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Bernard Fernandez | A ringing endorsement

ANYONE WHO ever has attended a major boxing event knows that a lot of ringside seats are filled by celebrities. And it's not just actors, singers and former fighters who want to be close to the action.

ANYONE WHO ever has attended a major boxing event knows that a lot of ringside seats are filled by celebrities. And it's not just actors, singers and former fighters who want to be close to the action.

Athletes in other sports are drawn to boxing like a kitten to catnip. Charles Barkley frequently turns up at the big fights. So do Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. If there's an attractive bout in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, it's a safe bet members of the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers or Flyers will be in attendance, depending on the time of year and their teams' schedules.

It's not unusual for world-class athletes, so successful in their own spheres, to fantasize about stepping into the ring and kicking butt. But being a fighter is about so much more than being able to run fast and jump high. Squatty sluggers Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson would never have become some of our more high-profile heavyweight champions if that were not the case. Conversely, NFL players Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark Gastineau and Alonzo Highsmith would have achieved far more during their boxing dalliances than they actually did if all that was required for success was physical talent.

True story: I was covering an NBA playoff game between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers some years back because I was out West on a boxing assignment and, well, our editors love to kill two birds with one stone. The game ended and, with deadlines fast approaching, particularly for East Coast reporters, a media pack rushed to the locker room to grab a few quotes from Barkley, the night's star.

After maybe one or two questions were asked and answered, Barkley, the former Sixer, looked in my direction and said, "You're Fernandez, right? The boxing guy from Philly?'' Uh, guilty as charged. Sir Charles then proceeded to ask four or five questions about past or upcoming fights, deftly switching from interviewee to interviewer.

My tape recorder - and notebook-wielding colleagues - were staring daggers at me. Had I been able to, I would have stared daggers at myself. I don't think anyone wanted to lead their game story with Barkley's musings about, say, the state of the middleweight division.

The spillover from other sports into boxing continues, and one of those seemingly intent on maintaining the seepage is second-year New York Jets coach Eric Mangini.

Mangini is an avid fight fan, so much so that noted trainer and ESPN2 "Friday Night Fights'' color commentator Teddy Atlas even is listed in the Jets' media guide as "special assistant, boxing.''

The night before selected games, Mangini has been known to show tapes of boxing movies or classic fights to his players, presumably to get them in the proper frame of mind to go out and pulverize the guys in the different-colored jerseys.

It's not as much of a stretch as you might think. Last month, Mangini attended a fundraising dinner for the Dr. Theodore Atlas Foundation, a charitable organization that Atlas started to honor his late father. Before the Jets went out to play the favored Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlas left a voice message for Mangini in which he described how another underdog, heavyweight Hasim Rahman, had stunned David Tua in 1998 - and never mind that Rahman, trailing on the scorecards, scored a 10th-round technical knockout in large part because the referee did not penalize him for drilling Tua a full second after the bell ending the ninth round.

Mangini relayed Atlas' comments to the Jets, who went out and surprised the Steelers in overtime, 19-16. Coincidence? Maybe.

Which brings us to this past Sunday's matchup of the 13-0 New England Patriots and the 3-10 Jets. It was the Jets, you might recall, who alerted the NFL about the Patriots' practice of clandestinely videotaping opposing coaches' hand signals, which resulted in commissioner Roger Goodell fining coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and stripping the Pats of their 2008 first-round draft pick.

Since that embarrassment, which some have said diminishes New England's three Super Bowl victories, Belichick seemingly has been intent on putting the screws to every opponent. But no one has been more a target of Belichick's wrath than Mangini, his former assistant and the man who blew the whistle that begat Spygate.

The prevailing theory is that Belichick would do his best to run up the score against Mangini and his outmanned team. But Mangini gathered the Jets together on Saturday for a viewing of an unidentified boxing movie. ("We keep that internal,'' a spokesman in the Jets' media-

relations office told me, as if the information requested were classified.) But for the Jets' first pairing with the Pats, the flick reportedly picked was "Cinderella Man.'' It starred Russell Crowe as James J. Braddock, who scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history when he dethroned heavyweight champion Max Baer in 1935.

Whatever the selection was this time, its inspirational magic carried only so far. New England won, 20-10, but the Jets held the Pats 18 points below their season average.

Closer to home, Temple basketball coach Fran Dunphy last week took his sports-management leadership class for a field trip of sorts to the Blue Horizon, which is just a few dribbles down North Broad Street from the Liacouras Center.

"They loved it,'' Dunphy said.

So did the Owls coach, who fondly recalled his own days as a young fight fan growing up in the Philadelphia area.

"There's a lot of that,'' Dunphy said of other athletes' curious attraction to boxing. "It's the ultimate man-on-man sport.'' *

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