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Deliver Us From ESPN2: Friday Night Fights Transcends its Must-Flee TV Standard

ESPN, “Your Boxing Vomitory,” televised a card last Friday that was beyond the pale even by their lowly standards. Each fight featured a heavy favorite pounding an inept or unprepared last-minute substitute. Naturally, this made for poor viewing, but it also made a mockery of boxing safety, presumably of some importance to participants and viewers alike.

First of all, a card as badly compromised as the one from Laredo should have been cancelled. In the end, it cannot be any simpler than that. Baseball games and tennis matches are routinely rained out, but in boxing, the show must go on. Never mind that the show is no longer a show, but the equivalent of canned hunting, with all aspects of “competition” removed from it.

Another issue concerns the fact that the main event was contested for the absurd “WBC Caribbean Boxing Federation” title. These foolish kickshaws are not only meaningless, but they are also dangerous. (The Cruelest Sport covered the inherent risks of ersatz titles last summer for The Boxing Bulletin: Any website or outlet that mentioned this sham championship without citing its superfluity and it outlandishness is not worth reading. These media sources are also among those that expressed no shock at all concerning a top-billed fight between a 24-0 fighter, Juan Carlos Burgos, and a 17-11-1 pug, Juan Carlos Martinez, entering the bout on short notice and having to lose 21 pounds in about a week. Everyone knows that promoters, sanctioning bodies, and managers excel at moral vacuity, but what about the media?

Not only was Martinez a late substitute forced to lose 21 pounds, but he was also cut no slack by promoters (and television executives, by extension) who could not even be bothered to reduce the fight from an idiotic 12 rounds to a more manageable 10 rounds. Did it matter that by showing up at 129 pounds, Martinez was not eligible to win the asinine title at stake? Surprise, surprise, Martinez was knocked out in the last round of a bout where his health was compromised from the moment he was offered the fight. This is an affront to the safety of fighters and a disgrace all around. Martinez may have escaped permanent injury on Friday night, but he was a walking time bomb entering the ring, and his health was risked by the same network that saw another late substitute–Beethaeven Scottland–killed on its air several years ago.

How is it possible for this kind of skullduggery to pass a commission? Even for Texas it seems farfetched to allow a fighter to lose over twenty pounds in seven days and compete in a twelve-round fight.

Of course, it is possible to lose 21 pounds in a week, especially if you are on a hunger strike, or, possibly, the Cabbage Soup Diet. If you are bedridden with swine flu, you also have a pretty good shot at shedding enough weight to fight in an ESPN2 main event. For a prizefighter, however, particularly a featherweight, there is no safe way to lose 21 pounds in a week. To make matters worse, Martinez was actually asked to lose 24 pounds to make the featherweight limit, but failed in his risky task. On top of that, Martinez has made the featherweight limit exactly once in a 30-bout career.

ESPN2, like many low level club shows, regularly sees its cards downgraded from poor to outright garbage by late substitute syndrome. There are several reasons why fights fall through: injury, illness, visa issues, failure to make weight, commission rejections (except perhaps in Texas), bait-and-switch schemes by promoters, and the erratic nature of some boxers, but if a major cable network wants to make sure its show is not compromised the solution is fairly simple.

Since ESPN2 airs nothing but tomato cans anyway, they might as well add one more mismatch to the card and make sure that the fighters involved in it are in the same weight division as the “main event” participants. That way, a prepared substitute is waiting in the wings. This common sense procedure would not set ESPN back by more than a few shekels since purses on “FNF” rarely exceed what you can make collecting aluminum cans for a day on the streets of Camden. The pathetic late substitutes (Martinez, it should be noted, is a competent trialhorse, but even that distinction was stripped from him by the pitiful circumstances surrounding his “title fight”) routinely sent in for floggings only make ESPN look bad.

They already look silly enough airing fights similar to those seen on the Minnesota club circuit, but trying to pass off their product as something worthwhile by sheer braggadocio is even worse. Their pitiful boxing budget can easily be loosened by getting rid of the studio show format and the locker room reporter who preposterously extrapolates on the strategy of fighters involved in a mismatch of set-up proportions. This kind of over-inflated treatment of cheap subject matter is typical of boxing coverage. Instead of just having a competitive bout, ESPN2 goes through all sorts of boondoggling to pretend that the dreck on hand is important. Five analysts, announcers, reporters, etc. and a Rihanna soundtrack do nothing for the hapless gyrations usually on display in the ring, so why not cut back on the peripherals and add a few thousand dollars to the main event? Not many people, one suspects, are going to miss B.J. Flores.

But the truth is boxing is not the main focus on “Friday Night Fights- -“ ESPN is. Like much of the boxing media, ESPN elevates itself so that it is on par with, or, more often than not, above the athletes they are meant to cover and showcase. In many ways “Friday Night Fights” is a symbol of contemporary boxing in the United States–full of noise, hype, talking heads, self-aggrandizement, and kaleidoscopic graphics, but with quality boxing curiously absent.

No other sport on earth makes such a fuss over inferior product. Already two recent mediocre bouts—Martirosyan-Ouma and Karmazin-Miranda—have been breathlessly refereed to as “thrillers” and “pulsating,” respectively. If hardcore boxing fans want to see better fights, they can start by exercising a little more discrimination and ignoring the trash that airs regularly on ESPN2. Keep in mind that when a card is televised, 90 percent of the time it is solely for the benefit of the promoters. In some cases, it is for the benefit of networks that back certain fighters/promoters, but most of the time, these televised flagellations are aired to fulfill the basic requirements of a promoter: “Make sure my fucking guy wins, goddammit!”

Maybe losing viewers is the only way to get ESPN to upgrade their standards. Otherwise, they might as well build a pillory in the middle of the ring, lock the Blue Corner patsy in it, and have the favorite tee off on him with a sock full of rotting tomatoes. No doubt many would find that kind of thing “thrilling.”

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