After 17 years of busted pipes and broken noses, ESPN’s Friday Night Fights is hanging up the gloves. FNF, which brought close to 1,000 fights into American living rooms over its run, will make way for Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN, the latest stage of Al Haymon’s takeover of U.S. boxing (PBC already airs on NBC, CBS/Showtime and Spike).
In the end, FNF’s throwback vibe — its blue collar fighters, its off-the-beaten-track venues and its eccentric commentary — couldn’t protect it from boxing’s New World Order. Haymon came in carrying a check and ESPN couldn’t say no.
Under the new model, the show will move from a 26-episode season to 12 episodes, each two hours long. That change will also be reflected by FNF’s Spanish counterpart, Noche de Combates, and part of the deal will include a yearly prime-time event on ABC.
Not everything will change under the new regime, though. Lovers of flooded basements and bad neighborhoods will be glad to hear that Teddy Atlas and blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore will remain behind the mic as part of the multi-year deal.
In a sense, this year’s “Boxcino” tournament — the deciding bouts of which make up Friday’s final edition — is the perfect send off for FNF, because it’s the show in miniature. The vast majority of the boxers were never going to set the world on fire, but mostly they were good honest pugs who did their best, a bunch of has-beens, coulda-beens and never-woulda-beens.
Sometimes you got tedium (Rasvan Cojanu’s seven round win over Ed Fountain in the quarter finals), sometimes you got mismatches (Andrey Fedosov’s knockout of Nate Heaven) and, occasionally, you got upsets (late substitute and finalist John Thompson’s entire run). The odd star was born — Brandon Adams seems to be on his way; Ruslan Provodnikov, James Kirkland and Mauricio Herrera were relatively recent graduates — and the odd war was waged. That was FNF.
It was also the televised home of local fight cards. Sure, it broadcast from traditional boxing markets, but it also put on shows in places like Oklahoma, Florida and Washington state. It gave a lot of guys who spent their days as laborers, painters and factory workers a chance to fight on national TV, a chance they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
It also supported small- and medium-sized promoters, who now find themselves in a difficult situation. ESPN ponied up around $60,000 a show, money that promoters like Banner (who are behind this Friday’s card), Peltz, Star and Thompson Boxing will find difficult to replicate. As friend of the site Adam Abromowitz writes, “as much national attention and exposure as the PBC has generated for the sport, boxing needs local shows to thrive.”
Though it wasn’t weekly, FNF also provided viewers with a semi-regular dose of boxing news and analysis, with live studio crosses featuring Brian Campbell, Todd Grisham and Dan Rafael. It might seem like a minor point, but with the move to a monthly format backed by Al Haymon, casual fight fans will lose the only impartial boxing news source on TV.
Many other questions remain about what boxing on ESPN will be like in the Haymon era. Will it be a dumping ground for matches not competitive enough for network TV? Will Haymon work with smaller promoters? Can Teddy Atlas be his outspoken self (whatever you think of what he says) while working for Haymon?
FNF wasn’t perfect, but it played an important role. We’ll just have to wait and see whether its successor is all peanut butter and no jelly, as Atlas might say, or something worth getting excited about.
On a personal note, down here in Australia, FNF was one of the only sources of free-to-view boxing. I never had to pay for a pay-per-view or squint at a choppy internet stream, and for that I was grateful. Of course, on the other side of the international dateline, Friday Night Fights was more like Saturday Morning Fights, but I almost always found time to watch, no matter the quality of the match-ups (usually with a cup of tea rather than a beer).
Bonus: Teddy’s finest moment