Showtime’s innovative super middleweight tournament concludes Saturday after a two-year journey, and it ends with a fight that is virtually unimpeachable: Andre Ward, Carl Froch, two of the original Super Six, arguably two of the 10 best boxers in the world, fighting for the vacant lineal championship of the 168-pound division in a match-up that has something to get almost every kind of fan’s blood up.
Depending on what you’ve read prior to now, the Super Six has either been A. probably not worth the trouble, B. basically good but fundamentally flawed, or C. a success. I offer a fourth option, D. dunno yet.
It really depends heavily upon which standard you measure it by; personally, I have deeply enjoyed it and we haven’t even gotten the coup de grace yet. I’m not alone. There are others who have instead found a good deal of it boring. But we don’t really know via the available reporting in any statistically measurable way how many enjoyed it or loathed it, not just in the United States but worldwide. For intance, by one standard — determining who’s the best in the division, a goal I didn’t know if it could accomplish — it’s about to succeed, barring a draw between Ward and Froch. For another example, by another standard — creating new stars — we don’t yet have the answer.
Looking back at news releases and articles from the announcement of the tourney, then-Showtime boss Ken Hershman declared pretty much from the start that the tournament would decide the best super middleweight in the division. That was a risky promise. The decision to exclude Lucian Bute, clearly one of the best super middles at the time, was the most substantial barrier. But the tournament has gotten us to the level of deciding the best super middle in the world in two ways: By shutting out Bute from the very top available opponents, he couldn’t put together a resume that allowed him to argue anything other than that he was the third best man in the division; and all the while, Ward and Froch were doing great work for their resumes against tip-top opponents. Here, improbably enough, the mission has been accomplished.
I can’t find a single case of Hershman declaring that the fight would create new boxing stars. Maybe he said it somewhere and I missed it, but it wasn’t a stated goal of Showtime that I can tell. At least one of the promoters, Dan Goossen, did say that he thought it would create new stars. I grade this one as “incomplete” for a couple reasons. First, some boxers already entered as stars, like Arthur Abraham and Mikkel Kessler, who did big television ratings in Germany and Denmark. Abraham left the tournament with his wattage a bit lower, while Kessler retained most of his.
The rest? Jermain Taylor entered the tournament a semi-star in sharp decline; Carl Froch entered as a largely unappreciated entity, even in his native England; Andre Dirrell was totally devoid of a clear fan base; and Ward was showing some potential as a ticketseller in Oakland. Taylor was a wash-out, as expected. Froch has finally begun to become a big name in England, and has emerged at this point in time as unarguably the top British fighter. Ward’s ticket sales have dropped over time because his style is unappealing to some fans, but as an exceptionally talented young American with an appealing personality, there’s still upside there. Here’s the thing: One or both men could come out of this final fight much bigger than they are now. Since the winner has a strong chance of becoming the Fighter of the Year, they’ll be the toast of boxing for a while, appearing on magazine covers, being feted at boxing dinners, etc. And if the winner faces Bute, he takes an even bigger leap. As long as the loser makes a good showing of himself, he will emerge with a bigger profile from being in the biggest fight of the tournament and maintaining status as one of the best few 168-pounders in the world.
There’s almost no such thing as a star who can be built in a couple years in boxing these days. The current top dogs, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., took far, far longer than that. Basically, among boxing’s biggest draws, there is only one fighter who was made a star in a couple years, and that is Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., who was born into it with his name. If anyone thought this tournament would create stars, they weren’t thinking about it the right way, unless their definition of “star” is “someone who is one of the top fighters in the world,” in which case, success. Rather, should Ward or Froch one day go on to become big-time attractions, we’ll look back at the tournament as instrumental, rather than wholly responsible, because it introduced both fighters to a bigger stage and both showed on that stage that they were world-class.
(An aside: Replacement fighters Allan Green and Glen Johnson did nothing to enhance or dim their stardom; Green had always been a tease but never had established a fan base and now has little to no chance of getting one, while Johnson entered the tournament a hardcore fan’s favorite and left it that way.)
