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Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza on Bellator’s future, Scott Coker vs. Dana White, freak show fights and more

Esther Lin, Showtime

Few people wield as much power in combat sports as Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza, especially now that Bellator MMA is now under his umbrella as well.

With a robust lineup of boxing talent as part of Showtime Championship Boxing and Bellator MMA, Espinoza is ultimately looking to grow both brands after previously working with Bellator President Scott Coker when he was the primary owner behind Strikeforce.

Just recently, Bellator MMA announced a move from the Paramount Network to CBS Sports Network as the ViacomCBS-owned promotion changed broadcast homes, gaining access to a wider variety of channels.

In addition to that, Bellator MMA now has the ability to potentially air shows on additional networks in the ViacomCBS family, including CBS and Showtime.

Espinoza sat down with MMA Fighting ahead of the Showtime Boxing pay-per-view this weekend where the Charlo twins — Jermell and Jermall — will take center stage in a pair of fights from the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.

Showtime Boxing Teaming Up with Bellator MMA

As an answer to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Bellator MMA actually teamed up with Showtime Boxing for a residency at the Mohegan Sun resort in Uncasville, Conn., where both promotions have been putting on shows for the past couple of months.

The shared home for boxing and MMA has helped Showtime and Bellator test fighters for COVID-19 while creating a bubble of sorts to ensure athlete health and safety during the pandemic.

So far the entire run has been a success, allowing Espinoza to work closely with Coker for several events with more planned in September and October.

“I don’t want this to come across the wrong way because I wouldn’t describe the environment as great for anybody, but it was a nice way to get back in business with Scott Coker,” Espinoza said about the current shared residency. “Our group had been in business with Scott back in Strikeforce, which was a very successful run.

“Scott has many of the same team members, and to be able to come together and collaborate and get our feet wet again, not necessarily in the same events, but in the same atmosphere and coordinate protocols and handing off to one another, it’s a great re-introduction. It enabled us to reacquaint ourselves with our respective businesses. I think it’s a great first step to all the various ways we’re planning on working together in the future.”

Working with Scott Coker Again

As part of the corporate restructuring after Viacom and CBS merged last year, Bellator MMA was brought under Espinoza’s leadership.

Espinoza says he welcomed the chance to work again with Coker, especially after a successful run together during his time as the head of Showtime Sports when the network was home to Strikeforce.

While he’s typically known for his work in boxing, Espinoza relished the chance to work in MMA again with hopes that he prove that there doesn’t necessarily need to be a rivalry between the two sports just so one can succeed.

“I think our entire team was excited because we have always been very proud with what we accomplished with Strikeforce,” Espinoza said. “Even all the way through today, you see the success of those groups of fighters that grew up and matured in Strikeforce. We all take a sense of pride in guys that are still successful today six, seven years later or more. To get back in business, and get back business with many of the guys we’ve had success with before, was great.

“I think there’s always been this rivalry between boxing and MMA. I think it’s largely because how UFC chose to launch when they first sort of began marketing themselves aggressively, but the sports have far more in common than they do not in common. In reality, we should be working together on the event side, the marketing side, even the cross promotion side. This is the first opportunity we have for the sports to work together cohesively and I think that’s exciting for both group and combat sports in general.”

Bellator MMA on CBS or Showtime?

With the recent announcement of Bellator’s move to CBS Sports Network starting on Oct. 1, the natural question was the potential for shows airing on either CBS or even Showtime?

CBS previously has aired prominent MMA cards on the network, most notably Strikeforce and Elite XC cards featuring names such as Gina Carano, Kimbo Slice, Jake Shields and Dan Henderson.

While nothing has been determined just yet, Espinoza believes it’s only a matter of time before Bellator could potentially promote a card on a number of different ViacomCBS networks, not to mention the marketing possibilities.

“I think the expansion of Bellator programming across all ViacomCBS is very likely in the long run,” Espinoza said. “I think it applies to boxing as well. I think one of the most exciting aspects of the merger is having now a range of different outlets from CBS network to CBS Sports Network, across all the different Viacom outlets and then with streaming, with Paramount Plus, with Showtime on the premium and streaming side, there’s now an opportunity to really spread combat sports across a whole range of platforms both in range of the content itself and also in terms of the promotion.

“We’ve begun to see that a little bit with the Charlo pay-per-view, where we’ve gotten a lot of support across the board from Viacom networks. We’ve gotten some really high profile great support from CBS from the NFL games this past weekend, most notably during the Houston Texans game on CBS, which is great with the Charlo’s as their home market. I think we’re going to see more and more of that.”

Showtime Boxing and Bellator Co-Promoted Shows

With Showtime Boxing and Bellator MMA already sharing a residency at the Mohegan Sun, it seems like a natural fit that the two promotions could eventually put on a card together.

Espinoza agrees that putting on a card that features both boxing and MMA is absolutely a possibility with a wide range of other ideas that could see the two brands team up in the future.

“I think it is very possible in the long run that we do totally promoted events, back-to-back events, even combined events as soon as it’s realistically possible,” Espinoza explained. “Obviously, we’re going to respect all of Bellator’s current contractual obligations, including the DAZN deal. But it would be silly not to explore those possibilities that Scott and I have talked about both publicly and privately once we’re able to do so. Scott has already done that very effectively with the combined MMA and kickboxing shows.

