
“This promotion has lived up to the expectations,” he said of the scraps to take place at Boardwalk Hall, including undercard bouts which will screen on Facebook FightNight Live. “This is the biggest fight in women’s boxing history. It feels very big today and I’m sure in a month a day or a year after this fight, we will know that it was a historic event.”
It looked to me that maybe Shields won the battle of wills at the event; she barked at Hammer and asked her why she wasn’t trash talking, repeating to her face some of the things said on All Access.
“She can say whatever she wants here, because I’m going to show it in the ring,” Hammer stated, in her turn at the mic. “I don’t like to talk too much. I’m here to show my skills in the ring and get all these belts.”
“I think she’s shook,” said Shields when at the mic. ”She doesn’t want to say anything after all the social media talking she was doing. This is her time to say it to my face.”
In closing, get a taste of some of Shields’ trash talking, and also her pragmatism, as she addresses the lofty billing given to the scrap.
”Hammer signed up for something she shouldn’t have signed up for. She’s going to get hurt on Saturday,” Shields said. “I love that she has an accomplished record. People say I don’t have power or this and that but on paper I’ve been an underdog in most of my fights and I’ve beat all those women.
“When I beat Christina Hammer on Saturday, I want everyone’s headline to say, ‘Shields nails the Hammer’. It’s not a game to me. It’s going to be bad for her. I’m happy that everyone came out for this event and has supported it. This isn’t as big as women’s boxing can get, but it’s the beginning of something great.”
Listen to Espinoza on the next Everlast TALKBOX podcast.