Network negotiating with UFC

Is extreme fighting the next boxing?

It could be if HBO gets involved.

The pay net, which airs many of the premiere boxing bouts, has held negotiations with top mixed martial arts org Ultimate Fighting Championship about rights to its top-level fights.

HBO has a storied history in boxing. But with the heavyweight division in disarray and lacking marketable stars, television outlets are expanding their scope.

“We are talking to the UFC and looking at ways we can distinguish ourselves in that area,” acknowledged HBO topper Chris Albrecht.

Despite reports that some in net’s boxing division have reservations about mixed martial arts, Albrecht reassures that “if we decide to be in the mixed martial arts business, we’ll make sure it’s as distinctive as everything else HBO does.”

Mixed martial arts has been gaining in popularity since it outlawed more rogue types of fighting (“small joint manipulation” and “fishhooking,” according to its official rules).

A deal with the UFC for pay-per-view-level fights would give the sport another credibility stamp; in turn, it could help HBO attract a young aud.

Other cable nets have dined out on mixed martial arts.

Earlier in the week Showtime announced a pay-per-view fight with rival UFC group FEG to be held at the L.A. Coliseum.

And Spike, which was an early entrant to the sport with its reality series “Ultimate Fighter,” drew a 3.1 household rating, a 6.0 rating among men 18-34 and 4.2 million total viewers for a fight in the fall.

The biggest sign of a shift? Sports leader ESPN confirms that it has held exploratory talks with the UFC to, um, fishhook some rights.

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