4 Takeaways from Top Rank on ESPN Card
A month after mixed martial arts dove back into the live sports pool, boxing dipped its toe.
Bob Arum's Top Rank became the first promotional company to produce a significant domestic fight card in the United States on Tuesday night, returning to ESPN airwaves with a five-bout show featuring a non-title fight involving featherweight title claimant and former Olympian Shakur Stevenson.
The show was broadcast from the conference center at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with no fans.
Viewers were encouraged to visit ESPN.hearmecheer.com and record themselves for use as crowd noise.
The UFC produced three no-fan shows in Jacksonville, Florida before moving to Las Vegas for one show late in May and a pay-per-view production this past weekend. Its shows featured three announcers calling each fight while stationed at separate tables and included post-fight interviews from a remote room.
By contrast, Top Rank's disjointed broadcast included a four-man team with none on site.
Blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore spoke from an ESPN studio in Bristol, Connecticut, while analysts Andre Ward, Timothy Bradley and Mark Kriegel were in their respective homes in California.
Not surprisingly, it looked and sounded like a first-time operation, with several gaps where no one was speaking, several instances where all tried to speak simultaneously and several times where Bradley was in mid-sentence as a round ended for a commercial break.
Only Bernardo Osuna, who conducted post-fight interviews, was at the MGM Grand and spoke with the fighters while standing six feet away from them on a stage positioned at the opposite end of the venue.
And ring announcer Mark Shunock blandly introduced the fighters from outside the ring as well, unlike the UFC's Bruce Buffer, who did his typical high-energy work from inside the cage even with no audience.
The network will broadcast another Top Rank show on Thursday.
"The title fights and the great matchups will come soon enough," Tessitore said. "But this is an important first step, just having boxing back on TV live."
B/R took in all the action from the three-plus-hour broadcast and put together a list of the most prominent takeaways. Click through to see how your impressions measured up to ours.
Shakur Stevenson Did His Job
If you thought it sounded like a Shakur Stevenson informercial, you weren't alone.
The ESPN team went all-in on Top Rank's most prized young commodity, consistently measuring his early prowess with the legacies established by all-time greats like Floyd Mayweather and Pernell Whitaker.
Arum himself suggested during a conference call this week that Stevenson would "exceed the performances" by Mayweather, who retired at 50-0 after winning championships in five weight classes.
So, by eliminating Felix Caraballo with a left to the body at 1:31 of the sixth round, he did his job. But even at 14-0 with eight KOs in three years as a pro, the 22-year-old has got some work to do to measure up.
Fighting at 130 pounds for the first time, Stevenson landed cleanly to the head in every round but never had the six-year Puerto Rican veteran in noticeable trouble. He did score a knockdown in the first with consecutive rights to the head and body, though, and wound up getting the stoppage with another combo to the body—landing first with a right to the side and then with a left to the belly, just above the belt line.
"I came here to get him out of there. My mindset was focused on getting him out of there," Stevenson said. "I started realizing the head shots weren't going to get him out of there."
Overall, Stevenson landed 115 of 218 power shots and may have come away with some damage to the left hand, which he noticeably shook after landing to Caraballo's head in the fifth. Cameras showed him flexing the hand repeatedly as he was having hand wraps removed after the fight.
"Shakur is the boss and he fought like a boss tonight," said Ward, who did not participate in calling the main event because he serves as Stevenson's co-manager. "I'm proud of him. He did a great job. He is a star and if he stays focused he will continue to progress. The best is yet to come."
Stevenson holds the WBO title at 126, but he said on the same conference call that he wasn't sure he'd return to that weight and had already begun envisioning fights with belt-holders at 130 pounds.
"The expectation was that he get rid of a guy like this. That's exactly what he set out to do," Tessitore said. "It was something special."
Robeisy Ramirez Was the Real Deal
When they compare you to three Hall of Famers and another two-division champion, you're doing well.
That was exactly the spot Robeisy Ramirez found himself in on Tuesday night, when the former two-time Olympic champion returned to the ring as the first bout in ESPN's fan-free production.
And the Cuban export delivered in a big way.
The 2012 and 2016 gold medalist was surprised in his professional debut last August—losing a split decision to the anonymous Adan Gonzales in Philadelphia—but he'd scored two straight stoppages since and delivered again this time around with a 54-second blowout of Yeuri Andujar in a scheduled six-rounder at featherweight.
He was instantly mentioned alongside the likes of Henry Armstrong, Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez and Rafael Marquez, each of whom lost his first career fight before going on to a long, distinguished and championship-winning career.
"I knew that the fight fans would really be looking forward to the return of boxing and I wanted to put on a show for them," Ramirez said. "I knew that if I went after him I could get the knockout."
Ramirez dropped Andujar with a looping left hand, then continued the attack and finished matters with another left to cap off a multiple-shot flurry. Andujar fell to his back with his head over the bottom ring rope and was immediately rescued without a count by referee Tony Weeks.
