It may be minute in the grand scope of the sport, but televised boxing is taking a positive first step in 2011 on Friday.
In recent years, ESPN has been handcuffed by a drastically slashed budget for its Friday Night Fights series, which has resulted in plenty of disastrous, one-sided bouts that have unfortunately been the predominant free offering of pugilism to the general public.
For the most part, the matchups of late have all appeared to be ratings ploys on the part of the network and promoters. The two have played the role of the teenager spending his or her allowance on one extravagant outing, and being confined to their bedroom the rest of the month. With few exceptions, the formula for 2010 main events on Friday Night Fights was a recognizable name matched with a hapless opponent with a respectable record, or a prospect against a shop-worn veteran.
To be fair, it’s not as if either of those types of bouts is uncommon. In fact, they’re commonplace, and seemingly requisite stops on the career paths of the respective fighters. Die-hard boxing fans know this to be the case, but there remains a distinct danger of creating a notion amongst those without premium cable subscriptions that only these types of bouts exist.
That’s exactly why seeing a main event like Friday’s feature offering of Ruslan Provodnikov vs. Mauricio Herrera (junior welterweight) is refreshing.
“This fight is a very good fight for the boxing business and for the boxing fans,” said Artie Pelullo, head of Banner Promotions, which guides the career of Provodnikov. “This is the kind of fight that Doug Loughrey at ESPN wanted. It’s a fan-friendly fight.”
Provodnikov-Herrera is an anomaly when it comes to modern cable television fights, in that it pits two promoters’ prospects against one another. In this case, it may have happened out of necessity, as Pelullo’s Banner Promotions and Thompson Boxing (which promotes Herrera) are not promotional juggernauts, and perhaps need to take these risks to obtain valuable television slots.
“It makes it a lot easier when the promoter of the other guy is a friend of yours,” said Pelullo, who has a close relationship with Ken Thompson.
It is also possible though, that ESPN has turned a new page in their programming handbook. A look at Friday Night Fights’ ratings from 2010 tends to show negligible difference in ratings between broadcasts headlined by fighters who have appeared on HBO recently, and ones topped by up-and-comers. For example, the August 13 offering of Chris Arreola vs. Manuel Quezada drew 576,000 live viewers according to Nielsen Ratings, while the May 7 headliner of Yordanis Despaigne vs. Richard Hall was in the same ballpark with 570,000.
ESPN’s interest in Provodnikov — pictured at left above with Tila Tequila — is a return to the formula that created action stars such as Micky Ward, Ray Oliveira and Emmanuel Augustus: Find a fighter that is always exciting and feature him.
The Russian brawler’s last appearance on national television was two fights ago, ironically against Augustus, albeit a version of “The Drunken Master” that was a few gin and tonics short of his former self.
In the bout, he showed all of the strengths and flaws that make fun television fights. He’s heavy handed, with a thudding, quick right hook on the inside, and always looking to use it to end the fight immediately. He’s always plodding forward, but when in pursuit, he either has hands wide looking for an up jab or to load up his right hand. Other times, he simply stops thinking offensively and tries to defend himself. Occasionally, he will switch southpaw, but only to flick and find the range with his right hand. In all cases, he can and will be hit.
“He needs to be able to handle movement a little better, but if you’re coming at him, that’s a mistake,” said Pelullo.
Herrera, who is likely best remembered for his questionable decision loss to Mike Anchondo on ShoBox in late 2009, will provide a new look and more movement for Pelullo’s protege. In order to ready himself for American-schooled fighters such as Herrera, Provodnikov will begin working with Buddy McGirt. For boxing’s television audience however, here’s to Provodnikov’s movement outside the ring being slow, steady, and in dazzling high definition.