Lee Groves

200 and counting: ‘ShoBox’ moves toward a new generation

ShoBox logo

On Friday night at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y., “ShoBox: The New Generation” will celebrate a milestone few thought imaginable when the series debuted 13 years and four days earlier – a 200th episode.

The lineup for this quadruple-header – only the third four-fight broadcast in series history – is typically competitive and compelling. The fighters’ combined record is 118-5 (61) and the super middleweight match between Jerry Odom and Vilier Quinonez will be the show’s 76th meeting between undefeated fighters. The average age of the combatants is 25.3 and they also boast impressive geographic diversity. Odom and Quinonez hail from Maryland and Cuba, respectively, while the other fighters offer similar contrasts: middleweights Antoine Douglas (Virginia) vs. Michel Soro (France), 154-pounders Cecil McCalla (Maryland) vs. Oscar Godoy (California) and junior lightweights Wanzell Ellison (New Jersey) vs. Tony Luis (Canada).

“We traditionally had started out doing two-fight cards and recently, we have extended to three- and four-fight cards,” said Executive Producer Gordon Hall. “We can afford to do that now because the fighters are young and they are featured in six- and eight-round fights to go along with the longer main events. The rights fee money we are paying is enough to get larger cards. But make no mistake; we are not putting on four-fight cards for quantity. We’re putting them on for quality.”

The depth and breadth of Friday’s show is simply a continuation of the ideals ShoBox has emphasized from the very beginning. While the distance between Bally’s Park Place Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City — the site of the first show – and Verona is just 327 miles, the journey from Episode One to Episode 200 has taken the series to the farthest corners of the globe. Besides the 68 cities in 26 states, ShoBox has aired cards emanating from Canada, England, Scotland, Germany and Denmark as well as the Cayman Islands and St. Lucia. ShoBox has also navigated the programming schedule as it moved from its original 5 p.m. Saturday slot to its current Friday night home. The broadcast team has expanded from two to three and the blow-by-blow duties have shifted from Nick Charles to Curt Menefee to Barry Tompkins.

The roster of promoters has broadened from the original two of Frank Warren and Main Events to include, over the past two years, DiBella Entertainment, Don King Productions, Iron Mike Productions, Gary Shaw Productions, Star Boxing, Top Rank Promotions, Greg Cohen Promotions, Mayweather Promotions, Cotto Promotions, Goossen Tutor, Warriors Boxing, GH3 Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions. Even the graphics have changed over time; while the series logo has remained largely the same, the visual bells and whistles have grown ever more elaborate and informative.

But while the bricks that make up the building have varied, two portions of the foundation have remained rock-solid. The first section consists of the show’s staffing.

“We’ve had one producer [Richard Gaughan], one director [Rick Phillips], one executive producer (Gordon Hall) and one analyst for the entire length of the show,” said analyst Steve Farhood, who has yet to miss an episode. “In television, that is unheard of. We’re also comfortable with each other at this point yet we take so much pride in the show because it’s ours. We started it. There’s a consistency that other shows haven’t had the luxury of having. Jay Larkin put together ShoBox and he deserves a lot of the credit for piecing together the staff. He was a big believer in the show and his successors, Ken Hershman and Stephen Espinoza both supported the show with the same enthusiasm that Jay initially brought to ShoBox.”

The second, and most critical, source of stability is the series’ mission statement: to match young fighters tougher than they’ve been matched before and to weed out the future contenders from the mere pretenders.

“There’s never been a boxing series on TV with this specific a definition,” Farhood said. “The show is about prospects, prospects getting matched tough and bringing the same fighters back multiple times. It’s a simple formula and it has worked.”

Has it ever.

