Tuesday July 14th, 2009

It seems simple, doesn't it? Compile the top talent in a respective sport and bring them together to determine who is the best. Professional sports does it. College basketball, too. College football doesn't, but you can't walk from the dairy aisle to the deli without bumping into someone who thinks the sport should. Championship tournaments are the lifeblood of sports. The excitement, the energy, the anticipation; it's what turns a casual fan into a hardcore one.

Boxing hasn't seen many tournaments. Too many alphabet titles. Too many corrupted mandatory challenges. Too many greedy sanctioning bodies anointing multiple champions just so they can cash in on the fees. It's disgusting. And to be fair, it's why many average sports fans have turned away from boxing.

Showtime is trying to change that. On Monday, the cable network announced a groundbreaking super middleweight tournament that will crown the top fighter in the 168-pound weight division. After painstaking negotiations (and when you have self-serving promoters trying to squeeze every dime out of them, there really is no other word to describe it) Showtime has locked up six of the top fighters in the division to compete in their tournament: Mikkell Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Carl Froch, Jermain Taylor, Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell, who have a combined record of 161-4-1 and represent the cream of the super middleweight crop.

"It really was a tireless effort," Showtime Senior VP and General Manager Ken Hershman told SI.com. "Managing all the different personalities and interests. It has been nothing but extraordinary."

The appeal to the fighters was simple: First, each is guaranteed three fights against top competition, which translates to three significant paydays. Second, thanks to the round-robin format and a unique scoring system, a loss won't knock one of them out of the tournament. Two losses might not bounce them either. A fighter gets one point for a draw and two for a win. But he can also pick up an extra point by ending the fight with a knockout.

"You get a knockout," said Hershman, "and you are right back in the thick of it."

Like any subjectively selected tournament, there are some issues. Like snubs. When news of the tournament first leaked last week, many in the boxing industry wondered why Taylor, a longtime middleweight who is 1-3 with two knockout losses in his last four fights, was in and Lucian Bute and Librado Andrade were out. Hershman says he considered expanding it to an eight-fighter tournament, but that it was "impractical." He also says Taylor's name recognition played a big role in his inclusion. But he is quick to add that both Bute and Andrade are on the short list should one of the fighters have to bow out.

"It's inevitable that we're going to have to replace someone," said Hershman. "But the mechanisms are in place to ensure that the tournament will go on."

Hershman has already accomplished one of his goals in that this tournament has generated considerable interest. Bloggers and columnists have begun speculating on the winner. Kessler, whose lone blemish is a 2007 loss to former division king Joe Calzaghe, is considered the favorite. But Froch has potent knockout power, Taylor is the slickest fighter of the bunch and Ward and Dirrell are two rising stars with limitless potential.

Said Hershman, "The fact that we are having these kinds of conversations is a good thing."

And it may not be the last time, either. If this tournament is successful, Hershman plans on revisiting the model for a different weight class.

"This is not meant to be a one-time deal," said Hershman. "If we can find a weight division with the depth of talent like super middleweight, we will absolutely look to do it again."

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