Column: Boxing tries to appeal to the masses once again

Boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux, works out with his trainer at a Manhattan gym in preparation for his WBO super featherweight title fight against title holder Vasyl Lomachenko, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, in New York. Rigondeaux, 37, is a Cuban defector who resides in Miami. Boxing aficionados say the fight, slated for Saturday evening in New York, pits two of boxing's pound-for-pound best fighters. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Vasyl Lomachenko, of Ukraine, punches a bag during a workout at a Manhattan boxing gym Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, in New York, while preparing for his Saturday WBO super featherweight title fight against Guillermo Rigondeaux. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux, left, shares a laugh with his team during a workout Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, at a boxing gym in New York, in preparation for his upcoming WBO super featherweight title fight against Vasyl Lomochenko. The fight, slated for Saturday in New York, is said to pit two of boxing's pound-for-pound best fighters against each other. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Vasyl Lomachenko, of Ukraine, punches a bag Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, during a workout at a Manhattan boxing gym in New York, for Saturday's WBO super featherweight title fight against Cuban defector Guillermo Rigondeaux, 37. The fight, said to pit two of boxing's pound-for-pound best technical fighters, will be held at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Boxing fans get an early holiday gift Saturday when two masterful fighters with four Olympic gold medals between them meet in an intriguing 130-pound title bout.

The best part? It won't cost them anything over their basic cable bill to watch it.

The future of boxing is changing, or so Bob Arum believes. And nowhere is that more evident than the card put together by the longtime promoter in the theater at Madison Square Garden.

Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux — one from Ukraine, the other Cuba — meet in a title clash that is as good as it gets in the lower weight classes. And they do on ESPN instead of pay-per-view or the premium cable networks that have dominated boxing in the past.

Boxing is back in front of the masses. And so far the masses seem to like what they're seeing.

"A lot more people will be aware of these guys than if they fought on a premium network," Arum said. "We have a much bigger megaphone with a 24-hour sports network."

Arum's new alliance with the cable network giant started in July when Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn drew some 3 million viewers for their fight in Australia. Lomachenko drew decent ratings on a card of his own, and Terence Crawford was also featured in a Saturday night broadcast in August.

And with 18 dates scheduled for next year on ESPN — many of them in the prime Saturday night slot — expect to see Top Rank's best fighters on a regular basis on the network.

"You'd have to go back to the '70s to a time when all the big fights were on free TV," Arum said. "In the '80s we had less and less, and then we had none to speak of."

Boxing's reliance on paid TV gave the top fighters big paydays over the years, and served promoters like Arum well. Showtime and HBO paid well for the big fights, and the biggest went to pay-per-view.

But it was a flawed business model for long term success. Fans didn't get to see their favorite fighters in the ring enough, and promoters treated each fight card as if it were a one-off event.

Arum was one of the guilty, and admits he and fellow promoters did the sport wrong while chasing profits.

"You're 100 percent right for implicating me and the other promoters," Arum said. "We went for the catnip, there's no question about that. But what we did was shrink our product, and shrink the acceptance of our product."

The idea of bringing boxing back to prime-time network TV is not a new one. The secretive Al Haymon has put his stable of Premier Boxing Champions fighters on network TV for the last three years, though they have bounced around on different networks and have mainly of late been relegated to lower-tier cable networks.

But Arum believes the strategy spearheaded by his stepson, Todd duBoef, to have a stable of boxers each fight three to four times a year on regularly scheduled ESPN cards will provide the same kind of name recognition and continuity that UFC has used so successfully in its TV model.

Lomachenko will be a key test of that theory. The boxer who won two Olympic golds for Ukraine came to the U.S. to make himself a big name, and his appearance on a card heavily promoted by ESPN will go a long way to turning him into more of a household name.

Rigondeaux also has two gold medals he won for Cuba and is undefeated in 17 pro fights. The big knock on Rigondeaux is that he is too defensive and won't exchange in fights, though Arum believes that will change when Lomachenko pressures him Saturday in New York.

"He's got the Cuban style and doesn't take chances to win decisions, but he can't do that with Lomachenko," Arum said. "Lomachenko won't let him pile up a big points lead and then it becomes a real fight. I think Lomachenko knocks him out in the late rounds."

In an interesting programming note, HBO will also televise a card Saturday from Las Vegas featuring Orlando Salido, the only fighter to beat Lomachenko.

The day after the Garden fight, Arum — who turns 86 on Friday — gets on a plane for Australia for Horn's title defense next Wednesday against Gary Corcoran, which will be seen in the early morning hours in the U.S. on ESPN. There are plans for another Pacquiao fight in the spring as well as a Crawford fight, with the possibility the two will meet in the fall.

There's a long way to go, and promises have been broken in boxing before. But Arum believes the sport can overcome its own self-inflicted mistakes.

"Everyone was to blame, there wasn't just one culprit," he said. "It was the disease of being short-sighted."

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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