Notebook: ESPN to present fights Ryder Cup-style

Originally Published: February 9, 2007
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

AROUND THE RING
U.S. vs. U.K. for Sugar Ray Leonard Cup

Sugar Ray Leonard
Steve Granitz/WireImage.comSugar Ray Leonard will lead a team of super middleweight fighters in Season 3 of "The Contender Challenge."

The Ryder Cup, which pits the best golfers from the United States against Europe's best, has become one of the most popular events on the sports calendar.

Producers of "The Contender" reality series and top British promoter Frank Warren hope to replicate the Ryder Cup's success with the introduction of boxing's Sugar Ray Leonard Cup competition next month.

On March 30 at the 10,000-seat Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle, England, Leonard, the all-time great former champion and one of the faces of "The Contender" franchise, will captain a team American fighters from the first two seasons of the series.

They will box against a team of seven Warren-promoted British fighters, which will be captained by Hall of Fame former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan.

The team that wins the majority of the eight-round bouts will take possession of the Sugar Ray Leonard Cup.

Although the fights will all take place on one night, they will be recorded and serve as the basis for "The Contender Challenge," a six-episode series debuting April 10 on ESPN. It will air on ITV in Britain.

Leonard, McGuigan and Warren met this week with the British press to discuss the event. Warren hopes to make it an annual competition.

"The idea is that the cup will become a regular on the sporting calendar and that next year we will be taking a team to the US," Warren said.

Leonard, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist, is aware of how important nationalism can play in boxing and how such a competition can help build stars.

"I am really excited by this idea," Leonard said. "In my era, the fans knew who the fighters were. There was Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and me, and the fans all knew our stories. 'The Contender' has humanized boxing and helped today's public understand the fighters involved in the program, and what sacrifices they make in pursuit of their dreams."

Unlike "The Contender," the fights won't be limited to one weight class.

"Contender" executive Jeff Wald said Team USA isn't finalized, but he expects it to include Freddie Curiel, Alfonso Gomez, Cornelius Bundrage, Walter Wright and Vinroy Barrett.

The British team is expected to include Paul Smith, Ross Minter (son of Alan Minter, who reigned as world middleweight champion in 1980), Nigel Wright and Wayne Alexander.

"I like tradition and I like rivalries," Wald said. "I like the sport not to be just about one person. I think teams and countries resonate with sports fans. The Ryder Cup has been a very successful series. I would love to see the Sugar Ray Leonard Cup be that tradition in boxing. We want people to walk out of the arena and say they had a really good boxing night, that those kids fought there hearts out."

ESPN will address one of the chief criticisms of "The Contender," which is that the actual bouts are heavily edited and not shown in their entirety.

That won't be the case for the "The Contender Challenge."

"We'll capture the fights like we do with the World Series of Poker," said ESPN's Ron Wechsler, vice president of development and production for the network's original entertainment arm, which will oversee the series. "We'll have the fights and some behind-the-scenes stuff to go with them, but primarily it will be the fights. We know some of our fight fans have an issue with the way 'The Contender' fights are edited. On this series, they will certainly be shown in their entirety."

Golden Boy Promotions put on a similar World Cup-style event in 2005, matching Mexican fighters with fighters from Thailand on a six-fight card, including four world title fights. GBP is planning another one this summer, which will match Mexicans versus Filipinos.

Leonard to train Manfredo
Peter Manfredo Jr. has improved under the tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach. But now that Roach will train Oscar De La Hoya exclusively for his May 5 fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr., Roach won't be able to work with Manfredo as the former "Contender" star prepares to challenge super middleweight champ Joe Calzaghe on April 7 (HBO) at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.

Peter Manfredo Jr.
Manfredo Jr.

Taking over Manfredo's training will be none other than Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Leonard, who has watched Manfredo closely of late because of their involvement with "The Contender."

"I'm not a trainer, but my skill is in tactics and strategy," Leonard said in a statement.

Justin Fortune, Roach's assistant, is expected to remain a major part of Manfredo's corner.

Calzaghe was not too interested in the game of trainer musical chairs.

"I don't care who he has in his corner, he isn't going to beat me. It's as simple as that," Calzaghe said.

Dawson hungry for big fights
After Chad Dawson had claimed a light heavyweight title by outpointing Tomasz Adamek last Saturday night in Kissimmee, Fla., promoter Gary Shaw said that Dawson was so talented that someday in the next three or four years, he would be heavyweight champion.

Chad Dawson
Dawson

Perhaps Shaw was just a little excited by the moment. For the time being, the light heavyweight division is where Dawson (23-0, 15 KOs) wants to make noise.

The skillful titlist from New Haven, Conn., easily outpointed Adamek -- save for the rough knockdown he suffered in the 10th round -- and then turned his attention the rest of the big names in his division.

Dawson said he wanted fights with any of the following: Antonio Tarver, Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins or Clinton Woods.

"I'm not standing on ceremony," Dawson said. "I love to travel and my calendar is clear. Name the day and the place and if the money is there, then my belt and I will be, too. I have a trainer [Floyd Mayweather Sr.] with a lot of poetry to recite about me and I'm not about to waste one verse."

Witter begging to fight Hatton
Junior welterweight titlist Junior Witter has been chasing British countryman Ricky Hatton for years, long before they claimed 140-pound titles (although Hatton is regarded as the real champion of the division).

Junior Witter
Witter

Witter wants the fight because Hatton is the division money man. If you fight him, you make your best payday because Hatton is immensely popular in Great Britain and has a lucrative HBO contract. However, he is committed to fighting Jose Luis Castillo in June in a fight many are eagerly awaiting.

