MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Tomorrow night on NBC, something we haven't seen on the network's primetime schedule for 30 years - boxing. The debut of premier boxing champions features two contests between top fighters. It heralds the possible mainstream revival of a sport whose reputation has taken a pounding in recent years. Boxing has been maligned, not just for its inherent brutality, but for corruption and mismanagement as well. Fight fans hope that the new NBC series, along with an upcoming super-match beween Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao restores some of boxing's past prominence. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Expectations are high for PBC on NBC.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: America returns to ring side. All new premiere boxing champions.
GOLDMAN: Listen to the words of two of the program's stars outside the ring on a conference call this week - PBC host and veteran sports broadcaster, Al Michaels.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)
AL MICHAELS: So I'm as curious as anybody to see if this provides a resurrection of sorts.
GOLDMAN: And PBC fight announcer, Marv Albert.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)
MARV ALBERT: I hope that it is part of a rejuvenation.
GOLDMAN: Resurrection, rejuvenation - a lot perhaps, to put on the backs of Keith Thurman, Robert Guerrero, Adrien Broner and John Molina, Jr.. They're the fighters who'll do primetime battle at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas Saturday night. But they're just the start.
Tomorrow is the first of 20 shows, including five on Saturday nights and six on Saturday afternoons on free TV, which, according to NBC sports executive Jon Miller, still is the most valuable way to talk to America and to get unknown fighters into more than 100 million U.S. homes. Former champion Sugar Ray Leonard will analyze the PBC fights.
SUGAR RAY LEONARD: I had the honor to be on numerous networks, so I was exposed to so many more households. There was just so many championship fights. That within itself made boxing so exciting and so, just, special.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING OF BOXING MATCH)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Cut right by Leonard - a cut right. Duran in a fury, going after Leonard, but Leonard caught up with a good chopping right.
GOLDMAN: Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns - these were the stars of boxing's last golden age in the 1980s and into the '90s. Since then, it's been an imperfect storm for the sport, says Al Michaels. Boxing moved away from network TV and toward premium cable, like Showtime and HBO and Pay-per-view. This shrank the audience considerably, although it made the top stars a lot richer. But with fewer of those stars to capture the public's attention, boxing's seamier side emerged. Shady promoters and a jumble of governing bodies that left fans wondering, who the heck were the actual champions?
STEVE FARHOOD: Boxing's the wild wild West.
GOLDMAN: Steve Farhood is a Showtime boxing analyst. He's been involved with the sport nearly 40 years.
FARHOOD: There's no infrastructure. It's all about short-term gain and shortsightedness. And I think with time, that came back to haunt boxing a little bit.
GOLDMAN: Fans of combat sports, especially younger fans, found greater appeal in mixed martial arts. Aldo Nunez was one of more than 17,000 who packed Staples Center in Los Angeles last weekend for a series of MMA bouts headlined by female superstar Ronda Rousey.
ALDO NUNEZ: I like MMA better because it's not limited. Boxing, you only use your fists. MMA - hands, elbows, knees, kicks, submissions, grappling, wrestling. That's the big difference.
GOLDMAN: Nunez still is a boxing fan and he'll pay for and watch the big fight in May between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. It's expected to be the most lucrative fight in history. But then what? Can the mega fight and NBC's efforts help boxing return to prominence despite the obstacles, despite the new climate of concern about sports-related brain trauma? We'll start to get an answer tomorrow night, depending on how four relatively unknown fighters perform on a national stage and what the ratings say about a nation's interest. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.