After 26 months, 10 fights in five different countries, six original fighters, three withdrawals, two replacements and several postponements, the finish line for Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic is finally here.
Super middleweight titleholders Andre Ward (24-0, 13 KOs) and Carl Froch (28-1, 20 KOs) -- fittingly, two of the original six -- will meet to determine 168-pound world supremacy in the long-awaited final on Saturday night (Showtime, 9 ET/PT) at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
Getting to the final was no easy task (not that it was expected to be) for a tournament that Showtime has spent well in excess of $20 million on, but which was riddled with ups and downs and zigs and zags as it is about to conclude more than six months later than originally planned.
Super Six Classic
Here are the tournament records (through the semifinals) of the eight participants in Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic.
*-Denotes semifinalist; 1-Ward did not have a Group Stage 3 fight after Dirrell dropped out; 2-Johnson replaced Kessler; 3-Green replaced Taylor
Given all the delays and curveballs -- even a volcanic ash cloud over Europe nearly derailed one of the fights -- it makes sense that Ward-Froch, which was originally scheduled for Oct. 29, was pushed back to Saturday because Ward suffered a cut in sparring while preparing for the original date.
Delays to the end, but perseverance all the way -- and an unprecedented event in boxing history.
"For all the bumps in the road, all the obstacles, the delays, guys falling out, it was worth it, I think," said promoter Lou DiBella, who had three fighters in the tournament: original member Jermain Taylor and alternates Glen Johnson and Allan Green. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It was a good concept, we got some good fights. I liked not having it single elimination. There were a lot of good things and the end is here, and the final is a good fight.
"Ultimately, the Super Six was good for the sport and it's always good to try something. Creativity is good, and something our industry doesn't have enough of."
In the summer of 2009, then-Showtime Sports chief Ken Hershman conceived of the six-man, modified round-robin tournament as a way to showcase one of boxing's hottest divisions while guaranteeing the network a series of fights consistently matching the best over the course of about 18 months. He could lock in fights for the long haul at set prices while the promoters and fighters knew they would be guaranteed at least three fights -- and three paydays -- and as many as five if they advanced to the final.
Hershman had already bought several fights in the division for Showtime, and this was a way to keep the ball rolling. In virtual secrecy, he somehow brokered deals with five promoters -- Sauerland Event (which represented two of the original fighters), DiBella, Gary Shaw, Dan Goossen and Mick Hennessy -- to set up a tournament that would include titleholder Mikkel Kessler of Denmark, the pre-tourney favorite; titleholder Froch of England; Germany's Arthur Abraham, a powerful middleweight titlist who was moving up in weight; former undisputed middleweight champion Taylor, who had the biggest name but was past his best; and a pair of upstart American prospects about to step into the big leagues, 2004 Olympic medalists Ward (gold) and Andre Dirrell (bronze).
The original six had a combined record of 161-4-1 with 117 knockouts. Four were undefeated and two held titles. It was the cream of the crop of the division, although titlist Lucian Bute wasn't invited to participate -- but wound up later signing a multifight deal with the network, with the goal being to match him with the Super Six victor.
With Kessler and Froch entering the tournament as titleholders, Showtime and the promoters even got the two sanctioning organizations that recognized their belts to play along and promise not to disrupt the tournament by ordering mandatory fights.
The fighters would earn three points for a knockout win, two points for a decision, one point for a draw and receive nothing for a loss. After three group stages, the four fighters with the most points would advance to the single-elimination semifinals, with the last two battling for the Super Six cup and, ideally, superstardom in the final.
"I think it was a great concept. It was like the playoffs in other sports," Goossen said. "This tournament's format was similar to what the other sports have leading up to the ultimate goal of a world championship, an NBA championship, a Super Bowl. Saturday night, in essence, Froch or Ward will be awarded the Super Bowl trophy of the super middleweight division. This tournament has been the closest thing we have to a playoff system."
Simple in theory. Difficult in execution.
Taylor suffered a head injury in his opening-round knockout loss to Abraham and dropped out. He was replaced by Green.