But that hasn't stopped Witter from continuing his campaign to lure Hatton into the ring.

"I think Hatton needs to grow some [expletive], forget all the politics and just give everyone the fight they want," Witter said. "Him and his team say I bring nothing to the table. They say US TV doesn't want to show me. We all know that's [expletive]."

Witter is a little misguided. Few outside of England are interested in the fight and, no, HBO is not interested in buying the match.

"If they go for Castillo first, what's the point? He is a blown up lightweight who hasn't properly established himself at [140 pounds]," Witter continued. "He only got by Herman Ngoudjo on a split [decision]."

QUICK HITS

Manny Pacquiao
Pacquiao

• And the winner of the Manny Pacquiao sweepstakes is: Mexico's Jorge Solis (32-0-2, 23 KOs), brother of junior flyweight titlist Ulises Solis. Solis got the call to fight Pacquiao in April on a Top Rank pay-per-view card when the fight was shifted from Macau, China, where Pacquiao would have fought Asian star Injin Chi, to San Antonio. Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said he got Pacquiao's approval on Solis this week and that Solis' contract was being finalized. The fight will take place either April 14 or 21, but it depends on when middleweight champion Jermain Taylor fights. He is also looking at both of those dates, so Arum and Taylor promoter Lou DiBella agreed that whichever date Taylor's HBO fight lands on, Arum would put Pacquiao's PPV on the other date.

Sergio Mora
Mora

Jermain Taylor
Taylor

• DiBella continues to try to close the deal with "The Contender" promoters for Taylor to fight Sergio Mora on either April 14 or 21. The date depends on a site deal. Sites in the running for the fight include Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Memphis, Atlantic City and Vancouver, DiBella said. Holding up the deal with Mora, according to DiBella, is Mora's insistence on a bigger purse. If he can't close with Mora, DiBella said he has had a discussion with Don King about matching Taylor with junior middleweight titlist Cory Spinks instead. Another option would be for Taylor to face mandatory challenger Khoren Gevor (25-2, 14 KOs), an unknown Armenian based in Germany. DiBella is also working on the HBO undercard fight. Among several possibilities: the return of former heavyweight titlist Lamon Brewster (who is handled by Al Haymon, who also advises Taylor); former welterweight champ Vernon Forrest (another Haymon client), possibly against former welterweight champ Carlos Baldomir; welterweight Andre Berto (yet another Haymon fighter), the 2006 ESPN.com prospect of the year, if he beats Norberto Bravo on HBO Feb. 17; and maybe lightweight titlist Julio Diaz against rising contender Anthony Peterson.

Roy Jones Jr.
Jones Jr.

Bernard Hopkins
Hopkins

• With negotiations breaking down between unretiring light heavyweight king Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr., Hopkins has turned his attention to middleweight contender Winky Wright. They are working on a deal to face each other July 21 (HBO PPV) at a site to be determined, Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer said. "Contracts are being circulated," Schaefer said. They would fight for Hopkins' Ring magazine world title. If the fight comes off, they would meet at a catch weight of 170 pounds, five pounds less than the light heavyweight limit but 10 pounds heavier than where Wright has been campaigning.

• Now that the big fight -- Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather -- is on for May 5 (HBO PPV) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Golden Boy Promotions is turning its attention to the undercard. One fighter penciled in for the PPV is rising Filipino junior featherweight contender Rey Bautista, Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez told ESPN.com. If Bautista wins a Feb. 24 fight in the Philippines on the undercard of Fernando Montiel's junior bantamweight title defense against Z Gorres, Gomez said, "He is a lock to be on the card. Oscar has approved it." Bautista (21-0, 16 KOs) would face Argentina's Sergio Medina (28-0, 16 KOs) in an elimination fight to determine the mandatory challenger for titlist Daniel Ponce De Leon. "We've already reached out to Medina, and he's agreed to terms. It's just a matter of Bautista winning," Gomez said. Also a possibility for the May 5 undercard, according to Gomez, is former junior middleweight titlist Kassim Ouma.

Fernando Vargas
Vargas

• Contrary to rumors reported on some fan Web sites, Fernando Vargas is not fighting Ricardo Mayorga on Showtime opposite the De La Hoya-Mayweather on May 5. "I have no idea where those reports came from," Showtime boxing boss Ken Hershman told ESPN.com. "They're not true. We've never had one conversation about it. It's not happening." In fact, Hershman said, Showtime will defer to De La Hoya-Mayweather and put on its usual live boxing card on the first Saturday of the month. "That's a big fight and it's the right thing to do for boxing fans," he said. "We won't try to compete against it." Showtime, however, probably will go with a live mixed martial arts show on May 5.

Rafael Marquez
Marquez

Israel Vazquez
Vazquez

• The Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez junior featherweight world championship fight on March 3 (Showtime) finally has a home. Vazquez will defend his 122-pound crown against the bantamweight champion at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., a tennis center outside of Los Angeles. It has played host to a few other fights, most notably Marco Antonio Barrera's match with Paulie Ayala in 2004.

• Still reeling from Dan Rafael's Quick Hits? Check out his hard-hitting blog Insider that keeps boxing Insiders informed about the latest happenings in boxing.

QUOTABLE
"I'm hoping Juan Diaz finishes his homework and comes out to play. I just think there is too much Diaz in the weight class right now and we need to start getting rid of some of them."
-- Newly crowned lightweight titlist Julio Diaz, who hopes to lure the college student and fellow beltholder into a fight; the division also includes interim titlist David Diaz