Sports

Boxing is back on the card, but is it ready for prime time?

Welterweight champion Keith Thurman, left,  and Robert Guerrero face off at the weigh-in for their fight in Las Vegas, which will be televised on NBC.
Welterweight champion Keith Thurman, left, and Robert Guerrero face off at the weigh-in for their fight in Las Vegas, which will be televised on NBC. The Associated Press

You can hear it in Marvin Webb’s rhythmic thwacking of the speed bag in Horatio Barrera’s gym on Broadway. You can feel it in former lightweight champ Tony “The Tiger” Lopez’s impassioned discussion of his beloved sport. And you can see it tonight when NBC brings boxing back into the living rooms of America on free TV in prime time for the first time in 30 years.

For a half century or more, boxing as American spectator sport has gone up and down and in and out of style and, in the past 15 years or so, mostly down and out. But in the first 10 weeks of 2015, we see the seedlings of a boxing revival. It helps that the United States became a factor at the top of the ticket, when Deontay Wilder on Jan. 17 won a piece of the heavyweight championship. On Feb. 21, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao finally agreed to fight. And on Saturday night, NBC will televise a card from Las Vegas featuring WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero and 140-pounder contenders Adrien Broner vs. John Molina.

“I think it’s going to be great,” said Lopez, the former champ who these days chases skips for a living as a bail bondsman. “It’s going to bring it back to the forefront. All these hard-working fighters you’ve never seen of or heard of in your life – this is not just a big deal for them. It’s a huge deal.”

It’s not like boxing ever died in this country, although it has bled badly enough to merit a call from the ringside doctor. Millions of casual fans turned off the sport after that 1997 night in Las Vegas when Mike Tyson interrupted their dinner parties with a nibble on Evander Holyfield’s ear. Millions more are troubled by the high cost of pay-per-view. Mayweather and Pacquiao screwed things up by not fighting when they were at their best, maybe five or 10 years ago.

And the popularity of other combat sports, such as mixed martial arts, put boxing in something of a submission hold. Until recently, the United States abandoned what used to be the glamour position of all sports, the heavyweight championship of the world, to .... the rest of the world. Where we don’t live.

Now we’ve got two potentially great fights and a third main event, Abner Mares vs. Arturo Santos Reyes, on TV on Saturday night.

Fight fans are talking about it all over town, from Lemuel Adams’ Game Fit gym on Del Paso Blvd. to Horatio Barrera’s joint on Broadway, over to Tony Lopez’s F Street office and in the ring Benny Garcia set up in Meadowview, behind Rosa Parks Middle School.

Barrera used to train kids in his Woodland garage. Business got better, so eight years ago he opened Broadway Boxing, between Tahoe Park and Oak Park. Now his gym is booming. From his ringside seat at the grassroots, Barrerea knows what’s going on with boxing, even without TV. He’s got 50 men and women and boys and girls, fathers and daughters and mothers and sons, working out every week. College kids, grocery workers – “all walks of life,” he said. It’s more than twice his number from a year ago.

“Usually, I had to shut the gym down come November or December, and January was always my worst month,” Barrera said. “This year, I stayed busy. Everybody wanted to have their exercise, keep up with their goals.”

Marvin Webb’s goal is simple. The tall, 140-pound 16-year-old stepped back from the pasting he delivered to the speed bag to say why he took up this fight business: “To become the greatest.”

The great Sacramento hope now is Grant High School senior Angel Rios. He’s a growing 6-foot, 152-pound prospect who won the light-welterweight bronze medal two years ago at the National Junior Olympics in Mobile, Ala. The next stop, he hopes, will be the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“Nothing’s given to you in boxing,” said Miguel Rios, Angel’s pop. “He’s got a lot of support in Sacramento, but he’s got to continue to focus on the prize. We’re not the only ones going for it.”

Rios trains regularly at Game-Fit, where owner Lem Adams recently worked out an arrangement with the Sacramento cops. They’re bringing back the Police Athletic League boxing program after many years of dormancy. Look for an announcement in April.

“The program is going to be huge,” Officer Charles Husted promised.

NBC appears to have heard the beat of the gym, from Sacramento and across the country. Yes, Saturday is the night networks air their weakest stuff, on the evening America goes out to play. Still, 30 years is 30 years, and they say the Saturday show is no one-shot deal. NBC is promising 20 telecasts this year, in its Premier Boxing Champions series, including 14 in prime time and five on the main network.

“I think we all feel that resurgence, and that’s why we’re doing this,” executive producer Sam Flood told reporters in a conference call.

Boxing, of course, comes with a warning. You might see somebody die. You for sure will see somebody get hurt.

You also see people lay out everything they’ve got.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

PREMIER BOXING CHAMPIONS

▪ WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero

▪ Adrien Broner vs. John Molina

When: Today, 5:30 p.m. TV: Ch. 3

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