Six months and two fights after Leonard Dorin stopped Martin O’Malley in the first main event of the series, “The Lion” from Romania won the WBA lightweight title from Raul Balbi to become the first ShoBox alum to earn a major title (in fact, Friday marks exactly 10 years and one day since Dorin’s final bout, a loss to the late Arturo Gatti). Since then, that total has grown to 54 and the ranks include eventual RING pound-for-pound entrants Andre Ward, Timothy Bradley, Carl Froch, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Robert Guerrero, Chad Dawson, Nonito Donaire, Paul Williams and Ricky Hatton (the first P4P entrant at number four in THE RING’s 2005 Year-End rankings). In fact, ShoBox alums Ward, Bradley, Rigondeaux and Froch comprised 40 percent of the magazine’s 2013 year-end pound-for-pound rankings.

Moreover, eight ShoBox participants won world title fights immediately after appearing on the series (Ward, Guerrero, Dawson, Joan Guzman, Devon Alexander, Rico Ramos, Jhonatan Romero and Demetrius Andrade) while four captured their belts on a ShoBox episode (Bradley, Rigondeaux, Kendall Holt and Cornelius Bundrage).

“A lot of people will say that certain networks create fighters and build stars but ShoBox is responsible for the development of so many champions and the majority of those champions didn’t fight on ShoBox just once but several times,” Hall said. “Ishe Smith and Robert Guerrero fought five times on ShoBox. Timothy Bradley fought on ShoBox four times and Ricky Hatton three times. Guerrero lost to Gamaliel Diaz (a future titlist himself) on ShoBox, came back to avenge that loss on ShoBox and went on to win a world title, which he then defended against Jason Litzau on our air. It’s a point of pride because we developed Guerrero and after losing, he became a better fighter. So ShoBox builds fighters by matching them tough at an earlier stage, which, in turn helps their matriculation through the prospect stages of their career and either turns them into contenders or pretenders at a quicker rate.”

And sometimes those pretenders manage to transform themselves into contenders and even champions. Nine fighters, including Guerrero, went on to win titles after losing a fight on ShoBox – Luis Collazo, Eric Aiken, David Diaz, Isaac Hlatshwayo, Cornelius Bundrage, Rodrigo Guerrero, Ishe Smith and Gamaliel Diaz.

But even if a fighter fails to reach the highest star, he’ll get at least one more chance to prove his worth. The era of “one loss and done” in the U.S. premium cable world has largely disappeared thanks in part to ShoBox’s philosophy of “accident forgiveness,” which, in turn, allows promoters to be more willing to risk their rising stars against fellow blue-chippers.

“The negotiation process is a bit different on ShoBox than for the mega-fights, where you automatically know who the fighters are and it’s a matter of figuring the dollars,” Hall said. “With ShoBox, we know who ‘Fighter A’ is because he’s the top talented prospect the promoter has and it’s my job to find an acceptable ‘Fighter B,’ who’s unknown at the time. A lot of times, Fighter A may be so talented that we want to have him on ShoBox anyway and in that situation, it’s a matter of working as quickly as possible to find an acceptable candidate. That can sometimes be difficult because there are two different agendas at work.

“I’m not asking for the prospect to come out and fight a huge step up; I’m asking for him to fight a step up,” Hall continued. “Maybe it’s a fight where he fights a southpaw for the first time. Maybe it’s a case where he’s fighting someone who’s not in front of him all the time or someone who can test his chin. Maybe it’s against a fighter who will force him to use his defense more. We’re just looking for fights that will reveal more about the fighter than we’ve already seen. Tests like these are not only good for the prospect; they are also good for the sport of boxing.”

Farhood agreed.

“We’re just as proud of the fact that 120 unbeaten fighters lost for the first time on ShoBox as we are of the 54 future champions that we featured,” Farhood said. “Gordon Hall has been steadfast in working to secure the kind of match-ups that are meaningful in a young fighter’s career and he continues to do a great job. That doesn’t mean that sometimes he doesn’t have to butt heads with promoters, managers and fighters who would prefer an easier way but there are a couple of positives that come with a prospect fighting tough on ShoBox. First, if you lose but lose well, we’ll bring you back. Another is if you win and look good, people in the boxing community look at you in a different light. But the single most important aspect of being matched tough is that you learn. In addition to the learning aspect – because of the show’s reputation – if you’re known as a ‘ShoBox fighter,’ people take you more seriously as a prospect. That’s a big positive.”

