A farewell to Friday Night Fights
Great God, they would have savaged that leather jacket.
The Twitter hordes, had they been present when ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights” debuted in 1998, would have gone to town on Max Kellerman’s leather jacket…and Teddy Atlas’ Staten Island patois, and that curious scar which would have been fact-checked and the origins of which would have been ascertained, maybe correctly, by the end of the two-hour show.
What a different world it was when ESPN trotted out a new series, which they hoped and suspected would speak to the under-served fight fan wanting something a bit more than the game-day presentation, with the attendant packages put together to introduce fans to the principals and hype the forthcoming scrap.
A large part of the impetus for the series coalesced when ESPN parted with big bucks to possess a large portion of the Bill Cayton tape and video fight library.
Let’s have a vehicle to put out this pugilistic treasure trove and let’s put on fights, not A-grade ones – because our budget won’t allow that – but let’s tweak the existing formula some with a smart and snappy studio show, to make the sub four-star fare more palatable.
The question was, at the time, not, “Will it succeed?” – this was being crafted by the (not-so-humbly tagged) Worldwide Leader in Sports, after all – but “Who should we get to be on the show?”
Who are our building blocks, beyond the fighters? Because we will always be able to find fighters, but the people presenting the context for the bouts, and responsible for the tone and direction of the program, which subsequently ran for 17 seasons, who should we target?
That task fell into a few laps, one of them being Rob Beiner. He’d been at ABC Sports and done work on boxing for USA and he got a call from Cayton, who’d become quite prominent in the boxing sphere through his management arrangement, along with Jim Jacobs, of Mike Tyson, during the emergence and part of the heyday.
“I had heard of Cayton,” Beiner told me. “I got a call and he asked me to come to his office; he had a new project. He told me he was going to be involved in what would be ‘Friday Night Fights,’ and there would be a set and different twists. He went over the approach; it was right up my alley.”
Steve Bornstein was then chairman at ESPN and he backed the endeavor.
This was no given; boxing had a grime, a slime attached to it, and was looked down upon by many suits, maybe often for good reason, as being a red-headed stepchild with ADD in the sports realm.
Who needs it? Dying demographicÔÇªtoxic to advertisersÔÇªdirtbag promoters peddling one-round rub-outs, regular drive-bys from the Justice Department, targeting high-level players accused of corruptionÔÇªprincipals likely to snap at a moment’s notice and bite off portions of opponents’ ears,or maybe get ensnared in a rape scandal.
Boxing, the red light district of sports while AIDS was mushrooming.
ThanksÔÇªbut no thanks.
So, in some circles, the entry of ESPN into the space, at that time, was met with raised eyebrows and mouthed “WTF?”s.
“I was asked to start auditions,” said Beiner, a few days before the show was to wave goodbye, after almost 17 seasons, to be replaced by a (presumably) better, shinier model, which reflects the new normal within the game, as manufactured by the Harvard Business School mind of the disruptive recluse Al Haymon, a shadowy figure who has convinced Wall Streeters that boxing can make money.
The boxing coordinator attached was Bob Yalen and coordinating producer was Larry Kristansen and they were sifting through maybe 20 names.
Cayton had latched on to a cocky kid who could only have been formed in New York City. Max Kellerman, who wouldn’t be shaving for a few years, had a fan-base for his public access cable fight show, which included people like Mike Tyson. Cayton was a fan and wanted Kellerman to be prominently featured.
“Also, one of the guys in that batch was Teddy Atlas and I had heard of him with Tyson,” Beiner said. “During his audition, we learned that Teddy’s command of the English language wasn’t that of a typical announcer. He definitely had a New York accent.”
Definitely, like Tyson “definitely” possessed power in both his destructive hands.
