- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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"Friday Night Fights," ESPN2's live weekly boxing series, returns for a 13th season this week with the first of 31 cards, including the network's first-ever 3-D boxing telecast on Feb. 18.
The season premiere features prospects Ruslan Provodnikov (17-0, 11 KOs) and Mauricio Herrera (15-1, 7 KOs) meeting in a scheduled 12-round junior welterweight fight at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas. In the co-feature, 2008 U.S. Olympian and former world amateur champion Demetrius Andrade (11-0, 8 KOs) faces Alberto Herrera (7-0-1, 5 KOs) -- Mauricio's brother -- in an eight-round junior middleweight bout.
Provodnikov and Andrade were both among ESPN.com's top 25 prospects to watch for 2011.
"We are excited by our early schedule of fights, including familiar faces for FNF fans," ESPN programmer Doug Loughrey said of bouts that involve Provodnikov, Andrade, Peter Manfredo Jr., Cristobal Arreola, Sergio Mora, Fernando Guerrero, Shawn Porter and Yordanis Despaigne, all of whom have appeared on the series previously. "Some are developing talents and some are more seasoned faces, but they're all exciting fighters for our fans to watch and be engaged with this season."
Although the season debut begins at 10 p.m. ET, the majority of shows -- 22 of them -- will begin at 9 p.m. ET.
"This season there will be a greater consistency of start times at 9 p.m. Eastern," Loughrey said. "And we will have new animation, graphics and music that we will incorporate early on in the season, as well as the addition of ultra slo-mo and a first-ever 3-D telecast for our ESPN3D subscribers."
The number of cards this year is an increase by two from 2010. The network also has more latitude to pay greater license fees than it has in recent years, depending on the quality of the card, Loughrey said.
Each show will also be carried live on ESPN3.com and simulcast in Spanish on ESPN Deportes. Blow-by-blow commentator Joe Tessitore, ringside analyst Teddy Atlas and studio host Brian Kenny all return.
"We will also look for more opportunities to do live boxing content on ESPN3.com in 2011," Loughery said of the network's live streaming video site that has picked up rights to several foreign fights that otherwise would not air in the United States.
Loughrey has finalized the first eight cards of the season. In addition to Friday's premiere, here's a look at the other cards that have been scheduled:
• Jan. 14 at Key West, Fla.: Super middleweight Manfredo Jr. (36-6, 2 KOs), the former "Contender" star and former title challenger, meets Daniel Edouard (23-3, 14 KOs), with ESPN.com top 25 prospect Edwin Rodriguez (17-0, 13 KOs) facing Aaron Pryor Jr. (15-2, 11 KOs) -- the son of Hall of Famer Aaron Pryor -- in a super middleweight bout.
"There is nothing that warms the soul in the dead of winter like great boxing, and there is no better place for it than Key West," promoter Lou DiBella said. "Manfredo and Edouard will step into the ring knowing only one will leave it as a viable title contender, and Edwin Rodriguez will likely face adversity that he has never faced before."
Manfredo, at 30, remains hungry for another world title opportunity after being stopped by then-champion Joe Calzaghe in 2007.
"Edouard has fought some good fighters, but I am ready for him," Manfredo said. "I'm ready to put on a show for the fans. I know this kid brings it. He's no slick boxer; he comes and comes and comes. I made sure I was in good shape for this fight. I want to box and look good doing it and get my one big fight. I'm happy to be back on ESPN; it's where I grew up as a fighter. I want one big fight. I want to fight the best. I want [middleweight champ Sergio] Martinez.
"I am a throwback to the old school. I fight for money. I have no benefits right now and I support a family. That's why I fight. I know I'm not going to be the best in the world. I'm not Manny Pacquiao. There is only one of him. I'm a good fighter who is looking for one last big opportunity."
• Jan. 28 at Temecula, Calif.: Former heavyweight title challenger Arreola (29-2, 25 KOs) fights his second consecutive bout on ESPN2 when he meets Joey Abell (27-4, 26 KOs) in a 10-rounder. Junior welterweight prospect Michael Dallas Jr. (17-0-1, 7 KOs) faces Josesito Lopez (28-3, 16 KOs) in the co-feature.
Arreola is 2-2 in his past four bouts with a knockout loss to heavyweight titlist Vitali Klitschko and a decision loss to top contender Tomasz Adamek to go with regular criticism of his conditioning. His wins have come against decidedly lesser opposition in Brian Minto and Manny Quezada. Abell falls into the second category and he knows he's taking a big step up in competition against Arreola.
