Heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder finally has the opportunity to emphasize his talent with a title defense when he faces veteran Cuban fighter Luis Ortiz, a bout some say is the most important heavyweight title fight in the U.S. since Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis in 2002.
UFC featherweight champion Cris Cyborg seeks to follow a demanding five-round victory just more than two months ago in another pay-per-view main event.
Viewers on Saturday night will likely have to decide which combat sports challenge is most compelling.
It’s not the first time competition for television ratings, pay-per-view buys, dates and venues in the fight game has intensified to a fevered pitch during the spring.
“With more networks, more traffic creates more unavoidable conflicts,” says Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime, which is broadcasting the Wilder-Ortiz battle of unbeatens. “I don’t believe the sport’s at a place where we can afford to be competing against each other if we can avoid it. It’s not the end of the world when it happens, but we all need to continue elevating the sport to get the maximum audience each time we hold an event.”
Espinoza has three fight cards in direct competition with UFC pay-per-views. That includes a lesser junior-middleweight title-unification bout between champions Erislandy Lara and Jarrett Hurd on April 7, which competes with the UFC lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn.
On June 9, a UFC pay-per-view event in Chicago will be slotted against the featherweight title rematch between Los Angeles’ World Boxing Assn. champions Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares at Staples Center.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” UFC president Dana White said. “We did research and our analyst told us there’s only 15% crossover between the hard-core MMA and hard-core boxing audiences. Completely different demographics …”
Espinoza, who built up a sometimes heated rivalry with White while co-promoting last year’s Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor boxing match, disagrees with White.
“Yes, the avid fans of boxing and MMA will gravitate toward their respective events, but there is a big group of casual fans of both who will watch MMA when boxing is not available and boxing when MMA is not available,” Espinoza said. “We’ve seen that demonstrably in the numbers. We do pay attention and try to stay away from the biggest of the UFC events, but they’ve got an incredibly busy schedule and when they’re going 40 weekends a year, we’re going to butt heads more than once.”
There have been accusations that some are intentionally seeking to butt heads.
Top Rank boxing — which boasts champions such as pound-for-pound king Terence Crawford and super-featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko — has fared well against UFC and HBO boxing in its new alliance with ESPN, which has been in a recent snit with HBO and Golden Boy Promotions over its May 12 date.
One week after the May 5 bout between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, HBO and Golden Boy sought to complement the likely strong viewership of the fight’s replay by staging a bout featuring lightweight champion Jorge Linares.
But Top Rank presented an offer to Linares’ Japanese promoter to have him fight Lomachenko from Madison Square Garden, a bout that would provide Linares his largest purse yet. That bout also would be on May 12, but on ESPN.
The situation hasn’t been settled yet, and there is some speculation that the spat is holding up an announcement that Crawford will face welterweight champion Jeff Horn on April 14 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. As the conspiracy theory goes, Top Rank will move Crawford-Horn to April 28 to draw viewers away from HBO’s card that night (headlined by a former middleweight champion) if Linares doesn’t fight Lomachenko.
That’s not an idle threat, considering ESPN’s Top Rank boxing is drawing strong viewership, nearly tripling HBO watchers on Dec. 9, when Lomachenko last fought and generated an average of 1.73 million viewers from two-plus-viewer households.
“We do everything we can to avoid conflicts to best serve our subscribers and the sport,” said HBO vice president Peter Nelson, who also has a Saturday fight card led by light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev at Madison Square Garden.
“There’s ways to sort out best practices and strategies with this, which include planning as early as possible and understanding if timing issues are an issue on a given night, you try to work out the timing so fans can engage in multiple [broadcast] services.”
That might solve the Lomachenko-Linares issue, although it remained a work in progress Friday.
Top Rank president Todd duBoef said, “We’ve done well on the nights we’ve gone … .
“This is just a sign of how robust the combat sports category is, and I don’t think it’s a negative thing. There’s tons of baseball, basketball and football games that go on at the same time, right? Obviously, you’d like to own the night in the category … we might sometimes divide the interest in two boxing fights, but we’re going to have to deal with it, right? Because we’re starting to see how big the category is.”
Next week, the Southland will be torn as Showtime airs the bid by Riverside’s Mikey Garcia to become a four-division champion (against junior-welterweight champion Sergey Lipinets) while ESPN will show Norwalk-trained featherweight champion Oscar Valdez defending his belt against former world champion Scott Quigg at StubHub Center.
Espinoza said it’s best for Garcia to fight now because of the “murderous” competition coming from March Madness the rest of the month.
White isn’t only concerned about other fights. He was enthused to see that his Feb. 18 UFC Fight Night card on FS1 generated 893,000 viewers and peaked at 1 million on the same night that the Olympics and Golden State Warriors basketball were on television and “Black Panther” debuted at the movie theater.
“If you can go against the Olympics, the best of the NBA and ‘Black Panther’ and pull a great number, then I’m feeling confident,” White said. “You try to stay away from major events in a city, other big sporting events that are on TV, but you can’t prepare for everything.
“The stuff you have to worry about most is just putting on great fights.”