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ON BOXING

It's a fancy move from ESPN

Network quite happy to get back in the ring

Barely a year after an internal investigation into ESPN's boxing program led to the dismissal of its long-time boxing coordinator and a shakeup in its approach that left many small-time promoters losing money just to put a show on the network, ESPN has decided to fight for a niche in the sport long the property of HBO and Showtime.

When ESPN announced earlier this year that its weekly "Friday Night Fights" on ESPN2 was going on hiatus for the college football season, many speculated the show would, unlike most retired boxers, never return. ESPN already had slashed its rights fee to a "partnership" in which it demanded promoters supply advertisers and then surrender the bulk of the revenue to the network.

Some promoters stopped doing business with ESPN, saying they didn't need its help to lose money. Others battled for a shrinking amount of dates many felt were going in disproportionate amounts to Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya, who owned promotional companies and who seemed to have a cozy relationship with the distributor of the ESPN dates.

Leonard in particular had a long-term contract that assured him far more per show than independent promoters, creating the unlevel playing field boxing long has been known for and which so often has led the sport to the brink of disaster.

But last week, with the NHL in the midst of a lockout, ESPN took a step to ensure it not only is going to continue its long relationship with the sport but is ready to jump into its biggest money-making arena -- pay-per-view bouts -- when the network announced an agreement with Kathy Duva's Main Events promotional company. The agreement will pay Duva far more in rights fees than the network had been been guaranteeing, in exchange for providing an upgraded monthly card showcasing some of Main Events' best young talent, with the idea that the best eventually will get pay-per-view exposure that might break the near monopoly held by HBO and Showtime.

The difference between pay-per-view and HBO Championship Boxing, which long has been the sport's premier earning opportunity for fighters, is that anyone can go on pay-per-view in the right setting and with proper distribution and make money. But stars have to be developed, something the sport has found increasingly difficult with the absence of anything but minimal interest on free TV and the dubious quality of some of the shows ESPN and Fox have televised.

The advantage for ESPN is that it can showcase fighters like World Boxing Association lightweight champion Juan Diaz (25-0), who will kick off the new series by defending his title Nov. 4 against No. 1 contender Julian Lorcy (56-3-2). Then ESPN can capitalize as his popularity grows by putting his biggest fights on pay-per-view without fear that Duva will build up her young fighters only to abandon it for other cable outlets before ESPN can cash in.

This is not to say the biggest stars in boxing won't continue to seek the guaranteed millions of HBO and Showtime, because they still have the deepest pockets. HBO, in particular, likely will remain unstoppable if it wants to sign a young prospect, but at least for the length of the contract between ESPN and Duva, the network is protected from an exodus.

In the meantime, ESPN believes, it will create characters by promoting the fighters not only on its channels but also on its radio network, in its magazine, and on its website.

"I think it's going to help a lot of young boxers coming up," Diaz said at a news conference to announce the alliance.

"We have different media where we can expose fighters, project their personalities, and let sports consumers get to know them," added John Wildhack, ESPN's senior vice president of programming. "The accepted model when you get to a certain level of fighter has been pay-per-view. We think it makes sense for us to be in that business. With the marketing resources we have, we can broaden the reach of boxing in general."

It is the kind of opportunity boxing people long have lacked and long have hoped for, although while it will benefit Duva's fighters, there remains a question whether it will do much good for boxers on the rise not affiliated with Main Events. Still, anything that raises the profile of the sport and its young talent is a positive -- at least until the people who run boxing do what they usually do and ruin things.

ESPN's partnership with Duva is an effort to reverse that trend by taking fighters like Diaz and undefeated Rocky Juarez, who will headline a Dec. 3 show that also will include Duva's heavyweight prospect Dominick Guinn (24-1), and make them more than just boxers. By the time the season is well along, the belief is fans will know ESPN's fighters as people as well as talent, and they will become swept up in the soap opera of a fighter's career as they once were with many of the sport's legends.

"The purpose of the shows that we're doing with ESPN is to develop the next pay-per-view star by exposing them to the public," Duva said. "The idea is to build and expose fighters on the same card and then have them fight each other down the road. We've always felt that you have to present boxers on broadcast or basic cable in order to develop them as stars."

HBO is hardly trembling at the invasion of ESPN into a sport it long has dominated, but it also understands the power of ESPN branding and the depth of its pockets, so in the end there may be two fights going on once these shows begin. One between Duva's boxers and their opponents, and another between ESPN and HBO/Showtime. What boxing has to hope is that ESPN2 doesn't fall into the same trap its bigger rivals sometimes have, and forget it's a TV network, not a king-maker in a sport that often destroys the people who try to help it.

