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The Big Picture: 'KO Nation' knockout for HBO, Spadafora

Monday, May 08, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

HBO boxing boss Lou DiBella sat down on a bench inside a Mellon Arena locker room Saturday night. He nodded across the room toward the weary gladiator with the nasty cut over his right eye.

He liked what he saw -- in challenger Mike Griffith.

 

"Honestly, I thought Mike made the fight," he said moments after the fight feature on this "KO Nation" cable-broadcast debut. "This kid gave everything he had. Hunger's a very powerful thing in boxing."

Maybe DiBella was delivering an implicit message to the champion, to the hometown hero. McKees Rocks' own Paul Spadafora successfully defended his International Boxing Federation lightweight title for the third consecutive time, but in a desperate struggle for the second time inside two months on television. Maybe the cable guy who travels in boxing's foremost rings figures the modern-day Pittsburgh Kid needs time off, time to regain the hunger that brought him to a world championship in August.

This much I know: DiBella likes the kid and the Pittsburgh he carries with him.

DiBella likes enough of what he has seen in Spadafora to urge HBO to schedule him again.

"You know, Paul has a big following here. But he won't remember this night as one of his great fights. Paul was maybe ... overanxious.

"The flaws he has in the ring, everybody knows. He can't beat an egg. He can't punch. He's a matador fighter. We'd still be interested in him as long as we can match him with a bull. We've got to get him a fighter that comes at him.

"He's got to be matched right. This time, he was."

The debut broadcast was reminiscent of a 1970s movie: an action-packed thriller. Clifford Etienne and Lamon Brewster opened "KO Nation" by filling the Arena air with fists. Then came Spadafora and Griffith, each getting right-eye cuts from accidental head butts -- in the third and fourth rounds.

The crowd of 7,800 and the flocks watching at home were treated to entertaining fighting rather than tactical boxing.

"Overall, it was a great crowd," said DiBella, who preferred a college-campus venue for this X-Generation series. "They made a lot of noise. I don't think you could have asked for much more. And I think we delivered what we wanted: We had a fun afternoon with two quality fights. Bell to bell, people are used to good fights on HBO. Bell to bell, that's what they got."

As Spadafora manager Al McCauley so aptly put it: "Punches were thrown. Everybody was bleeding. That's good for TV.

"I hope they're interested in continuing with us," McCauley added.

They are. DiBella and the HBO types realize Spadafora's flaws, his overcrowded schedule (four fights in less than nine months) and, most important to them, his appeal to that body-pierced, tattoo-and-tune-loving, younger audience they so desire to grab by its Fubu shirt. Perhaps they might place him into their distinguished Saturday-late-night "Boxing After Dark."

Upon further review, "KO Nation" was a cool change from the routine sporting telecast. The sweeping boom cameras and quick camera switches really put the viewer into the ring. Even us old geezers -- folks older than, say, 30 -- weren't overwhelmed by the hip-hopping and gyrating, although the card girls were awarded a majority decision over The Knockout dancers.

The corner microphones caught some interesting live sounds: off-color language; Griffith's cut man warning the fighter before the sixth round about the possibility of a stopped fight; trainer Jesse Reid telling Spadafora to get busy and quit looking for a knockout blow. The boom and ringside cameras zoomed in on each fighter's right-eye gashes. In fact, analyst Kevin Kelley caught a glimpse of Griffith's and made the same call as the cut man: This one could go to the judges' cards.

When it did, HBO's ringside judge Julie Lederman declared, "This one's close." She and Kelley scored the fight basically the same: the first, third, sixth and ninth belonged to Griffith, and the other six to Spadafora. By comparison, two of the bout judges scored it an 8-2 Spadafora victory, and the other a draw.

So, in short, the broadcast was packaged for twentysomethings and teens, but it was every bit as analytical and penetrating as everyday sporting telecasts -- if not more.

The shame of it all is, the "KO Nation" father and HBO boxing boss might have seen his last ring telecast: He and the cable network apparently are parting ways.

"On the whole, I thought it was a good debut show," said DiBella, who is preparing for his next career as a boxing consultant. "People remember the first 'Boxing After Dark,' Marco Antonio Barrera-Kennedy McKinney [in 1995]. And people will remember this show.

"If this turns out to be my last fight, it's a nice way to go out: To give birth to this and see it come out all right."

Marathon, man

Technical difficulties continued to plague a WPXI/PCNC-TV marathon broadcast, but you have to come to expect that when a station once a year devotes so many resources to a live, five-hour event spread over 26.2 miles. When you throw in capricious microwave- and digital-broadcast technology ... oops, sorry, we lost our column signal for a second there.

Given the circumstances, station types captured the unfolding drama of the men's Olympic Trials and assigned the last PCNC hour or so to the citizenry's race. They even got airtime for a Tele-Prompter operator who went to Franklin Regional High with citizenry marathon winner Kevin Taylor.



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