By Barry Janoff
March 2, 2017: On March 4, CBS Television Network will do something for just the second time in nearly 40 years.
That night, welterweight world champions Danny Garcia (33-0) and Keith Thurman (27-0) will headline Showtime Championship Boxing live on CBS from Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY.
The prime time (9 PM ET) event is being presented by Premier Boxing Champions and produced by Showtime Sports for CBS Television, both divisions of CBS Corp.
The other live network prime time bout in the past four decades was also on CBS, headlined by a welterweight world championship fight between Thurman and Shawn Porter in June 2016 (won by Thurman in a unanimous decision).
The Thurman-Garcia bout harkens back to a golden age of boxing before cable, PPV and the UFC, when fights between high-profile, top-ranked fighters regularly aired on network TV and drew large audiences.
"The sport of boxing is on the rise once again," Stephen Espinoza, evp-GM for Showtime Sports & Event Programming, said during a conference call on March 1 in anticipation of the CBS event. "Showtime continues to deliver the strongest lineup of any network in boxing. We are delivering the biggest and most meaningful fights and delivering to the largest possible audience. None on pay-per-view.
"This Saturday, Showtime Championship Boxing will present the most anticipated fight of the year, live on CBS, Danny Garcia versus Keith Thurman. Without question, the best fighting the best. two undefeated champions," said Espinoza. "Showtime has made it our mission to televise the top-rated champions versus the top-rated challengers. The results we’ve seen have been spectacular."
Ray Charles "Sugar Ray" Leonard is a man from that golden age. He won a gold medal as a light welterweight in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal before turning pro in 1977 and amassing a 36-1-1 record through 1989, followed by two comeback losses (in 1991 and 1997).
Sugar Ray earned world titles in five weight divisions and was among a group of fighters dubbed "The Fabulous Four," all now in the International Boxing Hall of Fame: Robinson, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler.
Sugar Ray will be ringside in Barclays Center as part of a broadcast team that also includes Showtime Championship Boxing host Brian Custer, play-by-play voice Mauro Ranallo, International Boxing Hall of Fame analyst Al Bernstein and reporter Jim Gray.
As part of the conference call, Sugar Ray spoke about the upcoming bout, his legendary career and the current state of boxing
• What do you think of Danny Garcia versus Keith Thurman?
Sugar Ray Leonard: This is a perfect match-up of two incredible fighters. Each one of them with their own style and confidence. What also raises an eye is the unification. That’s big-time for any fighter. If these fighters can live up to their expectations, I’m looking for a home run (bout), without question.
• How important is it to have boxing on network TV?
Sugar Ray Leonard: These are the type of fights that are going to bring boxing back to where it used to be. It really requires these type of fights, these type of individuals, these type of athletes, potential superstars, to make boxing what it used to be. As far as I’m concerned, these type of fights need to be on network television. These type of fighters, a lot of times they’ll fight on pay-per-view but they are not pay-per-view material. These two young men, these two champs, these two fighters, I would pay to see. They fit the mold. I talk to people all the time about fights they want to see. This is a fight that has star quality to it.
• Boxing is not what it was when you were in your prime. What drove boxing to importance during your era?
Sugar Ray Leonard: I was in an era when there were a lot of guys out there who were so talented, who if given the chance they would prove to be champions. But it takes dedication. I always felt that you had to continue to raise the bar as a fighter, as a champion. And continue to fight better and better competition. When I was fighting, I swear, I wanted to be the underdog psychologically, spiritually and mentally. If I wasn’t challenged, if I wasn’t somewhat of the underdog, I couldn’t perform like I normally would.
• What is your opinion about the proposed fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor?
Sugar Ray Leonard: (Laughs.) A great show. But what is the format. Boxing favors Mayweather, (mixed) martial arts favors McGregor. Or a combination of both? We have to find out first before we can decide.
• Manny Pacquiao is fighting Amir Khan this May. What do you think about him still fighting at age 38?
Sugar Ray Leonard: How old is he? 38? Even at the tender age of 38 he still has it.
• What does it mean to boxing and to the fighters to be on prime time in a nationally televised bout?
Sugar Ray Leonard: It means a lot. That’s what got me going. Without question. I loved that. It pumped me up because I loved the exposure. I loved the attention. I loved the fights. That’s what also helped me to be the fighter that I became. Anything helps. These kids, sometimes they walk in (and don’t realize that) it takes time to build that fan support. To build your resume. It’s not always about being undeleted. It’s about fighting the best guys out there as you climb the ladder. There’s a science to this thing. You can’t fight too small and then fight the world champ. You have to fight the best fighter each and every time. Each and every fight.
• What will it be like being ringside as part of the broadcast team?
Sugar Ray Robinson: It (will be) an out-of-body experience. It’s déjà vu. Like holy. I am 60. It’s a kind of thing that is so special and it’s so rare of a unification it seems like. It speaks volumes to me as far as the significance of it. And these guys, Keith and Danny, they know it. They realize it.
• What is your prediction for the fight?
Sugar Ray Robinson: (Thurman and Garcia) is the perfect match up. You have two incredible fighters, each one of them with their own style and confidence with Keith and Danny. What also raises an eye is the unification. That’s big time for any fighter. And if these fighters can live up to their expectations, I think it’s going to be a home run, without question . . . One thing that I think is a big factor for the fight itself is both guys have great chins. They both can take punches. So put it this way, I wouldn’t bet my house on this fight.
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