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ESPN Friday Night Fights Lineup: Prospects, Veterans, Crossroads Fights and Breakout Chances

Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

This season of Friday Night Fights on ESPN2 has been one of the better in recent memory, already in 2011 featuring upsets like Ruslan Provodnikov's first loss, very interesting prospect-versus-prospect battles like Ismayl Sillakh's win over Yordanis Despaigne, notable young names like Fernando Guerrero and Shawn Porter, and unknown but quality international fighters like Maxim Vlasov and Isaac Chilemba. The lineup has given boxing fans a look at a varied and diverse cast of talent already.

And what's on the way in the coming weeks is also quite good. The folks at ESPN deserve some credit for putting together a nice lineup that doesn't have lopsided showcase main events, a problem that plagued the show for some time and made it nearly irrelevant to all but the most hardcore boxing audience. Here's a quick look at what The Worldwide Leader is bringing to you in the near future.

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March 18
Welterweights: Brad Solomon (16-0, 7 KO) v. Demetrius Hopkins (30-1-1, 11 KO)

Super Bantamweights: Chris Avalos (18-1, 15 KO) v. Yan Barthelemy (11-2, 4 KO)

Solomon is a 27-year-old rising welterweight out of Lafayette, Louisiana, who has started to make a few waves in the struggling division. Given the lack of impressive talent after the first few fighters in the division, he could be a serious contender sooner than later, even if he doesn't turn out to be anything you'd write home about himself. He's one of many fighters who tries to do the Roy Jones Jr. style to some degree, using flashy defense and almost too slick moves to set up surprising power shots. The trouble is he doesn't have Jones speed, Jones reflexes, or Jones power. That goes for just about everyone that tries to do the style, but Solomon just doesn't excite me personally for whatever reason.

The 30-year-old Hopkins has never really broken through to a next level. The nephew of Bernard, Demetrius has had very little association with his uncle as far as career advancement goes, and has had some out-of-ring issues in the past. He has no power and has fought just six times since 2006. His best win was a robbery of Steve Forbes, and his one loss was clear as day to Kendall Holt, but somehow one of the judges ringside saw that fight for D-Hop, too. He fought twice in 2010, beating Mike Arnaoutis and Jesse Feliciano. Usually Hopkins, given his level of competition, is the better boxer in the ring, but that might not be the case here.

The co-feature is decent. Avalos is a banger whose prospect apple cart got overturned a bit in August 2010 by the unknown slickster Christopher Martin, who thoroughly outboxed the would-be showcased fighter en route to a 10-round decision win. But Avalos showed something in the loss, as he never quit on himself no matter how frustrated he was. He kept pressing. Barthelemy is a 31-year-old Cuban southpaw who has no real upside, but if Avalos hasn't learned how to deal with superior technicians, he could be in for another rough night.

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March 25
Junior Middleweights: Erislandy Lara (15-0, 10 KO) v. Carlos Molina (17-4-1, 5 KO)

Junior Middleweights: Yudel Johnson (9-0, 6 KO) v. Richard Gutierrez (26-5-1, 16 KO)

ESPN loves to showcase them Cubans, or promoters love to put them on ESPN, or both. Here we have Lara and Johnson in a double Cuban broadcast at 154 pounds.

Lara, 27, is maybe my personal favorite of the current crop of Cubans, but my enthusiasm for him has waned over the last year or so, and I'll be happy to tell you why. Lara turned pro in 2008 and, like many Cubans coming into the pro boxing world, already had more than enough tools to be a competitive pro. As an amateur, Lara didn't stick around long enough to accomplish what some of his countrymen have, but was a standout all the same. He got his feet wet, then in 2009 started taking some steps forward, and in January 2010 topped savvy pro Grady Brewer in what seemed like it should have been a final stepping stone fight before taking a plunge into real contention. Instead, Lara stayed at that level and beat Danny Perez, and since then has taken a big and bizarre step backward to face William Correa (TKO-1), Willie Lee (TKO-1), Tim Connors (TKO-1) and Delray Raines (KO-1). In his last four fights, Lara has racked up all of 8 minutes and 59 seconds of ring time against opponents everyone knew were inferior going in. What has he gained from those fights?

