With the rise in popularity, both in practice and in viewership, of mixed martial arts the last few years, boxing has seen a sharp decline, but the sweet science is seeking a major comeback, demonstrated in no small part by the new Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), which debuted at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in March.

Haymon Boxing created PBC in order to breathe new life into the sport, and the premiere marked the first time in 30 years that NBC has aired a boxing match. Production designer Bruce Rodgers of Tribe, Inc., who says this was “definitely a different and challenging project,” was first contacted by Michael Marto, president of Executive Visions Inc., to help Haymon Boxing reimagine the look of professional boxing, and to bring the sport back to primetime television. “Along with the talented lighting designer John Featherstone of Lightswitch, technical producer Mario Educate of OSA, rigger Bill Spoon, designer/builder Erik Eastland of All Access Staging & Productions, executive producer Michael Marto, and my design team at Tribe inc., our core group went about finding a tourable design that would provide a signature look to the new world of boxing,” says Rodgers.

Rodgers adds that “the stars aligned” to bring the team together with key players that included Matt Celli, David Gibson, Anthony Bailey, and others at NBC Sports, as well as “friends at CBS Sports, ESPN, SpikeTV, and Bounce TV” to finesse the design into a system that would work visually and technically in various size venues. “And to top it all off, Michael brought in Hans Zimmer to compose all the music for the new TV series venture, which checked a major bucket list item of mine.”

Featherstone, also brought in by Marto, says that his lighting team, including co-lighting designers Chris Medvitz and Warwick Burton, was tasked with presenting “a truly unique and ground-up rethink of the boxing experience,” adding that he was particularly excited to do this project, having grown up in the Midlands and North of England in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when boxing was an integral part of his community. “Football might be the ‘English religion,’ but it was a sport we watched, not a sport we could aspire to. You needed a bunch of friends and a lot of space to play soccer. All you needed for boxing was a 12' square, an opponent, and two pairs of gloves, and the gloves were optional! You could ask anyone on the street who the World Heavyweight Champion was, and they would instantly know. I wonder if that would be the case today. I suggest perhaps not, and we wanted to change that. We wanted to remove the tarnish and grime from the ‘Sport of Kings’ and give boxing back to the fans in an all new presentation and design.”

Rodgers’ vision included the massive main stage, called “The Wall of Thunder,” as well as the immense scoreboard, dubbed “The Death Star,” comprising several rings, including the camera truss ring, the scoreboard and lighting grid ring, the soffit ring with the mother grid, and finally, “The Ring of Honor.” All Access Staging & Productions was responsible for all the staging structures and scenic features for the event, including The Wall of Thunder, The Death Star, custom scenic truss, mother grid, lighting truss, custom PA hangers, video support, the NBC broadcast desk, and all the structural and scenic elements that went into the athlete warm-up rooms. These components also featured a significant amount of LED integration.

All of this, Rodgers says, was a daunting task: “Respect the basics of boxing, a 5,000 year-old sport, and the audience viewing experience, build a look that is modern, cool, and dramatic that supports the essence of the sport, and the most challenging part, create a design that matches the emotion that one feels when listening to Hans Zimmer’s music,” the designer says.

Rodgers tackled the task in a number of ways, his main goal being to help define the visual and very vertical scale. “I thought it would be important to create a modern gladiator-sized arena look that could travel to different cities, giving the viewer a sense of the same place in each city,” he says. “Imagine walking into your familiar town venue to find it transformed into an epic environment that you recognize from the television event you’ve been following. Having a TV set travel and generating this feeling is making the live event more fun and satisfying to the live and TV viewer.”

Featherstone notes that the vertical space issue was a welcome challenge, as well as an opportunity to rethink the way combat sports are lit. “There is a ton of vertical space in an arena, and often, that vertical dimension has been unexplored in boxing events,” he says. “We wanted to use the ring as the anchor, of course, but fill the visual frame with exciting elements that quite simply transform regular sports arenas into cathedrals for boxing. This also means ‘no bad shots’ for the TV directors, with visual interest and excitement in every frame.”