Another big positive of the series is the dozens of memorable moments it has produced. Farhood declared the May 1, 2009 war between Luis Abregu and Irving Garcia the single greatest fight in ShoBox history. Abregu overcame a first-round knockdown to batter Garcia in the second. Abregu was decked a second time in the fourth with a counter right but just when it appeared the Puerto Rican was about to score a career-defining victory, the then-undefeated South American drove Garcia to the ground with a trademark cross that prompted referee Jack Reiss to halt the fight at the 2:59 mark.

“Just when you thought one guy was going to win the other came back in spectacular fashion,” he said.

When asked about the best finish he had ever seen, Farhood cited John Molina’s come-from-behind knockout over Mickey Bey Jr. in July 2013. Entering the 10th and final round, Bey led 90-81, 89-82 and 88-83 on the scorecards and during the first minute, he belted the Californian with flush, whistling combinations. Bey’s confidence soared to the point that he took time to look down at ringsiders, including his promoter, Floyd Mayweather Jr., during a clinch. Bey’s arrogance cost him dearly, for a few moments later, Molina lashed out with a massive hook to the temple that caused Bey’s upper body to fall forward and his eyes to glaze over. The sight of his stricken opponent was all the fuel Molina needed to empty all the bullets in his chamber and produce one of the most spine-tingling comebacks in recent ring history.

Another memorable ShoBox finish occurred in the final moments of Lucian Bute’s first fight with Librado Andrade in October 2008, which saw the hometown hero and defending IBF super middleweight titlist nearly lose his belt in most dramatic fashion only to have referee Marlon B. Wright engage in a redux of the Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey “Long Count Fight.” This time, however, Wright’s actions allowed the clock to run out and for Bute to keep the title.

“There was a full house at the Bell Centre in Montreal and Bute was seemingly en route to a very pedestrian decision win,” Farhood recalled. “Then came the 12th round and by then, he was a car that didn’t have an ounce of gas left. He was knocked down in the last 10 seconds and the crowd was going crazy. There was subsequent chaos in the ring because of the controversial ending.”

Both Hall and Farhood brought up the December 2004 Closet Classic between lightweights Ebo Elder and Courtney Burton that saw a badly lumped-up Elder score a TKO in the final 50 seconds.

“Elder-Burton gave us the single most memorable image of the series,” Farhood said. “[Elder] was on his knees after the fight, his face swollen grotesquely and thanking God for the victory. The man on the number one camera, Gene Samuels, got that shot and we’ll never forget it.”

One of Hall’s fonder memories involved a January 2012 showdown between undefeated lightweights Omar Figueroa and Michael Perez in a rare meeting of undefeated Golden Boy prospects.

“Both of them were good amateurs but Perez came in as perhaps the more favored Golden Boy fighter,” Hall said. “I remember Figueroa coming into the fighter meeting with a chip on his shoulder as big as Mount Rushmore, feeling as if he was underappreciated. He felt they were favoring Perez and he told us he was going out to kick some ass, which is exactly what he did when he made Perez quit in the corner after round six. And of course, Omar would go on to fight for the title and become one of our ShoBox champions.”

But for every positive memory – like the atmosphere at each of Ricky Hatton’s three ShoBox bouts – there were others that were more sobering, such as Jaidon Codrington’s 18-second blowout loss at the hands of Allan Green in November 2005.

“Though my agenda is always to match fighters tough, I never want them to see them matched too tough,” Hall said. “Codrington was 9-0 but had never fought outside New York City. He traveled to the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, which is in the middle of ‘Nowheresville,’ and he’d never had the experience of traveling and fighting on someone else’s home turf. He didn’t have his entourage with him, though fellow ‘Chin Checker’ Curtis Stevens was at ringside. I was pleased with the match-up at the time but I was not very happy with myself afterwards because Codrington was never the same after that knockout.”

The riot that erupted following the fight was equally memorable to Farhood.