Easily, Atlas could have been scratched off the list. How would he play in Peoria? But noÔÇªit was decided that what he lacked in language command, in smoothness, he more than made up for with his knowledge base and they liked the intensity he exuded when he made his points. Of course, that intensity would, over the years, prompt nail biting and muttering in the truck – “Oh, Lord; what is Teddy gonna say?” – but it is clear that the Atlas choice was a home run, a grand slam pick.
Kristiansen sheds more light on how FNF came to fruition. He was working in NHL and was at the NHL All-Star Game, in Vancouver in 1998. Bornstein, now the president of the NFL Network, cornered him.
“They wanted to revive the Friday Night Fights legacy,” Kristiansen said. “We hashed out some things on the back of an envelope; it was in a restaurant. We had a format; we got the green light. We went about getting talent.”
Bornstein was all in and John Wildhack, now executive VP of programming and production, was a thumbs-up guy. “I knew once it got off the ground, it would fly,” Kristiansen continued. “Someone gave me a tape of Max, he was fresh, cocky, certainly greenÔÇªbut he obviously did alright for himself! And Teddy was a slam dunk.”
Brian Kenny was added to the stew. “He knew boxing; he had the right radiance. And the rest was up to the boxers. It became a proven franchise,” said the then coordinating producer, who went to work NHL in 2004 and is now retired. “But to start off, the new ingredient was the studio. I was tasked with making sure we had clean ins and outs (from ringside to the studio and vice versa), making sure the timing was correct.”
Bob Papa would be ringside calling bouts with Atlas and, back in the studio, the Mensa-level Kellerman would be wowing viewers with his Google-type arsenal of historical factoids and ability to communicate insights in a way which would earn him a debating trophy at Oxford, if he choose to go that route. The kid – and he was a kid. You wondered if he still lived at home with Mom and Dad – clearly ate, slept, breathed the Sweet Science and won over viewers with his chops, if not always the ultra-confident way he sometimes shared his viewpoint. Atlas provided a counterpoint and was there, from the start, to make sure Max was in check.
“The leather jacketÔÇªthere were actually three of them,” the radio host and now-HBO analyst Kellerman confided to me. “I only wore one the first three or four shows. There was a yellow one, my brother Sam’s, a black one – that was mine – a brown oneÔÇªI wonder where they are?”
He’d been doing “Max on Boxing” and was a local celeb in NYC, in a small pond. Well, sorta small: Dustin Hoffman was a regular viewer, Tyson too, and they’d get a kick out of, and learn some finer points on master craftsmen like Pernell Whitaker from the brash communicator.
In 1998, Max knew he needed to branch out, get to a next level, so he and his brothers put together resume/pitch kits, about 50. There was a demo reel, Harry, Jack and Sam pitched in, and they sent out a batch. “The first place that responded was ESPN,” Kellerman said. On a parallel track, Max had run into Tyson cohort Steve Lott, who he’d known from being at fight salon parties at Jack Newfield’s. The investigative journalist extraordinaire had a blind spot weakness for the fight game, which makes sense, since the sport cries out for investigation, with all the freelancers involved running their own cons.
Lott filled Max in; Cayton wanted to talk to him about the Friday Night Fights vision, this reboot which would evoke memories of Friday night presentations back when boxing was an XL sport, not nichified. Cayton called Max, told him he envisioned him, the kid, calling the fights, a one-man booth, like Don Dunphy used to. “The people at ESPN liked what they saw on the demo reel but I didn’t want to be ringside. At that time, I preferred to be doing analysis in a studio setting,” Kellerman recalls. It was June, 1998, and he passed the auditionÔÇª
“I knew Teddy from Newfield viewing parties. We’d watch tapes of fights before watching Tyson or Holyfield or whoever. Right away, I said, ‘This will be fun,’ because Teddy went right at me. He was very good; he knew what would work on TV, the grizzled vet, the young kid, play that up. At first, maybe I was a little put off but he called and we talked. I told him, ‘You will learn, I’m not one of those fake industry guys.’ ‘Neither am I,’ Teddy told me but, as for you, time will tell.’ And I’m glad he told me that because I had to prove it over time.” Atlas’ innate desire to traffic in as much truth he could, without being fired, and Kellerman’s penchant for intellectual rigor, meshed. Atlas had worked color with Spencer Ross, a pro’s pro, for NY SportsChannel, a regional cabler. He also worked color on radio, with Larry Michaels, for HBO’s bouts, and got some rounds in with Dan Dierdorf, on ABC, when Alex Wallau was booked elsewhere. “They were taking a chance; I give them a lot of credit,” Atlas told me. “They asked me to come to a stadium tape a fight call, do an audition.”
