By Matthew Hurley: For an entire generation of boxing fans Al Bernstein has been a mainstay on our television screens. His work at ESPN and major pay-per-view bouts in the 1980s, such as Hagler – Hearns, endeared this personable broadcaster to a wide audience. Ever since then Al has always been there, consistently providing expert analysis and opinion on the fight game with just the right touch of humor.
Now calling fights for Showtime, working as executive producer for the internet site the Boxing Channel, boxingchannel.tv., and celebrating the publication of his book 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths About Boxing, Sports, and TV, Al’s work continues to entertain and enlighten audiences and inspire up-and-coming broadcasters and writers with his vast knowledge of the industry, love for the sport and unceasing encouragement. He remains one of boxing’s true good guys.
MH: First of all congratulations on your book.
AB: Thank you very much. I’m very pleased with the way it came out.
MH: Was it your intention to write a more personal account of your life in broadcasting rather than a straight forward book on boxing?
AB: I did intend to put some personal stuff in there but my main purpose was to write something light-hearted. I was interested in sharing stories of other people I’ve been around and the experiences I had with them through boxing and other endeavors.
MH: Some of the anecdotes are hilarious. One of my favorites being your story of heavyweight Tim Tomashek.
AB: (Laughs) Yeah! When I was with ESPN Top Rank Boxing Tim actually fought for a heavyweight championship belt by default. Strange night.
Tommy Morrison was set to defend his WBO belt, which he had won from George Foreman, in front of a charged up hometown crowd against this guy named Mike Williams. Well, there were a lot of strange things going on with Williams and then he just left the arena and we have no opponent for Tommy.
Tim was in the stands and had just finished his third beer when the promoter of the show went up and asked him if he wanted to fight for the belt. He did!
They brought him back to the dressing room and Tim ended up surviving until the fourth round.
MH: Only in boxing!
AB: Exactly! But he was a funny guy. One of the funniest guys I’ve met in my career. He wound up on David Letterman after that fight.
MH: In your book you speak very highly of announcer Don Dunphy. How did he influence your style?
AB: Don was great. I think there are two things about him that affected me most. One, I have a very conversational style, but Don would keep things sparse. I keep that in mind. There was never any extraneous talking when Don called a fight. And two, which also speaks to what I just said, it’s not about you it’s about the fighters in the ring and the story they’re playing out for you. It’s not about you. Sometimes you don’t need to say a word.
Howard Cosell was guilty of this and I talk about it in my book in regards to his call of the Ali – Spinks rematch, which Ali won by decision. In the final minutes of this amazing moment Howard starts reciting the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. It was unnecessary and distracting.
Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate Howard as a personality and he did a tremendous amount of good and sometimes groundbreaking work, but I felt, later on, his personality could take over his professionalism.
And it’s led to what you see now on ESPN, for example. It’s changed so much since when I was there. It would seem people are hired to be personalities and to create controversy in the studio even when it isn’t there. And those inane round table shows are just people chewing the scenery. It’s not something I enjoy.
MH: Is there a particular show that really gets under your skin?
AB: You couldn’t pay me to watch Pardon the Interruption or Around the Horn.
MH: There are still good TV boxing people over at ESPN like Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore and Brian Kenny, although he’s since moved on, who still bring integrity and grit to their work.
AB: Definitely. And Brian is very opinionated, but in a responsible way. And he’s extremely knowledgeable. I just find so many of those other shows loud and uninformative. But obviously there is an audience for it.
MH: I recently saw Manny Pacquiao and Brando Rios on one of those shows and it was obvious no one even knew who Brandon was. He just sat there for the entire segment while everyone grilled Manny on the Marquez loss and, of course, Mayweather.
AB: They don’t do their homework. It’s frustrating to watch, particularly as a boxing fan.
MH: You got the opportunity early on in your career to work with Tim Ryan and Gil Clancy. That must have been thrilling, and then all those great fights in the 80s.
AB: It was unquestionably a great time to be a boxing fan. Working with Tim and Gil was amazing because they were the gold standard for boxing as a team. Tim was just a great play-by-play man and Gil had forgotten more about boxing than you and I will ever know.
I would work as the third analyst on those shows. Gil’s approach was as a trainer. He could see things happening and then would predict them and they would happen as if on cue. He was amazing and working with them, in that era, was so much fun.
MH: Speaking of that era, which many call boxing’s last golden age, it must have been like hitting the jack pot being able to be there for it all.
AB: It was the best time to be a boxing fan, as I said. A big fight like Hagler – Leonard was a big story all around. And that whole group of fighters . . . being the best was most important to them. They cared about legacy. That’s why they all fought each other.
The 90s was a very good era as well, but I’ve always felt there were too many fights that didn’t get made – from the heavyweights right on down the line. But there were great fights, and great stars make no mistake. It just wasn’t as good as the 80s.
