NBC got the best and worst of it in tonight’s premiere of Premier Champion Boxing, its new primetime boxing venture. Partnered with boxing impressario (and former concert promoter) Al Haymon, NBC has launched a twenty-episode season, the first time since 1986 that boxing has had a home on primetime network TV. While it could be argued whether boxing and network TV really need each other anymore (and it will be, down the page), Haymon and NBC have heavily pressed tonight as a homecoming for the sport, with ringside commentary by Leila Ali, vintage sportscaster/punchline Marv Albert, Dancing with the Star Sugar Ray Leonard, with Al Michaels serving as a host of sorts, encapsulating the general skepticism about this whole thing from the beginning when he promised, and I quote, “A very…entertaining night…of fighting.”
Turns out, Michaels was only half right. Neither of these fights were considered to be very evenly matched, and indeed, each fight turned out more or less as prognosticators had prognosticated. But while the judges’ scores on both fights ended up remarkably similar, the devil is always in the details, and if NBC is truly invested in bringing the fight game back to public airwaves, they would do well to pay close attention to the differences.
Though both fights were billed as co-main events, the bout between Adrian Broner and John Molina, Jr. came first and clearly had the feel of an undercard event. Broner has always encouraged comparisons between he and Floyd Mayweather, although since getting Knocked the Fuck Out by Marcos Maidana in 2013, Broner most resembles Money in his gleeful willingness to play the heel. Tonight he came out to an MGM Grand crowd that appeared to be deeply partisan toward the slow-and-steady Molina, chanting his name at any opportunity and greeting Broner with a near-constant stream of Boos. Of course, that did not stop Broner from completely dominating the fight, and indeed, may have actually helped him, as he gets off on being hated like nobody else this side of Donald Trump or Eric Cartman. The one man in his corner (other than the actual men in his corner) tonight was Sugar Ray, who made no bones about his appreciation of Broner’s skills and his willingness to overlook Broner’s conduct; upon a clownish display of gloating by Broner in the middle of the fight that once again set the crowd booing, Leonard shrugged and said that “it wasn’t that bad.” Save for a rally of combos that earned him Round 3, Molina gave up every other round, clearly outmatched and seemingly petrified from the first bell, missing good shots and combinations either because he was just off the mark or because Broner was always one step ahead. Then, adding insult to injury, Broner spent all of Round 12 literally running out the clock on Molina; even Sugar Ray couldn’t muster a half-hearted defense. Judges scored the fight 120-108, 120-108, and 118-110, unanimous for Broner. Malarkey Blog scored the fight 119-109 for Broner.
The main event, however, was not only a much better fight, but ended the night on the high note that NBC needs. Keith Thurman came out to a smattering of Boos–though nothing like what greeted Broner–that seemed less inspired by the crowd’s animosity toward him than their full-throated support of Guerrero. Chants of Guerrero’s name filled the Grand for the first few rounds, although one man’s prevalent, high-pitched call of “Guer-errio!” sounded more like a threat, mispronounced as it was and bringing to mind the bad guy from The Warriors (“Come out and plaaayay!”). And though Guerrero coincidentally also mustered a win in Round 3, it was Thurman’s fight till the end, with massive rights putting Guerrero down in the Ninth (the only knockdown of the night). Ref Kenny Bayliss spent the last twenty seconds of the round poised to jump in and stop the fight, but Guerrero managed to hold on, and indeed finished the fight with enough heart to fill ten Adrian Broners. For his part, Thurman kept his undefeated record intact with poise and without theatrics, winning over enough Guerrero partisans that, when announcer Barry Egan asked for a last round of applause for “these two valiant warriors,” the cheers that came were sincerely earned. Judges scored the fight unanimously for Thurman, 120-107, 118-109, 118-108. Malarkey Blog scored the fight 119-108 for Thurman.
It’s extremely easy to sit here and say that NBC needs more Keith Thurmans and fewer Adrian Broners (true though it may be), but NBC is in the unique position to curate its fights beyond the belt-jockeying and political considerations that often dictate the fights we see on HBO, Showtime, and ESPN. NBC has said more or less exactly that, positioning itself as enthusiastic, fan-friendly, and eager to bring in new audiences. A few more fights like Thurman-Guerrero could do just that.