NEW YORK (AP) — There they stood, champions holding their belts, challengers longing to take them away.
From WBC world heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder to WBA featherweight title holder Leo Santa Cruz, the stage at a midtown restaurant was overflowing with tough guys and testosterone.
Showtime announced its boxing cards through mid-June on Wednesday, a schedule that includes four matchups of top-five ranked fighters, and 12 world champions. Eleven world title bouts are ahead.
The 27 fighters in Showtime's lineup have 731 wins, 106 world crowns and a winning percentage of .957.
Touting boxing's rising popularity, Showtime President of Sports and Event Programming Stephen Espinoza said the sport "provides a young, stable and multicultural audience and ... delivers that audience reliably."
His faith in boxing will be tested with nine cards, beginning Feb. 17 in Las Vegas when David Benavidez, at 21 the youngest current world champion, defends his WBC super middleweight title against Ronald Gavril. It's a rematch of a close fight from last September.
Also on that card is former two-time champion Danny Garcia, who faces Brandon Rios in a WBC welterweight title eliminator.
"On Feb. 17, I will show the world why I am one of the most popular fighters in boxing," Garcia said. "I will show the world why Danny Garcia is a superstar."
The big star Wednesday was Wilder, who takes on unbeaten Luis Ortiz on March 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Wilder was supposed to face Ortiz late last year, but Ortiz failed a drug test.
"As I see it, I'm 39-0 with 38 KOs," Wilder said. "Every time I promise I'm going to knock somebody out, I've done that. Come March 3, I promise I'm going to knock him out, too."
Also on that card is one of the most exciting fighters in the game, former super welterweight champion Jermall Charlo, who is 26-0 with 20 knockouts. He's moving up to middleweight for a WBC interim bout with Hugo Centeno Jr.
His brother, Jermell, the WBC super welterweight belt holder, defends on June 9 in Los Angeles against an as-yet unannounced opponent. That's on the undercard of what should be an action-packed WBA featherweight title bout between Santa Cruz and Abner Mares in their hometown.
Other cards will take place in San Antonio on March 10 (IBF junior welterweight champ Sergey Lipinets against Mikey Garcia, who seeks a fourth crown in a fourth weight division; and Kirly Relikh vs. Rances Berthelemy for the vacant WBA super lightweight title); on April 7 at an undisclosed site when WBA champion Erislandy Lara and IBF belt holder Jarrett Hurd meet to unify the 154-poind title; on April 21, also at an unidentified locale when Adrien Broner and Omar Figueroa meet in a WBC super lightweight eliminator; and in either Montreal or Quebec City, WBC light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson against Badou Jack.
Two of boxing's best, Keith Thurman and Errol Spence Jr., will headline future Showtime cards, although the outstanding welterweights won't go at each other. Thurman will fight in Brooklyn on May 19, and Spence, who stopped Lamont Peterson last Saturday, will enter the ring in his hometown of Dallas on June 16.
"2017 was a great year. Unifying the WBA and the WBC titles was a dream come true," Thurman said. "Since then, we had the elbow surgery, but 2018 is a get-back year. I'm truly looking forward to being back in the ring May 19. After that, I'm going to bring a more exciting fight later on this year. There are a lot of contenders and champions gunning for my No. 1 spot, but I'm going to have to let them know that I'll be right here at the top."