LAS VEGAS -- When Manny Pacquiao faced Jeff Horn in Australia on July 2 in Brisbane, Australia, in the main event of a card that aired live on ESPN, it was Pacquiao's first non-pay-per-view fight since 2005. Turns out it was only the beginning for major fights regularly airing on ESPN.
For months before that card, and through late last week, Top Rank and the network have been hammering out a complicated agreement that will bring Top Rank's fights exclusively to ESPN platforms for years to come under a minimum four-year deal. The deal would include the Nov. 11 rematch between Pacquiao and Horn, which is still being finalized.
The deal, long rumored and finally signed last week, was formally announced on Saturday at a news conference at The Wynn Las Vegas and makes ESPN a major player in boxing for the first time in its history. ESPN termed the agreement "a vast and exclusive, multimedia agreement to make ESPN the home of Top Rank boxing in the U.S. and Canada."
Under the deal, ESPN will televise live Top Rank-promoted fights on ESPN and ESPN Deportes and stream them on the ESPN App. It will also stream fights and other Top Rank content on the recently announced ESPN direct-to-consumer streaming service via BAMTech and deliver pay-per-view events.
In addition, all Top Rank content will air in English and in French on Canadian sister networks TSN and RDS. It is also possible that some cards could air on ESPN sister network ABC.
While the agreement was being finalized, Top Rank and ESPN put on the Pacquiao card and also moved forward with two cards in August, one headlined by junior lightweight titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko's seventh-round knockout of Miguel Marriaga on Aug. 5 and Terence Crawford's third-round destruction of Julius Indongo to become the undisputed junior welterweight world champion on Aug. 19.
Now more high-level cards are on the way, with 18 on tap for the first year of the deal.
Next up will be a world title doubleheader from Tucson, Arizona, on Sept. 22 on which featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez will defend his belt against Genesis Servania and super middleweight titlist Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez will defend against Jessie Hart.
There are at least three more cards scheduled for the rest of the year:
Jessie Magdaleno will defend his junior featherweight title against mandatory challenger Cesar Juarez on Oct. 31 in Las Vegas, with Artur Beterbiev facing Enrico Koelling in a light heavyweight world title elimination bout in the co-feature.
Horn will defend the welterweight world title he controversially won by decision from Pacquiao in a rematch that is being finalized for Nov. 11 in Australia.
Lomachenko will make his next defense, likely against junior featherweight titleholder and fellow two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, who would move up in weight, on Dec. 9 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Top Rank, which helped launch ESPN with its "Top Rank Boxing" series that ran from 1980 to 1996, is coming back to its roots and will no longer have its stable of fighters appearing on HBO, where it had put on virtually all of its major fights for decades. Top Rank also axed its UniMas series "Solo Boxeo" in preparation for the move to ESPN.
ESPN, which has rarely televised the highest-level boxing events, now will have them on a regular basis.
"ESPN is thrilled to announce this new relationship with Top Rank, the most comprehensive and innovative media agreement in the history of the sport," said Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling. "We believe in a new vision for boxing that will super-serve existing boxing fans and create legions of new fans through world class boxing content across multiple ESPN platforms -- 365 days a year.
"Together, ESPN and Top Rank will build the superstars of tomorrow through unrivaled exposure, original content and cutting edge technology."
Top Rank boxing content will include all undercard bouts, select nontelevised main events, re-airs of all ESPN events and pay-per-views as well as fights from Top Rank's massive library.
Top Rank president Todd duBoef, the stepson of Top Rank chairman Bob Arum, spearheaded the deal and worked closely with ESPN president John Skipper and Magnus on the deal. They shook hands on the deal in mid-July, but it took time to finalize a roughly 75-page contract.
DuBoef has long sought to have boxing, and shoulder programming, available to a wider audience and wanted to work with a broadcast partner that was also invested in the sport. While duBoef said that premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime have done a great job with boxing for decades, their limited availability, he said, stunted the public's access to the sport, adding that on ESPN, that will not be the case.
"Top Rank is thrilled to enter into this relationship with ESPN, one of the top sports media brands in the world," duBoef said. "This unprecedented partnership offers a 360 [degree] approach to the entire boxing vertical, including live world class events, unparalleled coverage as well as access to historical moments in the sport."
ESPN's multisport streaming service, to debut in early 2018, is set to play a large role in the Top Rank agreement.
The service was announced earlier this month as part of a Walt Disney Co. acquisition of BAMTech, an online streaming company. The Walt Disney Co. also owns ESPN.
ESPN says Top Rank boxing will be among about 10,000 live events, including Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, Grand Slam tennis, college sports and more.
The deal is the culmination of Top Rank's efforts to land a long-term deal on which to develop its talent and showcase its elite boxers rather than just having occasional HBO cards that highlighted the top fighters and its prospects on the low-budget, money-losing UniMas cards that were aimed strictly at a Spanish-speaking audience.
With the rights deal in the works, Top Rank went on a signing binge of top talent after the 2016 Olympics. This deal with ESPN will give those fighters -- gold medalists Fazliddin Gaibnazarov of Uzbekistan and Robson Conceicao of Brazil; American silver medalist Shakur Stevenson; Michael Conlan of Ireland; Teofimo Lopez Jr., who is from the United States but represented his parents' home country of Honduras; Americans Antonio Vargas and Mikaela Mayer; and Puerto Rico's Jeyvier Cintron -- a place to develop.
Creative Artists Agency, the leading sports and entertainment agency, served as the media adviser to Top Rank on the landmark agreement. Top Rank has retained CAA Sports to manage its official sponsorship sales efforts, working closely with ESPN.
"The deal puts Top Rank and its best-in-class stable of global fighters at the core of ESPN's combat sports offering," said Alan Gold, head of CAA's sports media advisory practice.
"Top Rank has consistently and successfully built many of their fighters into global brands and now will benefit significantly from ESPN's broad distribution, sales and marketing support and outstanding storytelling."