By Thomas Hauser
So proclaims Jimmy Lennon just prior to the main event on each Showtime Championship Boxing telecast. Clearly, the fighters are the most important element in the equation. But no one should underestimate the value of the authoritative yet relaxed and pleasant voice heard on air as the ring action unfolds.
Al Bernstein was born in Chicago on September 15, 1950. His father had a series of jobs that ran the gamut from owning a delicatessen to working as a dispatcher at a truck depot and writing comedy on the side (he even sold some jokes to Henny Youngman).
"I have good memories of my father," Bernstein recalls. "He loved sports and was a gentle easy-going guy. He died of cancer when I was eleven, and I often think that he would have gotten a big charge out of seeing all the sports stuff I've done since then."
Bernstein's mother never remarried and raised two children on her own. Al went to public school in Chicago and then the Chicago branch of the University of Illinois, where he was sports editor for the school newspaper.
"I wrote a column about how the Jets were going to beat the Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl," he remembers. "Much to everyone's surprise, I was right; and the sports editor of a small newspaper called Chicago Today called to offer me a weekend job. Then, to my mother's absolute horror, I left college without graduating to take a fulltime job at the Skokie (Illinois) News."
More newspaper jobs followed. Bernstein wanted to write about sports; but he kept getting pushed up the ladder, covering political campaigns and eventually being named a managing editor. The only sports-writing he managed to do was as a stringer for the Washington Star and authoring occasional articles for boxing magazines. Then he quit the newspaper business and went to work as a public information officer for the town of Skokie. In 1980, ESPN entered his life.
"I'd been a boxing fan from the time I was nine years old," Bernstein reminisces. "I remember lying in bed, listening to Patterson-Johansson and Patterson-Liston on a small transistor radio. And of course, I remember watching Don Dunphy on the Gillette Friday Night Fights. Don Dunphy was my idol," Bernstein continues. "The greatest moment of my life might have been years later when Don Dunphy told someone that I was his favorite boxing commentator. When I heard that, it was like I'd died and gone to heaven."
Bernstein had also done some amateur boxing in Chicago. Starting at age sixteen, he'd had twenty fights over the course of three years and won fifteen of them. "Then I started facing better fighters," he acknowledges, "and decided I should stop."
Meanwhile, ESPN in 1980 was in an embryonic stage. And one of its flagship programs was Top Rank Boxing, which was televised with different local personalities doing color commentary from week to week. Here, sportscaster Sam Rosen picks up the story.
"We were doing a show from the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago," Rosen remembers. "I was the blow-by-blow commentator and Tommy Hearns was scheduled to be our rotating analyst that night. Before the telecast, the producer said to me, 'Look; Tommy isn't the most talkative guy in the world. If we don't get good commentary from him, there's a local writer named Al Bernstein who we can bring in to help out.' Anyway, the first TV fight started, and Tommy was a bit intimidated by the microphone. He was pretty quiet. So after a few rounds, I signalled to the producer; he brought Al in; and the rest is history. Al is a natural; he was great."
Bernstein quickly became a regular on ESPN's fights in Chicago; then in Las Vegas; and eventually, for all of them. But ESPN then was very different from ESPN now.
"Cable television was still in its infancy," Bernstein remembers. "No one knew who or what ESPN was. And on top of that; the old Gillette Friday Night Fights had been one hour, but we were doing two-and-a-half hours each week -- on a shoestring budget, I might add -- so we had to reinvent the format."
"Those early years were fascinating," Bernstein continues. "We were going from town to town, making up the rules as we went along. I did mostly color commentary but there was some blow-by-blow. My first regular partner was Sal Marchiano, who at the time was a pretty big sportscaster in New York. I was a nobody, and Sal was great to me. He couldn't have been nicer. There was Sam Rosen, Tom Kelly, Dave Bontempo, Barry Tompkins. I could go on listing guys I've worked with, but we'd be here forever. Over the years, I worked with dozens of partners. And in those days, there was a great core group of fighters on ESPN; guys like Freddy Roach, Tommy Cordova, Terrance Ali, Donald Curry, even the young Mike Tyson."
Bernstein was a fixture on Top Rank Boxing until the series folded in 1995. Thereafter, he worked big fights for Sportscenter. But when Friday Night Fights was reincarnated in 1998 on ESPN2, Bernstein was passed over as a commentator in favor of a "younger" look.