About two years ago, I decided to keep my eye on Carlos Molina. He had won nine fights in a row including an impressive stretch of victories over Alexis Camacho, Ed Paredes and Danny Perez. But he hasn't fought since June 2009. Given Lara's talent and Molina's two years of inactivity, I think we're looking at Lara continuing to tread water, unfortunately. Maybe after this he'll finally be put in with someone who might actually be able to offer a challenge. (Note: This is not the same Carlos Molina who is a 14-0 lightweight prospect. I keep seeing people confuse the two.)

Yudel Johnson, 29, is a 5'10" southpaw. He turned pro in 2009 and so far has fought absolutely nobody, making Gutierrez a big step up. The 32-year-old Colombian, now based in Miami, has long since lost his status as a possible contender at 154 pounds, and settled into a gatekeeper role. He can still punch a little bit, but he's 0-4-1 in his last five fights that mattered, though he did go 2-0 against a couple of Colombian Special Opponents (the two fighters came in with combined records of 0-9) in April 2010. This fight is really all up to Johnson. Gutierrez isn't going to fight above or below his normal level, and we know what that is, so now we can get a read on Johnson.

After the Jump: David Lemieux v. Marco Antonio Rubio, Hank Lundy, Joel Julio, and More

April 1
Lightweights: Hank Lundy (19-1-1, 10 KO) v. Patrick Lopez (20-3, 12 KO)

One of the Middleweights: Vladine Biosse (10-0, 5 KO) v. Tim Connors (10-2, 7 KO)

Lundy is officially a Friday Night Fights regular, as the Philly product has been featured in his last three fights, this marking a fourth straight series appearance. In 2010, we saw him beat Tyrese Hendrix in April in a bit of a brawl, get stopped in 11 by John Molina in July, and then come back in August to decision Omri Lowther in Montreal in what was probably the most troubled FNF card I've ever seen, as I think the show changed roughly 17 times before getting finalized.

At 5'6" with a really compact build, Lundy has the look of an explosive fighter, and sometimes he is one. Against the undercooked Hendrix, he looked the part between the bells. But Molina was able to exploit some holes in Lundy's game. Lopez is a 32-year-old Venezuelan southpaw who actually hasn't built up a totally soft record fighting at home, as he's only fought in Venezuela twice and actually lives in New Hampshire. He was beaten up and knocked out in three rounds in his last fight against Tim Coleman in October, so now he's stepping down from 140 to face Lundy at 135.

Biosse is a former football player originally from Cape Verde who came to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1995 and became a star athlete in high school. He played college football for the University of Rhode Island as a wide receiver and defensive back. He's also had some hand problems, and that's an injury that tends to repeat on fighters, no matter how much fixing they do. Connors is a 28-year-old from St. Louis whose record is exceptionally soft. Almost Colombian soft.

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April 8
Middleweights: David Lemieux (25-0, 24 KO) v. Marco Antonio Rubio (49-5-1, 42 KO)

Super Middleweights: Adonis Stevenson (13-1, 10 KO) v. TBA

David Lemieux might not look the part, but he's a devastating puncher and this main event is the most significant of the current FNF lineup. At just 22 years of age, Lemieux has turned heads with a series of vicious knockouts and stoppages, as opponents have just not been able to deal with his power.

In fact, let's tip our caps to those who have survived past two rounds with Lemieux over 25 fights. Here's to you: Rodney Green (TKO-4), Rogelio Sanchez (TKO-3), Bladimir Hernandez (KO-5), and Jason Naugler (UD-10). That's it. That's the whole list. And Naugler lost on unanimous shutout scores, too.

Lemieux isn't a tough sell. If you like watching laser-like punchers do their thing, tune in and watch him fight. Mexican veteran Rubio is best-known for his February 2009 shot at then-middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, in Pavlik's first fight after the champ lost a catchweight bout to Bernard Hopkins. Pavlik may not have been at his absolute best in that fight, but the way Rubio reacted to him, you'd think he was in the ring with a tyrannosaurus rex. That's a bit worrisome from his side. When last he faced a really top-tier opponent, and a guy who can really punch, Rubio looked legitimately scared in the ring at points. For much of the fight, he appeared to wish he were anywhere else in the world, and by the last few rounds before his corner mercifully stopped the shellacking after nine rounds of completely one-way action, I honestly thought he was going to cry between rounds. I don't say that to make him sound like a punk or anything. It's just what I was seeing. He looked terrified. It was especially sad because Rubio had been involved in such a good, back-and-forth, physical battle with Enrique Ornelas just to get the chance to fight Pavlik.

