Grading Premier Boxing Champions' Debut Broadcast on NBC
Keith Thurman beat Robert Guerrero like a drum Saturday night in the main event of boxing's first prime-time showcase on NBC since 1985. The superior fighter from range, Thurman used his agility and lightning-fast hands to bounce punches off Guerrero's head at will.
Never a close fight (Thurman won on the scorecards 120-107, 118-109 and 118-108), it remained compelling until the end. Guerrero never gave up, putting on a clinic for how to approach the final round of a fight when clearly down on the judges' cards. He went all out at the end, looking desperately for a knockout and creating a sense of drama in what would normally have been a perfunctory final three minutes.
It was the first in a series of high-profile bouts on free television this year courtesy of Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), the new promotion masterminded by shadowy boxing manager Al Haymon. It's an attempt to bring boxing back to the mainstream, rescuing a sport that was once an American staple from the margins.
To say there was a lot riding on the night is the grossest of understatements. These were boxing's first baby steps back toward mattering in the broader culture. This was big.
Did PBC build forward momentum in its debut? Or did it stumble out of the gate? We rated the show in four important categories, assigning a letter grade to each. Disagree with our assessments? Let us hear it in the comments.
This was no seedy and smoke-filled ballroom, with fighters pushing their way through throngs of the great unwashed on their way to the ring. Premier Boxing Champions booked the MGM Grand Garden Arena, even if the fights likely didn't demand a venue that size, debuting a new set, iconic announcers and what was intended to be a fresh look for boxing.
The design ethos was "class," and the show certainly delivered that. The opening was slick, and the vignettes were professionally produced. There were no gaffes that embarrassed the promoter or his television partner. The show, for the most part, was issue-free.
In some ways, however, the show was a bit too antiseptic. Boxing thrives on chaos. It's part of its immense charm. PBC was sterile, eliminating many of the most fun elements, like Adrien Broner's ring walk in the opener, for reasons unknown.
The centerpiece of the fighter introductions was a large stage. I expected pro wrestling-style fireworks and lights. Instead, we got bland short walks to the ring and generic music presenting the fighters as interchangeable automatons—more NFL than WWE.
That's not a good thing.
On television the fights looked clean. NBC's new replay system, a multi-camera "360-degree" approach, however, failed when it was needed the most. Viewers never really got a good look at the punch that dropped Robert Guerrero in the main event; they were forced to turn to Twitter and Vine to see what exactly happened.
Overall, the show was fine. But "fine" isn't exactly what you're looking for when relaunching an iconic sport on broadcast television. Additionally, the lack of advertising spots didn't go unnoticed. Fans and viewers are savvy these days—they know that every other commercial being used to advertise upcoming fights (and even athletes not scheduled to appear on the show) isn't a good thing. Here's hoping for better next time.
It was likely a strange night for many fans tuning into the sweet science for the first time in years. The star wattage of the announcers, including legends like Marv Albert, "Sugar" Ray Leonard and Al Michaels, far outshined that of the fighters in the ring.
It was a lovefest to start, with Michaels impersonating the late, great Howard Cosell and throwing it to Albert with a jaunty "Yes, Marv is here. And it counts," parroting his colleague's famous catchphrases.
But once the action started, there was very little to celebrate. Albert, who hasn't called boxing since 1985, sounded like a guy who hadn't called boxing in 30 years. He had a hard time keeping up with the action, eventually giving up on play-by-play and occasionally adding a booming "Yes!" whenever a particularly telling blow landed.
Leonard, for all his talent in the ring, was abysmal on this night. Often losing his train of thought, he rarely picked up on Albert's cues, and when he did, he nearly always dismissed them to make the most banal points imaginable. Leonard operates like a politician, refusing to take a stand on anything, seemingly afraid of angering any of his constituents. It might make him popular among his peers—but it also makes for awful television.
The small platoon of ancillary broadcasters was little better. While it was great to see a woman take part in a big league boxing broadcast, Laila Ali showed none of her father's gift for gab. Rarely changing her inflection, she seemed bored and out-of-sorts every time they threw it to her in the corner.