Ramirez's corner people draped a gold medal around his neck as the broadcast team gushed with praise.
"That's what Team Ramirez was looking for and asking for," Ward said. "Not moving as much, trying to get punches through, and he did that tonight."
Ramirez was the last fighter to beat headliner Stevenson, at the 2016 Olympics, and not surprisingly wished out loud for a rematch now that they're both professionals at 126 pounds.
Stevenson fought Tuesday at 130 and has said he plans on moving up permanently at some point.
"I've always said that Shakur Stevenson is an opponent I want to fight. He's got a head start on me," Ramirez said. "It’s a fight I want, but I want to win a world title. It is a fight that will eventually happen in the future."
Heavyweights Were Worth the Hype
If you're anxious to see more gigantic heavyweights, the pipeline seems prodigious.
The third and fourth bouts of Tuesday's card were showcases for two of Top Rank's young big men—Guido Vianello and Jared Anderson—and each produced exactly what he was promoted to deliver.
Vianello stopped New York-based journeyman Donald Haynesworth thanks to a single right hand at 2:16 of the first round of their scheduled six-rounder, while Anderson went past the first round for the first time in his career before eventually halting Florida veteran Johnnie Langston at 1:55 of Round 3.
"I'm excited to see them in the future," Ward said. "I could always nitpick and find things to complain about, but the presence that they brought, the patience they showed and the way they closed the show. That's what I'll remember. Both of them have a chance to be a name we all know."
Vianello, now 7-0, represented Italy in the 2016 Olympics and landed a chopping overhand right that dumped the 37-year-old Haynesworth to his back. The veteran rolled to his knees and climbed to his feet at the count of seven, but he was immediately waved off by referee Jay Nady.
It was the fighter's third fight training with Kevin Barry after working four fights with Abel Sanchez.
"I try every day to throw a strong right hand," Vianello said. "I felt good. I felt perfect. I felt fast. I knew that match could be finished in the first few rounds."
The 6'4" Anderson stands two inches shorter than Vianello and was hit cleanly far more often by Langston, but he showed a variety of head and body work while wearing down his 30-year-old foe over two rounds.
He finished the job after hurting Langston with an uppercut to the head and a hook to the body. Langston didn't fall, but he reeled and wobbled awkwardly enough along the ropes to prompt Nady to intervene.
Anderson landed 68 of 130 power shots across the whole fight and 24 of 40 in the final round.
It was his fourth KO in four wins.
"I was happy to finally get a couple more rounds. I now know what it's like," he said. "He landed a good uppercut on the inside. I need to look out for that more. (I'll improve by) being around great fighters. They always go to the body and have great body work. I stay humble. I keep working. I'm trying to be the best I can and keep being great."
Social Justice Was on Everyone's Mind
Say what you will about its content, but you can't accuse ESPN of dodging the issue of racial inequality.
The network's boxing team took note of the funeral of George Floyd on Tuesday and gave two African American members of the broadcast team, Ward and Bradley, a chance to share personal reflections on the state of race relations in the United States these days.
Several of the fighters and corner men wore "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts.
Ward, the 36-year-old son of a black mother and white father, has played the role of mentor to Stevenson and other fighters since his retirement in 2017 and railed against the bias that he said forces black fighters to take on a villain persona in order to get promotional attention.
"That's something that I detest," he said. "When Floyd Mayweather was 'Pretty Boy Floyd Mayweather,' nobody paid attention. Once he became 'Money Mayweather,' people paid to see him lose.
"If they're asking you to be anything other than yourself, they're asking you too much."
Bradley, meanwhile, shared the story of an incident he said occurred a year ago when he was driving his four-year-old son to school.
He said they were pulled over "because of the color of our skin and the type of car we were driving."
He said he told his son to keep his hands up high and not to speak as officers approached the car, and said no ticket was issued once the officers realized who he was. He said he then shared counsel with his child that his own father had shared with him 30 years ago.
"Because of the color of your skin you already have a strike on you," he said. "You might not get it now, but you will get it later."
As a clip from the funeral played behind him in the studio, Tessitore suggested boxing has a "longer and more intertwined relationship with race issues than any other sport."
"Boxing has both created barriers and broken through them," he said. "Race barriers have been both broken and exploited by boxing promoters."
Top Rank on ESPN Full Card Results
Shakur Stevenson def. Felix Caballaro by TKO, 1:31, Round 6
Jared Anderson def. Johnnie Langston by TKO, 1:55, Round 3
Guido Vianello def. Donald Haynesworth by TKO, 2:16, Round 1
Quatavious Cash def. Calvin Metcalf by unanimous decision (60-54, 60-55, 59-55)
Robeisy Ramirez def. Yeuri Andujar by TKO, :54, Round 1