"You have no idea how idiotic that was," says Bob Arum, who remains firmly in Bernstein's corner. "People forget that Top Rank Boxing made ESPN. In the early years, it was ESPN's top-rated show; and one of the reasons for that was Al Bernstein. Al was a no-bullshit student of boxing who knew what he was talking about. He was a great great commentator and still is. It was utter stupidity when ESPN let Al go. For ESPN to take him off the air because he had some gray hair shows how totally inane those moronic television people are."
Over the years, Bernstein has worked fifty-or-so pay-per-view telecasts; most notably Hagler-Hearns, Hagler-Duran, and Holyfield-Douglas. He has been the color commentator for Showtime Championship Boxing since May 2003.
"I've worked hard at being informational and anecdotal," Bernstein says, explaining his style. "During a fight, I think it's important to go with the flow. When things change, I adapt. I'm never married to one story-line. Rather than tell people what they just saw, I try to tell them what they didn't see. And I don't pontificate. I made a conscious decision a long time ago that, if I was going to be on ESPN fifty-two weeks a year, I'd have to wear well. That fit with my personality, so it was easy to make it part of my television style. I believe that there are gray areas in life; not just black and white. I seek out tranquility; I'm not into confrontations. I think people should get past their differences, whether they're personal or professional. That describes me professionally and personally."
Meanwhile, Bernstein has earned the respect of his peers by virtue of the quality of his work.
Teddy Atlas, who replaced Bernstein at ESPN, observes, "Unfortunately, in our business, not everyone who commentates knows what they're talking about; but Al does. He learned the game; he respects the game. Al was gone before I came in at ESPN. It's not like I took his job away from him. I was asked to audition for the job with dozens of other people. But when I got the job, I thought about what it meant that I was replacing a guy who was a solid pro and had been there for a long time. I asked myself, 'What were Al's strong points?' He was dependable, reliable, consistent, always prepared. And I tried to honor those qualities along with whatever personal qualities of my own that I brought to the job."
Barry Tompkins, who was paired with Bernstein for years on Top Rank Boxing, says, "Working with Al is a joy. He's the best guy I've ever worked with in boxing, and I've worked with a lot of great guys. And there's something else worthy of mention," Tompkins notes. "Over the years, wherever we went, it seemed like everybody in boxing and every boxing fan knew Al. He's a celebrity, and he handles that status with incredible graciousness. Al has a nice word for every single person who approaches him. He's one of the most decent big-hearted people I've ever known."
Dave Bontempo, Bernstein's last partner at ESPN, adds to the praise. "When I entered the business," Bontempo recalls, "Al was like a big brother to me. If you're at home, watching the fights on television, he comes across as a nice guy; but that doesn't tell the half of it. One thing he's done that's very important is, Al ushered in the era of people appreciating preliminary fighters. He has a way of conveying their story and the excitement of a four or six-round fighter being involved in the fight of his life that makes people anxious to watch the whole program and not just the main event."
"I've never called a fight with Al," adds Jim Lampley, boxing's reigning blow-by-blow commentator. "But I've been on panels with him for fight preview shows and on radio with him many times. And I'll tell you what everybody in the business will tell you. Al is a generous warm likeable man. He's polite and unfailingly considerate in his dealings with other people. He's enthusiastic and knowledgeable about boxing but not dogmatic. And he's legitimately curious about other people's point of view."
Bernstein's first marriage lasted for ten years and ended in 1980. In 1988, he moved to Las Vegas. "I loved Chicago," he says. "But the winters were killing me and it was time for a change" He remarried in 1995 and has a five-year-old son named Wes with his second wife. He loves horseback riding and, as he puts it, "communing with nature." And there's one more passion in his life.
When Bernstein was young, he took voice lessons. In his late-teens and twenties, he performed in several Chicago nightclubs, singing old standards. Then he set his music aside. But as time went on at ESPN, he began to get frustrated because he wanted to do more than boxing.
"Finally, in 1987," Bernstein recalls, "I got together with the people at Caesars before Hagler-Leonard and they let me do a show in one of their lounges for three nights. I sang old standards, and that morphed into something I did later called 'The Boxing Party,' where I mixed in five or six musical numbers with video clips and fight trivia at some of the major hotels and riverboat and Indian casinos. I haven't done it for a while now. But it was fun; it was a good creative outlet for me; and I don't think I embarrassed myself."
Thus, the question: "In your fantasies, which would you rather be; a dominant heavyweight champion or Frank Sinatra?
"That's easy," Bernstein answers. "Frank Sinatra."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com.
December 13, 2004