Channeling

Bombastic promoter Don King is threatening to do something similar to ESPN by starting a 24-hour boxing cable channel, but one that also would include hip-hop and martial arts shows. Although King does not yet have a business partner or space on cable systems, he, like ESPN, is not to be ignored once he decides to put his efforts and considerable resources into something. What ESPN brings to telecasts is obvious. What King brings is his money, his energy, his promotional skills, his personality, his ruthlessness, his fighters, his legend, and his vast film library, which would allow him to re-broadcast some of the greatest fights in history over the last 30 years. While Duva has been working for months to make the deal with ESPN, King has been bombarding his own broadcast partner, HBO, with a drumbeat of criticism, claiming it has not done enough to help him promote his shows on other HBO Sports broadcasts, even though either HBO or its pay-per-view arm were telecasting those fights. HBO denies it, but King, who is never short on enemies both real and imagined, says the need for an independent boxing channel is urgent "because I feel like a homeless promoter." If he is he's still under HBO's roof next month, it will distribute his four-sided heavyweight show in Madison Square Garden. Stay tuned . . . King's rival, Bob Arum, was trying to hustle fights for Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather Jr. to HBO and various East Coast venues last week. He tried to pitch Hopkins's 20th title defense to Bally's in Atlantic City, but it was lukewarm, believing Hopkins does not spur enough ticket buys without a significant opponent like De La Hoya or Felix Trinidad . . . World Boxing Organization super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe is one of the sport's longest-reigning champions, having held his title seven years. He has defended it 15 times, including a lackluster win over Kabary Salem last weekend that seemed to provide more questions than answers for the 32-year-old Brit. Calzaghe has been fighting for some time to keep his weight at 168 pounds and has for so long searched for a big fight without any luck that it seemed his poor showing against Salem might have been a sign that it is time for him to either step up in weight, step up in class, or step out of the ring. He was sent to the floor in the fourth round by a counter right and engaged in a wrestling match that was at times more brawling than boxing. Even Calzaghe conceded, "That was the worst you will see of me. It was a bad day at the office." Calzaghe long has chased Roy Jones Jr. without luck and now is being urged to move up to light heavyweight to pursue Glencoffe Johnson, the man who KO'd Jones, or Antonio Tarver. "I've been making weight for so long, but now it's a struggle," Calzaghe said. "I believe I'll be a better fighter at 175. The problem is the champions don't want to fight me. Let's hope they watched this fight and take a bit of confidence from it." . . . Johnny Tapia's Nov. 6 comeback appears to be on hold. Tapia thought he would be the semi-main event under Kostya Tszyu-Sharmba Mitchell, but Showtime has rejected his opponent, undefeated Sod Looknongyangtoy (20-0), and it appears he cannot get a new opponent in time. Tapia was hoping one win would land him a title fight against reigning WBO super bantamweight champ Joan Guzman.

Sugar's sweet deal
Leonard has decided to close down his 3-year-old promotional company, not because of a dispute with partner Bjorn Rebney, but because of his sweetheart three-year deal with NBC's "The Contender" reality show that will pay him several million dollars if all goes well. Leonard and Rebney are at odds, and Rebney reportedly is suing Leonard. Leonard's fat deal with ESPN to provide the cable network 14 shows a year for three times the money paid other promoters ended in September, another reason for the closing. After Nov. 18, when Leonard stages his final show, he will release the fighters . . . Don't ask me how Omar Sheika deserves a world title shot, but he's got one Dec. 4 on Showtime vs. Jeff Lacy, the first member of the 2000 Olympic team to win a world title. Lacy will make the first defense of his super middleweight title on the undercard of a lightweight battle between World Boxing Council champ Jose Luis Castillo and former champion Joel Casamayor. Casamayor had hoped for a third fight with Diego Corrales, but a deal could not be made so Casamayor (31-2, 19 KOs), who held the WBA super featherweight title for two years, accepted a chance to face two-time lightweight champion Castillo . . . Pity poor Michael Moorer. The two-time heavyweight champion has descended to the level too many former champs reach. He has become a trial horse, a punching bag for guys like his next opponent, former cruiserweight champ Vassily Jirov, whom he will face Dec. 9 on the second boxing show to be televised by "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period." Promoter Dan Goossen gave the show the James Toney-Rydell Booker fight for its first foray into televised boxing, and now has provided more major names in Jirov, who appears to have ended Joe Mesi's career, and Moorer . . . There are no further signs of Mesi trying to get his suspension lifted in Nevada after being forced to admit he suffered bleeding on the brain during his fight with Jirov. To his credit, promoter Tony Holden quietly has stopped working with the Mesis, in part because he believes information on the Buffalo heavyweight's medical condition was withheld from him. He had said from the moment questions were raised about Mesi's health that he no longer would promote him if Nevada did not lift the suspension. Although Holden made some harsh statements about the man who first revealed the situation, ESPN2 boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, it is to his credit that in the end he refused to continue promoting Mesi if the boxer's health was at risk . . . Manny Pacquiao is risking a Feb. 26 showdown with WBA-International Boxing Federation featherweight champ Juan Manuel Marquez in Las Vegas by accepting a December tuneup in Manila, although his management team already has dumped the scheduled opponent for a less formidable foe.

Amazing Grace
An interesting opening bout will kick off the US Marine team's "Great Northeast Tour" Nov. 9 when Grace Kelly (honest) gets into the ring at The Roxy to face undefeated Lisa Kuronya (14-0) as part of a card pitting the Marine team against a squad of New England amateurs. The team also will fight at Foxwoods Nov. 11 and in Philadelphia Nov. 13 in a tour to benefit the Marine Corps scholarship fund that will be promoted by Sal LoNano's S&L Boxing. For information, call 617-227-9332. Micky Ward will be on hand in Boston and Philadelphia to support the 10-fight cards . . . Friday night 38-year-old Scott Pemberton (28-3-1) puts his No. 3 world ranking at risk against Jim Crawford (40-7-2) at Foxwoods, with Connecticut's Chad Dawson and Providence prospect Matt Godfrey on the undercard. Godfrey is 5-0. This is his sixth pro fight in five months. For information, call 401-724-2253 or 800-200-2882 . . . New Bedford's Ray Oliveira gets a comeback opportunity Dec. 11 in London when he steps in against undefeated No. 1-rated junior welterweight contender Ricky Hatton. Hatton (37-0) also holds the nondescript World Boxing Union 140-pound title, which he will be defending for the 15th time. The bigger issue is if Oliveira can knock Hatton out of a chance to face the winner of the Tszyu-Mitchell fight. The 36-year-old Oliveira (47-9-2) never has been able to get over the hump in this kind of fight, having lost to the likes of former world champion Vernon Forrest and Ben Tackie. Four years ago, he won a 10-round decision from current WBA titleholder Vivian Harris. Hatton is coming off a five-round TKO of Mike Stewart in September. 

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