By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Years ago, it was must-see TV.
During my initial period of intoxication with boxing – ages 10 to 18, or thereabout – I can vividly remember turning down all manner of social interaction to make sure I wouldn’t miss the weekly fight cards broadcast on a then-novel cable entity called ESPN.
Family going to a late dinner? Sorry, can’t make it.
Friends assembling a street hockey game? No can do, guys, find another goalie.
Pressing homework assignments past due? Oh well, guess I’ll take the zero.
Back then, my devotion to house fighters like Dio Colome, Robin Blake and Freddie Roach – yes, that Freddie Roach – and voices named Al Bernstein, Randy Gordon and Sal Marchiano was far stronger than anything short of breathing, eating and, well… you know.
If it was Thursday and there was a fight show, I was watching.
But the infatuation eventually gave way to the weight of jobs, girlfriends and college entrance exams, prompting a period of nearly two decades between stages where I’d consider myself a “regular” viewer of the four-letter network’s late-week offerings.
Oh sure, I’d catch the occasional Top Rank Boxing special or have an occasional living-room drive-by with its eventual progeny – Friday Night Fights – but it never got to a point where familiarity with Mssrs. Tessitore, Atlas and Kenny was anything close to what it had been a generation before.
But I’ve tried to change things lately.
Beginning a few months back with HBO’s official exit from the ring business, I’ve made a concerted effort to reconnect with my past in a way that simultaneously allows a benefit toward my intermittent career of choice.
Go figure, huh… watching a basic cable fight show might be a plus for a boxing writer.
Anyway, now that I’ve again become part of the ESPN viewership, I’ve noticed a handful of things in the way of comparison with its Thursday night grandfather.
Superior technology, options for instant interaction and a more-produced overall product surely give the whole thing a more professional feel than the thrown-together nature of things from three decades past.
The mid-show updates and reports from the Bristol studio are a particularly strong addition, especially when a high-end boxer or one of the sport’s premier power-brokers is there to comment on breaking news, an imminent big event or some other relevant news item.
I’ll concede to barely stomaching Mark Kriegel’s prodigious ego, but his contributions are significant, and Atlas’s analysis is often a slam-dunk positive as well, providing insight to the main event competitors’ styles and sequences to watch for once the opening bell rings.
So from top to bottom, there’s no question it’s a better show... in SD or HD.
But truth be told, I watch it now and still long for days gone by.
While the announce team is strong and the top-to-bottom package more complete, the sentimentalist in me simply recalls a more palpable anticipation and intrigue leading into the shows of the 1980s.
In reality it may be no different and perhaps it’s because I was a kid, but it somehow felt back then as if a big upset or a surprisingly competitive fight happened with more regularity than the scripted, this house fighter will beat that imported “opponent” en route to bigger shows down the road.
Instead of an ESPN date being a sign a fighter had made the big time as it was back then, a weekly appearance now too often reeks of a carefully arranged, drama-free steppingstone.
And because they were fighting for more with each show, identifiable past characters like Mario “Bucket of Blood” Chavez, Kenny “Bang Bang” Bogner and Eric “The Prince” Martin seem far more romantic and interesting than the contrived, protected ilk of 2019.
The former left it all in the ring. The latter want to expend little and save more for later.
Another sure favorite of the good, old days was the annual ESPN tournament, in which the network would arrange a handful of bouts leading to the crowning of weight-class champions – who then would occasionally defend the belts in subsequent title bouts.
Some of my fondest memories revolve around those fights and those titles, and even the gimmicky sudden-death 13th round that would occur when a close 12-round bout ended – prompting the referee to tell the corners not to cut gloves off – and was ultimately decided after three more minutes.
Imagine such a scenario today. No promoter in his right mind would suggest it. No manager in his right mind would consider it. No fighter in his right mind would agree to it.
Given the insulated nature of today, it’s pretty impossible to imagine that sort of fun coming back.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
WBA minimum title – Bangkok, Thailand
Thammanoon Niyomtrong (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. ArAr Andales (No. 5 WBA/No. 47 IWBR)
Niyomtrong (19-0, 7 KO): Seventh title defense; Went the distance in 10 of 12 scheduled 12-rounders
Andales (10-0, 2 KO): First title fight; Only one fight beyond eight rounds
Fitzbitz says: The 19-year-old challenger is a prodigy, but it’s curious that a guy the WBA ranks fifth is put 42 spots lower by independent arbiters. The gap will be apparent. Niyomtrong by decision (99/1)
Last week's picks: 3-0 (WIN: Farmer, Davis, Ramirez)
2019 picks record: 62-13 (82.6 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,073-356 (75.0 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 protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.