A Look At Boxing’s Return To Free TV


By Jason Pribila: Premier Boxing Champions brought their brand to network television on Saturday Night, live from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. This marked the first time that boxing aired in primetime on NBC since Larry Holmes defended his heavyweight title against Carl “The Truth” Williams.


Manager, Al Haymon, is investing his own money to showcase his fighters in front of the largest possible audience. He bought the time on NBC with hopes that the series will attract an audience that will bring boxing back to the main stream. Strong ratings will attract sponsors that will hopefully agree that boxing will be seen on free television for years to come.


The show began with host Al Michaels telling the audience that Premier Boxing is a new series that will take place on Network Television. It will put an emphasis on match-ups rather than jockeying for belts. The show will focus on the boxers and their stories.


We were then treated to pre-recorded back stories of Robert Guerrero and Keith Thurman. This was followed up by live interviews with Adrien Broner and John Molina, who were 15 minutes away from touching gloves in the center of the ring.


There has been a lot written about Haymon, this bold move, and both the short and long term impact that this could have on the sport. Whether one loves or loathes the man, everyone should be united in rooting for boxing on network television to succeed.


In all of the years that I’ve been a fan of boxing, the following is the most common response that I get when I discuss boxing. “I used to watch boxing every weekend with my father.”


While many are referencing the Friday Night Fights series sponsored by Gillette, they all unanimously admit that they no longer follow the sport. Yes, Don King still takes a lot of the blame. While other state that they lost touch when the best fighters and fights migrated to premium cable (HBO and Showtime). Many also reference that their love for the sport disappeared in parallel with Mike Tyson’s invincibility. Tyson also represented the last dominant American Heavyweight.


I have not read any columns written by my colleagues following the PBC debut, but I was disappointed to see many negative headlines. The fact is that the boxing writing community contains many historians who will always prefer the good old days. I’m hoping that this new series will spawn more pioneers who will use their criticisms to be more constructive.


Rather than labeling anyone or anything about Saturday Night a “winner” or “loser”, I will instead attempt to focus on what I witnessed, and comment on what I thought worked and what could use some tweaking as this series moves forward.


NBC Host Al Michaels: This is a win for NBC. Michaels is undeniably on the Mt. Rushmore of American sports broadcasters. His iconic call, “Do you believe in Miracles” as time expired during the 1980 USA Hockey Team’s upset of the Soviet Union just celebrated its 35th Birthday. Michaels is also only weeks removed from his call of this year’s classic Super Bowl. Michaels involvement immediately signals to the casual fan that they stumbled upon a sporting event.


Premier Boxing Champions: Who are these guys again? While Michaels briefly talked about the goal of the series, there were minimal references to the opponents that these guys faced previously. And although it was mentioned that they want to minimize the chasing of belts, there should of at least been a reference to where these guys are ranked within their division. Remember, there were many people watching these guys for the first time so referencing where they are ranked among the best of their division is necessary. We are eight weeks away from Mayweather and Pacquiao fighting for welterweight supremacy, there should have been talk about who the winner of Guerrero – Thurman would target in their next fight.


When the April 11 fight was previewed, Danny Garcia and Lamont Peterson were described as “Championship level fighters.” Even though this fight is being fought at a catch-weight, why not mention that these are two of the best junior welterweights in the world?


For years Tim McCarver would be criticized for over analyzing World Series games. While this would be frustrating to the die-hard fan, McCarver knew he had a broader audience than those who would tune into their local market’s regular season games. The broader audience on NBC needs to require a bit of spoon-feeding from the broadcast team.


Fight Announcers: Marv Albert and Sugar Ray Leonard. We were shown the fact that Albert called the Holmes – Williams fight, and there is no doubt that his voice was recognized by all who tuned into the fights. However, Albert did little to show that he did any homework for this assignment. He commented that Broner was a slow starter, but failed to mention that Molina was once stopped in 36 seconds by Tony DeMarco.


Leonard, of course, remains one of the most popular fighters who ever laced up the gloves. He did an adequate job, but he did little to tie boxing’s past to the present. Leonard is one of the greatest welterweights of all time, and it would have been nice for him to comment on how the current crop of the division compared to the top fighters of his era.