"In my mind it's a do-or-die fight for him, and I expect that he will try and do more to get in shape for me," Abell said. "I cannot listen to all the negativity about Cris or else I might come in less prepared than I need to be. After all, he once fought for the world heavyweight title, so he's the best opponent I will have faced in my career so far.
"I'm not sure Cris will use that negativity as motivation to get into shape since he hasn't yet in his most recent fights. However, this is a do-or-die fight for me also. I need to beat a fighter of Cris' caliber if I hope to get a shot at a world title. That said, I'm gonna win and I'm gonna win early, definitely inside of 10 rounds, regardless of what type of condition he's in."
• Feb. 4 at Fort Worth, Texas: Former junior middleweight titlist Mora, in his first bout since a September draw with Shane Mosley, faces fellow former "Contender" reality series participant Brian Vera in a super middleweight bout on the weekend of the Super Bowl, which will take place at nearby Cowboys Stadium.
"I'm anticipating a very tough fight from Brian Vera," Mora said. "He has beaten some very good fighters, including knocking out Andy Lee and handing him his only loss in 25 fights. No question I have my work cut out for me. Vera is a tough fight for anyone, and the fact that the fight is in his hometown only makes it tougher."
Vera was supposed to fight Kelly Pavlik in November at Cowboys Stadium on the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito undercard but Pavlik withdrew just a couple of weeks before the fight. Vera is excited to get a shot at another name opponent.
"This is the road to the Super Bowl for me," Vera said. "My goal has always been to fight for the world middleweight championship, and a win over a former world champion and top-10 contender like Mora is what has to happen for me to get that opportunity. I'm pumped up about the fight, especially coming back to Fort Worth and fighting on Super Bowl weekend. There's going to be a lot of action in town, and to be part of this card will be special."
• Feb. 11 at Montreal: In a welterweight doubleheader, Antonin Decarie (24-1, 7 KOs) meets Shamone Alvarez (21-3, 12 KOs) and Jo Jo Dan (27-1, 15 KOs) fights an opponent to be determined. Decarie and Dan have both won one fight since losing last year in interim title bouts. Decarie lost a unanimous decision on the road in France to Souleymane M'baye and Dan suffered a controversial loss to Selcuk Aydin in Aydin's native Turkey in June.
• Feb. 18 at Salisbury, Md.: The prospect-laden show features three of ESPN.com's top 25 prospects: middleweight Guerrero (20-0, 16 KOs), welterweight Porter (17-0, 13 KOs) and, time permitting, super middleweight Dominic Wade (9-0, 7 KOs). The card will mark ESPN's first 3-D boxing telecast on ESPN3D.
Guerrero faces Saul Roman (33-8, 28 KOs), Porter meets Adrian Mora (20-1-1, 12 KOs) and Wade faces Grover Young (4-0, 2 KOs).
• Feb. 25 at TBA: Former featherweight titleholder Cristobal Cruz (39-12-2, 23 KOs) meets Mexican countryman Juan Carlos Burgos (25-1, 18 KOs) in a crossroads match between quality contenders. They are both coming off decision losses in title fights and need a victory to stay in the hunt for another shot.
Cruz lost his belt to Orlando Salido in May. Burgos fell to Hozumi Hasegawa in Japan on Nov. 26 fighting for a vacant title in one of the most action-packed fights of 2010.
• March 4 at TBA: Ismayl Sillakh (14-0, 12 KOs) and Despaigne (8-0, 4 KOs), both blue-chip prospects with huge amateur careers, meet in a light heavyweight bout, with junior welterweights Hector Sanchez and Ray Nahr hooking up in the co-feature.
Sillakh, a native of Ukraine living in California, won more than 300 amateur fights, including a silver medal at the 2005 world amateur championships. Despaigne was a 2004 Cuban Olympian who defected in 2009 and is now based in Miami.
With so much amateur experience, both fighters were anxious to step up their pro competition quickly.
"This will be as good as a world title fight," said Ivaylo Gotzev, Sillakh's manager. "And when Ismayl dominates the way I know he will, it will be a wake-up call to the world's light heavyweights that a new star has arrived."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.
People expect to see good boxing matches about as much as they expect to see the Easter Bunny on Christmas. Luckily for fans, FNF is restoring old glory with a litany of intriguing bouts in '11.