CBS Welcomes Boxing Back to Primetime

By Joseph Santoliquito Jun 24, 2016
BROOKLYN, New York -- What will take place Saturday may be like the opening crawl in one of the “Star Wars” films, with the black background and downward tilt, beginning with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … there used to be boxing on primetime network TV.”

Muhammad Ali fought many times on primetime network TV, the fights carrying the pageantry of a royal coronation; and then -- poof -- no more boxing on primetime network TV for decades.

CBS is taking the plunge by showing a prime fight in primetime, as Keith “One Time” Thurman (26-0, 22 KOs) defends the WBA welterweight title against Shawn Porter (26-1-1, 16 KOs) at the Barclays Center. It will be the first fight shown on CBS primetime network TV in close to 40 years. The last one was Ali’s first fight against Leon Spinks on Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas -- before a TV audience estimate of 70 million. Many forget that it was only the eighth professional fight for Spinks, who was supposed to be easy prey for “The Greatest.”

Thurman-Porter represents a great undertaking for CBS -- with the considerable help of Showtime, which CBS owns.

“It’s another example of the inter-relationships that Showtime and CBS try to do across the board, whether it’s our boxing programming on CBS or the CBS Sports Network supporting our events and documentaries,” said Stephen Espinoza, Showtime’s executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports and event programming. “This gives great exposure of Thurman and Porter, two very good young fighters, who will be on Showtime for a long, long time to come.

“It’s a big boost to the individual fighters,” he added. “It’s a big boost to boxing, and we’re thrilled that CBS was willing to make the commitment to undertake all of this. It was our pitch to CBS, and before doing so, we researched the history. We knew CBS had done Saturday and Sunday afternoon boxing programming over the last few years, but once we found out that CBS was involved in primetime boxing nearly 40 years ago, with Ali-Spinks I in 1978, we knew we really had to come with some high-quality programming in order to pitch it to CBS with straight face. CBS real estate is incredibly valuable. It’s the most-watched U.S. TV network. We were able to offer it with a straight face; this is the best the sport has to offer. This is boxing putting its best foot forward, and it deserves being put on a network like CBS.”

The original date of the fight was March 12, which would have coincided nicely with CBS’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament giving it a push. However, when Thurman was injured in a car accident, the fight was postponed. It is still a fortuitous spot on the sports calendar. The NBA wrapped up. Major League Baseball is in June and has four months to go. It serves as a nice sweet landing zone to drop a good fight.

“We’re hopeful that this generates a lot of attention,” Espinoza said.

What happened to primetime network boxing? Where did it go and why did it go away? Boxing took a tumultuous hit when Ray Mancini beat South Korean Duk Koo Kim on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Nov. 13, 1982. It was televised by CBS. Kim died from injuries sustained in the bout.

What happened next was a perfect storm on chaos. The WBC quickly decided 15-round fights were too dangerous and cut the championship limit to 12. Several years later, the WBA and IBF would follow suit, and by the time the WBO was formed in 1988, 12 rounds were the custom. Vanquished were what had been considered “the championship distance” -- Rounds 13, 14 and 15. They had been judged as the fatal rounds for Kim and the evidence had been presented on national television.

That was the next victim in the fall of boxing on primetime network TV. Major advertisers wanted to distance themselves from a sport where someone actually died.

“That certainly caused networks and advertisers to rethink their commitment to the sport,” Espinoza said. “With the expansion of close-circuit and premium TV stepped into boxing, it filled the void left when network television got out of boxing. I do think there are many ways where premium TV is particularly well-suited for boxing. It provides an uninterrupted viewing experience. You get to watch what’s going on between rounds. You hear the corners, get the replays. You don’t have to leave for commercial breaks. I think that is a benefit to the viewing experience. We’ll see how the fight goes on Saturday. We will try to stay with the broadcast between rounds to the maximum extent we can and keep it as a consistent viewing experience.

“The networks stepped back from boxing and the premium networks picked up that slack,” he added. “This is a one-time special event. We haven’t really had discussions about future events, but if this event is successful in terms of the programming, the content and the viewership, then I would expect CBS to be open to doing it again.”

Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.


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