“Everyone rushed into the ring and there’s mayhem,” he said. “What I remember most is that Nick and I didn’t say a word. We let the pictures do the talking for a good seven minutes until order was restored. That was a scary moment.”

Believe it or not, Green-Codrington was only one of three ShoBox fights that lasted 22 seconds or less. In October 2007, heavyweight T.J. Wilson blasted out Travis Walker in 15 seconds in the first of their two fights while in the first of their two fights, junior middleweight Sechew Powell stopped Cornelius Bundrage in 22 seconds in a 2005 slugfest best remembered for the double-knockdown that was never called. Interestingly, Bundrage and Wilson avenged their lightning-quick losses, the former by 12-round decision and the latter by second round TKO.

On a much lighter note, Farhood’s favorite ShoBox story involved colleague Paul Malignaggi and a public-relations stunt that nearly resulted in the fighter’s arrest.

“Paulie wanted to fight one of the fighters [Al "Speedy" Gonzalez] on a particular ShoBox card in his next fight,” he said. “I wanted to help him out so we hatched a plan in which Paulie would run into the ring after the fight and issue a challenge. I even told him where the camera would be located at the end of the fight so he’d get the best possible shot.

“So the fight ends and Paulie rushes the ring right on cue,” Farhood continued. “Three burly Foxwoods security guards grabbed Paulie and removed him from the arena. I was told later that Paulie was within a few seconds of being arrested but somehow he was able to talk his way out of it. From that point on, I’ve always kidded Paulie about how he almost got arrested because of his big mouth.”

In the intervening years, death claimed two of the most important cogs in the ShoBox machine: Executive Jay Larkin, who died of a brain tumor in August 2010, and blow-by-blow man Nick Charles, who passed away following a lengthy battle with bladder cancer.

“Jay Larkin, who was then the Senior Vice President of Showtime Sports, and Gary Shaw, who was working with Main Events at the time, came up with the concept for ShoBox: The New Generation,” Hall said. “Jay was one of the people responsible for hiring me. He was instrumental in helping me develop as a manager of people and he was the one responsible for giving me the reins to ShoBox. The fact that he believed in me enough to run the series was very gratifying though I knew I had a lot to live up to.”

As for Charles, his combination of personality and professionalism made him arguably the show’s most beloved figure.

“You always hear about people that could light up a room and Nick Charles was one of those people,” Hall said. “Though his background in boxing was not as deep as some of the other people we auditioned, there was no doubt that he had the passion to bring out the stories about fighters. Nick sincerely cared about the fighters and in being a person that had worked every major sporting event and had told the stories of those athletes over the years. He was equally excited to tell the stories of these young fighters who were trying to make it to the top. He was passionate about the sport and he brought enthusiasm and excitement to every show. Although we have very talented people working the show now, I’m sure that Nick is still very much missed.”

Farhood and Charles shared an undeniable rapport that reflected the fact that they were not only colleagues but also best friends.

“Nick is unique in that he’s the only person I’ve ever known that I wish that people who had never met him would have gotten the chance to know him,” Farhood said. “He was a very special guy and none of this has anything to do with his immense broadcasting skills. He was a learned guy, an interesting guy, a friend who legitimately cared about almost everybody he met in his life and he became a big brother and best friend to me. As far as the on-air chemistry, that just happens. You can’t say to a guy, ‘Oh, we have to have better chemistry.’ I take more pride in that because it was so real. Working with Nick was a pleasure and hanging out with him on the road was a great experience because he was such an interesting man.

“Nick would stay at my apartment when he worked the ‘Broadway Boxing’ shows and our wives became very good friends,” he continued. “I was very touched when Nick named me the godfather of his daughter. We were brothers a lot more than broadcast partners. It was difficult when he got sick and chose to make his illness a very public story. Watching it as a broadcast partner was one thing but as a friend, it was heartbreaking.”

Farhood has shared broadcasting duties with a number of partners and each made a strong impression.