Before Group Stage 3 began, Kessler, citing an eye injury, withdrew, and Dirrell, citing neurological issues stemming from being hit after slipping to the canvas in his disqualification victory in Group Stage 2 against Abraham, also pulled out. Johnson replaced Kessler, and Dirrell was not replaced, leaving Ward to fight Sakio Bika in a fight held outside of the tournament.
Besides the uncertainty because of the lineup changes, various bouts were postponed and venues moved. Even one of the promoters was replaced when Froch split from Hennessy and signed with Eddie Hearn's Matchroom Sport.
"It has not been easy," said Chris DeBlasio, Showtime's vice president of sports communications, who has lived every up and down for the past 26 months. "I think it was a challenging endeavor for all of us -- the fighters, the promoters, our network. We knew it would be.
"The public doesn't care how hard our job is, though. They want to see the best fights in the division, and they got that. I think the matchups on paper were good, and we couldn't wait to see them. Maybe all of the fights didn't turn out uber-competitive in the ring, but there was some great action and drama, some important results, and we'll find out who the man to beat is at 168 pounds on Saturday night."
Said Goossen: "I've always been bullish on it. There were some problems, sure. But I thought it was great for the fighters and the sport. Take the worst case, Arthur Abraham. He lost three of his four fights. But the beauty of it for him was, he got two more chances after his first loss. Usually if you are coming off a loss, you don't get a chance to do what Carl Froch did. He lost his championship and came back and got a championship back. These things were made possible because of the format.
"The three Europeans [Kessler, Froch and Abraham] were the favorites. Dirrell and Ward were considered meat for them. They were considered [fighters] they would devour and spit out, but look what Ward did. We had a lot of confidence in him."
Ward, the only fighter to go through the tournament undefeated, went from prospect to elite champion while earning a spot on the pound-for-pound list. Froch overcame his first loss to Kessler in the tournament's best fight to ultimately advance to the final. Abraham went from feared puncher to afterthought. Kessler, between his lopsided loss to Ward and the injury, was a big disappointment. Green was exposed as having way more bark than bite. Johnson's career was reignited when the former light heavyweight champ dropped down in weight to enter as an alternate and advanced to the semifinals.
"I think going into the tournament was huge for me," Johnson said. "It rejuvenated my career, that's for sure. And it did a lot for the super middleweight division. It brought a lot of attention to the division and brought us the best fights in the division in that time frame. I think we got the best fights out of the guys who were there, and I am still intrigued to see how the final plays out.
"I think the tournament was worth it. Anything that brought the best fighters together was worth it and makes the public talk about the division. It was a wonderful thing. I'm glad that Showtime followed through with it even when it was difficult and people were skeptical when there were problems. It did great things for my career by bringing me to a weight class with a lot of great fights."
With all the lineup changes, it seems apropos that Hershman didn't make it to the finish line, either. In mid-October, he resigned from Showtime to take a similar position with rival HBO Sports, where he begins work Jan. 9.
Maybe Hershman will be watching the final. If he is, he'll surely be as proud of his baby as he was when he made the formal announcement of the tournament at a news conference in New York in July 2009.
"Throughout my career, I have been involved with some of the most major and historic events in the sport, including the legendary [Diego] Corrales-versus-[Jose Luis] Castillo fight, which in my opinion is the best fight in history; the [Mike] Tyson-[Evander] Holyfield ear-biting incident; and the Tyson-[Lennox] Lewis fight," Hershman said at the time. "But never have I been more proud than I am of this tournament or prouder of the work we have done. Getting five promoters together is a Herculean task in itself -- plus six of the best fighters in the division. That is a staggering accomplishment."
Although the tournament hasn't been a blockbuster ratings success for Showtime and none of the participants have become stars at the level where they could carry a pay-per-view event, there have been several good fights and storylines to follow.
"I think, overall, we are all looking at this as a success," DeBlasio said. "The goal of the Super Six was to provide some clarity in the division, and I think Andre Ward and Carl Froch have proven that they are the two best, and on Saturday night we will see who the last man standing is. That was the goal of the Super Six and we have achieved that goal.
"I don't think you can argue that they are not the best in the division based on who they have fought to get to the final."
That, after all, was the whole point.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.