I’m 0-2 at fight predictions to open this year, and that’s just fine with me after a pair of bouts Saturday night that set high standards for the rest of 2006.

The original basis of this column was to examine what the future might hold under the completely inaccurate premise that Zab Judah, like his favored co-star John-Marc Mormeck, would win big and head into the spring with substantial momentum toward huge paydays.

Judah had reportedly already signed a contract aiming to secure an April date against Floyd Mayweather Jr., and chatter increased regarding Mormeck’s exploration of the heavyweight ranks.

Instead, inspiring Carlos Baldomir and O’Neil Bell may hit the jackpot since both featured underdogs came through with raucous victories.

It was clear from the first round, when Bell smirked at Mormeck’s assault, that we were in for a good scene. Showtime’s excellent broadcast opened both the network’s 20th anniversary and a grab-bag of ringside surprises. It also threw down a heavy challenge to HBO in terms of quality programming.

Showtime focused on the many positives in last year’s schedule. Their brightly optimistic presentation may be self-serving, but it’s also true. Many watchdog sources concluded that Showtime has overtaken long dominant HBO in product value. The stakes are high in cable land. If Showtime gets the same reviews this year, it’s no longer an upset.

It was a good enough start to the proceedings that both featured fights involved unified titles. When Mormeck entered in a well-chopped suit and tie ensemble, it looked like the sport was trying to clean up all at once.

With the spotlight upon them, Bell and Mormeck put on an entertaining, hard-fought contest that was close until the end. Round seven is the early entry for frame of the year.

Bell exceeded expectations with a career performance. Referee Wayne Kelly might have shown a bit more concern for the back of Mormeck’s noggin, but Bell landed enough clean conkers to the kisser to earn the 10th round stoppage.

Mormeck was gracious in defeat, and Bell was a likeable victor. Another plus for the sport, which is becoming the norm. They’ll probably meet again in another fight or so.

“I can never fill Evander Holyfield’s shoes, but I’m going to keep trying,” said Bell, the first unified major belt holder in 17 years. “I love this game.”

Watching Bell and Mormeck at the Garden, it was hard not to love him back. Promoter Don King indicated Steve Cunningham would be Bell’s next opponent, with visions of sugarplum paydays down the road.

Baldomir–Judah was great human drama. There will definitely be a load of questions about Judah’s conditioning going into the bout, but he did show up ready to go 12 hard rounds. Baldomir came in at a higher level, and that’s the kind of performance that makes audiences come back for more.

Baldomir may not be around at the top for long, but he definitely earned the pinnacle, and hopefully he’ll get to cash in.

Judahexpressed displeasure with King, but he’ll probably find Don accommodating enough to get him another shot at one of the titles left vacant by Baldomir’s shocker.

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In less than two weeks HBO has their first big broadcast of ‘06 with the Erik Morales–Manny Pacquaio rematch. Kassim Ouma returns on the comeback trail at Desert Diamond a week after that. Then, seven days later, Showtime returns with Jose Luis Castillo–Diego Corrales III. The year may be very young, but it’s already been pretty good to fans.