He passed; he’s been there ever since. “Am I sad? Is it bittersweet? Am I excited about what we’re doing next? All of the above,” Atlas told me, the day before the last FNF call, from Corona, Calif. “It’s bittersweet; it’s sad to say goodbye to an old friend. We’ve done so much together. Seventeen years, we’ve grown, loved, gotten angry together. I felt I was partners with the fans. When I got mad or excited or celebrated, we did together.”
Atlas said he knew he could do things not the way they were and are usually done, going along, getting along, not making waves, not making ripplesÔÇªnot, as he’s prone to do, splashing about somewhat apoplectically, with a “Mad as hell, not gonna take it anymore” vibe, which usually disqualifies people for placement on national television programs.
“I looked out for the sport; me and the fans did that together,” he says, summing up his stint and outlook, from the start. “Sometimes I admonished the people who didn’t understand right behavior and conduct, the administrators, the judges, the refs, the corrupt sanctioning organizations. That was part of my role, to speak and think and care for the fans and hopefully make the the game a little better.”
The tone of the show has shifted somewhat over the years. Atlas has been that constant, bringing that edge, that loose-cannon, “Anything might happen and it probably will” feel to things, which helped when the low budget meant that two sub-marquee hitters clashed in the main event, and the undercard was filled with a mix of no-hopers and never-will-bes.
Matt Sandulli has been aboard since 2006 and is now senior coordinating producer, and shared some thoughts on the going-away bash and the series’ meaning.
“In 2006, the show was still in its ‘heyday’ – quote unquote – we were still doing a better rating because, of course, nine years ago, a lot more people were watching TV then,” he noted. Asked to provide some big-picture takeaways, and/or signature anecdotes, he shares that he was most struck by the parade of fight game deities who trekked to Bristol, Conn., came in studio, and spent a chunk of time sharing their storehouse of recollections, and insights with staff and viewers.
“I was in my office, hosting Angelo Dundee for the afternoon. He was talking; I was mesmerized,” Sandulli said. “He asked, ‘Do you want Muhammad Ali’s autograph?’ I thought that would be outstanding but I was slightly confused. He grabs a piece of paper, signs Ali’s name and tells me, ‘You can’t tell the difference!’ That paper is still in my drawer, somewhere.”
Missteps and cringe-worthy moments, they had them over the course of the run, which ends tonight, and if there is a God who seeks to keep us humble, the show will start late because a college softball game will bleed into it…
“Something that makes me cringe, one thing that kept and keeps me on the edge of my seat is that moment you do not want to deal with, when someone hits the canvas and you know they could be in trouble,” Sandulli said. “You take a deep breath and hope they get better quickly. There have been a couple incidences of that and it’s always hard.”