Fighter Introductions: rather than the traditional ring walk that featured a fighter being led to the ring by his team accompanied by his music, we were instead introduced to a WWE-style introduction. Each fighter appeared alone, threw a few punches, and then seemed confused about where to go. It was reminiscent of an actor who won an award, but was then unsure of which way to exit the stage to return to his seat.


In the future, I would like to see a brief highlight package of a fighter. Similar to the highlights Top Rank displayed before fights like Pacquiao – Mosley and Cotto-Margarito II. Cue the music, and go back to the traditional ring walk.


Commercials: I texted a friend that it was odd seeing commercials between rounds of a major fight. No disrespect to the series of commercials featuring ex-jocks cock-blocking people half their age in the “Just For Men” ads that accompanied ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights”, but this was an adjustment for most used to watching fights on premium cable.


It will be interesting to see how the sponsors change as this series moves forward. Could we soon see boxers being featured in national ads?


Corner Reporters: Because the audience was removed from ringside between rounds, NBC hired corner commentators Laila Ali and BJ Flores. I would say I was indifferent about this feature if not for the excellent analysis by Flores. The cruiserweight fighter was spot-on, as he added valuable info in a quick and professional fashion. Laila Ali, a former boxing champion herself, added little but to pass along that her father would be watching the broadcast.


The Crowd: While the fights took place at the MGM Grand, it was encouraging to see that the majority of the crowd was present when the broadcast went live. I’ve always said that it hurts boxing when a broadcast begins, and people look at the screen to see an empty arena. Attention immediately goes from, “Who’s fighting” to “Where are the cookies, and shit”? A fight taking place in front of an enthusiastic crowd will attract more eyeballs to the screen.


This was an inaugural broadcast, and I’m sure this was not the typical casino crowd. I’m hopeful that the crowd in Brooklyn on April 11 will lead Al Haymon to put more cards in towns with real boxing fans than relying on casinos.


Broner vs Molina: When the fight was made, there was little doubt that Broner was the clear favorite. While the fight lacked drama, I understand the match-up. “Pretty Boy” Floyd became “Money” Mayweather when he decided to wear boxing’s black hat. Featuring Broner made sense because whether or not people love him or hate him, they watch him. Match-makers gave Broner an opponent they hoped would bring out his best. Molina is limited, but he got the gig because he was considered durable with a punchers chance at best.

Broner played his part. He most likely added to the number of people who will tune into his next fight with the hopes he will be matched with a better opponent. Molina did not have a “Plan B” after Broner decided not to abandon is defense and remain a stationary target.


Guerrero – Thurman: This is the kind of match-up that is important for this series and more importantly the boxing landscape. Guerrero is known for being on the B-side of a Mayweather promotion. Thurman is undefeated, and a win vs Guerrero is going to put him on the short list to face the division’s elite. Thurman was and should have been a favorite, but Guerrero faced the better competition coming into the fight.


Thurman hurt Guerrero several times early in the fight displaying the power punching that he was advertised to possess. Guerrero was earning respect even though he was losing rounds.


When Guerrero was dropped, it seemed it was only a matter of time until Thurman closed the show. That is when Guerrero showed a ton of heart and decided to come forward. He had decided that his only chance was to move toward the danger. If he came up short, he was willing to go out on his shield. The Guerrero rally came up short, but it reminded the audience why this beautiful sport is different than all others. There is no scoreboard. A man could lose every round, but as long as there is time on the clock, there is time to pull out a victory.


The Aftermath: Initial ratings showed that an average of 3.4 million viewers tuned into the broadcast. The ratings peaked at over 4 million viewers during the dramatic final rounds of Thurman – Guerrero.


While the event was still overshadowed at the water cooler by talks of college basketball and NFL free agency, there is no denying that over 2 million more people tuned into these bouts than any fights featured over the past year on HBO or Showtime. More importantly, I can’t imagine any reason why those who tuned in on Saturday Night would not want to watch again on April 11.


Jason Pribila is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He could be reached for questions or comments at pribs2000@gmail.com and followed on Twitter.com @PribsBoxing


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March 9, 2015

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