At no point did the announcers make the fights better, bringing the audience into the action and making the bouts seem special. Often they did just the opposite, failing to notice nuances like Thurman switching to southpaw at one point. The play-calling did not seem to reflect the action in the ring at other times.
PBC wants to show the world that boxing is still vital. But the 70-year-old Michaels, 73-year-old Albert and 58-year-old Leonard did little to disavow those who see boxing as their father, or worse, grandfather's sport.
NBC has a chance to introduce boxing to a new generation. The sport's pulse is strong. The potential is otherworldly. That can't be done without risk. Haymon has taken a big one.
Now it's NBC's turn. It's time to create new stars in the broadcast booth—as well as in the ring.
Adrien Broner vs. John Molina Jr
Broner vs. Molina
Adrien Broner (30-1) cruised to victory in the opening bout, using his immense physical gifts to outpoint an outmatched John Molina Jr. Broner used superior hand speed, a crisp jab and improved ring craft to control all but one round of a one-sided fight. He took the time to mug for the camera on occasion, but he never once seriously pressed to end the drubbing.
As an athletic performance, there is little to critique. Scores of 120-108, 120-108 and 118-110 attest to that. Broner remains the frustratingly gifted fighter he's always been, his performance never quite living up to his potential. But he missed the mark here badly, despite winning handily.
This was not his moment to simply notch a "W" on his record. He was given this prime spot in prime time to make the case that he's still a fighter who matters after being unceremoniously dumped on his rear end by Marcos Maidana in 2013.
"Cruising to victory" didn't set the right tone for fans tuning in to give boxing another chance to grab a hold of their hearts. Broner's job was to establish himself as an engaging future star—someone worth tuning in for with popcorn in hand, a bundle of twitch nerves and swag prepared to lead boxing into a bright future.
Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero
Thurman vs. Guerrero
This was a coming-out party for Keith Thurman (25-0, 21 KO), considered by most as the future at welterweight thanks to an impressive amateur pedigree and even more impressive power punching. He's thoughtful, engaging and dynamic with both fists; headlining the first major event with Thurman was a way for PBC to put boxing's best foot forward.
Everything was in place to create a new star—the iconic announcers, the big league venue and the national television audience. All Thurman had to do was deliver in the ring.
This, of course, was no small task when matched with Robert Guerrero (31-3-1), by far the best opponent he'd ever stepped into the ring against. Thurman, for all his hype and potential, had a reputation built with smoke and mirrors. While that's typical for up-and-coming boxers, there comes a time in every man's career when he's forced to step up and prove that he warrants the attention.
This was Thurman's time.
Guerrero had been introduced to the nation in a pay-per-view fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2013. And, though he lost that bout by a wide margin, he's established himself over the years as a game, tricky southpaw with a heart that never stops beating.
He lived up to his billing here in a big way. If you're PBC, Guerrero put on the perfect fight. Thurman never once looked to be in serious trouble, aside from a grotesque hematoma on the side of his head after an early inadvertent headbutt, but Guerrero did just enough to keep things interesting.
In truth, this was a one-sided fight. But Guerrero's will to win and persistence created just enough drama to hold the viewer's attention while Thurman put on a boxing clinic. There was an edge there that prevented you from turning away.
Whether or not Thurman was transformed overnight into a marquee player remains to be seen. He did his part. The rest will be up to the fans—and to Al Haymon.
On paper this was a solid fight card for the promotion's network debut. Four current or former champions entered the ring on NBC, featuring a combined record of 113-4-2 with 75 knockouts.
Not too shabby.
But Al Haymon learned, as a thousand promoters before him have, that you can't control the action once it hits the ring. You can give Adrien Broner a platform—you can't make him utilize it in a way that makes sense. You can provide Keith Thurman the perfect opponent and the national spotlight—you can't help him captivate the crowd.
In the end, this was exactly what it appeared like it would be: a night of premium television-level fights on free TV. There were moments worth savoring and long minutes when nothing seemingly happened at all. Ultimately, Premier Boxing Champions looked like, well, boxing.
Haymon and NBC are betting that's enough to grab America's sports fans and remind them why boxing was once right up there with football and baseball as the nation's leading athletic endeavors. It will be fun finding out if they're right.