I’ve been a boxing fan for about as long as I can remember.
From the moment I shared my dad’s recliner to watch Kenny Norton violently erase the “0” from Duane Bobick’s pro record, I’ve been as hooked as hooked can be.
I was 8. Do the math… I’m a bit older now.
Fortunately, I’ve kept busy enough since to disregard the calendar changes.
I’ve traveled internationally to cover fights. I’ve interviewed nearly every boxing hero I ever had. I’ve appeared on radio and TV more times than I recall. I’ve written a column in this space for 12 years.
And as a bonus… I’ve been paid, albeit modestly, to do it.
In other words, I’ve done nothing less than live that little kid’s dream.
Which is why I’m feeling awfully conflicted these days.
Because as televised combat sports get further beyond apocalyptic shutdown mode and further into antiseptic bubble mode, the chasm between the products available on ESPN grows wider by the week.
And my most beloved sport isn’t close to being on the optimum side.
Though Top Rank cards have featured main-event commodities like Emanuel Navarrete, Jessie Magdaleno and Shakur Stevenson – among others – since returning early last month, the fights in which they’ve been matched have been barely watchable, let alone TV worthy, in terms of competition.
Stevenson went six rounds with a guy whose previous three opponents had 32 losses between them. Magdaleno’s foe was slightly more competitive – and far more amateurish – on the way to a 10th-round disqualification for repeated low blows. And Navarrete’s foil had already lost three straight fights before arriving in Mexico City, and left six rounds later with a dubious pro record of 13-14-1.
None of the fights even measured up to a “glorified sparring session” label.
Which, ominously, isn’t exactly ideal to get the masses revved-up for the next time around.
But while one-sided matches can be rationalized, if not wholly excused, by pandemic-created logistics, every bit as difficult to watch as the fights have been the broadcasts on which they’re packaged.
For example, and presumably like most who’ve already read this far, I was giddy about the early June card on which Stevenson was featured in the spotlight bout. I assumed going in that the fight itself wouldn’t amount to much, but that was far outweighed by the buzz of simply having boxing back on TV.
That lasted roughly 15 minutes.
And was quickly replaced with, “Really ESPN, is this the best you can do?”
The initial show and each of the ones I’ve seen since have been an exercise in consistent virtual frustration – with members of the remote announce team frequently babbling over one another, or, on the flip side, leaving awkward stretches in which no one bothers to take the verbal lead.
Andre Ward and Tim Bradley are still new enough to the TV game to get a pass, especially in an environment with zero on-the-job training. Veterans Joe Tessitore and Mark Kriegel, though, ought to be far better than they’ve been – specifically regarding the former’s needless tirade last week against a late sub missing weight, and the latter’s fondness for using 500 words when 50 or so will do.
Now I’m not at all suggesting having four guys in four locations trying to seamlessly call fights is a simple task. But yes, I did think that the worldwide leader in sports would be able to come up with something that sounded more like a big-league TV production and less like an elementary school Zoom meeting.
Especially when the product is laid next to the one put forth by the UFC.
Though the mixed martial arts conglomerate admittedly had a few weeks’ head start on its boxing cousin, the television experience on the very same network seems light years ahead in terms of quality.
Not only have the cards been far deeper in terms of competitiveness, the production value of the TV shows is streamlined and more viewer-friendly thanks in no small part to having a team in the building.
The broadcasts from the UFC Apex locked-down facility in Las Vegas – roughly seven miles from Top Rank’s bubble at the MGM Grand Conference Center – have included nearly all the bells and whistles of a typical show at a jam-packed arena, from Bruce Buffer’s over-the-top intros to coherent and insightful commentary from an engaged and cohesive announce crew.
In fact, if you weren’t aware COVID-19 existed, you’d probably not even notice a difference.
Top Rank’s Evan Korn told Boxing Scene it was an “ESPN decision” to have the boxing team working outside the venue and added that the network “wanted to limit number of employees in the bubble.”
He was unaware of the reason why the UFC shows are handled differently in terms of on-site announce teams, and a representative from ESPN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Regardless of reason, alarm bells are ringing as multiple reports indicate ratings for UFC shows are far outpacing those for Top Rank.
The UFC’s last Las Vegas show before heading to Fight Island – headlined by lightweights Dan Hooker and Dustin Poirier on June 27 – averaged better than 1 million viewers across two hours starting at 10 p.m., and its two-hour prelim show averaged 635,000 from 8 to 10. Meanwhile, the Top Rank show that immediately followed averaged 418,000 fans, with 130-pound champ Miguel Berchelt in the main event.
The most recent Top Rank show, led by Felix Verdejo’s impressive blast-out of Will Madera, peaked at 444,000 viewers in the 15-minute block from 9:45 to 10 p.m. on July 16.
It’s prompted a suggestion, admittedly partisan, that the shows are doing as much harm as good.
“The content is not good enough. And you’re seeing that being reflected in the ratings,” UK-based promoter Eddie Hearn told the Ak and Barak Show. “Top Rank and ESPN shows are running non-competitive fights and a lot of the times with fighters that don’t have significant profiles. You’ve only gotta look at the ratings that are being produced by ESPN and Top Rank – it’s horrible for the sport.
“It’s giving people an excuse to say, ‘Boxing’s dead!’ Boxing’s not dead, when you get the product right. And when we come back, we’ve gotta make sure we get the product right.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
Last week's picks: None
2020 picks record: 14-3 (82.3 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,130-368 (75.4 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.