Kathy Duva faced a conundrum. The veteran boxing promoter is about to embark on a new venture, promoting a quarterly series on the NBC Sports Network that she hopes can provide a boost to a sport that desperately needs one.
The concept was simple: Evenly matched fights with high risk/reward scenarios would be made. There would be no appearance fights. In order to earn a spot on the series, a fighter would have to be willing to take on someone who was as likely as not to beat him. Brawls would be encouraged.
For the opener, Duva put together a heavyweight pairing of Eddie Chambers against Sergei Liakhovich. It wasn't Ali-Frazier III by any means, but it was a match of credible, respected veterans who would have the incentive of fighting to remain relevant in boxing's weakest division.
But when Chambers injured a rib and was forced to pull out, Duva was in a tight spot before the first show ever aired. How, on just seven days notice, could she land a credible opponent to fight Liakhovich and provide the caliber of event she had promised the network?
"There was no way I was going to put on a mismatch," she said. "No way. But then, finding someone with just seven days was so damn hard. I mean, there were guys I talked to who said, 'Hey, if you'd given me just two weeks, sure, I would have taken it.' But with just a week, the guys wouldn't have had a chance to even spar."
Larry Donald, a 45-year-old who hadn't fought since 2007, contacted Duva and offered to take the fight. She said thanks, but no thanks. So, too, did Tye Fields, another veteran who was best known as a boxer for being big.
"In all due respect, Tye Fields represented everything that was wrong with the previous boxing series on Versus," Duva said.
Duva had a hard choice: Did she put in an untested fighter who most likely would be out of shape and get blown out easily by Liakhovich, a former World Boxing Organization champion, or did she simply drop Liakhovich and go with a pair of largely unknown guys whose pedigree suggested that they would make an entertaining battle, if nothing else?
"We really debated how to go, and I will be honest, I was torn," she said. "But as I thought about it, it became clear. We had promised that we wanted to put on a certain kind of a fight, a fight that, if you walked by the TV and saw what was going on, you'd sit down and watch. And that's what we decided to do."
If heavyweights Bryant Jennings and Maurice Byarm live up to their reputations, it will be a brilliant stroke by Duva. If not, well, the consequences could be dire.
Jennings and Byarm will fight in a 10-round main event from the Asylum Arena in Philadelphia. The other televised bout on the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) will pit super welterweights Jesus Soto Karass against Gabriel Rosado in a 10-rounder. The broadcast begins at 9 p.m. ET.
"We have to put on fights people want to watch," she said. "The people at NBC Sports are very interested in doing boxing, but they have to show their bosses that people will tune in. As we went through it, I figured, well, if we put on a guy who didn't have a chance to train and who probably wasn't in shape and he got blown out by Sergei, that could be disastrous. [Series matchmaker] Russell [Peltz] knows these guys and he says it's a great match and that they both come to fight. Bottom line, that's really what we want, guys who come to fight and leave it all in there."
Byarm, 29, is 13-0-1 with nine knockouts and a fascinating personality. He has spent much of his life in one institution or another and most recently served a prison sentence for dealing narcotics.
He grew up in the projects in Philadelphia and said he was in and out of juvenile facilities, always in trouble. He wouldn't blame his environment or any traumatic moment in his life for his issues, though.
There was one person to blame and he looked at the guy who was at fault in the mirror every day.
"You know, my little sister went to college and did well and she grew up the same way I did," Byarm said. "It was me. When I was a kid, I thought getting in trouble was fun. I thought it was fun to try to go into a store and see if I could steal something."
That got him a lot of free lodging, courtesy of various state institutions and penal systems. But after serving his drug sentence, his life changed.
He was watching a fight on television with his father and he felt he could easily beat the men he saw. Two days later, he went to a gym.
He's done reasonably well as a pro and has committed to changing his life. He's not the slickest boxer – "They don't call me 'Freight Train' for nothing," he says, chuckling – but he is rarely in a boring fight.
He jumped at the opportunity when Peltz called and said that boxing will help him turn his life around.
"Don't say that boxing saved me, because that's not the way it is," he said. "It didn't save me. But now, I have something else to look forward to and I have no plans to go back in. I don't want that life any more. I want to do something with this life I have now."
To do it, he'll have to get past Jennings, a 27-year-old who is 11-0 with five knockouts. Jennings was an all-around athlete who competed in football, basketball and track in high school and tried boxing just because, well, he tried all sports.
He opted to train simply as a means to let off steam and get into better shape. He's been boxing, he says with a laugh, for three years and 19 days. He reached the finals of both the Police Athletic League nationals and the U.S. Golden Gloves, despite setting foot in a ring for the first time just four months earlier.
Jennings knows why he was picked to face Byarm and vows to deliver the kind of fight that will bring the fans back.
"This is the kind of chance I was looking for," he said. "It's a great opportunity to show my skills. I have the complete package: Speed, power, technique, movement, all of the above. Everything you want to see in a quality heavyweight is there. This opportunity is exactly what a guy like me dreams about and I don't plan to waste it."
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