<
>

Friday Night Fights through the years

play
Friday Nights Fights Retrospective (3:39)

As Friday Night Fights prepares to air its final episode, Joe Tessitore narrates and reflects on the history and significance of the show during its 17-year run. (3:39)

He was sitting up schoolboy straight, his hands folded on the desk in front of him, a pleased-as-punch grin on his youthful face and a merry twinkle in his eyes. But the first thing you noticed about Max Kellerman, on that September evening in 1998, was that he was wearing a black leather jacket.

Not since Marlon Brando and The Fonz had a black leather jacket been as instrumental in advancing the career of a public figure. It instantly set Kellerman apart from the typical ESPN sportscasters, a contrast that was accentuated by Brian Kenny, the coat-and-tie guy who was Kellerman's co-host on the newly rebranded Friday Night Fights.

Seventeen years later, as Friday's final show of the series loomed nigh -- before FNF gives way to the July 11 launch of the monthly Premier Boxing Champions series on ESPN -- Kellerman looked back at the role both he and his jacket played in the rebirth of the boxing series that launched his career.

"I thought I'd have to buy some suits," said Kellerman, who has hired for the plum gig right out of college. "But the producer told me, 'No, no, we want you looking exactly like you did on your demo tape.' So I looked back at the demo tape, most of which was from my public access show, 'Max On Boxing,' and what I had on was a T-shirt and leather jacket.

"I wore three or four different jackets. I had a yellow jacket, which was my brother's, and a brown leather and black leather. Then after three or four weeks, they said were like, 'No, bring something else.'"

How odd that something that lasted such a short period of time would leave such an indelible mark. But the jacket immediately grabbed viewers' attention. Some loved it, some hated it, but by the time he ditched the leather look, Max was well on his way toward being one of boxing's most recognizable faces.

"That wasn't the intention," Kellerman said, "but it worked out that way."

Man with a plan

The genesis of the series came from a man who wouldn't have been caught dead wearing a leather jacket -- Bill Cayton, a formal, buttoned-down chemical engineer turned advertising executive. Pompous and condescending to friend and foe alike, Cayton was one of the most brilliant boxing minds of the 20th century.

Best known for managing Mike Tyson and other prominent fighters, Cayton's most significant contribution to the sport was collecting, restoring and preserving the largest assemblage of fight films in the world. He deserves the plaque he has hanging on the wall at the International Boxing Hall of Fame for that alone, his Academy Award nominations (both for boxing documentaries) and managerial success notwithstanding.

In 1998, Cayton sold his film library to the Walt Disney Company. The deal included making Cayton boxing coordinator of ESPN2's Friday Night Fights.

One of Cayton's innovations was the studio portion of the show, something common in many sports but never before tried as part of an ongoing boxing series. The set had that SportsCenter look, which strengthened the brand's legitimacy and provided a perfect platform for Kellerman to express his views and advocate for the betterment of the sport.

"Cayton was looking to attract a younger audience and liked the idea of a young guy talking boxing with a lot of passion," Kellerman said.

Casting call

Rob Beiner, a laid back but fully in control pro, was tasked with putting together the new FNF announcing crew. Beiner has probably produced or directed more boxing programming than anybody else in the world, and had recently finished a lengthy stint with the "Tuesday Night Fights" on the USA Network when FNF called.

"I set up some auditions and one of the people who came in was Teddy Atlas," Beiner said. "He was just horrible with the English language, so counter to everything the industry wants. He spoke street talk and used tons of double negatives. But what Teddy had was an insight that nobody else I auditioned had. I wrote an audition summary and recommended we hire him, and I did the same with Max Kellerman and Brian Kenny. We formed a pretty good nucleus of a boxing announcing team."

Kenny was an anomaly -- a talking head that knew and loved boxing. He became the first national TV sportscaster to challenge Floyd Mayweather's hyperbolic rhetoric to his face, which led to several heated and highly entertaining debates that resulted in some of ESPN's most memorable studio moments.

Along with Kellerman, Kenny helped give the studio portion an edge. No reading rewritten media releases for these guys, they were in the loop and ready to speak up and shine a light on some of boxing's dark corners, as well as celebrate with the fans when things went well.

The endless road trip

The FNF road crew, the on-site people who make everything work, regularly faced challenges folks working other sports don't have to worry about. Fast thinking and an improvisational spirit are a must.

"It seems like it would be simple," Beiner said. "It's just two guys in a small ring. But it's not. Unlike baseball and football, where the field is already there, unlike basketball where the court is already there, we often walk into situations where there is nothing. It's just a blank canvas. We have to create everything. Every week it amazes me that we get the show on the air."

The series debuted on Sept. 29, 1998, at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, a legendary and dilapidated venue perfectly suited for the sort of blue-collar fights that became synonymous with FNF. Super middleweight Thomas Tate won a 10-round decision over Demetrious Davis that night, which led to an IBF title shot against Sven Ottke two fights later.

There were bigger cards from time to time, but FNF mostly became what the neighborhood club fights used to be -- a grassroots vehicle in which prospects were developed and tested. In addition, it has also been a way station where more established fighters tuned-up for bigger fights or launched comebacks.

"The Friday Night Fights is almost like the George Washington Bridge or the Lincoln Tunnel," said Joe Tessitore, who replaced Bob Papa as FNF's blow-by-blow man in 2002. "A fighter is either in-bound or out-bound. One way or another, he has to cross us."

