Showtime flexed its muscles in its battle with HBO for premium cable boxing superiority by announcing on Wednesday a slate of 10 non-pay-per-view fight cards featuring 14 unbeaten fighters through the first half of the year.
Los Angeles boxing fans will see the long-awaited rematch between the Southland's two World Boxing Assn. featherweight champions, Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares, on June 9 at Staples Center.
Showtime is poised to offer two March heavyweight title bouts — Deontay Wilder vs. Luis Ortiz on March 3 and Anthony Joshua vs. Joseph Parker on March 31 — that could lead to a unification of all four belts later in the year.
And the return of unbeaten two-belt welterweight champion Keith Thurman is May 19, likely at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, along with an April 7 light-middleweight title unification bout between Cuba's Erislandy Lara and Jarrett Hurd (21-0, 15 knockouts).
"It was a bit of a challenge, mainly because this type of announcement is not what the boxing industry is used to doing," said Showtime's Stephen Espinoza, who was promoted earlier Wednesday to president of sports and event programming. "Everybody, from fighters, managers and promoters, got on board quickly with the idea that this is a way to convey the sport is not as disorganized and chaotic as some people would have you believe.
"It's a symbolic way of addressing those pieces of conventional wisdom which really don't hold true anymore."
The scheduling was made easier by the fact that most of the fighters are managed by Al Haymon of Premier Boxing Champions, which has retreated from its past, more varied placement of fights on other networks and returned to collect Showtime license fees for its bouts.
Santa Cruz-Mares II has taken nearly three years to materialize after Santa Cruz defeated Mares by majority decision in front of a packed crowd at Staples Center in August 2015.
Since then, Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 knockouts) has lost and regained his World Boxing Assn. featherweight belt in two compelling bouts with Northern Ireland's Carl Frampton while Mares (31-2-1, 15 KOs) claimed the WBA's secondary featherweight belt by defeating Jesus Cuellar at USC's Galen Center in December 2016.
The pair seemed destined for a meeting last year, but Santa Cruz's father/trainer, Jose Santa Cruz, expressed a request for a lesser bout so they co-headlined a card at StubHub Center in October.
Mares shined under the director of new trainer Robert Garcia with a 10th-round technical decision over Andres Gutierrez. Santa Cruz won by eighth-round knockout over Lancaster's Chris Avalos.
Mares' performance against a more accomplished foe has fueled the idea he'll have a better chance to win the rematch. He's remained in supreme shape since the October fight, believing the Santa Cruz rematch would land in April, but scheduling issues with Staples Center — along with the insistence of officials to keep the bout in Los Angeles — pushed the bout to June.
"All I've been thinking about is redemption," Mares said. "With Team Garcia, you've seen the change. If [people] think I'm going to fight the same way, they are in for a surprise."
Garcia's younger brother, Riverside's unbeaten lightweight champion Mikey Garcia (35-0), will seek a fourth division belt March 10 in San Antonio when he meets Russia's 140-pound world champion Sergey Lipinets (13-0). Espinoza said Garcia could take that victory and return to lightweight to meet either of his fellow champions, Robert Easter or Jorge Linares, who defends his belt on HBO Saturday night at the Forum.
"March 10 is just another small step closer to achieving my ultimate goal, which is to become the best fighter of this generation," Garcia said at the event.
Former champion Omar Figueroa could enter into Garcia's plans by defeating Adrien Broner on an April 21 Showtime card.
Another appetizing bout is the May 19 title defense by World Boxing Council light-heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson (29-1, 24 KOs) versus former super-middleweight champion Badou Jack (22-1-2) in Canada.
Unbeaten Houston brothers Jermall and Jermell Charlo also have separate fights on the schedule. Middleweight Jermall (26-0, 20 KOs) will have an opportunity to become the mandatory opponent of the expected Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez May 5 HBO pay-per-view bout should Charlo defeat Hugo Centeno Jr. on March 3.
Los Angeles-trained Jermell Charlo (30-0, 15 KOs) will defend his WBC 154-pound belt on the Santa Cruz-Mares undercard at Staples Center. The opponent has yet to be announced, but Espinoza said the bout is a likely precursor toward the Hurd-Lara winner.
While the Joshua-Parker fight is not yet officially on Showtime, the network has the right to match any offer that HBO might make. It would be the final fight on Joshua's current deal with Showtime, however, and HBO's Peter Nelson has worked to tighten his friendship with Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn, who has former middleweight champion Daniel Jacobs fighting on HBO.