By Thomas Hauser
Bob Sheridan was first behind the microphone for a fight in 1966. Since then, he has called more than 800 championship bouts and become an integral part of boxing’s historical soundtrack. From radio to broadcast television to closed-circuit to pay-per-view; been there, done that.
Sheridan is the international voice of boxing. He’s the commentator for the foreign-rights feed on most major bouts held in the United States and also for many fights overseas that are transmitted by satellite to the US. He was at ringside when Muhammad Ali battled George Foreman in Zaire and Joe Frazier in Manila. He has called the fights of legends like Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, and Roberto Duran. He was behind the microphone when Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear. In large swaths of the world, his voice is synonymous with the sweet science.
Sheriden’s parents were born in 1905; his mother in County Mayo and his father in County Longford. Both of them came to the United States as toddlers.
Bob was born in Boston in 1944. "None of my grandparents were educated people," he says. "But they were very family-oriented and wise. My father’s father, James Sheridan, was a sheet-metal worker in Boston, who died before I could know him. He passed the trade on to my father, who later became a building contractor. My maternal grandfather, Andrew Dougherty, was a farmer in New Hampshire. He knew a lot about Irish history and politics and talked endlessly to me about them."
Sheridan went to college on a baseball scholarship at the University of Miami. "Baseball was my first love," he says. He graduated in 1966 and, that summer, played a few games at third base for the Miami Marlins, who were a Class-A farm team for the Baltimore Orioles. "There was never any chance I’d stay with the club," he acknowledges. "I’d been brought in to fill a spot until some kid they’d signed out of high school joined the team."
His first year out of college, Sheridan also taught physical education in the Dade County school system and hosted his own radio talk show on WDER-FM, a small station in Miami. "I bought my own airtime," he remembers. "It cost ten dollars for a two-hour slot between 6:00 AM and 8:00 AM every Sunday morning. If I sold more than ten dollars in ads, I made a profit. "
But WDER-FM led to bigger things. The general manager for the Florida Marlins was Bill Durney, who co-hosted a radio show on WGBS (a major Florida station) with Red Barber. Barber was semi-retired and living in the Sunshine State. In earlier years, he’d been a radio and television baseball play-by-play announcer of legendary proportions. Durney introduced Sheridan to Barber.
"When I was young," Sheridan says, picking up the story, "I wanted to be Babe Ruth. I had a pretty wild lifestyle, and I used to tell people that I was Babe Ruth reincarnated, except I’d been born four years before Babe died and I couldn’t play ball like him. However, I did have a tremendous ability to talk, and Red hired me. At first, I lined up interviews for him and read the sports news on his show. Then my role expanded. Red taught me a lot about the business. I learned from him that it doesn’t all come from the top of your head. There’s research and preparation. I prepare for every fight today like it was my first. I prepare for each undercard fight the same way I prepare for the main event. I learned that from Red Barber."
Working with Barber gave Sheridan exposure throughout Florida. Then boxing entered his life.
The first fight that Sheridan had seen in person was Cassius Clay’s conquest of Sonny Liston in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964.
"Chris Dundee, the on-site promoter, called our baseball coach at Miami and asked if he could send some kids over to the arena to sell Coke at the fight," Bob remembers. "Half a dozen of us went. I think a Coke sold for a quarter back then. We each made about four dollars, but I wasn’t there for the money. I was there for the fight. Clay wasn’t the most popular guy in the world, but I liked him. When the main event started, I stopped selling Coke, sat down in an aisle about twelve feet from the ring, and watched the fight. Of course, none of us had any idea of the magnitude of the history that was being made."
In late-1966, Sheridan began calling Chris Dundee’s fights in Miami on WGBS radio. Boxing was a popular sport back then. There were fights in town every week, and Sheridan’s work became increasingly popular. "The more you do, the better you get," he says. "And as I improved, more things fell into place."
Dundee started taking Sheridan to fights out of town. He was hired to do radio color commentary for University of Miami football games. The first championship fight he called was Jerry Quarry against Jimmy Ellis for the WBA heavyweight title in 1968. Television work followed.
By the mid-1970s, Sheridan had gained a considerable following. Then his life took an unusual detour. He moved to Ireland and began raising cattle on a small farm in County Clare. "It’s hard to relate to city people the pleasures of working on a farm," he says. "But remember; my grandfather was a farmer, and I loved horses and cattle."
Sheridan owned ten acres in County Clare, leased a hundred more and, at one point, had two hundred head of cattle." Then the detour got stranger.
