By Thomas Hauser
Five years ago, when ESPN inaugurated ESPN2 Friday Night Fights, the network promised viewers an experience reminiscent of Gillette Friday Night Fights from the 1950s. Now the public might be getting a rerun of ABC's scandal-ridden 1977 United States Boxing Championships.
ESPN is aware that issues have been raised regarding its boxing programming. Earlier this summer, it launched an internal probe. ESPN personnel and others from the boxing industry have been questioned. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, September 2nd, the network suffered another setback when it televised a fight card from the Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester, West Virginia.
The September 2nd card featured 6-foot-9-inch 278-pound Tye Fields versus Sherman "Tank" Williams. Fields entered the ring with a record of 28 wins, 1 loss, and 27 knockouts. Twenty-three of those knockouts came in the first round. Prior to Williams, Fields had never fought a quality opponent. He is widely regarded as a mediocre pugilist. Only two of Fields's fights had gone past two rounds.
Williams, a veteran of Cedric Kushner's "Heavyweight Explosion" cards, sported a 23-7-1 record against more serious competition, including a ten-round draw with Jameel McCline.
On the day of the fight, online betting odds are said to have shifted significantly in Fields's favor. That afternoon, Bob Yalen, who oversees boxing for ESPN, received a telephone call from an industry acquaintance who he talks with several times a week. The acquaintance asked a single question.
"Have you heard the rumors that your fight is fixed?"
Yalen said "no" and promised to call the site to check into the allegation. The performance by Sherman Williams that night did nothing to dispel the notion of a fix.
People of good will can interpret what they see differently. But to a lot of observers, it looked as though Williams was aiming to miss. Over the course of 12 rounds, he consistently threw punches in the wrong place at the wrong time and landed only 53 blows. Possibly, he was intimidated by the fact that a big muscular southpaw was standing in front of him. But remember; this is a guy who, three years ago, didn't have a size problem with Jameel McCline.
Williams looked like a man who didn't want to win the fight. And during the fight, telephone wires started humming.
"Turn on the TV. They're showing a fixed fight on ESPN."
Emanuel Steward was in Fields's corner by virtue of the fact that the fighter had trained for a month at the Kronk Gym.
"I think Williams wanted to win," says Steward. "He just couldn't. He gave up because he understood early in the fight that he was a beaten fighter. It wasn't much different in principle from Mike Tyson understanding from the second round on that he was going to lose to Lennox Lewis."
Ron Scott Stevens, who worked for Cedric Kushner Promotions and is now chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, also sounds a cautionary note regarding conclusions that might be reached. "I made a lot of fights for Sherman when I was with CKP," says Stevens. "He's a good guy, but you never know which Sherman is going to show up. There are times when he fights and times when he doesn't. He didn't fight against Derrick Banks or Taurus Sykes either [both ten-round losses], and no one ever suggested that those fights were fixed."
But usually, when a fighter doesn't give much of an effort, it's in a fight that he doesn't think he can win. And Eric Bottjer, who served as CKP's matchmaker for years, observes, "I don't care who you send to Emanuel Steward. If he can't fight, he won't learn how in four weeks. I can't think of a single heavyweight we've promoted in the past five years who wouldn't have beaten Tye Fields."
And Henry Foster, Williams's manager, was extremely disturbed by what he saw. "I was as surprised as anybody," Foster acknowledged several days after the bout. "I'm totally shocked by the way the fight went. I came there expecting Sherman to win by knockout, and I felt that his effort was non-existent. I'm not going to make any excuses for Sherman's performance. There was no evidence of any desire on his part to be a champion. As the fight went on, I got more and more depressed. Sherman has lost fights before that he should have won. He's had a couple of bad fights in the past when he just couldn't fire, and this might have been one of them. After the fight, I asked him one question: 'Do you think you lost to a better fighter?' And he told me, 'Absolutely not.' Sherman is not a wealthy guy. I know he's behind on his bills. I've heard the rumors, but I don't want to give credence to them."
No one should blame Tye Fields for any of this. By all accounts, he's a decent hardworking young man who's doing the best he can in a very tough business. Wes Wolfe, who trained Fields for 13 months, says, "Tye is the hardest-working fighter I've ever had; a real good kid; never gives anyone any problems. The whole thing stinks, but it's not his fault."
But one has to take a long hard look at the way ESPN2 handled the situation. Here, the thoughts of Showtime boxing czar Jay Larkin are instructive. "If someone who I respected called me on the day of a fight with the rumor of a fix," says Larkin, "I'd call the local state athletic commission; I'd call the promoter; and I'd call our announcers to put them all on alert."
That's what happened on July 29, 1997, when rumors circulated that journeyman Bert Cooper had agreed to take a dive against the much-hyped Richie Melito in a bout at Madison Square Garden. Properly advised, New York State Athletic Commission officials visited Cooper in his dressing room shortly before the fight and transmitted a stern warning. Whatever Cooper's previous plans might have been, he knocked Melito out with a body shot in the first round.
No one is suggesting that ESPN fixed a fight or knowingly televised a fixed fight. But no matter how one looks at the situation, ESPN dropped the ball. Yalen says that, after receiving the warning, he telephoned his coordinating producer and "told him to keep an eye on the situation." But that's not how the telecast looked.
