There aren’t many guarantees in life, but we know two things; none of us are here forever and, within the business world, changes will be made if real life bottom lines don’t align with the ones projected on spreadsheets.
Over recent days, boxing has provided examples of both of these life certainties.
On October 13, Northern Irishman Hugh Russell passed away after a short illness. Russell was a successful amateur and professional boxer in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Earlier this week we learned that Burt Young, the actor who portrayed Paulie Pennino in the first six Rocky films, had died on October 8. The actor holds a place in the hearts of boxing fans for his depiction of the titular character’s best friend, cornerman and eventual brother-in-law.
Just a few days ago, on October 17, it was confirmed that American cable giant Showtime would be saying goodbye to boxing. As part of an “evolvement of strategy” parent company Paramount Global decided to shut down Showtime Sports. It leaves a gap in boxing broadcasting in the sport’s largest market.
This week’s column will provide some words on Messrs Russell and Young, two men who touched boxing in different ways and will conclude by looking at Showtime’s departure from the boxing sphere.
Hugh “Little Red” Russell (December 15, 1959 – October 13, 2023)
Hugh Russell was held in very high regard by the sporting, media and political communities in his native Belfast.
Russell’s funeral was attended by well known names from all three fields as mourners were reminded of his achievements in the ring and then, after hanging up his gloves, becoming an acclaimed photographer for The Irish News.
Carl Frampton and Paddy Barnes were among the former boxers who attended the funeral service for Mr. Russell on October 18.
After a successful amateur boxing campaign, which saw Russell, who found sanctuary in boxing as a youngster as the city of his birth was badly affected by sectarian violence, win flyweight bronze medals at the 1978 Commonwealth Games and 1980 Olympics, the boxer who became known as “Little Red” turned professional.
Russell gloved up 19 times in the paid ranks. He won the British bantamweight title in 1983 and the British flyweight crown in 1984.
An interesting fact from Russell’s career is that he took part in the final British title fight to take place over 15 rounds. His 13th round win over John Feeney in January of 1983 has this notable distinction.
After retiring from the ring in 1985, Russell worked as an official for the British Boxing Board of Control.
With his in-ring days over, Russell’s hobby of photography became his profession.
Russell’s new job often saw him having to document the devastating aftermath of violence which was sadly all too common in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Russell also photographed the politicians who were tasked with finding a resolution.
His skill behind the camera was noted by Father Michael Spence.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that Father Spence told those attending Mr. Russell’s funeral: “Hugh’s keen eye needed in the ring served him well behind the camera. He captured momentous historical events.”
Father Spence added, “There’s a very fine line in capturing an event on camera and reporting it and intruding on people’s privacy, heartache and grief. Hugh got that fine line correct. He displayed a great sensitivity in that regard and that speaks volumes about the character of the man.”
From winning boxing titles to his photographs which were published across four decades in The Irish News, Hugh Russell’s life had a positive impact on the lives of many others. May he rest in peace.
Burt Young (April 30, 1940 – October 8, 1923)
While Hugh Russell excelled behind the camera, Burt Young is remembered for his work in front of it.
Born Gerald Tommaso DeLouise in New York in 1940, the man who would become known professionally as Burt Young served in the United States Marine Corps from 1957 to 1959.
In 1985, a Los Angeles Times report noted that Young boxed 34 times during his Marine Corps years. Check out this piece from our Bob Mladinich, with more on Burt's boxing. Young’s years playing characters connected to the boxing world on the silver screen are captured forever on film.
The actor, who studied at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, had over 100 film and television credits to his name by the time his career in front of the camera was over.
Included in Young’s acting resumé are roles in Chinatown (1974), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) and The Sopranos (2001).
As mentioned, it was playing Paulie Pennino in the original series of Rocky films which ensured Mr. Young would forever be associated with the sport of boxing.
Alongside Sylvester Stallone’s lead character, Burt Young’s alcoholic butcher, who cornered Rocky and provided him training space in the meat storage locker where he worked, played a huge role in the success of the films about the underdog Philadelphia boxer.
Young reprised his role as Paulie in the five sequels Rocky spawned.
“You were an incredible man’s [sic] and artist, I and the world will miss you very much,” Stallone wrote on Instagram on October 18.
Burt Young also acted in a couple of biopics about boxers. In 2008 he played the role of Lou Serosi in Carnera: The Walking Mountain – a film about 1930s heavyweight world champion Primo Carnera.
In 2019, Young played Salvatore in The Brawler – a film based on durable heavyweight Chuck Wepner and his 1975 bout against Muhammad Ali.
In the 1980s, Young managed light heavyweight contender David Sears.
Along with acting, Mr. Young had other creative talents. He was a painter whose art has been displayed in galleries the world over and also a published author.
Burt Young died in Los Angeles on October 8. His daughter shared the news with the world earlier this week. For most film lovers and boxing fans, he will always be Paulie. RIP Burt Young.
Showtime Exits The Boxing Business
Boxing on Showtime started in March 1986 with Marvin Hagler vs. John Mugabi. It will end in December 2023 with an event still to be determined.
On Tuesday, October 17, it was confirmed that after its commitments for this year are fulfilled, Showtime will no longer broadcast boxing. Sports Business Journal first reported the news.
Showtime’s president of sports and event programming Stephen Espinoza issued this statement: “It is with profound disappointment that I shared this morning’s news that the company has decided to shut down Showtime Sports at the end of this year. The company’s decision is not a reflection of the work we have done in recent years, nor our long and proud history.”
Paramount Global, Showtime’s parent company stated: “As we evolve our strategy to more efficiently allocate resources and align our content offering across the business, we’ve made the difficult decision not to move forward with boxing and other content produced by the Showtime Sports team.”
Corporate jargon for “we can make more money doing other things.”
While Espinoza and other high earning executives will be able to absorb this, many day-to-day employees with regular salaries will be impacted heavily by this announcement.
Boxing broadcasting in America will feel the reverberations too. The PBC promotion had an exclusive output deal with Showtime in recent years. It now needs to find a new broadcast home.
Maybe it’s time to bring to an end the model of promoters having exclusive output deals with broadcasters. But that is a conversation for another time.
Tuesday’s confirmation of news which had been rumoured for a while means no more “Showtime Championship Boxing” after the end of this year.
It has only been five years since HBO, America’s other large cable company, stopped showing boxing. Now Showtime is out too. Seismic change to the landscape of boxing broadcasting in the United States in a short period of time.
It is thought PBC’s content will land on a streaming service. Amazon Prime has been mentioned, but nothing has been confirmed.
For the broadcasters, or more specifically their parent companies, it’s all about making money. 37 years of history, and close to 2000 bouts broadcast mean nothing to corporations and their bean counters.
It’s a shame, but that’s the economic reality of the world we live in. Farewell to boxing on Showtime.