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NBC trying to hook fans with series of free fights

JOHN C. COTEY
Published May 2, 2003

Free boxing.

No cable, no pay-per-view, no premium channels needed.

Saturday, boxing returns to network television when NBC broadcasts the first in a three-week series of fight cards. With partners Telemundo and the Main Events promotion company, NBC will air professional boxing for the first time since 1992.

Telemundo will begin the broadcast at 2:30 p.m., with host Jessi Losada signing off in Spanish at 3:30, then introducing the English portion of the broadcast on NBC.

Hooking the pro-boxing Hispanic audience is a good move for NBC, which hopes to keep viewers tuned in with limited commercial interruptions and the use of virtual advertising. The plan is to reduce the chances for viewers to switch away, and some of the breaks will be kept to less than a minute.

"People won't tune out," said Bob Papa, who will call the fights for NBC. "We won't give them a chance to change channels between rounds."

The exposure for boxing can only help the beaten-up sport. Once a staple of network sports programming, boxing has moved exclusively to pay TV. Only the biggest fights make it into the sports consciousness, often at a price exceeding $40 or $50 on pay-per-view.

If NBC can prove successful with its latest venture, it could provide a venue for more unknown fighters to break through and fewer of the headline-grabbing likes of Mike Tyson.

"My name would have been a lot bigger if I were on free TV more," said analyst Raul Marquez, a former junior middleweight champ. "Free TV, that's what made fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali. For the last decade or so we really haven't been on free TV, and I think it really has hurt boxing. ... These fighters are going to be able to be promoted better and get their names out there like it should be."

Saturday's main event is a 10-round featherweight fight featuring 2000 Olympic silver medalist Rocky Juarez against Frank Archuleta.

The co-feature is an eight-round junior lightweight bout between Darling Jimenez and Miguel Huerta. Juarez and Jimenez might be familiar to area fight fans - they fought in Tampa during the 2000 Olympic trials.

Former Tampa-based fighter Nate Campbell will fight on the May 17 broadcast.

DRAFT DAZE: The ratings for the NFL draft on ESPN were up 38 percent to 3.8 and, not surprisingly, the Tampa/St. Petersburg market scored well above the national average.

The local preliminary overnight ratings for the noon-7 p.m. block of the draft's first day was 4.7, up more than 120 percent from 2.1 during the same time slot last year.

AND THEY'RE OFF: NBC will broadcast the Kentucky Derby beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday, but don't look to its analysts for your picks.

Mike Battaglia said Empire Maker is the horse to beat, calling it "the biggest cinch in the Kentucky Derby since Holy Bull in 1994.

That prompted fellow analyst Bob Neumeier to ask: "And what happened to him?"

"Uhh," Battaglia said, "he ran 12th. But that is beside the point. At the time, I really thought he was a cinch too. But this one (Empire Maker), this one sticks out."

Think I'll be buying lottery tickets.

AROUND THE DIAL: Nationally syndicated sports radio host Jim Rome returns to ESPN with the premiere of a weekly sports talk show, Rome Is Burning, at 7 p.m. Tuesday. ... Dispatched American Idol wannabe Kimberly Caldwell has joined the Fox Sports Net extreme sports show 54321 as a special correspondent.

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