Former heavyweight champion and novice actor Mike Tyson is coming to ESPN, but not as a fighter or performer. He is coming as a boxing promoter.
Tyson's newly formed Iron Mike Productions will put on a pair of title bouts at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y., on Aug. 23 as the ESPN2 "Friday Night Fights" season, due to end Aug. 16, is being extended by one week to accommodate the card. The deal was finalized Tuesday night.
Junior lightweight world titleholder Argenis Mendez (21-2, 11 KOs) will make his first title defense when he faces Arash Usmanee (20-1, 10 KOs) in the main event. In the co-feature, Claudio Marrero (14-0, 11 KOs) will face Jesus Andres Cuellar (22-1, 18 KOs) for a vacant interim featherweight title.
"We are thrilled to be finishing off the 'Friday Night Fights' season with Mike Tyson's first-ever fight card as a promoter," said ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions Brian Kweder, who programs boxing for the network. "The quality of the card that he and his team have put together for boxing fans is fantastic."
Mendez, 27, of the Dominican Republic, blitzed Juan Carlos Salgado in a fourth-round knockout victory to win the 130-pound title on March 9. Not only did Mendez claim the belt, he also avenged his only career defeat, a unanimous decision loss to Salgado for the then-vacant belt in September 2011.
Usmanee, 31, a native of Afghanistan living in Montreal, lost a highly controversial decision to Rances Barthelemy in his last fight, on Jan. 4 on "FNF" in a semifinal title eliminator. Barthelemy went on to win his next fight on June 21 to become Mendez's mandatory challenger. However, the mandatory fight is not due until October and Mendez and his team offered Usmanee a title shot.
Marrero, a 24-year-old southpaw from the Dominican Republic, is coming off a fourth-round knockout of faded former bantamweight titlist Mauricio Martinez in November. Cuellar, 26, of Argentina, will be fighting in the United States for the first time and is riding a five-fight winning streak.
"I think Marrero is a stud," Iron Mike Productions promoter Garry Jonas said. "I expect him to handle Cuellar and show his skills on national TV. And Mendez-Usmanee will be an entertaining fight. Usmanee is a go forward guy and Mendez loves guys who come forward. We knew he had an optional defense we could make before we'd have to fight Barthelemy, so we figured let's give Usmanee the shot because we thought he beat Barthelemy."
In another fight on the card, promising light heavyweight prospect Isiah Thomas (12-0, 6 KOs), 24, of Detroit, takes on Miami's Glen Johnson (52-18-2, 36 KOs), the 44-year-old faded former world champion who is 2-5 in his last seven fights.
Tyson entered the promotional end of boxing by partnering with Jonas, whose Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Acquinity Sports brought Tyson on as a partner and renamed the company Iron Mike Productions after working on a deal for the past five months. The company has more than a dozen fighters under contract, including Mendez, Marrero, Thomas, former titleholder Joan Guzman and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Felix Diaz.
"We've been around going on two years and we have a champion [Mendez], some ranked fighters and a lot of good talent, but we weren't getting the TV dates," Jonas said. "There's not enough to go around from HBO, Showtime, ESPN and the others. We had to do something to bring notoriety and attention and Mike was the perfect fit.
"We brought Mike down to see what we were doing at Acquinity Sports. We have our fighters live and train with us in Florida. We give them a really disciplined environment. We really wanted to put more organization in it, make it like a team. When Mike saw what we were doing he said it reminded him of what it was like when he was with [late trainer and adoptive father] Cus D'Amato when he was young. Hopefully, he will bring us some of the attention we need. But besides that he will help us with the young fighters, work with them, help recruit them. We hope to do some interesting things."
Said Henry Rivalta, who heads boxing operations for the company, "Mike sees how we are a mentor for the fighters, a situation that he had with Cus. He was happy with what he saw from us and he said he is going all in."
Tyson plans to attend the card and is expected to appear on the telecast, which should make for interesting viewing. It would be a reunion of sorts between Tyson and ringside analyst Teddy Atlas, a D'Amato protégé who was Tyson's assistant trainer during his amateur career. However, they had a well-documented and bitter falling out in 1983 stemming from the teenage Tyson allegedely making sexual advances toward a younger female family member of Atlas, after which Atlas pulled a gun on Tyson and was then dismissed from D'Amato's gym.