The four most famous people we will see on the premiere episode of "PBC on NBC" Saturday night will be Sugar Ray Leonard, Marv Albert, Al Michaels and Laila Ali.

The A-list on-air roster -- and the big promotional effort behind the show -- demonstrates how seriously NBC is taking its Premier Boxing Champions series as the sport returns to NBC prime time after a 30-year absence.

But it also serves to illustrate the challenge ahead for boxing and the network.

Even though the card features solid matchups that will appeal to avid fans -- Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner vs. John Molina Jr. -- those are not the sort of household names that drove boxing in its free-TV heyday.

So NBC's mission is to introduce casual viewers to the fighters and to invest us in what becomes of them.

Michaels, who will host the show, compared the goal to Roone Arledge's old "up close and personal" approach to the Olympics on ABC, when "he was able to turn Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci into mega stars."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Said Michaels: "What you really want to do is make sure the audience is able to connect in some manner with the fighters and tell the audience who they are, what they're all about, and why they should care about them."

Leonard, who will analyze the action while Albert handles the blow-by-blow call, said, "It's that connection, because the viewers, the fans at home, they have to have a vested interest in that particular boxer.

"Let's say that they like them after an interview of who they are, where they come from or why they do what they do. I think that's the most intriguing part of this whole boxing phenomenon."

The powerful adviser / manager Al Haymon bought the time on NBC to showcase fighters, primarily his own, in a series that will feature five prime-time cards on NBC, six afternoons on NBC and nine shows on NBCSN.

The risk to NBC is limited, not only financially but because Saturday nights mostly have been a network television wasteland. NBC attracted less than 1 percent of homes last Saturday night when it carried a Flyers-Rangers game -- believed to be the first indoor, regular-season, prime-time NHL game on a broadcast network in 41 years.

Boxing videos

Still, there is no doubting NBC is committed to a first-rate production. Michaels and Albert are two of the biggest names in American sportscasting, and Leonard is one of the biggest attractions in boxing history. Ali, a daughter of Muhammad Ali, will serve as a corner analyst.

"There's been a lot of buzz about this," Michaels said. "I know a lot of people I have run into in the last week say boxing is back on television; that's great. I'm as curious as anybody to see if this provides a resurrection of sorts for a sport that became a pay-per-view sport."

That is what it will remain for attractions the magnitude of the May 2 bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, but part of the idea is to nurture new stars on free TV who can ascend to pay-per-view status.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, it was evident Michaels and Albert were getting a kick out of the chance to work together for the first time -- and to return to a sport each has called in the past, but not lately.

"I had the chance to do a number of fights all around the world, amateur and professional," Michaels said. "The Hagler-Hearns fight in 1985 was to me one of the greatest things I've ever seen or been a part of . . . For me it's going to be a lot of fun on a number of levels.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"I'll probably get to do a Howard Cosell imitation. I wouldn't want to pass one of those up."

Albert recalled working a number of fights in the 1980s and '90s, including at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

"Al, I know you remember Byun Jong-il, the Korean, who would not leave his corner, because he felt he had a bad decision," Albert said. "And, I believe he's still sitting in the corner with the lights out because of that memory."

No one is quite sure what kind of audience tomorrow night's card will draw. Producer Sam Flood passed up several chances to hazard a guess. Most likely mainstream popularity has passed boxing by in the 21st century, but then again, May 2 promises to bring a tidal wave of cash to the sport.

"I'm so excited to be a part of what's going to bring boxing back to the limelight," Leonard said. "Without question these young boxers, these future champions, they are totally aware that more eyes will see them than they receive on pay-per-view.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"The fact of the matter is they know it's all about showing up. This is a huge audition for these boxers. The fans and the viewers will be the judges. They'll be the ones to say, 'This kid is really something special. This kid has a future.' "

Said Michaels: "One of the reasons Ray Leonard became an American icon was because they could see him. Turn on Channel 7, Channel 4, whatever it was in those years. That's what I think boxing was then. Obviously, it's in a different place right now, but if it's going to be resurrected this is one giant step for doing that."