Dealing with Atlas hasn’t been like that, contrary to what some might suppose. Sandulli explains: “Teddy is the lightning rod, boxing’s unfiltered voice; it’s been tremendous with himÔÇªand yes, I’m on the edge of my seat when he speaks most of the time. But we’ve always been willing to give him that rope because we know he’s going down the right path 99 percent of the time.” And that one percent, does he make you want to grab a razor and slit? “To his credit, he’s gotten better; he’s realized whatever the subject matter is, he might need a little help framing things. For five, seven years, he’s been really good at, ‘This is what I want to say,’ and he’s never asked me or any of us permission to say it but he will ask how to say it the right way. In the early days, he whaled on a commission – can’t recall who – before he’d ask for advice to help frame things. It got us in a little hot waterÔÇªbut, in the long run, he was right. The bottom line is he’s right…He knows how to frame it for the viewer at home so they can understand it. I said, ‘Geez, I wish we would have talked about it beforeÔÇªbut he’s right and it’s hard to argue with that. I’m a short-timer on this show but what has been special, I think, is how we brought home to the serious boxing fan for 17 years, sort of blue-collar values, hard-working, nose-to-grindstone, ‘get the job done’ mentality…We projected that image to the fans at home and, from the son of a factory worker, it’s been an honor to be associated with that.”
All sides of the sport were paid attention to in the 17-year run. The honorable traits that makes the best-of-breed prizefighters that much closer to being immortal, for their exploits, for their surfeit of will and skill and strength they display on their best moments. That first show, it unfolded on Oct. 2, 1998. And the dice was rolled from the get-go, as the oft untethered Andrew Golota would be featured in the co-main event clash. He was fighting Tim Witherspoon, a cable TV perennial, in Poland, and that face-off was screened for FNF viewers. A super middleweight clash between Thomas Tate, a B-plus-grade hitter, and solid but unspectacular Demetrius Davis, for a minor belt, was the feature attraction. The venue was the Blue Horizon, prized as an intimate venue, in Philly, which encouraged battlers to unspool their topmost effort, to honor the ghosts of prior Blue waltzes.
J Russell Peltz was the promoter for Tate-Davis and, for the first year or so, was contracted to put together the bouts which were to run on FNF. He recalls that, in actuality, boxing hadn’t been off ESPN, that Top Rank Promotions had run a weekly series, on ESPN regular, from 1980-1998. “The main event was a disappointing fight,” the Philly-based Hall-of-Famer told me. “They didn’t match up well. It was an eliminator with the winner to fight then-IBF titlist Sven Ottke.” Cayton had been brought aboard as a consultant, as part of the wining and dining for his archives package, and he brought Peltz along. “After the first six months or so, I was pushed out,” he told me, “but the first fights were at the Blue, as it should have been. I remember it was the first time I spent significant time with Teddy Atlas. And before that, boxing was not on Friday nights. All the big fights were on during the week but they couldn’t clear another night…So since 1998, everyone wants to run on Friday.” Anything else he wants to share about the debut or the legacy of the show? “Nothing you can print, Michael,” he said, with a delightful chuckle.
Brian Kenny, “BK,” was happy to share on-the-record recollections from his run; he was at ESPN from 1997 to 2011 and treasures the friendships forged in the FNF crucible over everything else. “Max and Teddy are among my best friends. My kids still call him ‘Uncle Max,'” Kenny told me. He visits Joe Tessitore and they hang. Yes, when he thinks about it, he does tend to get a tiny bit misty-eyed because he knows that base of experience will never be replicated. Also, the time spent with fight-game legends. Here’s an off-the-top-of-the-head list Kenny sent me of the guys who came to Bristol, hung with him, shared golden stories, and then went on air, to be illuminative to the viewers. Many of them you don’t need first names filled inÔÇªHagler, Frazier, Leonard, Whitaker, Buster Douglas, Holmes, Michael Spinks, Cooney, Mayweather Jr., Breland, Mancini, McGuigan, Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr., Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund, Vernon Forrest, De La Hoya, Winky Wright, Jermain Taylor, Ward, Mosley, Cotto, Kessler, Calzaghe, Steward, Briggs, Bob Foster, Barkley, Toney, Bert Sugar, Angie Dundee.
They’d have a meeting, do dinner, maybe do a SportsCenter hit with BK, then do the show. “I was forced to get to know them,” he said. “Without that show, I wouldn’t have been forced to do that.” And FNF had that respect for the history, for the manufacturers of it, it gave them room to share that story, to the credit of the helmers.