Wrapped around the Ring of Honor is what Featherstone calls a “hub-and-spoke” array of lighting trusses for both ring and audience lighting positions. “Working from the center point defined by Bruce, we used the lighting to extend the immersive reach of the production all the way into the corners of the arena,” he adds, noting that the lighting design detracts from more traditional one-off sporting events, where the norm has been using arrays of conventionals—also adding LEDs in recent years—on a four-sided grid around the ring. “We took a step back, rethought the approach, and after much discussion with the TV networks and many photometric studies, decided on a circular truss loaded with arc source moving lights,” Featherstone continues.

The main fixture in the lighting rig is the Harman Martin Professional MAC Viper AirFX—28 of them, and Featherstone calls them “remarkable and crazy flat and bright”—covering the ring. “Rather than carving the ring into sections and trying to ‘feather’ the light, we treat the ring as what it is: one complete combat zone,” says Featherstone. “Light falls evenly from positions every 12ºor so around the ring. There is consistent lighting from every angle. The TV crews love it, the 360 camera guys need it, and the boxers and their trainers have responded very positively to it.” Another 75 MAC Viper AirFX luminaires are used for audience light and stage backlight, while 30 Martin Professional MAC Viper Performance units are for stage key light.

[PART II]
Haymon Boxing createdPremier Boxing Champions (PBC),which debuted at theMGM Grand Garden Arenain March with production design by Bruce Rodgers ofTribe, Inc., who was first contacted by Michael Marto, president of Executive Visions Inc., to help Haymon Boxing reimagine the look of professional boxing, and to bring the sport back to primetime television. “Along with the talented lighting designerJohn Featherstone of Lightswitch, technical producer Mario Educate of OSA, rigger Bill Spoon, designer/builder Erik Eastland ofAll Access Staging & Productions, executive producer Michael Marto, and my design team at Tribe inc., our core group went about finding a tourable design that would provide a signature look to the new world of boxing,” says Rodgers. Read about the beginning stages of the process in Part One.

Featherstone also uses 39 Clay Paky Sharpy fixtures, 194 Chauvet Professional Colorado 1-Quad Tour PARs, and 12 Kino Flo Tegra 4BankDMX units, with Lee Filters colors specified for the followspots. Control is via an MA Lighting grandMA2 console, and Upstaging supplied the lighting package. Austin Shapley was the assistant lighting designer, with programming done by Mike Robertson. The production electrician/console operator is Dave Zuckerman, and the lighting crew includes Ken Burns, Jr., Brian Kasten, Josh Wagner, and Devon Zuckerman.

The video surfaces total seven LED walls comprising 576 Absen C7 7mm LED tiles and 805 Absen A3 Pro 3.9mm LED tiles, and Rodgers says the content is a major part of the design. “Each network provided its specific brand content with a few common PBC brand graphics that tie the look of the tour from network to network, and each graphic package has been unique and high quality,” says Rodgers, whose team at Tribe working on this project included set designer and illustrator Evan Alexander, CGI artists Amber Stinebrink and Lucas Martell, and art directors Lindsey Breslauer and Floyd Rodgers.

The 80'-diameter Ring of Honor sits 68' above the show floor and uses 456 C7 tiles, fed from backstage by three NovaStar MCTRL660 video processors connected to the ring via two 1,000' Gepco TAC-12 fiber cables. The content is split into two 180º sections, each 4,560 pixels wide by 320 pixels high, with a total resolution of 9,120x320. The scoreboard uses the A3 tiles, with a resolution of 1,920x1,024 per side. The Wall of Thunder is actually three individual walls at house-left, house-right, and center, each comprising A3 9mm tiles and fed via an individual video signal generated from custom playback servers.

