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Showtime Sports GM Stephen Espinoza Discusses Mayweather-McGregor Fight

Ryan Mayer

Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor  finally meet, after over two years of trash-talking buildup, on Saturday August 26th at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada and broadcast live on Showtime PPV. While fans have been chattering for the past couple of years, wondering what this fight would look like, plenty of work was happening behind the scenes to make it a reality. Stephen Espinoza, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Showtime Sports, played a crucial part in getting this fight out of the headlines and into the ring.

We caught up with Espinoza to discuss how the fight came together, what fight fans should expect and plans for the future of the Showtime Boxing brand.

This fight began mostly as trash talk between McGregor and Mayweather. How did it move from that to a fight we’re actually going to get to watch on August 26th?

I’m not sure that anyone actually thought that the fight was a realistic possibility when Floyd first started talking about it. Most of us around him sort of wrote it off as bravado or trash talking or an attempt to make headlines. But, he wouldn’t let it go. He kept bringing it up. Conor engaged and then it caught fire. This is one of the rare combat sports events that was really made by popular demand. Because if Floyd had thrown it out there, and no one had been interested, then it would have come and gone without anyone really noticing.

But, because it got such an immediate, overwhelming reaction, it became clear that there was a business opportunity here. But then, for the good part of a year, we were stuck at sort of an impasse, because UFC, understandably, had no interest in allowing Conor to participate in a boxing match. Then the fight, even though it was intriguing as a business opportunity, seemed to have an insurmountable obstacle in its way.

However, just a couple of months ago, the UFC announced that they had reached agreement with Conor, so that obstacle had been removed. Then things moved very quickly. From that point to when a deal was announced was basically two weeks. Once the deal between UFC and Conor was set and UFC gave their blessing to the event, then it was an easy deal to make.

You mention the obstacles and various entities that were involved in getting this fight on the calendar, was it difficult to manage all the various moving parts?

Once the fighters reached agreement, the fight has been surprisingly smooth. I say “surprisingly” because, in UFC and Showtime, you have two different entities with two different business models and two different experiences in pay-per-view, focusing on two different sports. So, the conditions were such that no one would have been surprised if there had been friction between the two parties. But this thing has gone really smoothly, particularly for an event of this scale. There have been growing pains in terms of parties getting used to each other’s business models and ways of doing things. But, overall, it’s been refreshing in how easy it’s been to work together.

Leading up to the fight, the two fighters certainly put on a show on the worldwide press tour, how did you think the tour went?

It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. There’s really no exaggeration to say that I don’t think we knew what to expect going into it. I certainly didn’t expect that level of fan support at every stop. Some of the rhetoric, candidly, I could have done without, but it’s a very heated rivalry, and it got very personal. One of the things that [was] demonstrated very early on is that Conor has no intention of losing this fight. He is not ceding an inch to Floyd Mayweather in terms of respect or deference to his career accomplishments. This is a fight that Conor McGregor absolutely, undeniably believes that he’s going to win. That couldn’t have come through more clearly on the press tour.

You’ve been around boxing for a while, how do you think these two men match up in the ring?

In combat sports, anybody who tells you that they know exactly how any fight is going to go is either fooling you or fooling themselves. But that’s the case even more so for this event. I don’t think anybody really knows what to expect in terms of how it’s going to play out. We know that Floyd is a defensive genius, but we don’t know where his skill level is at right now. He’s been out of the ring for two years and not just any two years, but the years between age 38 and 40 which, physiologically, are pretty important years.

The real question is, what level Floyd will be able to perform at. If this is vintage Floyd Mayweather, there are very few people on the planet, including Conor McGregor, that really can lay a glove on him. But, if we start to see that Floyd is human and he ages like the rest of us, then all of a sudden it could be a very intriguing, competitive fight. If Floyd is only 70 percent of the Floyd that we know, and he’s facing somebody who’s younger, stronger, bigger and incredibly motivated, this could be very different than what we expected it to be on that night.

On that note, what did you think of Floyd’s recent comments to Stephen A. Smith about him “losing a step”?

What Floyd is acknowledging is what many fighters and many athletes refuse to admit: that they age, and their performance suffers over time. Now, Floyd has been operating at such a high level that it’s been hard to notice any erosion of his skills, because he’s still operating at a level that most fighters can only dream of. But it would be disingenuous for him to say that he hasn’t lost a step. Physiologically, by age 40, everybody has lost half a step, some more than others.

The intrigue in this fight is, what kind of advantage does that provide to Conor McGregor. If this fight was happening six or seven years ago, I’m not sure there would be much interest, because the reality is that Floyd would have been in his prime at that point and basically untouchable by Conor or virtually anybody else. But, at this stage in his career — or in his retirement really — the question is: Is he going to be able to handle somebody with the strength and aggression that McGregor is bringing to the ring?

The undercard for this fight is intriguing as well, with title fights between Gervonta Davis and Francisco Fonseca at junior lightweight and Nathan Cleverley and Badou Jack at light heavyweight. What can fans expect from this undercard?

For me, the highlight of the undercard is Gervonta Davis. Personally, he is one of my favorite young fighters to watch. He is, without question, one of the most exciting, action-oriented young boxers in the sport. Every once in a while there comes along a fighter with a level of ferociousness, almost viciousness, with a focus and intensity in the ring that is noticeably different than their peers. It’s one of the things that people said about Mike Tyson as a young boxer. Gervonta has that same intensity. He comes in, he’s looking to finish people, he’s looking to make fights end quickly. And, he’s one of the most talented young fighters in the sport. I’m looking forward to that one very much.

With the other two fights, what you’ve got is big, strong, athletic guys one at light heavyweight and the other at cruiserweight. I think this will be a very fan-friendly card. I think you’ll see knockouts, you’ll see back-and-forth brawls. There will definitely be no shortage of action on that undercard.

This fight is getting a lot of hype (understandably), but there’s plenty more boxing on tap after the 26th. What are the plans moving forward for Showtime PPV and the new Showtime pay-per-view app?

We’ve got a number of fights that are lined up. We’ve been very active in the heavyweight division. We’re looking, hopefully very soon, to have Anthony Joshua (the U.K. heavyweight champion) to come fight in the U.S. Hopefully, before too long, a matchup with U.S. heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, which would be a massive, very entertaining matchup in the heavyweight division.

We’re also looking at the return of Errol Spence in, potentially, early 2018 for a welterweight unification fight. What we’ve been working towards is trying to support unification of belts in the weight classes. We’re getting very close in the heavyweight and welterweight division to maybe having one recognized champion. Along that road, we think it’s critical, from a distribution standpoint, to be very active digitally. So, I think you will see in the near future, an expansion of our digital offerings. Not just pay-per-view but, also other streaming options as well.

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