Televising a fight is a team effort. ESPN blow-by-blow commentator Joe Tessitore and "expert" commentator Scott LeDoux should have been told of the rumors beforehand. Instead of lavishly praising Fields, they should at some point have called Williams's effort into question. But instead, LeDoux babbled on about how great Fields looked, likening him to Lennox Lewis. And five days after the fight, Yalen still hadn't reported the pre-fight call he received to the West Virginia State Athletic Commission.
There are a lot of questions to be answered regarding Tye Fields versus Sherman Williams. The authorities responsible for enforcing the law should ask them under oath. Meanwhile, Fields versus Williams arises at a time when ESPN's boxing programming is already under fire.
ESPN and ESPN2 televise close to seventy fights a year, including forty-eight on Friday nights. There's not a lot of money to be made on ESPN dates. But the network is crucial to moving young fighters; it's a place where careers are molded; and ESPN fights can make or break a promoter. In other words, decisions at ESPN can alter the balance of power in the boxing industry.
Bob Yalen controls the budget for ESPN boxing and has final responsibility for quality control over fights. When ESPN2 Friday Night Fights were in their infancy, he and Russell Peltz shared authority as to which dates would go to which promoters. A year later, Peltz was stripped of his power and Yalen assumed full control over key decisions. Peltz's role has been reduced to that of an on-site trouble-shooter for ESPN2 Friday Night Fights. He has no connection to the Tuesday offerings.
The boxing community was told that ESPN fights would be open to the competitive market. Each promoter would be encouraged to make its best offer. ESPN would then buy the best that was offered, and the public would see competitive bouts featuring a new generation of young fighters who were on their way to becoming superstars.
But it hasn't evolved that way. And within the boxing community, a number of people are upset by what they perceive as a tilted playing field. More specifically, they're asking:
(1) Why does ESPN give so many dates to promoters without specific match-ups attached?
(2) Why does ESPN give dates to promoters who don't have any fighters under contract?
(3) Why does ESPN allow the dates it gives to certain promoters to be sold to other promoters?
(4) Why has ESPN given so many dates to Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing?
(5) Why has ESPN frozen out so many promoters? For example, Main Events hasn't had a Friday night date since March 2, 2001.
6) Why has ESPN turned down certain fighters as "boring" and then accepted the same fighter when offered by a favored promoter?
(7) Why has ESPN turned down certain fights and then accepted the identical fight when offered by a favored promoter?
(8) Why does ESPN give dates to promoters who change fights at the last minute as a matter of course?
(9) Why does ESPN put so much emphasis on buying bogus alphabet-soup title fights?
These questions are being asked against a backdrop of persistent rumors regarding the motivation for the choices that Yalen has made. And the rumors are ugly.
Yalen is entitled to his own philosophy of programming. Also, it should be noted that, over the past two decades, virtually every television executive who buys fights has been accused of misconduct by one disgruntled seller or another. Often, the accusations are simply untrue. Some very honest people have been wrongly accused on the rumor circuit.
Yalen says, "I can't please everybody. Unless a promoter gets all the dates he wants, he won't be happy. There's a lot of things people talk about that they just don't know."
Still, the bottom line is that ESPN is in a position of power. When it comes to buying fights, supply is far greater than demand. On the level at which ESPN does business, it can pick and choose.
Moreover, fans who turn on ESPN are entitled to see competitive bouts of importance. That hasn't happened enough lately; viewers resent it; and as a result, ratings have plummeted.
The first sixty ESPN2 Friday Night Fights shows did an average rating of .864. The most recent sixty shows for which ratings were made available [through June 20, 2003] did a .542 rating. In other words, ratings were 59.8 percent higher five years ago than they are now.
Here, the relationship between ESPN and Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing is instructive. SRL has been a frequent provider of programming to ESPN. Among other things, starting September 5, 2003, it has been guaranteed the first Friday of each month for a full year. In and of itself, that's not unusual. Top Rank has a huge block of dates from Telefutura. Golden Boy Promotions has a generous allocation from HBO Latino, as does Goossen-Tutor from Fox.
But critics of the ESPN-SRL relationship claim that an unholy alliance exists between Yalen and Sugar Ray Leonard's matchmaker, Ron Katz. They ask why Vassiliy Jirov hasn't been able to get a date on ESPN since he left SRL. They're troubled by fundraising material for Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing that lists ESPN as a "strategic partner." And they take issue with Yalen's claim that ESPN's largesse to SRL is justified because SRL's shows get higher ratings than the competition.
Eleven of the last sixty ESPN2 Friday Night Fights shows for which data was made available were promoted by Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing. Those eleven telecasts averaged a .515 rating. The non-Leonard shows did better, averaging .548.
In sum, there's concern within the boxing community that something is wrong at ESPN. Some promoters get dates without any set fights while others are required to lock in a full card. Promoters who have been the backbone of boxing for years can't get dates while others of lesser pedigree are treated well. And clearly there's not enough quality control.
ESPN wouldn't allow match-ups like those featured on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights in other sports. Viewers don't turn on ESPN for its marquee college football game of the week and see Towson versus Morgan State. And some critics see a direct link between ESPN's current practices and the Tye Fields versus Sherman Williams fiasco. Their view is that questionable business dealings at ESPN have created an environment where more of the same can be expected. In other words, if a network creates an environment in which anything goes, it shouldn't be surprised when anything goes.
Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be reached at thauserthauserrcn.com
September 8, 2003