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Showtime boxing schedule unveiling has champions either on collision or on course

Mikey Garcia, left, connects against Dejan Zlaticanin on Jan. 28, 2017, in Las Vegas.
(Steve Marcus / Getty Images)

In a gathering of boxing talent that displays both its superior stable and organization in its premium-cable rivalry, Showtime on Wednesday flexed its might over HBO by officially announcing a strong slate of 10 fight cards featuring 14 unbeaten fighters through the first half of the year.

Having already broadcast Saturday’s dominant showing by young welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., the network 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.

Los Angeles will finally get to see the long-awaited rematch between its two World Boxing Assn. featherweight champions, Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares, on June 9.

And the return of unbeaten two-belt welterweight champion Keith Thurman is on the schedule for May 19, along with an April 7 light-middleweight title unification bout between Cuba’s Erislandy Lara and Jarrett Hurd (21-0, 15 knockouts).

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“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 the position of 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 recent, more varied placement of fights on other networks and returned to collect Showtime license fees for its bouts.

“Premier Boxing Champions is an integral part of this. The fact is they have developed a large portion of these established and next-generation stars, and their support is one of the key pieces that has allowed this to happen,” Espinoza told The Times in a conversation before Wednesday’s news conference.

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Haymon is connected to Riverside’s unbeaten lightweight champion Mikey Garcia (35-0), who 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 on Saturday night at the Forum.

“Mikey and Linares have been discussed for a long time. Mikey wants to pursue it again,” Espinoza said. “The talks were bogging down before and he wanted to get back in ring. He’s going to conduct his career by seeking out the biggest opportunities he can … moving up in weight, a unification or someone we haven’t discussed yet. But it’s going to be mega-fight after mega-fight.”

Former champion Omar Figueroa could enter into Garcia’s plans by defeating Adrien Broner on an April 21 Showtime card.

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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 bouts on the schedule. Middleweight Jermall (26-0, 20 KOs) will have an opportunity to become World Boxing Council champion Gennady Golovkin’s mandatory opponent should Golovkin defeat Canelo Alvarez on HBO pay-per-view in their expected May 5.

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.

Hurd-Lara “is an intriguing matchup. Jarrett Hurd is an aggressive, pressure fighter like [Alfredo] Angulo, who made Lara an entertaining fight,” Espinoza said. “But Hurd is younger and bigger, so, to me, that’s one of the highlights of the schedule. Whoever wins that fight -- Charlo has been very vocal about wanting to unify the division – so this makes unification look more real and possible. You can see how this happens, like what we’re doing with Wilder and Joshua … that’s one of the benefits of the comprehensive schedule – you can see where we’re going.”

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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.

While a possible Joshua fight against troubled former heavyweight champion Tyson Fury of Britain could take place on HBO were England’s Joshua (21-0, 21 KOs) to defect, Espinoza has the better fighter in Alabama’s Wilder (39-0, 38 KOs).

“If March shapes up the way we expect it to, we’ll have two huge heavyweight fights bookend the month -- the four consensus top heavyweights in the world with the four major belts on the line, hopefully leading to a unification that will produce a unified champion,” Espinoza said.

He called talks with Joshua and Hearn’s promotional company, Matchroom, “a continuing conversation. Matchroom has a long-term plan for A.J. that will include a unification fight and we’re confident we’ve demonstrated our value, and look forward to being in business with them for the future.

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“Deontay’s wanted a career-defining fight for a long time. It’s gotten away from him [due to opponents’ past positive drug-test results], but, even now, he’s not counting his chickens. He’s continuing to seek the most challenging fights rather than treading water and waiting for the big payday. What Deontay is seeking is not a payday, but a consensus position as the No. 1 heavyweight in the world. To get that, you have to take risk. That’s why he’s taking the Luis Ortiz fight.”

Showtime additionally announced that Spence (23-0, 20 KOs) will defend his International Boxing Federation welterweight belt June 16 in his hometown of Dallas. His opponent, too, has yet to be determined.

“Errol’s not looking for a tuneup. He wants the best available,” said Espinoza, who added that Thurman’s May 19 defense following surgery and a layoff since March will likely be a softer touch to set up a later fight against Shawn Porter in a rematch, with Spence in wait. “Keith has told us he’s ready to progress to the biggest opportunities possible -- Porter, [former champion Danny] Garcia or Spence. He doesn’t want to waste his time or opportunities.”


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