The Teddy factor

Kellerman left FNF in 2003 and Kenny departed in 2011, leaving Atlas as the show's remaining focal point. He still mangles the English language, but has gained iconic status as a stand-up guy, unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the sport's power brokers.

While it's true that Teddy's broadcasting style is not for everybody, his bulldog insistence on fair play has -- on more than one occasion -- been instrumental in making positive things happen. Most recently, Atlas was among the loudest voices condemning the sanctioning of the August 2014 junior welterweight title fight between defending titleholder Danny Garcia and badly mismatched Rod Salka.

"Salka wasn't rated anywhere and suddenly, after he signed to fight Garcia, he's rated," Atlas said. "I went on the air and said it was absolute corruption and if it happened in any other sport there would be an investigation. A few days later the WBC withdrew its sanction. Now it's not for the title, but Salka still gets knocked out in the second round. Nobody thinks about that part."

"Teddy is unlike any other analyst in any other sport," said Todd Grisham, FNF's current studio host and frequently blow-by-blow sub when Tessitore is busy elsewhere. "You've got to handle him a lot differently. For the most part you can't go in there with a script. You've got to be prepared for anything. You think he's going to say 'A' and he says 'B.' It's a lot like a fight: You don't know what's going to happen. When I work with Teddy, I take my hands off the wheel and see were he takes us."

"Really, the show is all about Teddy," said Jim Zirolli, another battle-hardened producer with many FNF broadcasts under his belt. "It's the Howard Stern factor. Viewers tune in to hear what he's going to say next."

The inevitability of change

Several years ago when the series was cut from two-and-a-half hours to two, the main casualty of the modification was the studio portion.

"Part of that was because when you get away from fighting, the ratings indicate that you lose part of your audience," Beiner said. "They tune in to watch fights, not journalistic features. I get it, but I think we went too far the other way, and it has hurt us."

"From year to year, the biggest challenge we face is trying to capture the audience with the level of fighters we have," said Matt Sandulli, executive producer of FNF.

It's a puzzle that nobody has been able to totally solve, but maybe that's just the nature of the beast: A beast whose time has come and gone.

"We've always been true and loyal to the boxing fans, and they have been true and loyal to us," Sandulli said. "It sure would have been nice, over the course of 17 years, if we had been able to attract the mainstream audience. But we never did, and losing Friday Night Fights is a byproduct of ESPN being able to produce higher quality fight cards [starting July 11 with the launch of the PBC series]."

The reward

A television show doesn't last 17 seasons unless it has something going for it. Friday Night Fights was never less than genuine -- the truth, good or bad, was laid bare before you -- and that's a rare thing in a medium built on artifice and hyperbole.

"I always thought that the Friday Night Fights was the most authentic thing I did," said Tessitore who has broadcast an array of sports, including college football, college basketball and horse racing. "It is very grounded. There's no sugarcoating it. It's just pure."

It hasn't all been fair to middling fare inside the ring. The FNF has aired its share of sensational fights over the years. That's why true fans kept watching: They know something truly special always comes along eventually.

The night of July 13, 2001, was such an occasion, and Friday Night Fights regulars were rewarded for their forbearance when Mickey Ward and Emanuel (Burton) Augustus waged surreal war at the Hampton Beach Casino in New Hampshire. It was the first fight I recall Atlas yelling for viewers to "call your friends" and tell them something extraordinary was happening on FNF.

"One word: magnificent" was the three-word comment accompanying the fight's A+ grade on Ring Magazine's monthly TV fight report card.

Later, when it was selected the publication's 2001 fight of the year, part of the copy read: "It was a fight both men deserved to believe they won, because both men fought every round with all they had, risking everything for a little bit of glory on a relatively small stage."

There was, however, nothing whatsoever small about what they did.

According to CompuBox, a total of 1182 punches were thrown by Ward, of which 320 landed. Burton (as Augustus was called at the time) connected with 421 of 918. On my scorecard, the only difference between them was the ninth-round knockdown Ward scored with a left hook to the body.

Winners and losers

The decision victory propelled FNF favorite Ward into a well-deserved multimillion-dollar trilogy with Arturo Gatti on HBO. But despite his awesome contributions to the fight, Augustus never escaped the club circuit, winning some, losing some and getting robbed on a fairly regular basis.

Augustus, who called himself "The Drunken Master" during the latter stage of his career, was a strange mixture of mastery and pathos -- a flawed virtuoso who never quite put it all together but never stopped trying. And FNF fans loved him for it.

"There was something special about him," Atlas said. "I know he had some demon outside of boxing, but I liked his honesty and his ability to meet what was coming with a smile. He understood that he was the B-side, but he fought like he was the A-side."

In a way that's also a fitting description of what Friday Night Fights has been the past 17 years, a plucky underdog that sometimes rose above its station and, like Augustus, gave more to the sport of boxing than it took.

"We're the guy who wants to put his head in your chest and just keep punching until the bell rings," Zirolli said.

This Friday, the bell will ring for the final time on a tradition that has become so much a part of the boxing landscape that it seems like family. Friday Night Fights will be no more, but boxing will survive. It learned to roll with the punches long ago, and remains light on its feet, ready to take advantage of opportunity or sidestepping disaster.

Boxing has been a transient sport that constantly reinvented itself. This is one of those times and the end of Friday Night Fights is just part of it.