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For many sports fans, boxing has fallen off the radar screen. But a new international boxing league, with teams and playoffs, is trying to make the sport relevant again. The World Series of Boxing wraps up its first regular season this week. There are 12 teams competing in cities from Beijing to Paris to Los Angeles, and they feature some of the world's best amateur boxers. But they're paid and treated like professionals, with the promise that they can still fight in the Olympics.

NPR's Tom Goldman recently spent some time with the league's L.A. Matadors. He filed this report.

(Soundbite of tape ripping)

TOM GOLDMAN: It's Hollywood, so there will be lights, camera - the Versus Network is here and plenty of action. But before this World Series of Boxing match between the L.A. Matadors and Memphis Force...

(Soundbite of tape ripping)

GOLDMAN: ...a quiet ritual: a coach taping a fighter's hands.

Mr. MANNY ROBLES (Head Coach, L.A. Matadors): Talk to me, OK? If it's too tight, too loose...

Mr. JOSEPH DIAZ (WSB Boxer): OK.

Mr. ROBLES: ...you let me know. You talk to me.

Mr. DIAZ: All right.

GOLDMAN: L.A. head coach Manny Robles does most of the talking, as he wraps gauze and adhesive tape. Robles fixes his eyes on 18-year-old Joseph Diaz, who's about to fight his first match at home.

Mr. ROBLES: This is L.A.

Mr. DIAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBLES: You don't know what pressure is 'til you come to L.A.

Mr. DIAZ: Nope.

Mr. ROBLES: This is your backyard.

Mr. DIAZ: That's right.

Mr. ROBLES: You ain't gonna let no man come in and disrespect you in your own backyard, right?

Mr. DIAZ: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of warm-up punching, grunting)

GOLDMAN: Now taped and wearing bright-red boxing gloves, Diaz throws a flurry of warm-up punches into a coach's padded mitts. He and his four teammates, who will also fight tonight, are amateurs or were before they signed with the World Series of Boxing. Now, they're really semi-pros. They'll get paid tonight. Winners get $5,000; losers, $1,000. And they'll fight at the club Avalon Hollywood, in front of a packed house dotted with L.A. celebrities like Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss and actress-comedian Jenny McCarthy.

Before the first fight, referee Eddie Hernandez gathers the Matadors, dressed in their Matador black trunks with gold trim.

Mr. EDDIE HERNANDEZ (Referee): All right. You guys are boxing at a professional venue here. I expect you to act professional. I want you to protect yourself at all times, and obey my commands at all times. All right? Good luck, guys.

GOLDMAN: Good luck. Matador heavyweight David Imoesiri can't believe his.

Sorry, forgot the boxing nickname.

Mr. DAVID IMOESIRI (WSB Boxer): David "The Dream Catcher" Imoesiri from Long Beach, California.

GOLDMAN: David "The Dream Catcher" was one of the first amateurs drafted by the Matadors. All World Series of Boxing fighters are handpicked. Imoesiri's story is a classic boxer's hard-luck tale. His mom died when he was 12. He drifted, found boxing, found trouble as well. He went to jail after he got into it with a cop who caught Imoesiri on a commuter train without a ticket. Now, as a Matador, Imoesiri has made about $50,000 in his first season.

Mr. IMOESIRI: Coming from not being able to have $1.50 on the train to got my own car - you know, I'm good now. This is like, not a big deal. I can pay my bills - just, you know, just getting my life in order.

GOLDMAN: And doing it with a new family of fighters. In the pro game, it's often a mercenary and lonely life. Not so in the WSB.

Mr. ROBLES: We do everything together. We run in the morning. We train together. We eat together.

GOLDMAN: Coach Manny Robles has taken on the decidedly unfearsome boxing nickname "Manny the Nanny."

Mr. ROBLES: I don't stay with them, but I feel like I do because they're always calling me: Hey, coach, I need this; hey, coach, I need that.

GOLDMAN: Most needs are met. With a three-year contract, room and board, health benefits, WSB fighters have the kind of stability that's rare in the sport. And a rare opportunity for these guys: The International Boxing Federation, which created the WSB, is letting these semi-pros retain their amateur status and compete in the Olympics. Chris "Sweat Pea" Pearson is a 20-year-old middleweight for the Matadors.

Mr. CHRIS PEARSON (WSB Boxer): That was the major thing, like, if I could get the pro experience and still be able to, you know, make the Olympic team and get a gold medal, that's a win-win for me.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: Whether or not they take the Olympics by storm, the Matadors certainly are making their mark in the new league. They won the match I saw. Then Monday night this week, the Matadors clinched a spot in the first WSB playoffs - news you didn't find in the L.A. Times. California's biggest newspaper hasn't covered the team. Filling the Avalon Hollywood is one thing. Reaching a mass audience, obviously, remains a challenge. But the WSB is confident it'll grab more attention in year two. The Matadors and 11 other WSB teams will keep fighting -alone in the ring, together everywhere else.

Mr. ROBLES: One, two, three...

Unidentified Group: Family.

Mr. ROBLES: One, two, three...

Unidentified Group: Family.

Unidentified Man: Whoo! Familia.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Gonna Fly Now")

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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