- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Stephen Espinoza has been a boxing fan since he was a kid growing up in El Paso, Texas, and he has spent a good deal of his professional life around it as an attorney who has represented Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya.
"I've always been a boxing fan," Espinoza said. "I got it from my grandfather, who emigrated from Mexico. If there was a boxing event on TV, he was watching it. I was a fan, and it never occurred to me when I was buying Tyson pay-per-views that I'd be working with him someday. The same goes for Oscar."
Now Espinoza is directly responsible for many such fights that fans tune in to.
When Ken Hershman resigned in October as executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports to move to rival HBO Sports, rumors swirled about who might succeed him. Espinoza's name never surfaced -- until the network announced he had been hired in late November to run a department in which he will control the second-biggest budget in televised boxing -- in the neighborhood of $20 million annually -- behind HBO.
That means Espinoza gets to decide what fights will be on Showtime's "Showtime Championship Boxing" and "ShoBox: The New Generation" series.
"I was aware the position was open," Espinoza said, "but it didn't really occur to me to pursue it, so it was actually someone else [who] suggested it to me."
That was noted sports agent Jack Tiernan, a longtime friend of Espinoza's.
"He and I used to have lunch about every two weeks to catch up," Espinoza said, "and inevitably at some point during lunch we'd talk about -- since we were both huge boxing fans -- what we would do to change things. He called me and said, 'Would you ever consider taking a meeting on the Showtime position?' I hesitated a second but couldn't think of a reason not to and said, 'Sure, why not.' From that conversation to when I signed a contract was less than two weeks."
Espinoza made a quick trip to New York and "my deal was done in maybe three phone calls. It was the right decision and a good fit. We spoke the same language, [Showtime CEO] Matt Blank and I, in particular."
Espinoza, 42, comes to his new job as a boxing fan at heart.
"Some of my earliest sports memories were the later stages of Muhammad Ali's career," Espinoza said. "The first sporting event I remember crying over was Ali's loss to Leon Spinks. And I was a big Julio Cesar Chavez fan. It seems like I saw the majority of his 100-something wins. Later on, one of my all-time favorite fighters was Diego Corrales. I watched him on some of Tyson's undercards and on Showtime. I got the chance to meet him and talk with him a little more in depth before he passed away, because he had started working with Golden Boy, which I was representing [as an attorney]."
Espinoza began working with De La Hoya when the fighter started making changes to his team following his 1999 loss to Felix Trinidad. Eventually, Espinoza became the lead attorney for De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions. He also represented Tyson on various matters, including his high-profile bankruptcy.
Espinoza's fanhood was evident when he started at Showtime. His first priority was to lock up the rights to the rematch between welterweights Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto, whose April 2011 fight (which was on HBO) was one of the most exciting fights of the year.
"One order of business is to identify a core group of fighters we want to build our future around," Espinoza said. "That doesn't necessarily mean multi-fight deals, although I wouldn't oppose them. But I think Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto are the epitome of the types of fighters I like to be in business with -- personable, in the prime of their careers, they fight their hearts out and they are willing to collaborate with us in promoting the event and their careers."
Espinoza, who attended Stanford University and UCLA School of Law, was in the process of relocating from Los Angeles to New York for the Showtime job while he was working on the Ortiz-Berto II deal.
"Before I had officially started, I identified Ortiz-Berto as a really attractive event for the fans and for Showtime. I got busy," Espinoza said. "I didn't have an office yet, much less a business card, but I was trying to make a very significant commitment to that fight."
He ultimately outbid HBO and got a commitment from sister network CBS to be involved in the marketing and promotion of the fight, which was supposed to take place Feb. 11 but was postponed (probably until June 30) because Berto suffered a biceps injury.
So now the first major show on Espinoza's watch will take place Saturday night in Corpus Christi, Texas, where junior middleweight Paul Williams will face Nobuhiro Ishida and light heavyweight titlist Tavoris Cloud will defend against Gabriel Campillo.
The Showtime Extreme channel will, for the first time, televise some of the undercard bouts not originally intended to be part of the main Showtime broadcast. That was one of the first -- and quite fan-friendly -- initiatives Espinoza pushed through when he arrived at Showtime.
"Boxing takes a good chunk of my time," he said. "Showtime has a long tradition of boxing, 25 years. It's not exaggeration to say that it's the cornerstone of our sports programming."
Among boxing-related matters, he has to decide what to do with the super middleweights the network still has under contract after Hershman's baby, the Super Six World Boxing Classic, reached its conclusion with 168-pound champion Andre Ward's beating Carl Froch to unify two belts in December.
Showtime has an option on Ward's next fight, which Espinoza will soon begin discussing with Dan Goossen, Ward's promoter. The network also has titleholder Lucian Bute under contract for one more fight. Espinoza already has shown he won't be a pushover for promoters. Like many boxing fans, he wants to see Ward-Bute, so he has thus far resisted buying Bute-Froch, much to the chagrin of their handlers.
"The Super Six achieved its goal of identifying the best fighter in that weight class," Espinoza said. "Andre Ward is, without question, the best in that division and one of the pound-for-pound best. I hope to do business with Andre for years to come. As for Bute-Froch, a lot has been written about that situation. We penciled in Bute for an April 14 fight. We had all assumed that would be Ward versus Bute. That plan was thrown off by [Ward's] hand injury. So we are still discussing with [Bute promoter] InterBox who he will be matched with."
There is a chance that Showtime will pass on Bute's next fight while retaining the rights to a third and final fight on his deal.
One fight Espinoza did get done quickly was the featherweight title rematch between Orlando Salido and Juan Manuel Lopez. Salido knocked out Lopez in the eighth round of a terrific fight last April on Showtime to win the title in one of the year's biggest upsets. They're due to meet March 10, again in Lopez's native Puerto Rico.
"I called up Top Rank and met with [vice president] Carl Moretti and [president] Todd DuBoef, and the deal was done in probably two or three phone calls," Espinoza said. "Those are the kind of fights I want to buy -- exciting fights."
Espinoza also plans to bring back Abner Mares, who won Showtime's four-man bantamweight tournament last summer and has been in several exciting fights on Showtime. Mares, who gave up his title and is moving up to junior featherweight, is due back April 21.
"I think his last fight, [a December rematch] against Joseph Agbeko, was a star-making performance," Espinoza said. "I'm really high on him. He's someone who has been groomed by Showtime and he's another fighter I look forward to seeing on the network for years to come."
What do Mares, Ortiz, Berto and Williams all have in common? They are all involved either with Golden Boy -- Espinoza's former employer -- or powerful adviser Al Haymon, who works very closely with Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, or both.
When Espinoza was hired at Showtime, many in the business assumed he would become a lapdog for Golden Boy and Haymon.
"I prefer lackey," he joked.
More seriously, Espinoza said he can be judged only by the fights he buys.
"Dealing with promoters and the constant screaming they do publicly if they don't get what they want goes with the territory," he said. "There's always going to be a range of opinion on my performance. The one thing I can say is, I came in with my eyes open and there haven't been a lot of surprises, because I've known most of the characters for years.
"The only way to respond is with my performance, and it will become clear, if it isn't already, that we are looking for the best, most compelling programming, not the most compelling Golden Boy or Al Haymon programming. I'm confident that I'm going to be objective. My success, personally, in this position depends on getting the best programming and, if nothing else, I'm motivated by my own self-interest to be successful in this job."
Dan Rafael is a boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.