Good news, addicts. Your Friday Night Fights is on its way back. The new season debuts Jan. 3, with a fight card unfolding in Minnesota. We can assume the ESPN crew, specifically those folks not huge fans of the subzero temps, wished that new boss Brian Kweder had looked at a map and chosen a location a bit more southern to kick off the slate. But in the end, all of our joneses will be satisfied if we get more good bouts than bummers, right?
I chatted on Thursday with Kweder, a Philly native who graduated from Penn State, who replaced Doug Loughrey, and looked to get some intel about the forthcoming season.
Kweder left me with a generally upbeat feeling about the franchise, not for the least because he told me he’s a fight fan. “I’m thrilled to be doing this,” he said. “The sport of boxing is great and has so much potential.” The exec has been with ESPN for 19 years, and has already handled some boxing content while working the ESPN International and Deportes slots. Also, when he was director of programming for ESPN Classic, he told me, he loved choosing which archival gems Classic would show. Kweder will wear two hats for the lean and mean corporation, acting as senior director of programming and acquisitions of ESPN’s soccer slate while doing the same for the sweet science for the worldwide leader (for whom I also do some work, for ESPN Magazine, as well as ESPN New York). “I’m a fan,” he informed me, “and that gives me a leg up from some other folks, as I come from the perspective of the viewer who wants to see good fights.” Amen, brother…
Kweder said one of the building blocks of his leadership reign will be more long distance planning. He said he was surprised when he polled some of the promoters ESPN does business with, and when asking them how FNF could be better, instead of saying, “Give us more money,” the promoters said they’d appreciate more lead time, more time to build a cohesive, intriguing date. That means laying out the entire season, which ends on Aug. 22, ahead of time. No more, he said, hustling weeks before a date to fill up a card. In years past, cards would still be up in the air 45 or 60 days before air date. This season, Kweder continued, viewers can expect to see FNF doing a strong job introducing fighters to fans, and re-inviting them back for more opportunities. One fighter Kweder mentioned who will, quite likely, get that push, is Minnesota middleweight Caleb Truax. He meets Derek Ennis in the season opener and Kweder is high on him. “He was on last year and did deliver, and he can be a superstar in that division,” Kweder said. “He’s got an exciting style, and he’s marketable.”
It’s safe to assume that Kweder’s having taken in Philly fights, at the Blue and other hotspots, could influence the type of rumbles we see on FNF. Sure, we’ll see ring techs like Argenis Mendez, who fights Rances Barthelemy in a defense of his 130 pound crown, but game rumblers like Arash Usmanee, who we saw fight twice on ESPN2 last year in a losing effort and a draw, will also be rewarded with gigs.
Kweder said he’s psyched to be having Mike Tyson the promoter in the Friday Night Fights mix, and mentioned that Tyson’s signee Erickson Lubin will be on air, and is one to watch.
A Jan. 24 tiff between Javier Molina and Kendall Holt in Washington should produce sparks, he said, with an up ‘n comer meeting a vet who needs a win ASAP.
Two more vets who need to win to keep from sliding into irrelevance, Zsolt Erdei-Elvir Muriqi, will tussle on Jan. 31, on a Lou DiBella card in New Jersey which will be a nice appetizer for the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands. FNF will stay in the region for a Feb. 21 show which could run on Long Island, in Huntington, and feature Chris Algieri.
This being America, finances are always on everyone’s mind. I asked Kweder if the FNF budget is the same, or more this year. I was under the impression that most shows are put together by a promoter for between $60-$75,000 or so, and Kweder said as per company policy, he didn’t wish to delve into specifics. But he did note that the 2014 budget is similar to the 2013 budget, but FNF will run four fewer cards, because ESPN will be running World Cup action in June and July, so there is more money available per show this season.
There will be a continued commitment to fill in the blanks with fights streaming on ESPN3, which is available in 85 million homes, Kweder said. Also, you can expect the ESPN-HBO hookup, now in its second year, to mean that more content, more fight replays, and more PPV pre-fight footage, will run on ESPN. Also, that relationship means more ESPN “mainstream” personalities, like Skip and Stephen A., will occasionally spotlight the sweet science, which most boxing fans seem to get a kick out of.
Who will win? Wladimir Klitschko or Tyson Fury?