My favorite thing about Adonis Stevenson is still that his name is very Memphis wrestling. At 33, the Haitian-born fighter is older than his record makes him seem, and he was stopped in the second round by Darnell Boone in his last fight. Scuttlebutt currently has him fighting Carlos de Leon Jr. (21-3-2, 14 KO) on this date. Carlos hasn't fought in about two years after getting demolished by Allan Green.

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April 15
Junior Welterweights: Ruslan Provodnikov (18-1, 12 KO) v. Ivan Popoca (15-0-1, 10 KO)

Russia's Provodnikov has drawn comparisons to the great Kostya Tszyu over the years, but I think we've passed the point of no return on accepting that a lot of that is just appearance and rat tails, and that while their fighting styles may also be similar, Provodnikov is in no way the next Kostya Tszyu. You know, other than rat tails and style.

This is a comeback fight for Provodnikov, who lost his first fight as a pro in January on Friday Night Fights to Mauricio Herrera. Provodnikov did fight on February 20 in Russia against a guy who had lost his last 10, but this is the real comeback.

Popoca is also taking a big step up in competition here, as Provodnikov will be by far the best fighter he's faced to date. Born in Mexico and now based in Chicago, the 29-year-old Popoca will travel out to California for this one, and believe it or not, it will be the first time in his career he's fought outside of the Chicagoland area -- every single one of his 16 fights has been in Chicago, Cicero or Villa Park, Illinois.

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April 22
Junior Middleweights: Delvin Rodriguez (25-5-2, 14 KO) v. Michael "Murder Man" Medina (24-3-2, 19 KO)

30-year-old Delvin Rodriguez has been one of the unluckiest fighters in recent memory. He's gone 2-3-1 in his last six fights, starting with a draw against Isaac Hlatshwayo in November 2008, a decision so questionable that even the local papers in South Africa questioned the validity of the judging. He beat Shamone Alvarez, then lost a split decision rematch against Hlatshwayo, followed by a decision loss in Poland to Rafal Jackiewicz that many debated. He picked up another victory over Mike Arnaoutis, then dropped a close call against Ashley Theophane, also questioned by many.

Now he's moving up to 154 pounds to face Michael "Murder Man" Medina, a raw Mexican slugger who has grabbed a piece of real estate in the boxing world as a decent test for fighters who need a win. At 24, Medina has a few decent wins on his record, but his highest-profile fights have been losses to Vanes Martirosyan and John Duddy, both by 10-round decision, and he was fairly competitive against Duddy, but then a lot of fighters have been competitive against Duddy in losing efforts. A troublesome sign for his future might be his last fight, when he was stopped in two by veteran Saul Roman, who wasn't exactly on a tear. Medina is someone I could see rallying to really "find himself" at some point once he's had good training for a while. Rodriguez might be a step too high just yet for him to pick up a win, but Delvin is no spring chicken and the trips around the block and the unkind turns of the wheel could also be getting to him at this point. It's a good fight for both.

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May 6
Super Featherweights: Diego Magdaleno (18-0, 6 KO) v. TBA

Featherweights: Bernabe Concepcion (28-4-1, 15 KO) v. TBA

Light Heavyweights: Mike Lee (4-0, 3 KO) v. TBA

If any card on the current lineup figures to be an underwhelming showcase-style event, it's this one. Top Rank has lined up three fighters at different stages of their career for the date, though no opponents have been named yet, and we're less than two months out. Don't expect anything amazing. Magdaleno is the best fighter here, a powerfully built 130-pounder with a surprisingly lack of zip on his fastball given his frame, but he has won his last three fights by stoppage, so the hope there is that he's learning to sit down on his punches more than he used to.

Concepcion is a 23-year-old Filipino who seems much older because he's already such a known quantity. In his last fight, he bombed with Juan Manuel Lopez and was stopped in the second round, but provided 5 minutes and 37 seconds of the most exciting fighting in 2010 in defeat. That was good to see, because prior to that his biggest fight had been an ugly and dreadfully boring DQ loss to Steven Luevano.

Mike Lee is a Notre Dame graduate and truthfully a mediocre prospect who is being pushed hard in the media for all the reasons you might expect. He seems like a really nice guy, and he's got a good head on his shoulders. I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Lee winds up a boxing lifer, but more on the business side than in the ring. That's just my honest opinion about his in-ring potential.

