- Joe Tessitore, Boxing
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Grab a Primanti Brothers Sandwich and Iron City beer. Bust out your Jack Ham throwback jersey and have Grandpa tell you his best Billy Conn story. "Friday Night Fights" is returning to Pittsburgh.
2001 was the last time ESPN boxing visited the Steel City. The Light Amphitheater showcased "the Pittsburgh Kid" Paul Spadafora when he defended his lightweight title against Joel Perez. Not soon thereafter, Perez would finish off his career as a knockout victim to current unbeaten world champs Miguel Cotto and Juan Diaz.
The champ's future wasn't much brighter. Spadafora fought just eight more times after that May night in yesteryear. His career was interrupted by enough personal problems to fill a month of Dr. Phil episodes. He went through a stretch of arrests that would make Britney Spears blush, including having to serve time for shooting his girlfriend.
Spadafora left the scene and so did our ESPN cameras. That changes this week as our boxing crew rolls past the three rivers for an interesting main event: Pittsburgh's Monty Meza-Clay (26-1, 17 KOs) takes on recent titlist Eric Aiken (16-6-1, 12 KOs).
"Football is king here so we have always had trouble getting space; everything revolves around football," said local trainer and promoter Tom Yankello. "We have great fight fans in Pittsburgh. This is a hidden fight town. I think it's something that can continue and continue."
It will continue if we see good action in front of a packed crowd. The Monroeville Expo Center, which is about 15 minutes outside of downtown, is expected to be the kind of venue that can produce that.
"It's like the blue horizon," Yankello explained, making the comparison to Philly's legendary bandbox. "The environment is everything in this sport. It's going to seat about 1,500 and we will have another 500 standing room only. It will feel like 5,000 people around the ring."
What those fans are in store for is a lot of confidence from each of the two main event fighters. Aiken offers up this assessment on Meza-Clay: "I'm too strong for him, so I'm just going to walk him down and get him out of there."
Aiken has tried to do that before. We've seen him in very exciting fights on our air. Most recently he was in a war in South Africa. Aiken knocked down Thomas Mashaba with a left hook early on, only to be knocked out cold by a left hook later in the fight.
Meza-Clay has been in a few thrillers himself. He gave Edner Cherry everything he had but still suffered his first (and only) career defeat.
"I have the same approach for every fight," Monty said. "I just impose my will on him, let him try to figure me out. I'm going to do me -- I'm going to stick to my game plan, you dig? There's nothing different other than ring the bell -- let's fight!"
For the record, I do "dig." In fact, I dig so much I have a feeling this fight will end up being one of the more entertaining scraps we've seen so far this year.
Both guys need the win. Both guys are athletic. Both guys are capable of exciting the fans when they commit to that style of fight. Add in the fact that it will be contested in front of a lively standing room-only crowd in a fight town hungry for good action, and -- yes -- I dig.
It's not likely that Meza-Clay is going to make it to the next level in this sport. Sometimes, however, the next level is not defined by a title shot, but rather by having a solid fan base; a base that allows for strong promotions and attracts TV. He can prove he has that this week.
Word is that there is some good, young talent developing in Pittsburgh. Some of them may even make our air on this card. Let's hope that's true. Pittsburgh is a sports town full of fight fans who deserve ESPN boxing to visit more than once every seven years.
Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."
7hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com
21hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler