Franchise Thoughts: Big Time Boxing on ESPN Good for the Sport

When I first heard that WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko was going to pass on a fight with David Haye to face mandatory challenger Juan Carlos Gomez, I was a little disappointed. But my interest level has picked up over the last week or so, not because I'm getting more excited about the fight (I'm not) but because I'm intrigued by where it will be airing.

Reported by numerous media sources and confirmed by Dan Rafael in his blog entry today, the Klitschko-Gomez fight will air live on ESPN on March 21. As the scribe points out, that's the main channel too, and not one of its many offshoots.

I did a little digital sniffing around and was unable to come up with a date for the last time there was a heavyweight title fight on basic cable. For the better part of this decade, at least, championship boxing has been shown almost exclusively on HBO, Showtime or pay-per-view in the United States.

It's an interesting move for ESPN, as the its commitment to boxing has been waning just a bit in recent times. Wednesday Night Fights got the axe this year, and The Contender was allowed to find a new home on Versus. The recent redesign of ESPN.com has made boxing content more difficult to find than ever, and I've suspected for a while that the only thing keeping the network from ditching boxing for MMA is the fact that it has no programming stake in that sport.

On the other hand, Friday Night Fights has a pretty nice lineup set for the first quarter of 2009, and the ticker at the bottom of all ESPN channels regularly reports results of title fights as if they were newsworthy events. As long as you've got one foot in the game, why not devote some time to it and see what happens? It's a low risk proposition for ESPN with a bit of upside.

There's little doubt in my mind that it's a positive for boxing simply because ESPN is seen in so many more homes than HBO or Showtime. I'm sure anyone devoted enough to the sport to be reading this can come up with a list a mile long of fights they'd rather see on cable before Klitschko-Gomez, but the heavyweights still resonate the most with the general public, so it's hardly surprising that this is what we're getting.

And sure, there's a risk that people will find the fight by accident, decide that it's a stinker and resume ignoring boxing for the next few years. That wouldn't leave the sport's profile any lower than it is right now, though, so there's nothing to lose and only potential fans to gain.

The Final Bell

Can we please put a moratorium on all "MMA may kill off boxing" stories for good? Pretty please? Because we've been down that road ad nauseum, and I'm pretty sure most right-minded people have decided the success of one sport really has very little to do with the success or failure of the other.

Here's a brand spanking new review I found on Salon.com of the new book "Blood in the Cage" by Sports Illustrated's L. Jon Werheim. Most of the book is about the history of MMA, but a chunk of it is also devoted to - that's right - the rise of MMA at the expense of boxing.

Congratulations L. Jon, you're officially late to the party, and wrong on top of that. Thankfully reviewer Robert Anasi does a nice job in just a few paragraphs of explaining why boxing's trials and tribulations are uniquely its own.

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