Pretty quickly, BK recalls, the Cayton tapes, the black-and-white snippets from ’50s aces, fell off the production. “The Cayton library, I think, was an impetus for the series. But time was of the essence and how many people were interested in fights from the ’50s? So we used a lot of that on ‘Classic Ringside.'”
Kenny wasn’t in the mix, really, on the runway. He’d trained, with Cus D’Amato, was a fight game geek and was writing columns on the old ESPN dotcom. He’d called bouts, on local NYC cabler MSG, so he helped with auditions. He and Teddy hit it off, though they hadn’t crossed paths in the Cus realm, and Kenny chuckles, noting he’d been trying to tell producers, without being a pain, that he could do this. He aided in auditioning Teddy and then the next guy he helped with was Max. The crew was forming, right quickÔÇª
They pondered having him call fights ringside but he wanted to do SportsCenters and, besides, BK and the wife had five kids, so being a road warrior didn’t appeal. “No, thanks,” he humbly told them. Three weeks after that, he looked at his schedule. “BOXING,” it read. He went to Norby Williamson, then in charge of schedules, and Norby told him they wanted him to do the studio thing with Kellerman.
Right away, the chemistry jelled. Kenny, then and now, had no problem forcefully but respectfully correcting the record, yanking the truth out of a groupthink cluster – and that worked well with Kellerman’s off-the-charts IQ and Atlas’ brand of candid analysis. “I think it was a pretty good collection of talent,” he said, understatedly.
Joe Tessitore – “Joe Tess” to devotees who’ve come to much appreciate his A-grade solidity as a fight caller and foil for Teddy Atlas – was happy to weigh in and offer his big-picture take.
“My first card was Feb. 8, 2002 at Agua Caliente Casino in Palm Desert, Calif.,” he told me. “Rob Beiner, the longtime producer, was someone I had already known for awhile. I had worked with Robbie on a boxing project outside of ESPN. Fortunately for me, he is one of the kindest and most optimistic people I have ever known, so he held my hand through the lead-up to the production and made sure things would go smoothly. Funny thing is that I don’t remember the fights as much as I remember my first test from Teddy. He arrived ringside perhaps a little later than he usually does. We had very little time or interaction prior to going live on-air. Looking back, it was a great lesson from Teddy for me to prove myself, to not try to be perfect and rehearsed, to be able to handle anything and let natural broadcast skills and fight preparation show through.”
Does Tessitore have a signature take-away anecdote?
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Tess said. “You truly think you have seen everything and then, time after time, you’re shocked by what has happened on this series. On the boxing side, we’ve had rings fall apart, fighters get engaged before ring walks, security threats, production meetings disrupted by brawls among camps. We’ve had remote locales threatened by dried-out brush fires. As for the stuff beyond boxing, it’s truly not fit for print. Let’s just say a core group of guys, who aren’t intimidated by much of anything, have spent 17-plus years on the road together, mostly in casino hotels, surrounded by boxing industry types, working late nights and having each others’ backs. You can only imagine the stories I could tell. There were many times this crew found themselves in situations that did not exactly conform to a corporate culture. For many years, working on this show was the closest thing you’d find to a modern-day Sinatra-led ‘Rat Pack’ or ‘Goodfellas’-type atmosphere. I have forgotten more all-time classic road stories than most people would ever hope to experienced in a lifetime.”
We will wait for the auto-bio then…
And is there a single moment you’d like to have back?
“Yes, July 16, 2008. To this day, I am haunted by the sound that I heard come from Oscar Diaz. He collapsed to the canvas five feet to my left. His body let go of something at that moment. It was as if his brain and entire nervous system crashed; the noise that his lungs emitted was unlike any I have ever heard. It was a primal groan of a man understanding his very last moment (Diaz, a San Antonio, Texas-based boxer, finally passed away on Feb. 26, 2015). I would like to have those two days in San Antonio back. I would like to be able to erase those days from my memory. I remember him walking in to see me the day before. His smile as he was flanked by his family in his hometown is imprinted in my mind. I’d want those days back, to alter anything, to have created any domino to fall differently, to have Oscar still with us. My heart breaks for his family and for his opponent that night, Delvin Rodriguez.”
