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No longer fighting, Top Rank, ESPN talk about fights

From 1980 until 1996, promoter Bob Arum's Top Rank provided ESPN with a weekly live boxing series, aptly named "Top Rank Boxing."

It was a successful exclusive partnership that helped put ESPN on the map in the early 1980s and provided Top Rank with a steady stream of revenue and an important outlet for its fighters, many of whom would go on to greater glory.

After a rough split with the network, Top Rank hasn't done a boxing show on ESPN in many years. Top Rank didn't really want to and ESPN didn't really want Top Rank.

They went their separate ways. Top Rank got heavily involved in the Hispanic marketplace and thrived catering to Spanish-language television. ESPN created ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and opened things up to numerous promoters.

But time heals all wounds, which is why Top Rank and ESPN have broken the ice and are discussing the possibility of doing shows again, as part of "Friday Night Fights."

Mind you, ESPN isn't going to turn over "Friday Night Fights" to Top Rank again for an exclusive deal. But at least they're talking about some shows thanks to a good relationship between ESPN programmer Doug Loughrey and Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti, who recently joined Top Rank and brought a wealth of relationships in the business with him after stints working for Lou DiBella, Kathy Duva's Main Events and Madison Square Garden.

"Carl is talking to ESPN about maybe us doing a few dates next year," Arum said. "We're not looking for the big exclusive deal. We're happy to program two or three fights for them. Give us the dates. If you're unhappy, don't do any more business with us."

Although Arum's deal with ESPN was a successful one for more than a decade, it was the exception. Exclusive deals between networks and promoters are usually a disaster.

Don King parlayed his control of Mike Tyson into an exclusive deal with Showtime for a long stretch in the 1990s, and the network's boxing was a mess. It was loaded with way too many Frankie Liles and Fabrice Tiozzo fights, or fights with stars such as Felix Trinidad and Terry Norris knocking out hobos in total mismatches.

Golden Boy's recent output deals with HBO and ESPN have also raised eyebrows because of too many weak fights. Its eight-fight date guarantee this past season on "Friday Night Fights" -- given because it helped lock in big-money sponsor Tecate -- generated one bad card after another.

Exclusive deals give a network little leverage to insist on the best fights because the promoter already has the dates and license fees locked in, and there is very little incentive for the promoter to put his top guys at serious risk.

One of the worst exclusive deals was the partnership between Top Rank and Versus, which lasted two nearly unwatchable years from 2006 to 2008.

The bad taste from that series has all but killed boxing on Versus, which has limped along with sporadic cards since the end of the deal. Everything I hear from industry insiders indicates that once Versus burns off a couple more obligation cards, live boxing on the network is dead.

You can blame Arum for it.

Arum used to defend his series, which included way too many pointless fights, utter mismatches and dose after dose of D-level heavyweight Tye Fields. Finally, Arum offered the mea culpa when I talked to him on Wednesday and our conversation turned to the discussions with ESPN.

At that point I brought up the Versus train wreck and was surprised by Arum's comments.

"It was inexcusable. We went off on the wrong track. It just didn't work. It was our fault," Arum said. "I blame ourselves. I am not asking ESPN for a lot of dates. I want two or three, and if I'm running it into the ground like I did on Versus, then that's it, don't do business with us again.

"Somehow, some way we went off the track. We started off good with Versus. We had Kelly Pavlik on against Bronco McKart, which was a good fight. Then we went south. I'm the first to admit it. I agree with you. I'm not disputing it."

Arum said he'd like to put the Versus deal behind him and focus on getting back on English-language cable. Top Rank certainly has a vast stable of fighters at all levels who would fit perfectly on ESPN2 when "Friday Night Fights" returns in January.

Top Rank also has the deepest group of Hispanic fighters, who would also fit in well now that "Friday Night Fights" is simulcast in Spanish on ESPN Deportes, a growing network that counts boxing among its highest-rated programming.

"We're not looking for a long-term commitment from ESPN," Arum said. "Let's see what we can do. But I ain't coming to them saying, 'Will you buy this fight or that fight.' We're past that. Give me a couple of dates and let us program them. You like them? Fine, give us a couple of more. That's what we do on [Spanish language] TV Azteca, and look at the great fights we're doing. Give us two dates and after the first one, you don't like what we've done, you cancel."

If you've seen any of Arum's Azteca cards, they have usually been solid. Last week's show, for example, featured welterweight Jesus Soto Karass against Edvan Dos Barros. It was a highly entertaining slugfest. Also on the card was top featherweight prospect Mikey Garcia, who was tested against Carlos Rivera in another good fight. It was typical of Top Rank's Azteca cards.

Arum added that he thought he would also be able to deliver sponsors for next year. He named Corona and Tecate as possibilities.

"They're doing business with us now," he said.

On the ESPN side of things, Loughrey acknowledged that he and Moretti are talking, although he stressed there is no deal.

"We are just talking," he said. "There is no confirmed number of shows, but I would love to bring Top Rank back in. It's been a fractured relationship for years. So Carl and I have talked and said, 'Let's look and see if we can do some fights next year.' Hopefully, there will be the opportunity."

Hopefully.