Controlling the video are several complex systems, including the custom-built setup of four rack-mounted Apple Mac Minis running OSA proprietary playback software that works in tandem with a Vizrt content management and control system designed by Reality Check Systems. Each server outputs to its own AJA ROI Mini-Converter that splits the signal into HD-SDI for broadcast truck return and DVI for the in-house LED walls. The Vizrt server runs the majority of the show, allowing for realtime input of fighter stats and other up-to-the-minute information. An Avitech Rainier 3G Plus multi-viewer provides local video monitoring.

All of the playback server outputs are routed through a Lightware 64x64 DVI router and a Sierra Ponderosa 64x64 3G HD-SDI router that eventually lead to a Vista Spyder X20 that can create presets for each screen and switch sources to each screen seamlessly. The production also uses two BlackMagic DesignATEM 2 M/E Switchers with an ATEM 1 M/E Console for sub-switching program feeds and EVS feeds. Finally are 11 networked Barco ImagePro II JRs connected to a high-power, dual-band wireless router, through which an Apple iPad or iPhone can connect remotely via an encrypted network. The OSA international crew includes Angel Banchs, Mat Covell, Scott DeLancey, Skip Hutton, Todd Kramer, and Luis Muchuca.

The parameters of the regulation size of the ring and the timing of the rounds also helped to shape the design. “During the in-between rounds and fights, our design comes to life with informative content and inspiring music,but everything comes to a hushed arena-sized focus with the start of each round of boxing, which is a great rush of excitement in and out of each bout,” says Rodgers.

Featherstone and his team did extensive previsualization at Prelite, allowing everyone from the executive producer level down, to “all get in the sand box and decide on lighting cues, camera angles, and a multitude of other show elements before and during the install of the first production at the MGM in Las Vegas,” he says, adding that it saved time, eliminated headaches, allowed validation of concepts, and made for a smooth onsite process. “Michael Marto was an enthusiastic early adopter of previsualization years ago and really understands the value it brings to projects,” the lighting designer adds. “As new elements were added to the design, they became opportunities to integrate them into the overall aesthetic vocabulary. For example, PBC added a groundbreaking 360 cam—kind of like the sweeping, circular effects pioneered withThe Matrix—that needed a circle of camera positions on a truss around the ring. So rather than making this an afterthought, it was integrated into the design. Bruce designed and All Access constructed a bespoke, custom truss structure with linear LED lighting integrated into it, and we programmed it into the show, and it has become part of our hallmark look.”

And that hallmark look is helping PCB make an impact. The premier event, in which Keith Thurman defeated Robert Guerrero, brought in huge ratings, with viewership of 4.2 million, the most watched fight broadcast since 1998. “The epic soundscape, helped by audio designer Carmen Educate, the illuminated environment, staging, and visuals combine to raise the emotional state of the viewing TV audience, existing and new boxing fans,” says Rodgers. “The look of the production—from the custom fighters’ red and blue warm up rooms, to the introduction and stats main stage, to the sports desk for legendary announcers Al Michaels and Sugar Ray Leonard, to the new boxing ring and fighters’ corners, and the overhead hero piece, Ring of Honor—every detail was designed to support and enhance the energy of two boxers battling strategically in a controlled environment surrounded by intense and loyal fans. It’s being called a success, which we’re proud of, but more importantly to me, the tour and the quality of the broadcast is helping bring back a great sport based on technique, athletic skills, and sportsmanship.”

Featherstone adds that the experience working with Rodgers and his team at Tribe is always one of true collaboration, and he cites the “‘no bad source for a good idea’ philosophy they have; it truly is a delight. So by working with Bruce and Erik Eastland and the crew at All Access, it is really hard to tell where one department ends and another begins, which, to me, is the essence of a great design process. We were challenged by Michael Marto and PBC to create a grand vista with a single purpose: to connect the audience to the two gladiators in the ring in ways never before experienced. We believe we have conceived an experience unlike anything ever before seen in the sport of boxing. Come see a fight near you. You won’t regret it!”