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Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza says his network has surpassed HBO as boxing’s market leader

Anthony Joshua knocks down Eric Molina during their IBF world heavyweight championship fight on Dec. 10 in Manchester, England.
(Richard Heathcote / Getty Images)

Within a stretch of four hours Saturday night, Showtime executive vice president Stephen Espinoza witnessed pieces of his vision fall remarkably into place.

First, in England, unbeaten heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, who’s last three fights have been brought to U.S. televisions by Showtime, improved to 18-0 with 18 knockouts and was joined by former long-reigning champion Wladimir Klitschko in the ring to make a post-fight announcement they’d fight April 29 at London’s Wembley Stadium.

Then, unbeaten super-welterweight champion Jermall Charlo of Houston put on a forceful showing in the co-main event of Showtime’s card at USC’s Galen Center, knocking out unbeaten Julian Williams in the fifth round and inspiring mention of middleweight dates against Canelo Alvarez and/or Gennady Golovkin.

Finally, Southland three-division champion Abner Mares recaptured a featherweight title and thrust himself back as a popular key player in one of the sport’s deepest divisions.

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For Espinoza, who already has two title-unification bouts on his network’s schedule by March 4, it was time to elaborate on his point that Showtime has surpassed HBO in the premium-network battle to produce quality fights.

“I don’t really think it’s a question anymore,” Espinoza told The Times following Saturday night’s card. “If we look at what’s gone on in the recent past, in terms of the quality, quantity and competitiveness of the boxing programming, along with our shoulder programming, we’ve clearly established we are the market leader.

“More importantly, I think we’ve shown we are going to be the market leader for the future. Our commitment is stronger than any network in the sport.”

HBO decreased its fight schedule from 2015 to 2016, and following the announcement of AT&T’s planned purchase of the network’s parent company Time Warner, there are more questions about how the entertainment service will handle boxing in the future, despite its history of airing major bouts for more than 40 years.

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Despite assurances from executives and on-camera talent that HBO’s boxing coverage won’t be further diminished, the service has only one card scheduled for 2017 — a super-featherweight title defense by Mexico’s Francisco Vargas from Fantasy Springs Resort and Casino in Indio.

While regular HBO fighter and three-belt middleweight champion Golovkin is negotiating for a March 18 bout against Daniel Jacobs, there has been speculation the service will bypass paying a license fee and make it a pay-per-view card.

HBO also seems headed to designate the Feb. 25 bout between Miguel Cotto and James Kirkland on pay-per-view even though both are past their prime and coming off losses to Canelo Alvarez. Kirkland hasn’t fought since his May 2015 knockout loss.

An official close to the situation but unauthorized to comment publicly said because Golovkin-Jacobs might be settled by a Dec. 19 purse bid that could wind up placing the bout on Showtime, it’s “premature” to discuss the scenario. The official admitted that “we have work to do” on the first-quarter fight dates.

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“The more networks who are committed to building the sport, the better it is for the sport,” Espinoza said. “We want other pay networks to be active, but regardless of that collaboration, we’re going to remain committed.

“This sport is important to our network. … My supervisors [including CBS Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves] are boxing fans. The commitment to the sport has never wavered. It provides a valued demographic and attractive programming. And year after year, our subscriber surveys show the interest in boxing has never wavered.”

Showtime’s most recent subscriber survey found that 50% said that boxing is somewhat or very important to their decision to subscribe.

Although the network effectively went dark for the fall after taking ratings hits against college football last year, Showtime’s boxing budget this year is expected to be around $40 million.

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On Jan. 14, the network is to air a super-middleweight title unification bout in New York between England’s James DeGale and Las Vegas’ Badou Jack. Two weeks later, featherweight champion Carl Frampton is set to defend his belt in a rematch of July’s fight-of-the-year contender versus Los Angeles’ Leo Santa Cruz in Las Vegas.

And on March 4, CBS or Showtime is scheduled to show a welterweight title unification of unbeatens, between World Boxing Council champion Danny Garcia and World Boxing Assn. champion Keith Thurman.

“We’ve been here 30 years, and the commitment is going as strong as ever,” Espinoza said. “We’re trying to bring logic and organization to the calendar, both for purposes to market it and also for the good of the sport.

“One of the biggest complaints I get from boxing fans is the proliferation of titles. We’re approaching the opportunity to televise fights that unify the most popular divisions — featherweight, welterweight, super-middleweight, heavyweight.

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Unbeaten World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder is a Showtime regular, and he said on air Saturday that he wants to fight Joshua in 2017 should the Briton defeat Klitschko, 40.

A compelling bidding war should be expected for the U.S. television rights for Joshua-Klitschko, with HBO saying it will bid.

“To help build the career of Anthony Joshua — who may be the next big star — we have a long-term relationship with Anthony,” Espinoza said. “And while the U.S. rights for the Klitschko fight aren’t set yet, our relationship with Anthony is such that I don’t see anything that would stand in our way.”

Espinoza said he is determined to win the fight.

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“The seeds for this were planted three, four years ago … it was a long-term plan. We’re seeing it mature now. And one of the things we’d be really proud to do is get to the end of ’17, look back and say, ‘We just televised some of the most significant matches in recent history and restored some clarity to the most popular divisions.’

“That would be a special year.”

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire


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