Tessitore takes a crack at the last legacy of FNF: “Friday Night Fights may have been the last bastion of classic, old-school style, authentic, weekly sports TV broadcasts. It had no agendas. It had no league to answer to, no box to fit into. It wasn’t burdened with promotion and sales. For the most part, we did whatever we wanted to, which really meant whatever the fans deserved. In the end, that’s what we are on this crew – deeply passionate, caring fight fans. In an increasingly hyper-sensitive America with gotcha social-media, this broadcast stretched across three decades as a respite from the new norm. For those who stayed with it week after week, and enjoyed raw truths, that meant a lot. Teddy had a lot to do with defining that legacy but also many producers and coordinating producers had the guts and guidance to support it.”
Moving forwardÔÇªConcepts get stale. What was fresh becomes the norm; new tastes emerge. One must refresh, adapt or perish. So ESPN is moving in a new direction in the boxing space. Senior Director of Programming and Acquisitions Brian Kweder has been the biggest driver there. He’s been overseeing boxing since May 2013 and admits he feels mixed emotions with the last FNF show running this evening. “The beauty of this position is, I’m a boxing fan. I absolutely adore Friday Night Fights and it served its purpose in the boxing world. It helped raise a lot of folks who went on to become champions. It gave us boxing consistently on Friday; that’s a good thing. But we couldn’t resist trying to raise the level of boxing on ESPN and looking ahead, it’s a brand new day for the sport, coming in July, and I’m excited to be part of it. People will see ESPN and our production team give that big event feel you see on ESPN for other sports and the studio is no longer. It will be emanating from site. I’m thrilled to have Tess and Teddy back in the mix; that was a fairly easy decision, as I regard them as the best in boxing. We will fill in pieces around them, with some familiar faces and maybe some new faces. As to the FNF legacy, we saw what ESPN is capable of with [Floyd] Mayweather [Jr.]-[Manny] Pacquiao. This company can get behind this sport in a big way. The goal is for ‘Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN’ to raise it to the level where it’s not every 25 years you get that super-fight. We will see the best boxers against the best boxers, a raising of the level of competition in the sport, and ESPN will be right in the forefront of that battle.”
Time will tell, as Atlas likes to say.
Right now, we have a better chance at deciphering the impact of FNF’s 17 years than how the current plan will play out. As Kristiansen puts it, “The show, we wanted it from day one to be the conscience of the sport and it was never affiliated with any one promoter or fighter. It was its own entity and we didn’t have to kiss ass.”
Kellerman will hold on to memories of integrity of message and cookouts with Kenny and is hopeful the future will be looked back on as fondly as this 17-year run will be. “The fights will be better; the only question with the new arrangement is, what will the messaging be? Though I imagine with Teddy Atlas, there will remain a strong independent editorial voice. But what I most remember will be hanging out with Brian and his family, grilling, watching his kids grow up.”
Atlas is optimistic but sits, as he should, in a skeptic’s chair. This is life. This is boxing. Trust but verify is the only way to operate sagely: “I believe what’s been laid out for us, what the plan is, it sounds good, being on once a month, on regular ESPN. Marquee names well matched with other big names, that’s the key. That’s what was promised; I’m believing that’s what it will be. It’ll be a nice new journey to a different, also fun placeÔÇªI thank the fans for allowing us for 17 years to be with them…I’m the lone survivor…to be in their living rooms. From the bottom of my heart, I don’t say goodbye. I say, I will see you on Saturday.”
Follow Woods, sitting in his own trust-but-verify chair, on Twitter @Woodsy1069