September 21, 2007 8:38 AM
While boxing fans await the battle between Jermain Taylor and Kelly Pavlik next week on HBO as potentially the best match in months following a long layoff on the channel, the press, once reluctant to even acknowledge the UFC, have been eagerly lapping up Chuck Liddell’s bout on UFC 76 on Sunday in another strong card from the Mixed Martial Arts organization.
As the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts continues to skyrocket, one boxing legend continues to make strides in helping the popularity of boxing, a sport written off by some columnists for its waning popularity and lack of popular fighters. Sugar Ray Leonard’s series “The Contender” is picking up in its third season where the second season left off. The show’s second season finale was viewed by 2.3 million people and was the highest-rated boxing telecast on ESPN in nine years.
“The Contender,” produced by DreamWorks Television and Mark Burnett Productions, premiered earlier this month on ESPN.
Mr. Leonard was the first boxer to win world titles in five different weight classes, a record that stands to this day. His personality and ring experience led to a successful career as a television broadcaster for NBC, ABC, HBO and ESPN. The clip below in a champion vs. champion face-off with Thomas Hearns remains one of the most riveting boxing storylines, in my opinion, in history.
In this interview, Mr. Leonard discusses the difficulties faces the boxing industry as well as the keys to success for MMA leagues such as the UFC.
In your third season of “The Contender,” entire bouts between the contestants are now been seen on ESPN2, what prompted the additional programming for the boxing fan?
Leonard: For just for the boxing purist, we decided to provide the entire fight for them by showing the fight every Thursday night in its entirety unedited. But for the people who are more casual boxing fans, and want to see these guys do what they do, then you watch the show. We’ve taken steps to satisfy both appetites.
For a sport that is hurting for big names, the show has clearly put a number of boxers on the map. It seems like every time I see a card being advertised there is mention of someone from “The Contender.”
Leonard: I continue to be amazed whenever I travel at how popular these guys have become. Guys from Peter Manfredo Jr. to Alfonso Gomez all bring fans. Alfonso still ranks as everyone’s favorite from the first season. It amazes me how many people recognize Alfonso; even when we travel overseas, he gets one of the biggest reactions and we all know it’s from “The Contender.”
But without question, one of the biggest problems with boxing is the lack of big names in the mix. Back in my time, there were fighters who had big-time personalities, and we need superstars now to help the sport. That’s our hope, to create superstars, or household names like Alfonso, Peter and Sergio Mora.
If you had the power to change one thing about boxing to help the sport, what would that be?
Leonard: If I could change one thing, it would be to not have so many governing bodies overseeing the sport. With so many organizations, there is a tendency to dilute the champion. It was OK when there were two or three, but now it’s beyond ridiculous. I mean, I’m a fighter and even I don’t know these guys.
Do you watch Mixed Martial Arts competitions such as the UFC? If so, are you a fan?
Leonard: I do watch it. When I first saw it, I thought it was a bit much, but that was before they were regulated. Now I watch it and I like it.
I think what the UFC in particular has done is something we haven’t done in a long time, and that’s create superstars. Rampage Jackson is a character and a hell of a fighter, and you have other guys who stand out as well. That’s the key to success.
Most people don’t tune in to boxing to watch boxing; there has to be a story, personality and style to bring in the masses. Of course, you have fans who watch no matter what, but to grow you need to have the package.