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Friday Night Fights: Don't Bother
By Bernie McCoy
February 5, 2006



(FEB 5) Last December I interviewed one of the top women fighters in the sport and, in the course of a wide-ranging discussion, the subject of female boxing on television came up. This fighter was both adamant and outspoken on the subject: "The female bouts on TV, now, when they are on, and that's not very often, usually consist of a 'name' fighter and an 'opponent' ."

Those words were both strong and on-target. They also proved quite prescient when, on Friday night, ESPN 2 televised what was billed as a 10 round bout for the WBC welterweight championship and the vacant WIBA belt. The Friday bout between Mary Jo Sanders and Iva Weston was, in actuality, the text book example of a "name" fighter, Sanders, with significantly superior skills, in with a clearly overmatched "opponent". The bout bore no resemblance to a championship contest and, in fact, the fight, for as long as it lasted, barely qualified even for that label. The fighter who seemed to have a crystal ball, in the December interview, as far as the sport and television exposure was concerned? Mary Jo Sanders.

I don't mean, in any way, to denigrate Mary Jo Sanders or Iva Weston. Good fighters fight whoever comes out of the other corner and Sanders, in stretching her win streak to 20 fights, did just that on Friday night. Iva Weston, in turn, deserves, like every fighter deserves, plaudits for the courage it takes to climb up the steps to a boxing ring, particularly against an opponent who is far superior in talent. Rather, the culprit, on this night, was ESPN, the self proclaimed leader in sports programming. ESPN is the owner of a valuable resource that can make or break any sport, television exposure. And on Friday night, ESPN squandered some of that valuable resource by televising a fight that, it can be argued, had no right being made in the first place, but, certainly, did not deserve to be offered up, on semi-national television, as an example of the sport of Women's boxing.

The Sanders/Weston bout is certainly not the first mismatch in the sport of Women's boxing, maybe not even the only mismatch that occurred last Friday night. Mismatches have been happening in boxing since bare-knuckle fights were being staged on barges to avoid the law. Matchmakers have been making such fights and sanctioning bodies adding their dubious affirmation to such contests for many years and they will continue to do so for as long as the sport exists. However, it is television that provides such bouts with an undeserved aura of credibility and, at worst, gives a powerful, visual impression that such bouts are indicative of an entire sport. Without television exposure, a mismatched boxing bout is the proverbial tree falling in an empty forest. Television is the last line of defense that separates the public from the worst the sport of boxing has to offer. That's why I make ESPN 2 the "bad guy" on Friday night. In this case, it's proper to blame the messenger. 

Socrates, not a particularly ardent fight fan, once said, "There is one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance." ESPN, when it comes to the sport of Women's boxing, seems to be generously endowed with the evil of ignorance. The network, like many of their mainstream media brethren, are aware that women now box, but they are woefully lacking when it comes to any sort of in-depth knowledge of the sport of Women's boxing. Even a modicum of knowledge of the sport, on the part of ESPN, would have prevented the telecast of a bout that lacked any semblance of competitiveness. Significant knowledge of the sport of Women's boxing appears to be woefully lacking in the halls of Bristol, CT.

Were there alternatives? Lets begin with the fact that Mary Jo Sanders competes in what is the most talent-laden weight division in the sport. In May 2004, Sanders fought ten breathtaking rounds with Chevelle Hallback, winning a very close ten round decision. Here's how good that fight was: even ESPN knew about it and mentioned it during the Friday night telecast. Unfortunately, the best the ringside announcers could come up with in their description of Chevelle Hallback, WBAN's Fighter of the Year in 2005, was "muscular." Defining Chevelle Hallback's boxing talent on the basis of musculature is an understatement tantamount to calling "Moby Dick" a book about a whale. And that's just one more example of the abject absence of knowledge on the part of ESPN when it comes to the sport of Women's boxing and the fighters that compete at the highest level of that sport. It's fairly safe to conclude that had Chevelle Hallback been coming out of the other corner against Mary Jo Sanders on Friday night, most boxing fans would still be talking about the fight.  

Other alternatives? Sumya Anani heads any list; Anani and Mary Jo Sanders is, quite possibly, the marquee match-up in the welterweight division, maybe the current marquee bout in the sport of Women's boxing. Was Iva Weston filling a need for an international flavor to the bout on Friday night (Weston is from Trinidad and Tobago)? Better international alternatives range from Myriam Lamare of France to Jane Couch of England. If ESPN desired U.S. fighters, Eliza Olson who dropped a close decision to Sanders last July, Holly Holm, a recent winner over Christy Martin, would have proven quality alternatives.

Of course, none of these significantly superior match-ups happened. Instead what viewers on Friday night watched was Iva Weston being overwhelmed by Mary Jo Sanders, in less than three rounds in a bout that brought little credit to Sanders and even less to the sport of Women's boxing. And yet, ESPN used valuable TV time on what they called a championship fight, which, in reality, was nothing of the sort.

To his credit, it took "color" commentator Teddy Atlas about thirty seconds after the opening bell to state the obvious: that Weston was in a fight she couldn't possibly win. The shame is that nobody at ESPN seems to think it might be a good idea to consult someone like Atlas, prior to the fight, about whether a forthcoming match-up makes for a compelling bout.

The ESPN programming "suits" seem to simply assume it's enough that both fighters are female and that they have on boxing gloves and that's what constitutes a televisable example of the sport of Women's boxing.  That scenario has never been true, it isn't true today, as Friday night proved beyond a doubt and never will be true. And until the ESPN programming decision makers become considerably more familiar with the formidable skills and talents of a Sumya Anani, a Jane Couch, a Myriam Lamare, a Holly Holm and until they determine that those fighters and others like them are worthy of television exposure, I can think of only one piece of advice for the network and Women's boxing on Friday nights......don't bother. 

Bernie McCoy

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