“Working with Curt Menefee for two years was great,” he said. “He was the smoothest and most relaxed partner I’ve ever worked with. Working with Antonio Tarver was also fun. He took to the camera immediately, which is usually the hardest thing for an ex-fighter to adjust to on TV. And I learned a lot about boxing from Antonio.

“On the few occasions I worked with Al Bernstein, that’s maybe the most fun of all,” he continued. “Al and I understand each other’s sense of humor; we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we tend to see boxing the same way. We also have similar ideas of how a broadcaster should call a fight. Al was a journalist and that’s what I was as well. We were two peas from the same pod.

“Barry Tompkins is, in many ways, very much like Nick – a very urbane, worldly man,” he said. “He was someone who I was lucky enough to call a friend before he joined ShoBox and he makes working the broadcasts so easy because of his breezy style. He also knows boxing very well; he’s one of the best blow-by-blow broadcasters in the history of the sport and I’ve been very lucky to have him by my side for the past two-and-a-half years. Finally, Raul Marquez is a great fit for the show. He’s a former fighter who brings a perspective I cannot bring. He’s bilingual; he’s a wonderful, humble guy and he’s become an excellent broadcaster.”

Most long-running series tend to evolve over time and while changes are inevitable, Farhood and Hall hope the core will remain the same for years to come.

“I hope nothing changes,” Farhood said. “I plan to do the show until I’m 98 and I think there’s no reason to change. The mission of the show hasn’t changed in 13 years nor should it. We’ve established something strong, something useful to boxing and something important for young fighters.”

“ShoBox needs to have the same objectives because otherwise, it ends up blending into what other boxing shows are about,” Hall said. “The success of the series is its unique definition. If we look to change that, then we’d be moving away from the guts of what made it successful. That’s a challenge.”

In recent years, Showtime has aired fights that were too small for the “Championship Boxing” franchise but didn’t exactly fit into the ShoBox mold. Up until recently, such cards aired under the ShoBox banner, which put the series at risk of pivoting away from its original intent. When Stephen Espinoza assumed the reins, he found a way to resolve the conflict.

“What Espinoza has done is to create a third brand of boxing entitled ‘Showtime Boxing: Special Edition’ that airs the ‘tweener’ fights involving fighters who are further along in their careers, those who are engaging in title eliminators or significant bouts that aren’t title fights that may not have been able to find their way to the big brand,” Hall said. “In creating this new brand, it allows ShoBox to be true to its definition.”

By holding fast to its traditional role, Hall hopes the series will continue to foster the growth of future stars coming out of the amateur ranks.

“There is a challenge in general as far as developing fighters we’ve seen in the Olympic program,” Hall said. “Years ago, we were medaling consistently and now we’re coming away without a medal. That’s unheard of. Andre Ward was America’s last gold medalist in boxing and that happened 10 years ago. So obviously, we need USA Boxing to work and continue to develop young fighters and create programs for young boxers. The challenge is so difficult because there are now so many other sports for kids to play and if you’re not in an urban area that has boxing gyms, it’s hard to find a place to pick up the sport.”

If enough members of “The Next Generation” choose boxing as their sport and if they want to challenge themselves once they turn pro, they know that for the foreseeable future, there is one show that will happily cater to their needs. It is a mission that was beautifully expressed by Charles during the series very first stand-up segment on July 21, 2001:

“Welcome to what we’re sure will become a viewing habit, a boxing show with you, the viewer, in mind. What’s most important to us are the boxers you’ll see in the ring and the fighting spirit they bring with them. ‘ShoBox: The New Generation’ is not a place for a fighter to pad his record. Because this is our debut show, we want to explain our philosophy, which is simple: We’re committed to covering the globe, not only in the United States, but going around the world to find the youngest, freshest fighters, people who are hungry, guys who want to fight, who are willing to put it on the line, willing to take a risk for the exposure. ‘ShoBox: The New Generation’ – no smoke, no mirrors, just action. It’s an idea and a concept we think makes perfect sense.”

As it did then, it still does now.

*

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

Around the web