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BOXING

Cable's kid brother leaping toward level ground

It could have been a banner night for HBO boxing.

Though its Saturday card from Montreal was inconveniently (for fans) matched up with a dueling 10 p.m. ET event on Showtime, it seemed the boys from the "Network of Champions" had nonetheless called the driver's seat as the evening commenced.

Their two bouts - Chad Dawson vs. Adonis Stevenson and Yuriorkis Gamboa vs. Darleys Perez - featured the two most-decorated fighters of the weekend, and their main event (Dawson vs. Stevenson for the WBC's light heavy strap) was the only fight on either TV card that had a title belt on the line worthy of actual mention.

And even as the opening bouts - Gamboa's on HBO and Jermell Charlo's on Showtime - wound their respective ways from borderline interesting to astoundingly boring, it wasn't as if either cable giant was gaining ground.

But it didn't take long for that vibe to change.

Once the shock passed from seeing Stevenson's left hand collide with Dawson's skull - and hearing the markedly different fighter interviews that followed - more than sufficient time remained to grab the remote and make the switch to catch what quickly became one of the year's best shows.

In fact, had HBO known what was coming, it might have asked Andre Ward to glove up.

The back half of the junior middleweight match between Erislandy Lara and Alfredo Angulo could alone have carried the night, what with the winner rising from a pair of knockdowns and the loser suffering the sort of ghastly eye injury that illustrates why fans - and the AMA - pay rapt attention.

As it turned out, though, even a tumultuous slugfest ended by a fractured orbital bone was no better than runner-up to the Marcos Maidana-Josesito Lopez welterweight throw-down, which is sure to be resurrected during holiday season when the year's top rounds, fights and controversial stoppages are discussed.

If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor.

If you have, you already know why it's worth another watch.

And if you're scoring at home, you'll acknowledge another clear win in a charmed spring for what had long been perceived as the kid brother of premium- cable boxing.

Showtime became the de facto network of Golden Boy Promotions after HBO severed ties with the company in March, Mexican heartthrob Canelo Alvarez passed his legitimacy litmus test against Austin Trout in April and Floyd Mayweather Jr. cashed his first pay-per-view check with the network's logo by outclassing Robert Guerrero on the first Saturday in May.

Add in a jolt of Lucas Matthysse two weeks hence, and it's been good to be Stephen Espinoza.

"The momentum has been created by the wealth of talent at the top of the 140-, 147- and 154-pound divisions," said the Golden Boy attorney-turned-Showtime fight boss, whose business card formally labels him as executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports.

"The credit goes to the boxers who have stepped up and accepted the challenge of participating in the highest profile and most important fights. It's been an incredible run, and there's no end in sight."

The next small steps toward superiority come in Brooklyn on June 22 and July 13, when Adrien Broner meets Paul Malignaggi and Bernard Hopkins faces Karo Murat - before another giant leap on Sept. 14, when Mayweather and Alvarez get together at 152 pounds in Las Vegas.

But if you're waiting for Espinoza to plant a flag and declare victory, don't hold your breath.

"To be honest, to stop and think about where we rank versus our competition is not a productive use of time," he said. "There are much better questions to ask, such as will Adrien Broner pass his welterweight test against Paulie Malignaggi, or is Lucas Matthysse the most feared man in sports, or can anyone slow Marcos Maidana down? Our ratings are way up. The excitement from the fans is at a fever pitch, and we are building toward a September event that might be the most significant fight in a decade."

Meanwhile, Saturday night's biggest victim faces another huge reclamation project.

A clear winner over Hopkins the last time he'd tasted success 15 months ago, Dawson arrived in Canada trying to purge his soul of the stench of a TKO loss to Ward last summer in Oakland.

Instead, the 76-second blowout creates an even more difficult challenge for "Bad" Chad as he tries to regain the mojo that once propelled him to the fringes of legitimate pound-for-pound lists.

It wouldn't be an easy road under the best of circumstances.

And his former trainer isn't sure a return is likely at all.

"Surprised it was so quick, but not surprised (Stevenson) bombed him," said ex-light heavyweight contender John Scully, who worked with Dawson for a pair of Hopkins fights and the Ward loss before the two parted ways. "The power and Chad's mental state were a bad mix.

"Coming off that bad loss, getting a new trainer and having to defend your title against a murderous puncher in his hometown is not a recipe to instill supreme confidence. Feels like he is done. I guess it will depend on his promoter and what type of strings they can pull at HBO."

* * * * * * * * * *

This week's title-fight schedule:

SATURDAY

IBO super flyweight title - Johannesburg, South Africa

Gideon Buthelezi (champion) vs. Edrin Dapudong (No. 16 contender)

Buthelezi (13-3, 4 KO): First title defense; Held IBO belts at 105 and 108 pounds

Dapudong (28-5, 16 KO): Third title fight (0-2); Lost to Buthelezi (SD 12) in November

Fitzbitz says: "The incumbent won close when the two met seven months ago, and little figures to change in a rematch on the champ's home turf." Buthelezi by decision

IBO strawweight title - Johannesburg, South Africa

Hekkie Budler (champion) vs. Nkosinathi Joyi (No. 3 contender)

Budler (22-1, 6 KO): Third title defense; Held IBO belt at 108 pounds (2010-11, one defense)

Joyi (23-1, 16 KO): Eighth title fight (5-1, 1 NC); Held IBF and IBO belts at 105 pounds

Fitzbitz says: "Joyi was considered the top man at 105 until a surprise KO loss last year, but it seems about time for him to regain previous status." Joyi in 9

WBO featherweight title - Dallas, Texas

Mikey Garcia (champion) vs. Juan Manuel Lopez (No. 4 contender)

Garcia (31-0, 26 KO): First title defense; Sixth fight in Texas (5-0)

Lopez (33-2, 30 KO): Twelfth title fight (9-2); Held WBO belts at 122 and 126 pounds

Fitzbitz says: "Garcia is positioned as the star Lopez was a couple years ago, giving the Puerto Rican plenty of motivation to reclaim past status. It says here he'll do it in a thriller." Lopez in 10

NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder -- no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.

Last week's picks: 2-1

2013 picks record: 32-20 (61.5 percent)

Overall picks record: 495-172 (74.2 percent)

Lyle Fitzsimmons is a veteran sports columnist who's written professionally since 1988 and covered boxing since 1995. His work is published in print and posted online for clients in North America and Europe. Reach him at fitzbitz@msn.com or follow him on Twitter: @fitzbitz.