Now the 2000s, I would actually match up with any other era. We have seen countless great fights over the last several years.
But in regards to the 80s, as a guy just coming up in television, I was in the right place at the right time. No question.
MH: What are your feelings on this endless, petty animosity between Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions and their refusal to work together?
AB: Well it hasn’t actually hurt the sport recently. In fact, it’s worked out very well this year. Just think of all the great fights we’ve already seen, Tim Bradley – Ruslan Provodnikov, Mike Alvarado – Brandon Rios 2, and just this past weekend we got a shocking knockout when Jhonny Gonzalez took out Abner Mares in one round. It’s been a great year for action packed fights.
And we still have Floyd Mayweather – Saul Alvarez, Lucas Matthysse – Danny Garcia and Manny Pacquiao – Brandon Rios.
I think a great deal of pressure has been put on the respective promoters to put on good matches with the fighters they have. Right now it seems OK, but it will definitely become a problem in the future.
MH: Do you see Alvarez giving Mayweather problems?
AB: I do. If, he can get to the body. Canelo is a vicious body puncher and he’s strong. But the wild card to victory for him, in my opinion, is trapping Mayweather on the ropes and really banging his body and making him work three minutes of every round. Easier said than done, but Mayweather does not really run and he certainly hasn’t in recent fights. In fact, he has often languished on the ropes. That’s Alvarez’s chance. Even when Mayweather stays in the pocket Canelo has to bang that body. And when Mayweather leads with the right, Canelo has to fire right back over the top and then go back to the body.
Alvarez is also very strong, very stout and I’ve been impressed with his progress. This is not an over-achieving, green kid. He knows what he’s doing. I’m looking forward to it.
MH: Youth and energy? People have been saying this for years when it comes to planning a winning strategy against Floyd.
AB: They have, but we all slow down. Floyd deserves to be the favorite but I really believe that Saul Alvarez has a shot. He’s a live underdog.
MH: As for Pacquiao – Rios, I found it odd how quickly Manny was dismissed by so many after the Marquez loss. I also found criticism of his choice of the tough Rios as a comeback opponent unwarranted. Years back, after a brutal loss, you came back with a soft touch. Manny jumped right back into the fire and he still hears criticism.
AB: I agree. Now, people can say he chose Rios because he’s a come forward guy whose skills don’t quite measure up to Manny’s. But, as we all know, Manny was brutally stopped in his last bout. There are questions there and Rios can hit, he’s tough as nails and he won’t back up. I applaud Manny. This could turn out to be a real test or a blowout. That’s what’s so fun about this fight. It will be exciting for however long it last.
MH: Do you see any light at the end of the heavyweight tunnel?
AB: (Laughs) Yes and no. I think there are some guys to watch and I’m looking forward to Tyson Fury – David Haye. The promotion will be over the top, but I do think Fury can fight. And Haye is talented and athletic. The crowd over there will be on fire.
Look, none of these guys are going to make us forget Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield or Lennox Lewis, but this one should be a fun fight.
Then there are guys like Deontay Wilder, but he’s a question mark. He hasn’t been hit squarely on the chin yet or tested in any way so we don’t really know what he’s made of yet. He’s interesting though.
MH: Do you think Wladimir Klitschko will be reevaluated after he retires like Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis?
AB: To an extent he will. But he will never be regarded as one of the great heavyweights, in my opinion. Certainly not alongside Holmes or Lewis.
MH: Do you think some of these current heavyweights are just waiting around, hoping the Klitschkos will just go away?
AB: (Laughs) Yeah, I kind of do. Hey, they have beaten everyone out there so they deserve respect.
MH: Along with your work at Showtime you are also the executive producer of the internet site the Boxing Channel. How did that come about?
AB: Well, a lot of the best boxing coverage is now on the web. Boxing journalism has really become internet driven. The electronic media has become our press corps. It’s changed the way we get news. But one thing we felt was missing was video content.
So this opportunity came up to give fans another source of information and we’re lucky to have Steve Farhood, Dave Bontempo and a young kid named Marcos Villegas making this a reality.
MH: It’s nice to watch seasoned veterans like yourself and Steve and Dave and then a new face like Villegas who is really coming into his own.
AB: He really is. He was doing video interviews and kept pestering me with his work and with questions (laughs). He wore me down! And thank goodness he did because he’s terrific.
MH: After such a long, prestigious career do you enjoy the role of mentor?
AB: (Pauses) I really do. It’s funny . . . It’s hard to see myself that way but if I can do anything for a young kid coming up like Marcos, I’m both thrilled and humbled to do what I can to help that person in their career.
Al Bernstein’s book, 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths About Boxing, Sports, And TV is published by Diversion Books and is available at Amazon.com.
Matthew Hurley is a full time member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His first book on boxing, Ringside Reflections, can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com.
August 29, 2013