A new boxing champion, Jorge Paez -- He's got the sequins, the mohawk, and the fear of every opponent faced in the ring

A former circus clown and acrobat, Jorge Paez is as adept at X-rated pelvic gyrations or show-off post-fight back flips as he is at using his myriad boxing skills to frustrate opponents. His hair, cut in a rat-tailed Mohawk, is highlighted by inscriptions that vary from fight to fight (the word ”Mexico,” the Batman logo), and the sequined skirt he has worn in the ring would put Phyllis Diller to shame.

If all the world loves a clown and if pro boxing is often the three-ring circus its critics say it is, then NBC Sports must be onto something. After all, Paez, the International Boxing Federation featherweight champion, drew 5.8 and 7.4 ratings (more than 18 million viewers total) in two recent fights. That means he was seen fighting by more American TV viewers over the past year than Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, or Evander Holyfield. Jorge who? you ask.

All right, so the 23-year-old Paez may not yet be a household name, but it’s not for lack of trying — on his part or NBC’s. His April 7 bout against Louie Espinoza (4 to 6 p.m. on NBC’s Saturday Sports Showcase) will be his seventh title defense in a little over a year — a grueling schedule in this era of idle titleholders.

The NBC-Paez deal was sparked when Kevin Monaghan, NBC’s boxing coordinator, got a call last March. ”My brother was watching a fight on the USA Network,” he says, ”and he called to tell me about a fighter who looked like one of the Road Warriors gone berserk. When I saw for myself, I realized I had to get this guy. There are a lot of guys who can fight, but he’s like a lounge act that fights. He has a personality people remember.”

And for network boxing coverage, memorable is an extremely valuable commodity. Long gone are the days when a Muhammad Ali or a Sugar Ray Leonard appeared on free network TV. Most title fights from the middleweights up appear only on HBO, Showtime or in pay-per-view showings.

Boxing’s largely ignored supporting cast offers a host of talented but often colorless champs. In Paez, NBC got ratings razzle-dazzle at bargain rates: four weekend-afternoon fights for a reported $1.5 million (compared with $60 million James ”Buster” Douglas is expected to make for his next two fights).

”I knew if we didn’t sign him, we’d lose him,” Monaghan says. Jon Miller, NBC vice president of program planning and development, felt the same way, even after Paez, on meeting Miller, rejected a handshake, proffering instead an open palm. ”Where’s the money, homeboy?” he asked.

The fight that convinced NBC to make the deal was Paez’s title defense last August against former champion Steve Cruz. The bout drew the highest network boxing ratings of the year. ”We treated it like it was pro wrestling,” Monaghan says. ”All our promos touched only on Paez. We promoted the out- landishness of this guy.”

Unlike pro wrestling, the bout came off as solid and believable, with Paez (at 5’6”, 126 pounds) scoring a brawling 12-round decision. Afterward, he taunted the pro-Cruz crowd, leading some at NBC to peg Paez for that grand ole wrestling role of the guy you love to hate. ”If I were at home watching,” NBC ring announcer Marv Albert says, ”I might look at him from a negative point of view. But he gives me something to poke at; he’s off the wall.”

While a showboat fighter is hardly novel — Hector ”Macho” Camacho and Michael ”The Silk” Olajide are prime examples — ”Marmero” (The Tumbler) Paez could set new standards. ”Everything I do is because I enjoy it,” Paez says through manager Nacho Huizar (the fighter speaks only a little English). ”I put on a good show, and I’m never going to change my ways.”

Paez, born into a circus family in Mexico, learned to tumble, fly on the trapeze, juggle, and be a clown early on. He obeyed his grandmother’s request not to fight professionally until he turned 20, then immediately lit out on a blazing knockout trail en route to his 34-2-2 record (25 KOs).

”He has great balance from his training as an acrobat,” Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, NBC boxing analyst, says. ”This allows him to throw punches from unusual angles, which makes him very hard to fight. Also, he’s very strong and gritty. He doesn’t pussyfoot around, and he’s very confident of his punch.”

Pacheco spent part of his career working with Ali, the sport’s consummate showman, so he’s not bothered by Paez’s antics. ”Like Ali, he (Paez) has charisma,” Pacheco says. ”He has an arrogance that he’s going to win, and he does.”