Do Not Adjust Your Set: Boxing, Staple of 1950s TV, Returns Tonight to Primetime on NBC

The last time NBC broadcast a championship boxing match in primetime “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” by Simple Minds ruled the pop charts. The song has aged better than the sport.

Network television has largely forgotten about boxing in the intervening three decades. But the Peacock looks to revive the staple of black-and-white sets on hi-def tonight when it airs the made-for-TV personality Adrien Broner (see Breitbart Sports’s conversation with him from last year about his bling above) versus heavy-handed John Molina and undefeated Keith Thurman versus Robert Guerrero, who won three rounds against Floyd Mayweather two years ago.

NBC’s blast-from-the-past boxing broadcast employs a retro team whose tale of the tape boasts an average age of 67. Marv Albert, who called NBC’s last primetime title match—a heavyweight championship bout between Larry Holmes and Carl “The Truth” Williams—joins Sugar Ray Leonard to announce the action. Al Michaels serves as the telecast’s host.

They may be aged announcers. More importantly, they’re A-list announcers. Their presence reflects a commitment—from NBC or perhaps from promoter Al Haymon, who buys the time—to make the Premier Boxing Champions series a success.

The trio surely recalls boxing’s network-television-aided golden age.

A Rory Calhoun split decision win over Charley Cotton played as the last program broadcast on the DuMont Television Network before it signed off for good on August 6, 1956. The network televised fights involving Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and other greats of the day. Long before the metrosexual roamed Gotham streets, New Yorkers roamed to 66th Street and Columbus Avenue to attend telecasts of Boxing from St. Nicholas Arena. The easy-to-follow, stone-age competition between two solitary figures proved incredibly popular on stone-age television when black-and-white screens appeared smaller than the one you read this on. Like Milton Berle, the sport struggled once the small screen grew bigger. It didn’t help matters when Benny Paret died from injuries suffered in a boxing match shown live on ABC in 1962. By the time Bob Dylan asked “Who Killed Davey Moore?” the very next year, boxing surely was on the ropes.

Boxing’s revival on primetime network television seemed about as likely as the return of DuMont. A growing cultural distaste for the sport due to tragedies like Paret’s and Moore’s, the rise in the popularity of mixed-martial arts, and the short-sighted greed that relegates the sweet science to subscription television and pay-per view all conspired to transform a popular pastime into a pariah pastime well past its time. But like Diego Corrales after he reinserted his mouthpiece in the tenth against Jose Luis Castillo, boxing remains hard to keep down.

Just when prizefighting’s detractors counted it out, NBC announced a deal to air 11 fights on the flagship network (five in primetime and six on Saturday afternoons) and nine more on its cable sports channel in 2015. The first card begins at 8:30 p.m. Eastern tonight featuring a character more entertaining than most on television in Adrien Broner, a knockout artist in John Molina, and the undefeated next-big-thing in Keith Thurman. Next month, Wladimir Klitschko, the heavyweight champion of the world, returns to fight mecca Madison Square Garden after six years of boxing in Europe. In May, Las Vegas plays host to the most eagerly-anticipated bout of this decade in Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather. The fighters will split a purse that may reach $300 million.

If boxing is dead, what might it look like living, breathing, thriving?

Boxing, by its own hand and through cultural forces beyond its control, has been on the canvas too many times to count since its heyday more than a half-century ago. And after every setback its detractors mistake a knockdown for a knockout. The violent sport may be too primitive for 21st Century Man. But that primal quality that scares away viewers may be just what scares up an audience for NBC tonight. Men remain men, after all, even in the 21st century.