Finally, after an interminable five-month hiatus, "Friday Night Fights" on ESPN2 is back -- with simulcasts on ESPN3 and ESPN Deportes in Spanish -- this week for the first of 30 cards in its 14th season.
It's about time.
Yes, I work for ESPN, and yes, I'm a regular contributor to the show, but this isn't me just writing to be a homer. I'm also a Fight Freak and genuinely pumped for the return of the show.
Last season was one of the best in the series, with strong fights week after week and numerous upsets, not to mention the all-time classic first fight between Delvin Rodriguez and Pawel Wolak.
The audience responded, too. FNF averaged 543,000 viewers a week, up 9 percent from 2010. It also saw gains among younger viewers, rising 19 percent in the 18-34 age group and 22 percent among viewers 18-49.
Entering this season, there will be one major change: Brian Kenny, who hosted the series and held down the fort in the studio from the show's inception and was so vital to its success, has left ESPN for a gig at MLB Network. He has been replaced by Bernardo Osuna, and I think the show is in good hands. I've known Osuna for years, and he's a true boxing guy. If you're a Fight Freak, you'll recognize him from his years of doing weekly ringside commentary on Telefutura's Spanish-language "Solo Boxeo Tecate" and his occasional appearances as a studio guest on FNF a couple of years ago. Now he's part of the ESPN team full time.
Osuna is bilingual, very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about boxing, and he will bring that knowledge (and enthusiasm) not only to the FNF studio but also to his role as co-host of ESPN Deportes' weekly boxing news and analysis show "Golpe a Golpe."
"Being entrusted with the studio host position for 'Friday Night Fights' is a great honor and responsibility," Osuna said. "I plan to bring my knowledge and passion for the sport of boxing to every telecast, and to continue the tradition of credibility which has been the hallmark of those who have preceded me on this show."
He has big shoes to fill, but I think he'll be just fine.
Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas return to their familiar roles of calling the fights at ringside, starting with Friday night's premiere (9 ET) from Mallory Square in Key West, Fla.
It's a good main event to kick off the season: a scheduled 10-rounder between super middleweights Dyah Davis (20-2-1, 9 KOs), the son of 1976 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Howard Davis, and Alfonso Lopez (22-1, 17 KOs), who gave Kelly Pavlik a tough fight in a decision loss in May before rebounding with a win in September.
Davis, who has looked good in recent fights, wants to look great against Lopez.
"Friday night is very important for me because it's the first ESPN show of the year and my first fight on ESPN," Davis said. "I think ESPN has an even broader range of coverage than HBO or Showtime because everybody has it. It's my coming-out party. I'm looking forward to having a great 2012, so why not start things off with a great performance on a big stage?"
And if you like prospects being tested, the co-feature is right up your alley. Standout amateurs Steve Martinez (11-0, 9 KOs), 21, and Denis Douglin (13-1, 8 KOs), 23, meet in an eight-round junior middleweight bout.
ESPN boxing programming director Doug Loughrey, who has gotten massive bang out of his limited buck in recent years, has put together a solid schedule through February and is working on March. Here's a look at the other bouts on the board so far:
• Jan. 13: Junior featherweights Teon Kennedy and Chris Martin clash at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. Good style matchup. Junior middleweight prospect Yordenis Ugas, who was in my Super 25 prospect rankings for 2011 last month, will face Esteban Almariz.
• Jan. 27: Junior welterweight Ruslan Provodnikov, an FNF staple who is always in action fights, will face David Torres at the Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, Wash. Torres took the fight after former lightweight titlist Julio Diaz signed a contract and then bailed when he was rebuffed in his request for a heavier weight limit. Another brawler familiar to FNF viewers, lightweight Ji-Hoon Kim, will face Yakubu Amidu on the undercard.
• Feb. 3: Light heavyweights Edison Miranda and Yordanis Despaigne will meet in a grudge rematch in Las Vegas. They fought on FNF in July, when Miranda was controversially disqualified in the fifth round for supposed low blows. This bout should help set the record straight. Lightweight prospects Hylon Williams and Rances Barthelemy will meet in the co-feature.
• Feb. 10: Junior middleweight Demetrius Andrade, a 2008 U.S. Olympian and one of boxing's most talented prospects, has grown up on FNF. He'll be back to face Derek Ennis at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.
• Feb. 17: Lightweight John Molina, who is always in good fights and nearing a world title opportunity, is scheduled to face Alejandro Sanabria in Arlington, Texas, with 2008 U.S. Olympian Shawn Estrada scheduled for a super middleweight undercard bout.
• Feb. 24: Junior lightweight contender Juan Carlos Burgos will face former featherweight titlist Cristobal Cruz in a regional title bout from the Galen Center on the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles.