While boxing events throughout the United States were being postponed and canceled this past weekend amid the growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, one nationally televised card did take place this past Friday night at the Grand Casino in Hinckley, Minnesota -- the latest installment of "ShoBox," which featured a quartet of young prospects, headlined by junior welterweight Brandun Lee.
What will most likely be the last fight card of any significance for the time being took place without any paying spectators, as the decision was made to proceed without the general public being allowed inside the venue.
That was also going to be the case for Saturday's Top Rank card, scheduled for the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York, but, after promoters initially saying it would go on without fans, that event was ultimately canceled.
"It was a difficult conversation, it was a difficult decision for everybody involved," president of Showtime Sports Stephen Espinoza said Monday, ''because you've got a scenario that is rapidly changing and no one really has complete information, and you've got to make almost a split-second decision in terms of whether to go forward."
Espinoza said that once the event promoters and health officials, along with the commission, made the decision to move forward with the show, "then the network's decision was whether we, in fact, were going to televise it. And given that our entire staff had already been on site for a least a day or two, [and] no new travel would be involved, we made the decision to go ahead with it. I think it would've been a very different case if not all of our personnel had already traveled."
Cory Rapacz, the head of Rapacz Boxing, the local promoter for this card, told ESPN: ''I don't know if there was a point [when] we thought it was going to be pulled. We definitely understood that it was a possibility. The leadership [at the casino] quickly made a decision to do the fight without fans, and we were pretty set on moving forward after that."
According to Rapacz, there was no specific testing for the coronavirus.
"The fighters all sat down with the doctor for the prefight physical and everything, I know the commission had some additional information about symptoms of the coronavirus and things like that. There were just families let in, so there wasn't anything specific done," he said.
ShoBox is a developmental series that focuses on young, up-and-coming boxers, and generally these shows are hosted in smaller casinos. This particular card was put on in a ballroom that had a capacity of around 2,200.
There was never going to be an arena-sized gathering for this particular show, and at first access was limited to close friends and family who were already on location at the venue Friday night. By the time the broadcast went live, even that group had been asked to vacate.
"We wanted to make sure the gathering stayed small, so the families that were let in for the non-televised undercard were actually asked to leave for the Showtime event, and then the Showtime fighter families came in," explained Rapacz, who estimated that as the fights took place there were "well under a hundred people, and not more than 50 fans, at any time."
Heavyweight Colton Warner, who stopped Dakota Talbott in two rounds, was part of the non-televised undercard. The native of Minnesota admitted that this arrangement was a bit abnormal.
"Not having all your fans there to support you was definitely different," he said. "This is still early in my career, so we kind of looked at it with a positive spin; it was a nice way to just focus in on my skills and our game plan and not have any outside pressure.
"But they handled it well," continued Warner, who had his wife, father and two brothers in attendance. "After your bout, fighters would go sit by their family and basically they would put you in a different section just to keep everybody safe and to keep proper measures."
Warner never felt the decision to continue with the fight put his health in any jeopardy.
"Everything was handled in a professional manner, from Showtime, to Cory, from all the promoters involved. So just with the procedures that they took, like with cleanliness, and separating us into groups, they really used their minds, I feel."
Boxing analyst Steve Farhood, who called the action for Showtime, had a unique perspective as he sat inside the arena.
"We've all been at pay-per-view cards where the first fight is fought in front of seven people. We've all been to those kinds of shows. From the perspective of calling the fight, it really wasn't that different," explained Farhood, who was on a commentary team alongside Barry Tompkins and Raul Marquez for Showtime. "There was some noise there, there wasn't much noise, it wasn't like we were doing it in a vacuum. I'd say there were a total of 100 people in the arena, at the time. Which is not a lot, obviously, but more than I would've guessed under the circumstances.
"Going in, I was saying to myself, 'Do I have to use my golf voice? Like I'm calling the 14th green at the Masters?'" Farhood added, "It wasn't like that, though; I didn't notice any difference in how I called it. Obviously, we've all called fights when the crowd's really into it, you have to raise your voice -- or at least you think you have to raise your voice -- to get over them. That wasn't the case here. There was some noise, but I felt like I spoke the way I would at any other show, the same with Barry and Raul; I didn't see a difference."
The fights themselves saw Brian Norman defeat Flavio Rodriguez in a seventh-round technical decision; Alejandro Guerrero score an eight-round verdict against Jose Angulo; and Aram Avagyan came off the canvas twice in the early rounds to eventually outpoint Dagoberto Aguero.
To some of the fighters, it had the feel of a sparring session, just without headgear, with smaller gloves and televised for everyone to see.
"I didn't think it would, but the vibe was... like, I don't know. I felt if there was more of an audience, I would've turned it up a little bit better," admitted Lee, who scored a third-round stoppage of Camilo Prieto in the main event.
Brian Norman Sr., who trains his undefeated son, Brian, believed that the unusual circumstances surrounding this card didn't faze his son. The 19-year-old Norman, facing a grown man 10 years his senior, got in some tough, hard rounds in his television debut. The fight was stopped in the seventh round after an accidental clash of heads opened a severe cut on Rodriguez.
Norman Sr., who lauded Rodriguez for his toughness and durability, said that his son, "did not fight like he normally fights... We're not blaming the crowd or the surroundings or anything else because I teach my son: When he's in the ring -- he's on. "
Although concerns are primarily focused on the here and now, and on the ongoing risk of the spread of coronavirus, the reality is that the boxers who were involved on this card were more fortunate than some of their colleagues in the sport, as they were able to get their fight in before the forced work stoppage prevented them from collecting a paycheck.
Whether they allowed themselves to be particularly aware of what was going on outside their own sphere of preparation is less clear.
"I asked all eight of the TV fighters, 'Has all of this going on in the world affected you?' And to a man, they said 'no,'" Farhood said. "I think it's an example of how much tunnel vision you need to be a successful fighter. These guys had fights; they focused on the fight."
"Walking out to the ring, I blocked everybody out, at that point, I couldn't care less who's there," said Lee, who added that once the fight got going, he didn't find it too difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.
But with that bout in his rearview mirror, he realizes that he probably won't be fighting again for a while.
On Saturday, the Nevada State Athletic Commission had announced that it is suspending all combat events 'til March 25, when the commission will meet again and make a decision on upcoming promotions. Much of the Las Vegas Strip itself will be shut down entirely, as MGM Resorts announced it will cease casino operations Monday and close properties Tuesday. Wynn announced on Sunday that it would be closing down its properties starting Tuesday.
On Monday, Top Rank, Premier Boxing Champions and Matchroom Boxing announced they were canceling fight cards through the end of April.
There are still fight fans and those in the industry holding out hope for TV studio shows without fans, with an operational team similar to what took place Friday night.
But for any plan to become a reality, in the short or long term, there are major questions to be asked before any other show can go on.
"We have discussed that option, whether it be a soundstage or a small controlled environment," Espinoza says. "[And while] that may be a realistic option, I think everyone is concerned about the fighters themselves and how would we make sure-sure that we're not spreading the virus through the contact involved in the fight.
"Even with a skeleton crew on the production side and a smaller audience, and putting limits on the fighter camps: How do we ensure that, even in that small group of people, isn't exposing each other to unnecessary risks and taking it home to the community?"