ESPN’s lackluster coverage of Saturday’s heavyweight title fight featuring Vitali Kilitschko was a black eye – both for the sport and the network.
It was a sad commentary on the once-mighty sport that a heavyweight championship bout was relegated to ESPN Classic first of all.
But it was also a shoddy presentation that was comically below the standards of any outfit claiming to be “The Worldwide Leader In Sports.”
Boxing’s heavyweight division – once its calling card – is now a punchless group of pugilists at best. So fight fans (like myself) are lucky that ESPN bothered to carry it at all, even when they dumped it onto ESPN Classic, reportedly because they were contractually obligated to show college wrestling.
But the show itself was terrible. Admittedly, ESPN had a very high bar to hit in a sport for which the standard is set by HBO Sports, which does boxing as well or better than any network does any sport in this country.
HBO productions are always rich with top-quality taped pieces and a run of show setting up the anticipation of the night’s main event, with the production values always top-class from start to finish. And for bigger fights, HBO starts long before fight night with its critically-acclaimed 24/7 series, which is basically a multi-episode infomercial for the fight, but it’s done so well and compellingly that you don’t really care.
So when ESPN opened the show cold in the arena in Germany with Klitschko already walking out of his dressing room, the viewer had to jump right into it. Forget the backstory, it was fight time.
And it was tougher to get acclimated once you realized the announcers were not across the pond, but were calling it from a studio back in The States.
Now often that doesn’t matter, as it is long a staple of other international affairs such as soccer (including on ESPN), and when done well (as ESPN usually does), a viewer doesn’t notice. And the choice to keep the announcers home for a low-interest event was very much understandable in these economic times.
But the audio mix was so bad on this production that to a TV viewer the arena had all the atmosphere of a Kansas City Royals game in August.
And once the fight started, in typical ESPN fashion, the screen was way too cluttered. There was the usual ESPN scroll across the bottom, two different ESPN-branded logos, and the entire fight they left up the names of the fighters and the color of their trunks. And trust me, it ain’t hard to tell Vitali Klitschko and Juan Carlos Gomez apart.
After Klitschko’s win, ESPN tried to stick with the post-fight interviews, but production-wise that was a total train wreck, too.
Again, as a boxing fan I hate to bite the hand that feeds me, because if ESPN didn’t step up, there is a good chance this fight would not have been on TV, and I would have had to spend the hour watching my March Madness picks go further down the toilet.
So thanks for that, ESPN. And I get not sending announcers Brian Kenny and Teddy Atlas to Germany, because this fight was probably of interest to me and about 13 other Americans. And the often-boring fight itself was why God invented the fast-forward button on the TiVo, and Exhibit A of why heavyweight boxing is in the tank.
But when you are used to the top-rank quality of HBO Sports, or even the solid work of a Showtime or Versus when it comes to boxing, ESPN’s shoddy presentation was a punch below the belt to boxing fans, and definitely to the network’s reputation as well. Luckily for them, I doubt many people were watching.