With the 17th season of ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" set to kick off next month, the first four main events of the 26-card season were finalized Wednesday.
The season will open Jan. 3 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, where junior lightweight titlist Argenis Mendez (21-2-1, 11 KOs) will make his second defense against mandatory challenger Rances Barthelemy (19-0, 12 KOs). Mendez's first defense, a draw with Arash Usmanee on Aug. 23, headlined the 2013 season finale.
The co-feature is also set. Caleb Truax (23-1, 14 KOs), who is from Minnesota and a draw for the card, will square off with Derek Ennis (23-4-1, 13 KOs) in a middleweight fight.
On Jan. 10, Usmanee (20-1-1, 10 KOs) will meet Juan Antonio Rodriguez (25-4, 23 KOs) in a junior lightweight fight at the Emerald Queen Hotel & Casinos in Tacoma, Wash.
The Jan. 24 card, which will take place at the Little Creek Casino in Shelton, Wash., will feature 2008 U.S. Olympian Javier Molina (14-1, 6 KOs) against former junior welterweight titleholder Kendall Holt (28-6, 16 KOs). Former junior featherweight titlist Rico Ramos (22-3, 12 KOs) faces Jonathan Arrellano (14-2-2, 3 KOs) in the co-feature.
Former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titleholder Zsolt Erdei (33-1, 18 KOs) headlines against Elvir Muriqi (40-5, 24 KOs) in a light heavyweight bout Jan. 31 at the Codey Arena in West Orange, N.J.
Another card later in the season, on Feb. 21 at the Paramount in Huntington, N.Y., is also set. The main event pits junior welterweight Chris Algieri (18-0, 8 KOs) against Emmanuel Taylor (17-1, 12 KOs).
In addition to airing on ESPN2 each week, all the cards will be televised in Spanish on ESPN Deportes and streamed on WatchESPN. Replays of the cards will be available on ESPN3.com.
The broadcast team of blow-by-blow commentator Joe Tessitore and analyst Teddy Atlas will return to ringside and be joined again this season by reporter Bernard Osuna. Todd Grisham will return for a second season as the studio host, although he also will fill in for Tessitore during the season.
In a major change from past seasons, almost all the dates have been doled out to a group of promoters well in advance, splitting the shows among Leon Margules' Warriors Boxing, Iron Mike Productions, Greg Cohen Promotions, Dan Goossen's Goossen Tutor Promotions, Lou DiBella's DiBella Entertainment, Artie Pelullo's Banner Promotions, Joe DeGuardia's Star Boxing, Gary Shaw Productions and rap star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's SMS Promotions.
"The biggest change for 2014 is that we are assigning dates to promoters with as much advance notice as possible to allow for even better fights and bigger crowds," said Brian Kweder, ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions. "We've partnered with a group of promoters who have always delivered in the past and are committed to upping the ante even further for 2014. Having a world title fight and names like Kendall Holt, Zsolt Erdei and Arash Usmanee early this season show that the strategy is already paying dividends."
The series also will have a more consistent start time of 9 p.m. ET rather than jumping between various times during season, Kweder said.
The season will be a bit shorter than usual at 26 cards (rather than the typical mid-30s) because of the network's commitment to the soccer World Cup. However, Kweder said the network has the ability "to add a couple of big fights should they present themselves."