Adrien Broner (26-0, 22 knockouts) stepped onto the path at the Millvale Recreation Center in Cincinnati, Ohio when he was just six years old. Now 23, he's walked along it all the way to the Barclays Center in New York, bright lights shining for his WBA welterweight title fight with Paulie Malinaggi on Showtime.
"It's what I always dreamed of," Broner told Bleacher Report. "Now that the opportunity is here, I can't shy away from it. I'm ready to take it all."
Just ahead on the road to stardom is 22-year-old Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (43-0-1, 30 knockouts). He can see the finish line, where Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao stand waiting.
But the path to superstardom is crooked, deadly and crowded with the wreckage of failed attempts to take the throne. There are more than 17,000 active professional boxers, according to BoxRec, the online boxing encyclopedia. Only two have climbed the summit to the peak of the profession.
Becoming a star and a mainstream presence requires more than just boxing acumen. According to Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer, that's just the first ingredient in a complex recipe for success. To join the ranks of Oscar De La Hoya, "Sugar" Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali, it takes a combination of attributes that starts with an undeniable charisma.
"Being a great puncher, a great boxer, is only going to take you so far. You need to have that mainstream appeal so you can cross over from boxing to the general sports fan," Schaefer told Bleacher Report from his office in Los Angeles. "And, in the case of Oscar, or Mike Tyson, or Floyd Mayweather, beyond that into the general market as well. To the point even non-sports fans are starting to take interest and want to see your fights.
"In Oscar's case, the females, they just fell in love with him and made their husbands and boyfriends watch. In Floyd's case, a lot of people love him for his talent, but even more people hate him because of his brashness and the money thing. You need to be able to evoke emotion. You have to have that in your personality. Combined with your boxing talent—that's when you have the right ingredients for a superstar. These kinds of fighters don't come along that often."
It's a collection of skills that few can master, even the very best. Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins were Hall of Fame boxers in their primes, yet something was missing that prevented them from reaching that top level despite outshining De La Hoya in the ring.
Timothy Bradley had the stars align, beating the great Pacquiao and following it up with a tremendous contest with Ruslan Provodnikov on HBO. But the rest of the package wasn't quite there to capitalize on his success. Schaefer sees all the intangibles in Broner and Alvarez, the je nais sais quoi that separates the legends from the greats.
"Broner and Canelo," he tells me, "are now considered heirs apparent to the Mayweather throne."
Granted, Schaefer is the promoter for both fighters, meaning it's his job to oversell them. But there's a ring of truth there as he explains why, with the right marketing and pugilistic opportunities, both men have the potential to be big for boxing.
"Canelo Alvarez and Adrien Broner both have that ability outside the ring to really connect with the public," said Schaefer, "In Canelo's case, I think he's similar to Oscar. He's so good looking they call him the 'Mexican James Dean.' So he has the looks. He's just a sweetheart. Every woman he talks to falls in love with the guy. And he has the skills.
"Adrien Broner is maybe more like a Floyd Mayweather. Very outspoken and brash, with the money and the hip-hop thing as well. A great self promoter who knows how to do social media. He's a very different type than Canelo and yet they both evoke emotion in people.
"When you do have the talent, when you find these diamonds in the rough, it's up to us to polish them outside the ring and up to the fighters to deliver inside of the ring. It's a partnership. I cannot fight the fight, but I can make sure they get the right fight and the right promotion. But once the first bell rings, it's going to be up to them to deliver. And not just by winning. But winning in exciting fashion."
Showtime Sports executive Stephen Espinoza has been on the job for less than two years, leaving a position under Schaefer at Golden Boy to assume the top position at Showtime. In that time, he has overseen sweeping changes in the network's boxing programming, vaulting a station that has always been HBO's little brother to the top of the sport. Stars like Broner and Alvarez are keys to that growth.
Espinoza intends to utilize a core group of fighters on a regular basis, putting them into America's living rooms to a point where they become household names. True success, he says, will be achieved based on how well they can promote fighters between bouts, not during them.
"Fans expect to be able to touch, feel, talk to and get a personal intimate feeling for who these athletes are," Espinoza said. "That's a challenge for boxing...The challenge, when you have a personality like Adrien Broner, is to maintain that connection when he's not fighting. That's partially the job of the promoter, partially the job of the athlete and partially the job of the network."
Schaefer agrees. Under his leadership, Golden Boy has several mechanisms for keeping fighters in the limelight and preventing them from becoming forgotten men in the months between bouts.
"Exposure for the fighter spikes the night of the fight," he said. "The week after that it goes down. It doesn't build up again until you announce the next fight. We want to ensure we avoid those valleys that come after big spikes in interest. Even when there is no fight, we need to be sure there are stories about the fighters by being involved in charitable events, entertainment shows and red carpet events and that they stay involved with some of the sponsors as well."
Broner, just days away from his fight with Malinaggi during our interview, has his mind firmly planted in the present. That's where a boxer has to live; anything else can be very dangerous in the ring. But in between describing his opponent as a chicken who will wish for an extra corner to run to, he had a parting thought about how he'll make it to the level of his idol Mayweather.
"Just keep winning," Broner said, boiling athletics down to the basics. "Do exactly what I've been doing. Keep winning and putting on shows. I'm going to put on a show. Just be ready."
Schaefer, who's been around the block a few times, isn't so sure it's that simple. While he concedes success in the ring is a must, it isn't enough. All wins, he says, aren't created equal and fighters can often gain immeasurably from compelling performances, even in defeat. It's a lesson he says boxing promoters have learned from their counterparts in mixed martial arts.
"There's an art to matchmaking, putting the right opponent in at the right time. It's not just first-round knockouts. Proper matchmaking is absolutely key. Boxing has taken a page out of the UFC playbook. Winning is important, but it's not everything. It's the way you win. Fight fans want to see exciting fights," Schaefer said. He cited the decision to match Alvarez with Austin Trout earlier this year as an example of the competitive matchmaking that can lead boxing forward.
"We knew it was a dangerous fight. But we felt that Canelo with his youth and his strength was going to be ready and was going to win. It brought the crowd in San Antonio to their feet. It was just an amazing, amazing, amazing night.
"You take risks. Calculated risks. Why would we make that fight when Canelo's popularity is still rising? Because we feel that the time is right. Fight fans want to see that fight. And if Canelo is going to lose to Floyd Mayweather, you know what? Forty-four others have done exactly that. There's very little downside, but the upside is huge."
Espinoza is quick to cite a litany of fighters who achieved their greatest box-office success only after meeting defeat in the ring. From "Sugar" Ray Leonard to Muhammad Ali to De La Hoya, every box-office sensation has had a blemish on his record.
And that was fine with fans as long as they could count on a compelling contest. It's the kind of attitude that should embolden a fighter like Broner to take the risks he needs to take in order to succeed.
"We've tried to prioritize entertaining fights and entertaining fighters," Espinoza said. "Amir Khan lost a couple of fights in a row. That didn't give us any pause. We had no hesitation whatsoever about continuing to put him on. One of the pitfalls to avoid is discounting someone because they've lost once or twice. There's a long list of fighters who have been very popular despite not being undefeated. As long as Adrien continues to be entertaining, he'll continue to be valuable to the network."
The real key to creating the next Mayweather may have nothing at all to do with Showtime, HBO and their continuing war for the hearts of boxing fans. Schaefer saw the power of network television when his own budding star, Leo Santa Cruz, fought on CBS last year.
In a way, it's a simple matter of mathematics. Showtime can be seen in 22 million homes. CBS reaches more than 100 million.
Espinoza, despite spearheading Showtime's growth, agrees boxing's future may not be written exclusively on pay networks like his own. Traditionally, boxing stars were built on network television. A return there, he says, could help elevate budding stars like Broner and Alvarez to the stratosphere. Getting them there, however, will be tricky.
"It's going to require flexibility of everyone's behalf," he admits. "Athlete, promoter and network. Everyone is going to have to give a little and share in the pain. The athlete will have to make a short-term financial sacrifice for long-term gains in exposure. For the promoter it might mean taking a little more risk in terms of the expenses they have to incur. And, for the network, it's taking a leap of faith that boxing on network TV or basic cable can be popular again."
Malignaggi vs. Broner will take place Saturday, June 22, 2013 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York and will be televised live on Showtime at 9 p.m. ET/6:00 p.m. PT. Jonathan Snowden is the author of The MMA Encyclopedia and Bleacher Report's combat sports lead writer. All quotes were compiled first hand unless otherwise noted.