Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza Jumps In With Both Feet
The fairer sex has been strapping on the fight gloves as long as men and for more than a century of modern day professional boxing, women have not received their fair share of exposure, recognition, fame, money or a combination of all of the above.
Although there have been sporadic highs, women in boxing have been drowned by the lows. Women have had to fight their way into the professional boxing ring. In Mexico, despite its macho eccentric culture, female boxing is considered one of strongest pillars. But even in Mexico women’s boxing was not fully recognized until about 20 years ago.
In what could be considered women’s boxing heyday in the late 80s and 90s, we saw the likes of Christy Martin grace the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, Mia St. John become a house-hold name and many women try boxing because of Laila Ali. ESPN would feature female fights on their network. Perhaps because of a wide range in talent or because boxing became even more of a niche sport, women’s boxing in the United States was pushed aside while it flourished in Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia.
But a new day is breaking in 2017.
Leading the charge is none other than Showtime’s Executive Vice President for the network’s Sports and Event Programming Stephen Espinoza. A lawyer in his past life where he represented Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, MMA female star Gina Carano as well as a slew of pop stars, Espinoza was hired by the network to lead their sports program in 2011.
After hinting in the second half of last year that the network was planning on featuring women’s boxing on their airwaves, it finally happened in early 2017 when Amanda Serrano, the WBO super bantamweight champion based out of Brooklyn, defended her title on January 14,th in her hometown’s Barclays Center against tough Mexican Yazmin Rivas. The tough 10 round affair was featured on Showtime Extreme marking the first time a female bout was broadcast by the network in more than nine years.
“The audience is ready”
According to Espinoza it was something that was a long time coming.
“One of the clients I represented back when I was an attorney and before I had any idea about every working at Showtime was probably the first well-known, the first nationally known female MMA fighter Gina Carano,” Mr. Espinoza said to the all-female boxing podcast 2-Min Rd. on the Leave It In The Ring network hosted by David Avila, former fighter Elena “Baby Doll” Reid and Felipe Leon. “She was the first woman to appear in the main event of a MMA fight on national television. She really paved the way and this was obviously, five, six, seven years ago. Going forward in a certain way through Gina’s fights and then really where Ronda Rousey picked up, it’s been real clear through the success of women in MMA that the market is ready; the audience is ready for women in combat sports. With the more success once you saw Ronda Rousey and then Holly Holm and Miesha Tate and really a whole group of women MMA fighters, to me, it became more and more glaring that there was a real big hole in the sport of boxing, at least in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., as you guys know, women’s boxing is thriving. In Latin America, in Mexico, in Europe, it is doing very well and there is a lot of it on television. Between those two things if you look at the recent success of women’s boxing in Latin America and Europe and really the world-wide success of women in MMA it just became real obvious we are missing the boat with respect with women and boxing.”
“She is the one”
With his mission firmly set Espinoza had to find the right fight to open the doors for women’s boxing in the network. Based out of New York City at Showtime headquarters, Espinoza didn’t have to look any further than his backyard and the exciting Amanda Serrano.
“It has been on our to-do list for a while. I am a little embarrassed we didn’t get to it sooner. We knew the first time we did especially there would be a lot of scrutiny. A lot of people are looking, some people are paying attention because they are supportive, while other people looking at it to criticize it and poke holes at it. We wanted a fight that was really, really credible and really a top pound for pound boxer. Lou DiBella has been a real advocate for women’s boxing and he had been talking to me about Amanda Serrano for a long time. In a couple of our Barclays Center shows in Brooklyn I had seen her off TV. Once you won her world title and became one of only two Puerto Rican world champions and really recognized as one of the top pound for pound female fighters in the world, it sort of clicked. She is the one, she has a big fan base in Brooklyn, she is top pound for pound fighter, she has a real action oriented style and it became clear to us she was the one that we wanted to put out there as the first one to do it in over a decade. We are proud of that. We would like to have Amanda back, she is an action fighter, she is never in a dull fight and she is four division world champion at this point.”
The Serrano-Rivas fight was the perfect opening salvo to get the boxing audience reinterested in two women punching each other for money. The bout featured skill, action and the storied Mexico vs Puerto Rico rivalry. With the bait set Espinoza is planning his March 10th offering on ShoBox, two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields facing veteran Szilvia Szabados for the vacant NABF middleweight title in a historic headlining slot, will be enough to reel them in.
“It is a little bit different endeavor with Claressa. She is obviously in the very early stages of her career at 1-0. I can’t remember many other fighters if any in the recent past we have put on at 1-0 let alone put on in the headlining fight at 1-0,” Espinoza explained. “The fact that she is headlining ShoBox, and she is the first woman to headline a boxing card on premium TV and she is doing it at 1-0 shows what kind of special fighter she is. Obviously 1-0 doesn’t show the entire story of her career. When you have two gold medals under your belt you obviously have done a lot of amateur boxing. With just the momentum she has and the fact she is taking on credible fighters, fighters with 20-25 fights, are the kind of opponents we have been looking at for her, it just seemed to make a statement, we are looking at world champions, we are looking at future world champions, we are trying to find real undiscovered talent in women’s boxing.”
Espinoza knows he has something special in Shields and as long as she keeps winning, she can very easily become the face of the network for female boxing.
“The reality she is talking about fighting Christina Hammer before the end of the year. Christina Hammer is a world champion and a well-established world champion, a really skilled boxer. For someone to say, ‘I’m 1-0 and I want to fight the world champion in the division after when I’m maybe 3-0,’ says a lot about where she is. The opponents that we were looking for, again we were looking at opponents that were 14-0, 15-2, women who have been boxing for a quite a long time in the pro ranks and she had no hesitation. If you talk to her trainers, if you talk to anyone in the Detroit or Flint (Michigan) area, they all know her in the gyms, guys, women, it doesn’t really matter. She fights, she spars with a lot of the guys and she fits right in, she is a skilled fighter and she can be moved very, very quickly.”
The reality of the situation is for women’s boxing to continue on this hopeful path of more exposure which could very easily mean more money for its participants, it has to do well on the network. The good news is that Espinoza sees it as an ongoing endeavor that needs time and effort to flourish, something he is willing to give it and hopes the audience, other networks and promoters do as well.
“The long-range goal is to really get to the point that it isn’t anything special. What I mean is that it becomes part of the norm because that is the way it really should be. When you see women on a MMA card it is not particularly strange to see them headlining, it is not strange to see them in co-features, it is just part of the sport. I really like to get to that point and I think a lot of women boxers would like to get to that point where it is not viewed as something special, there is simply a women’s fight on the card. But just as there is a bunch of good fights on the card and one of them happens to be a women’s fight. I think there is a real abundance of talent. West coast, east coast and west coast, international, really you look at Claressa and others, the reason she has two gold medals is obviously she didn’t turn pro after the first one because there was really no outlet. What is the point of turning pro if there is no exposure, there is no TV; there are not networks behind it? Once you see at least one network and I hope there is other networks that follow us, what you will see is a lot of women fighters who had no incentive to turn pro and now will turn pro and you’ll see a real growth of talent in women’s boxing and I think that can happen pretty quickly.”
“I think we are pretty much there. I’ll be really surprised if this is the only time we see Claressa this year with us. We are in talks with her team and we’ll like to do several fights in the near future with her. It all depends on opponents,” Espinoza said regarding the future of women’s boxing on the network. “I do think we are going to see Amanda Serrano, maybe her sister Cindy who has a world title as well. In the range of other female fighters, Layla McCarter is obviously a name that has been talked about, I have been contacted by the representatives of Cecelia Braekhus, and they are interested in talking about a U.S. fight for her. I really think we will have them sprinkled throughout the schedule. That is our goal and there is certainly enough talent around to support it.”
In his previous life Mr. Espinoza was the chief legal counsel for Golden Boy Promotions. When asked whether the signing by the company, their first female boxer in the promotional firm’s history, of the popular 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza prompted him to believe it was time for women to take a bigger role in the sport, he actually thought the opposite.
“I think it was actually the reverse, we have been talking featuring female fighters for a while and more specifically for the last half of last year. Seeing the follow through and when we announced Amanda (Serrano) would be making the debut and we also had Katie Taylor in a fight from the U.K. I think what you see probably like the case with Golden Boy will be promoters will be more open to signing female fighters because they know networks, or at least one network in Showtime, is open to featuring them. I understand it is a little bit of chicken and the egg, it is sort of how do you develop women fighters without having a network behind them and then the network will say there is no women fighters who are well developed and ready for TV so we made the first step and made the commitment and following through. We had Amanda on, we had Katie Taylor on, and we’ve had Claressa on. Heather Hardy is on the card tomorrow night although we didn’t have room on TV since it is a CBS show. I think because of that hopefully, number one: other networks will also become more open to it and number two: that leads to promoters to be more open to signing female fighters the way Golden Boy did with Marlen.”
To listen to the interview in its entirety, please log on to blogtalkradio.com/leaveitinthering.