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May 13
Junior Welterweights: Kendall Holt (26-4, 14 KO) v. Julio Diaz (38-6, 27 KO)

Junior Middleweights: Jonathan Gonzalez (12-0, 12 KO) v. Rudy Cisneros (12-2, 11 KO)

Kendall Holt, now 29 and managed by New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, has had one up-and-down ride in his boxing career. His iffy chin has always made him a vulnerable and exciting fighter, but he's made up for it with good offensive skills most of the time. He was once stopped by Thomas Davis in the first round. He stopped the normally very durable David Diaz. He struggled with Jaime Rangel but completely dominated Isaac Hlatshwayo. His two fights with Ricardo Torres (a controversial loss and a controversial win) were memorable, the first for being almost total chaos in Colombia, the second for Holt coming off the canvas to knock out Torres in the first round, largely thanks to a bad clash of heads. He decked Timothy Bradley back in April 2009, but was thoroughly outboxed otherwise. In his next fight, he looked like he was on another planet in a terrible loss to Kaizer Mabuza in February 2010.

Holt is now back in action for real, after a January tune-up bout with Lenin Arroyo (TKO-1) and a firm decision to stand pat at 140 pounds instead of testing a higher division, which had been the plan during much of his downtime, which was spent with Holt doing some soul-searching. Kendall Holt is a fighter. But you never can be totally sure what version of the Paterson, New Jersey, native is going to show up. At 5'9" with a 74" reach, he's long and tall for the junior welterweight division, but has a bad habit of hurting himself with poor defense and mental lapses.

This is a pure crossroads fight for two guys who cannot afford the loss. Julio Diaz is 31 years old and has had a rough go of it in recent years, starting with a one-sided TKO loss to Juan Diaz in 2007. He went 0-2 in 2009, losing to Rolando Reyes and Victor Cayo, but bounced back in 2010 to beat Herman Ngoudjo on Friday Night Fights. In January, he fought off TV on the undercard of Bradley-Alexander at the Silverdome, beating Pavel Miranda at welterweight.

I admit I know very little about the co-feature fighters. Gonzalez's KO run is built on soft names, and Cisneros is a part-time fighter who was once knocked out in 90 seconds by a guy who came in with a 4-31-1 record.

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May 20
Welterweights: Joel Julio (36-4, 31 KO) v. Antwone Smith (20-2-1, 12 KO)

Welterweights: Sadam Ali (11-0, 6 KO) v. TBA

Sometimes I wonder if Joel Julio keeps getting TV spots because of that "Love Child" business from Dan Rafael. It's not that I have anything against Julio, it just seems like he's gotten an inordinate amount of TV exposure given that he's at this point a flamed out prospect fighting to remain relevant, about a half-step above a gatekeeper anymore, and really only has that half-step because he's still just 26.

It's a return to the welterweight division for Julio, a weight class he left in 2006 after getting thrashed by Carlos Quintana and then struggling with Cosme Rivera. He's been at 154 since then, with mixed results. He has wins over Ishe Smith (just don't tell Ishe he really lost) and current alphabet titlist Cornelius Bundrage, with losses to Sergiy Dzinziruk, James Kirkland and Alfredo Angulo. He was outboxed by Dzinziruk, but outslugged by Kirkland and Angulo.

Julio is a pretty good fighter, but that's about as far as it goes. He's sort of like the can't-miss baseball prospect who maybe doesn't quite miss, but certainly doesn't turn out to be the star he was supposed to be. He's a very flawed fighter, but I also don't mean to say that I don't want to watch him fight. He's generally entertaining, which is probably more logically why he gets so many TV chances.

His opponent Antwone Smith is a vocal (he grunts a lot) welterweight with a weird little career path so far. It's quite obvious that nobody really banked on the 24-year-old from Miami turning into a legitimate fighter, but he has done that. How legitimate is the question we'll answer with this fight. After upsetting prospect Norberto Gonzalez and beating Richard Gutierrez, he nearly decapitated poor Henry Crawford in October 2009. But the good run stopped when he lost to Lanardo Tyner in July 2010 (TKO-9). This is kind of a make or break sort of fight for him. He's young and has skills, but he's probably not a high-ceiling guy. Of course, Julio isn't a high-ceiling guy anymore either, plus he'll be stepping back down in weight.

Really as far as long-term goes, the key to this show is super cocky Main Events prospect Sadam Ali. He's the one to tune in and see.

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