One of Hershman’s other lofty pronouncements was that this would be one of the most exciting events in boxing history. As mentioned, there’s no way of measuring how many people this excited or didn’t. But, yeah, taking a rough look at things — no, not one of the most exciting events in boxing history. It generated a lot of excitement to start, for sure. It got people to take notice of Showtime for a while, even allowing Showtime to overshadow bigger rival HBO a bit. But some of the fights were more interesting than exciting. The two real barnburners were Froch-Johnson and Froch-Kessler. Some of the rest of the fights got some “Did you see that?” kind of excitement, a kind of middle ground between interesting and exciting: Abraham scored a huge highlight reel KO of Taylor; Ward emerged as a revelation for completely dominating the tourney favorite, Kessler; Froch arrived as a complete fighter by thoroughly outboxing Abraham; Johnson impressed against Green in an improbable move down in weight at an advanced age. Other fights had their moments, some good, some bad, some just controversial: Dirrell and Froch had their scoring controversy in a horrid fight; Dirrell was amazing for most of the fight against Abraham before getting sucker punched on the ground and Abraham got disqualified. Some of the other fights were plain ugly and almost irredeemable, like the foul-filled Ward-Sakio Bika fight that wasn’t technically part of the tourney.
Inevitably some of the excitement was sucked out by some of the delays and fighters dropping out, sometimes for suspect reasons. (Me, I don’t have much against some of the postponements. Those happen in boxing all the time. They were bound to happen in this tournament, too.) Inevitably some of the excitement was sucked out by fights that were kind of forgone conclusions; did we really learn anything from Ward-Abraham other than that Abraham’s “exposure” by Dirrell and Froch was a truly, deeply real thing? On the other hand, the round robin format also ensured that fighters got a chance to redeem themselves after losses, something that happened for Kessler, Froch and Dirrell to varying degrees. That kind of drama was indeed exciting. And that we’ve ended up Saturday with a fight that is the product of two years’ worth of battles to determine the best, that, too, is exciting.You can question some of the flaws in the structure and you’d be right to do so, but you also have to acknowledge that the structure also contributed some nice things, too.
If one measure of interest/excitement is ratings, we don’t have a complete picture here, either. The amount of devoted reporting on Showtime’s ratings among boxing writers is negligible, which is a shame. Early reports on the ratings weren’t very hot, though. Overseas, the ratings bag is a bit more of a mixture of good and bad. If the idea some outside forces had that this would change boxing fundamentally, they, too, were misguided. This “tournament to save boxing” stuff was bunk from the beginning. It did well enough ratings-wise and buzz-wise to prompt Showtime to create a single-elimination bantamweight tournament, but other similar tournament concepts that have been discussed since have fizzled out. I don’t think the Super Six was enough of a success to lead to MUCH more of this kind of thing happening, but then, Hershman insisted to his last days at the network prior to jumping to HBO that he’d be up for doing another Super Six if the circumstances were ideal.
Lastly, you can’t measure the success of the Super Six independent of its cost. A success is a success. But sometimes success comes at an expense that is too high relative to that success, and the Super Six was expensive, costing more than $20 million. Showtime’s Chris DeBlasio, in one of the articles linked above, declared it a success from the network’s standpoint, and while he might be spinning, there’d be nothing wrong with Showtime saying, “We tried, it didn’t go how we wanted, but we learned some things,” the way Top Rank did with, say, its disastrous Versus series. So I’m going to take Showtime at its word. Showtime’s evaluation of whether the whole thing is worthwhile is highly influential to my view of whether it was worthwhile, because as the bankrollers of the event, their satisfaction with what they paid for it is key. It’s not the only thing that matters, though; the Super Six ought to be evaluated from the outside, too, based on things like whether it was money spent wisely or whether the cash would have been spent better elsewhere. On that, opinions will surely differ, and measuring those opinions without a complete ratings picture is difficult.
This, then is where we end up. The tournament has certainly been a success in its ultimate goal (again, barring a draw or otherwise inconclusive result in Ward-Froch); it has not been a success in some of its secondary goals; and it has maybe or maybe not been a success in some of its other secondary goals and according to outside standards. Therefore, grade: Incomplete.
And you can’t ignore this one thing: The tournament is literally incomplete. The fight that is the tournament’s raison d’etre, the finale? That’s Saturday. I’ll be in Atlantic City, covering Ward-Froch ringside to see how this story ends. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.