"I figured I was breeding cattle and raising them, so why not ride them," he remembers. "I tell people, I was always a bullshitter so bull-riding was the next logical step. Anyway, I took up rodeo bull-riding. In retrospect, it was crazy. This was before flak jackets. There were a lot of bruises and I broke my back one time at a rodeo in Arkansas. I’d fly from Shannon to the United States, do a rodeo, and fly back home again. For a while, I was Aer Lingus’s number-one non-commercial account. The last time I got on a bull was in 1981 at Madison Square Garden. I got bucked off in two seconds. The shute wasn’t even shut before I was off. After that, I stopped. But it was a very enjoyable period in my life. Rodeo cowboys are great athletes and fun guys to be around. The characters in rodeo are like the characters in boxing."
In late-1981, Sheridan left the cattle business and moved back to Boston. "I loved every minute of it," he says. "But land became too expensive to lease." He now lives in Las Vegas with his wife of ten years, the former Annie Kelly, who was born in County Tipperary.
"I was a hard-drinking womanizing single guy for a long time," Sheridan acknowledges. "I was married once before to another Irish girl, and it was a horrible marriage because I wasn’t mature enough to handle it. Whatever went wrong in that one, I’ll take responsibility for it. I’m a much better husband now."
In addition to being a better husband, Sheridan is also now a fixture on the international boxing scene. He’s behind the microphone for forty fight cards annually, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of his travels. In one seven-week stretch last year, he was ringside for fights in Memphis, the Philippines, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Boise, and South Africa. In 2005, he visited Australia eleven times.
Here, it should be noted that Sheridan has had four heart attacks and twelve angio-plasties. "I have heart attacks like other people have the flu," he jokes. But in the next sentences, he adds," Any health problems I’ve had are the result of genetics and eating and drinking too much. Don’t blame boxing; the traveling isn’t a problem. I get a bit tired sometimes, but there’s always an adrenaline rush when the fights begin."
"I love boxing," Sheraton says as his thoughts return to the sweet science. "It’s the purest sport in the world; it’s the greatest sport in the world. And my enthusiasm for it is one of my strengths as an announcer. I’m not a journalist. I don’t focus on the negative when I’m commentating. Sure, boxing has problems, but other sports have problems too. My job as a boxing commentator is to give people the facts and entertain the public. I never forget the brutality of boxing and how dangerous it is. I was tough enough to get on the back of a bull again and again. I’m not tough enough to be a fighter. But boxing takes poor kids without hope like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and elevates them to a place where they’re among the most famous people on the planet. And each fight is an event. Nothing excites me more than two great fighters getting in the ring for a championship fight."
"There’s an old saying," Sheridan observes in closing. "If you find a job you love, you never have to do a day’s work in your life. When I’m behind the microphone, I’m happy."
* * *
SCORECARD: Earlier this year, I noted in a column entitled HBO Boxing: The Challenge
that HBO televised 42 fights in 2006. That included eighteen fights on HBO World Championship Boxing, fourteen on Boxing After Dark, and the featured bout on ten HBO Pay-Per-View shows. The underdog won only five of those 42 fights. By contrast, Showtime Championship Boxing televised twenty fights last year and the underdog won eight.
That trend is continuing in 2007. Through the first ten weeks of this year, HBO has televised twelve fights. The favorite has won ALL TWELVE. By contrast, Showtime Championship Boxing has televised six fights, and the underdog has won three.
Last week, I received an email from a reader who asked, “Why is it that, every time I watch a fight on HBO, everyone except maybe Max Kellerman and Fran Charles knows in advance who’s going to win?”
That’s a good question. The periodic promises by the powers that be at HBO about more competitive fights are starting to have all the credibility of Dick Cheney’s pronouncements on the war in Iraq.
Moments before HBO’s March 3rd telecast of Miguel Cotto versus Oktay Urkal, Larry Merchant told viewers, “We know the result. Cotto is a 20-to-1 favorite.”
This past weekend’s match-up between Wladimir Klitschko and Ray Austin was worse. Prior to the bout, Lennox Lewis stated on camera that Austin “shouldn’t be in the ring” with Klitschko. Merchant then added, “We wonder, does he belong on the same continent as Klitschko?” The fight that followed was an embarrassment.
HBO’s riposte is, “But people will be really excited when we finally put Cotto and Klitschko in big competitive fights.”
Yeah; but subscribers who pay month after month for HBO will have to shell out an additional $44.95 if they want to see the big competitive fights because they’ll be on pay-per-view.
There’s a new slogan in boxing: “It’s not HBO; it’s pay-per-view.” And viewers are getting tired of it. Sources say that HBO’s March 3rd card garnered a miserable 2.93 rating and cost the network a license fee in the neighborhood of $3,250,000. The numbers for Klitschko-Austin aren’t in yet, but one suspects that they won’t be good. Forget about the youth demographic. HBO is starting to lose the boxing fan demographic.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see whether HBO rewards or punishes Larry Merchant for his candor. That will depend on whether the network’s policy for the future is to encourage its commentators to be responsible television journalists or shills.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com