For the first time since the pandemic, the sport’s middle class promoters can turn to a platform that provides a springboard for their fighters.
Ironically, it comes in a series where those promoters’ voices don’t need to be heard nor their faces seen.
So goes the concept of Ring City, a new series intent on bridging the gap between advanced prospect and budding contender through means of competitive matchups and all of the focus on the action in the ring.
“It’s been a long process but it’s been a really fun project to work on,” Evan Rutkowski, head of boxing for upstart company Ring City, USA told BoxingScene.com ahead of the inaugural show, which airs Thursday evening on NBC Sports Network (9:00 p.m. ET) from the iconic Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles, California. “We definitely wanted this to be a scenario where there isn’t any favoritism. We present a product that just focuses on the matchup, focus on the competitive nature where there are high stakes.”
Headlining the first show, streaking junior lightweight O’Shaquie Foster (17-2, 10KOs) faces veteran contender Miguel Román (62-13, 47KOs) in a 10-round regional title fight. The evening’s chief support pits unbeaten William Zepeda and countryman Roberto Ramirez in a 10-round battle between Mexican lightweights. Deeper on the undercard is the next step in the rebuilding career of Eduardo ‘Rocky’ Hernandez.
The five aforementioned boxers are represented by four different promoters, none of whom will take the lead on Thursday’s show or any other on the circuit.
All are willing to buy into the shared vision, a one-stop opportunity to advance to the sport’s next level.
“It’s taken a lot of time because it’s a new concept and not something these people are used to,” admits Rutkowski, a former HBO Sports marketing executive. “We have so many different promoters in the series. In this card alone, Golden Boy has a fighter (Zepeda), Promociones del Pueblo has a fighter (Román, and co-promote Hernandez along with Golden Boy), Paco Damian has a fighter (Ramirez), Lou DiBella has a fighter (Foster).
“Down the road, Tom Loeffler, Kathy Duva, Artie Pellulo and Joe DeGuardia all have fighters on the series. They’re getting a little more accustomed to it. For all of the promoters who don’t have exclusive deals with networks, we hope this something they can benefit from. The thinking is that if they put their fighters on and they have a big showing—especially in the main event—they go on to ESPN, Showtime, Fox and DAZN level and really succeed. They viewed it as an opportunity, many of them do anyway.”
Years of concepting and planning by the original founding team of Frank Samuel, CEO of Ring City USA and Jeff Huggins went into forming the promoter-agnostic series, with Rutkowski into the fold in 2019. Joining him are attorney and boxing manager Kurt Emhoff, and former “Contender” consultant and current boxing manager Sam Katkovski, whose current clients include former 140-pound champ Regis Prograis.
From there came the task of convincing the sport’s old dogs to wrap their heads around a new way of thinking, along with finding the right network and location to stage events on a regular basis. A major hurdle was cleared when space was made on NBC Sports Network, whose parent company has enjoyed a rich history in the sport.
Several comebacks were made over the last decade or so, with Kathy Duva’s Main Events presenting “NBC Fight Night” beginning in 2012. The series enjoyed a strong run on NBC Sports Network along with introducing the sport back to free-to-air NBC on occasion. It came to a close in late 2014, however, when the network entered a time-buy agreement with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) which debuted in primetime on NBC in March 2015.
Barely 18 months later, NBC Sports Network aired its final card—a prospect-level show from San Antonio—before deciding to bow out of the boxing business for a time.
Like most retirements in the sport, the opportunity for a comeback was inevitable.
“They were ready,” notes Rutkowski. We met with a couple of different places. They historically like boxing and were ready to jump back in.”
With it came a commitment for 14 fight nights, including three shows in the span of the next five weeks, all airing on Thursday evenings.
“It was important to come in with that consistency, not just do a random show and then disappear for a month,” points out Rutkowski. “Three shows in five weeks for the rest of this year and then another 11 dates in 2021 before the [rescheduled Tokyo] Olympics.”
The second show will air December 3, with junior middleweight knockout artist Serhii Bohachuk (18-0, 18KOs) facing former title challenger Brandon Adams (21-3, 13KOs). Two weeks later, 2016 U.S. Olympian and rising junior middleweight Charles Conwell (13-0, 10KOs) collides with Kazakhstan’s Madiyar Ashkeyev (14-0, 7KOs).
“We feel all three main events are fights where the winners—potentially as soon as their next fight—can move up on those big four platforms,” believes Rutkowski.
Navigating around the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has proven problematic in exploring markets throughout the country to transform into boxing hotspots and series headquarters. For now, the first three shows will air live from Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach’s famed Wild Card Boxing Club—serving as a fitting backdrop for hungry fighters currently at the crossroad.
“The Wild Card is the perfect place for this series,” states Rutkowski. “It’s so iconic and represents so many great things about the sport.”
The long-term expectation is for this series to carve out that very niche in boxing.
The sport’s “Big Four” are all tied into exclusive deals—Showtime and Fox Sports with PBC, DAZN with Matchroom Boxing and Golden Boy Promotions and ESPN with Top Rank. That leaves most stateside promoters scrambling for a small handful of dates on Showtime’s ShoBox series (which has run just one show since the pandemic) and other platforms such as UFC Fight Pass or less visible mediums lacking the necessary marketing muscle to garner attention even among the sport’s hardcore fan base.
Ring City believes the best of all worlds comes in its form of catering to the sport’s middle class. Going weeknights is essential in avoiding in-sport competition with boxing’s biggest events which tend to run on Saturdays and the occasional Friday. Bringing back a major outlet such as NBC Sports Network helps position the sport in a place where it didn’t previously exist for years, thus the potential to attract new viewers.
Then, of course, the matchups—the key ingredient to the success of boxing’s latest venture.
“This was an incredibly important fight to launch the series,” insists Rutkowski. “With O’Shaquie, a lot of people feel he is the most talented fighter in the (130-pound) division. To give a guy like him an opportunity… if a couple of things in his career go different, he could’ve wound up an Olympic medalist. Mickey Roman is the consummate veteran warrior who has every opportunity to beat O’Shaquie. If he wins, he would also be back in a big fight and—depending on who he’s matched up—has a chance of succeeding at that higher level.
“We want to develop a brand where fighters know they can come on here and that they’re not going to be held back. The winner of this fight probably should move right up and fight on those bigger platforms.”
With the right support lent to the series, everyone winds up with a fighting chance.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox