ESPN Analyst on Boxing’s Return to Free TV: If You Build It, They Will Come

The man who once put a gun to Mike Tyson’s ear and pulled the trigger portrayed a more PG, Field of Dreams scene to Breitbart Sports of how boxing might rescue itself.

“It’s been proven,” Teddy Atlas explained, “kind of like that Kevin Costner movie, you know where, ‘If you build it, they will come’? You know that movie? It’s kind of like that. If you put it on free TV or if you put it on the networks, and if you promise the people good fights, they will come. And they’ve been coming.”

Atlas refers to the Premier Boxing Champions series initiated by boxing manager Al Haymon. The mysterious magnate forged deals with CBS, NBC, and ABC to bring boxing back to network television. The boxing manager’s deal with ESPN reorients Atlas’s job. ESPN’s Friday Night Fights soon morphs into a once-a-month Saturday affair. The debut primetime broadcast of NBC’s Premier Boxing Champions, which moves to Spike for a card tonight featuring a match between super middleweights Anthony Dirrell and Badou Jack, peaked at 4.2 million viewers during Keith Thurman’s decision over Robert Guerrero and delivered the sweet science its highest television ratings since 1998.

“Now you want them to stay,” Atlas says of the audience. “See, that’s the key. You don’t want them to be like those ghosts in the Kevin Costner movie where they disappear into the fields. You don’t want that. That’s not good. You want them to stay.”

Atlas didn’t stay long at the Catskill Boxing Club in the early 1980s. Legendary trainer Cus D’Amato dismissed his younger protégé after he fired a .38 next to 15-year-old Mike Tyson’s ear to teach him a lesson for bothering his niece. Tyson last year gave Atlas his hand and his apology. The pair hadn’t spoken for decades. Calling Atlas an “extremely important” figure in his young life, Tyson told ESPN: “I was wrong and I am just happy enough to make my amends.”

Although Tyson initially built his name with a run of quick knockouts airing on ESPN from dark and dingy Upstate New York gymnasiums, he subsequently embodied the pay-per-view model—which followed the closed-circuit model embraced by Muhammad Ali—that moved quality boxing further away from normal broadcast television. Now some promoters with a long view beyond short-term profits see basic cable and network television as key to the sport’s comeback. And Atlas, ESPN’s sweet-science guru for more than a decade, finds himself in the middle of the down-but-not-out sport’s rally.

“They will stay only, only if you don’t lie to them,” Atlas concludes of viewers, “if you give them fights where, for the most part, you can make an argument on either side whose gonna win—not fights where, at the end of the day, even if you get marquee names, only one guy can win.”