“The structure would be pretty similar. The logistics of the cage would be pretty similar. As soon as we have the opportunity, I think you’ll see some of that either after the DAZN deal or in conjunction with the DAZN deal or wherever we can fit it into the business model. The company as a whole is committed to the growth of Bellator long term and if boxing can help contribute to that, then it’s all the better for everyone.”

Scott Coker vs. Dana White

Of course, Espinoza has a long history working with Coker, but he also experienced a brief promotional relationship with UFC President Dana White when the mega-fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor came together in 2017.

As the head of Showtime Sports, Espinoza represented Mayweather, while White was side-by-side with McGregor.

In the aftermath of that event, Espinoza and White have shared more than a few harsh words for each other. That said, Espinoza doesn’t spent much time thinking about White or his particular business practices. He simply prefers working alongside Coker, who is a wholly different kind of promoter.

“I haven’t spent a whole lot of time studying the UFC’s philosophy and their approach, but I know Scott and I know our approach, and I know how Scott approaches things as evidenced by his 20-plus years in combat sports,” Espinoza said. “What our groups have in common in Bellator and Showtime is really the fighter-first mentality. We believe in respecting the fighter, elevating the fighter and doing everything to put the fighter out front in the most positive light possible.

“Personally, from throughout this organization, Scott really feels the same way. There is a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who gets in the ring or in the cage and puts their efforts on the line in that kind of personal way, and we want to honor that and elevate that. That’s the philosophy and that’s a choice. If there’s one thing if you talk about Scott throughout his career, that’s one thing people will point to is the fact that it’s not about Scott. It’s not even about the organization as much as it is about elevating the fighters and honoring the nobility and the courage that it takes to commit yourself to this lifestyle in combat sports.”

Over the years, White has come under fire for the way he’s attacked some of his athletes in the media. Just recently, the UFC president took aim at former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier when he couldn’t come to terms with the promotion for a planned fight against Tony Ferguson.

“Listen, I like Dustin,” White said about Poirier in September. “I’m not going to sit up here and say anything negative about Dustin. He’s a great kid. I don’t know if it was he didn’t want to fight in Abu Dhabi or what his deal was, he didn’t want to fight. There’s a lot of different ways to turn down a fight.

“Negotiating yourself out of one is one of the ways you can do it. So for whatever reason, he didn’t want to take this fight. Only he knows that.”

Obviously, Espinoza couldn’t address Poirier or that particular situation but he understands the differences with how he handles business with his fighters much the same way Coker does at Bellator.

“Honestly, you can be very successful in this business without having to resort to negativity,” Espinoza said. “By honoring people, honoring their contributions to the sport, I don’t want to make us sound like Boy Scouts. We’re not perfect and there are disputes here and there, but I think Scott believes as I do, business dealings are best kept private as much as possible and the part that needs to be out front are the fighters and their commitment and their stake in the fight.

“That’s evident in Scott’s approach, Bellator’s approach, across the organization and that’s what draws people to Scott and to Bellator is that approach and that philosophy.”

Freak Show Fights in Boxing

While Espinoza is proud to promote the upcoming Charlo twins pay-per-view through Showtime Boxing, it’s impossible to ignore some of the other fights being discussed in the sport right now.

Social media superstars Logan and Jake Paul are suddenly being discussed as possible opponents for championship level boxers. According to boxing insider Dan Rafael, DAZN once considered UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jorge Masvidal as “premium” opponents for potential fights against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.

If any of those matchups ever happened, it wouldn’t be the first or last time boxing or MMA promoted a celebrity in a high-level fight. Mayweather and McGregor put on one of the biggest pay-per-views of all time in a bout where the undefeated former boxing champion was a massive favorite — and ultimately won the fight by TKO.

Espinoza can’t say he’s planning to promote any of those kinds of fights in the near future, but he’s not as quick to dismiss them as nothing more than a cash grab. He just wants to make sure promoters involved with those fights are differentiating Logan Paul facing Floyd Mayweather in an exhibition as a far cry from the featured bout this weekend with Jermall Charlo against Sergiy Derevyanchenko.

“I’ll tell you, I shake my head at sort of when they’re treated as the same thing,” Espinoza explained. “I’m an NBA fan, and that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the Harlem Globetrotters or a celebrity basketball game every once in a while. But I wouldn’t suggest televising a celebrity basketball game back-to-back with the NBA Finals and presenting them as they’re sort of the same thing. That is a disservice to the people who have committed their entire lifetime to building a career in combat sports and putting them on the same level as an interloper who is getting the opportunity largely based on celebrity value.

“It may not be my cup of tea, but I don’t begrudge it. Where I think it does a disservice to the sport is where you’re putting the two on the same platform and you’re expecting two different audiences to cross-pollinate. In my experience what that leads to is really sort of missed opportunities and disappointed expectations between the two different audiences rather than cross-pollination. They are two different things and they shouldn’t be presented as the same.”

He may not be ready to ink the Paul brothers to an exclusive contract, but Espinoza can’t deny the entertainment value in seeing them fight. That said, he also understands it’s not the same as watching two of the best boxers clashing in the ring or a high profile MMA fight like those taking place in Bellator.

“The Paul’s certainly have a huge fan base,” Espinoza said. “To be honest, the first Paul-KSI fight, I was actually impressed by the level of boxing. This was not a celebrity boxing match. These were guys who had clearly spent time in the gym and had some skills.

“It’s not at the level of a Showtime Championship Boxing but they were not bad. They had basic skills. They definitely worked hard and it was entertaining. Again, one is apples, one is oranges.”

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