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29 AUGUST 2014

 

Boxing After Dark on HBO


Lennox Lewis: After Dark commentator
Lennox Lewis: After Dark commentator

By Thomas Hauser
Boxing After Dark made its debut on February 3, 1996. Through July 29th of this year, it has been home to 157 fights.

The idea behind the original Boxing After Dark series was to give the public competitive fights between exciting young fighters on the rise. But on occasion, the show was a vehicle of accommodation. Instead putting "stars of the future" in competitive bouts, HBO opted at times for mismatches to showcase a particular fighter. And if the network owed something to a promoter, it might balance the ledger by giving him a date for a less-than-scintillating card. Still, the overall quality of Boxing After Dark was high. Fans saw a lot of great fights.

Expectations ran high when Boxing After Dark returned in April 2006 after a seven-month hiatus. Those expectations have yet to be met. At the bell ending the final round of this year's first main event, blow-by-blow commentator Fran Charles proclaimed, "Boxing After Dark is back!" But the Sunday morning buzz after the show was that the new announcing team was a disappointment. And since then, the buzz has turned into a roar with much of the criticism being aimed at the fights themselves.

"This isn't Boxing After Dark," one television insider says. "It's KO Nation without music."

So let's review what fight fans have seen so far on the "new"Boxing After Dark.

The first member of the announcing team to be put in place was Max Kellerman. HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg had lunch with Max late last year and earmarked him for his current role.

Joe Tessitore and Brian Kenny were approached about doing blow-by-blow commentary but turned the job down after receiving better offers to remain at ESPN. Fran Charles was subsequently chosen.

HBO auditioned myriad fighters for the role of "expert analyst," among them Hasim Rahman and Antonio Tarver. Greenburg and executive producer Rick Bernstein studied the audition tapes and decided that Lennox Lewis best met their needs.

After three fights, it was agreed that Kellerman should concentrate on talking, not scoring, and Julie Lederman was offered the position that her father has on HBO Championship Boxing. But she turned the job down because the money that HBO offered was less than she makes as a real ring judge and there would have been a conflict of interest in her undertaking both roles. Thus, for now at least, Harold Lederman is onboard.

The first thing to note with regard to the quality of the announcing team is that its predecessors (most notably, Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant) cast a long shadow.

"Jim is incredible," says Lennox. "He has a silver tongue and is clear and concise in everything he says. Some people think that Larry is too critical, but I understand where he's coming from and appreciate what he's saying. Anything that comes after Jim and Larry is a hard act to follow."

Within that framework, Frans Charles is in the most difficult position. The most effective blow-by-blow commentators have distinctive voices. If Jim Lampley is talking, anywhere anytime, his voice is immediately recognizable. Charles has a pleasant voice, but it doesn't stand out and his conversational tone doesn't lend itself to boxing blow-by-blow.

Also, some commentators by their mere presence bring credibility to a telecast. Howard Cosell added an aura of importance to every event he covered; witness his turning Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs and Evel Knievel motorcycling over trucks into major happenings. Lampley has that type of impact. Charles doesn't.

And more significantly, Fran might not have the in-depth knowledge of boxing that's essential to fulfilling his role at the highest level. At case in point occurred during the June 24th telecast of the fight between Calvin Brock and Timur Ibragimov when Charles said that Panama Lewis (who trains Ibragimov) had been "banned in certain states for alleged improper activity."

Use of the word "alleged" was a disservice to viewers and the boxing community. To set the record straight, On June 16, 1983, 21-year-old Billy Collins Jr fought journeyman Luis Resto at Madison Square Garden. Collins was a fighter on the rise with a 14-0 record. In the dressing room before the fight, Lewis (who was Resto's trainer) removed much of the padding from the punching area of his fighter's gloves. Resto battered Collins for ten rounds and won a decision. Both of Collins's eyes were horribly swollen. He suffered permanently-impaired vision, was unable to fight again, began drinking heavily and, nine months after the fight, was killed in a car accident. Lewis spent a year in prison for his misconduct.

Also, at times, Charles says things that simply miss the mark. Prior to the May 27th fight between Paul Williams and Walter Matthysse, HBO showed an on-screen graphic indicating that, subsequent to the weigh-in, Matthysse had gained 9-1/2 pounds and Williams had gained 7-1/2. At that point, Fran observed, "Neither fighter has gained much weight." Nine-and-a-half pounds might not be astronomical in today's world of phony weight classes, but it's a lot.

At the end of the same show, Charles asked Lennox, "Do you believe Jhonny Gonzalez looked spectacular [against Fernando Montiel]?" That's like asking if James Toney looked svelte in his fight against Hasim Rahman. The on-site crowd had booed loudly enough throughout Gonzales-Montiel that viewers at home could hear it on their television sets.

Kellerman is believed to be in the process of being groomed by Greenburg to replace Larry Merchant on HBO Championship Boxing. As for Max's role, present and future, Ross says, "No one can recreate Larry Merchant, and I wouldn't expect Max to try. He brings his own persona and perspective to the telecasts."

That he does. Max is Max. He has toned himself down for Boxing After Dark. But the truth is, he has been most effective to date in a studio setting where his role is to expound during breaks in the action.

Lennox might be HBO's diamond in the rough. First and foremost, he's on the HBO team for his celebrity presence. Beyond that, he notes, "I'm not a boxing historian. I try to explain to viewers what's happening in the ring rather than give them boxing history. And no boxer wants to be put down; the sport is hard enough without other boxers putting you down. So if I have something critical to say, I try to be tactful."

Lennox has a good work ethic and prepares seriously for each telecast. If there's one thing he has to avoid, it's over-reaching to say something positive about the performance of a fighter who looks mediocre. "Boxing After Dark is different for me than commenting on HBO Championship Boxing because it's a different team," he says. "It's like I used to be a surfer and now I'm on a skateboard. But there's excitement with a new job and I feel as though, every month, I'm getting better. Each telecast is more training for me. As time goes by, that training will pay off."

"Lennox has great potential," Greenburg says. "He didn't become heavyweight champion of the world overnight, and it will take time for him to become a great expert analyst. But he'll get there."

As for his favorite commentators other than Lampley and Merchant, Lennox says, "I always liked Howard Cosell. I wish I could have his vocabulary. I remember, at the 1984 Olympics, he called me 'unheralded'. I said to myself, 'That sounds sweet; I wonder what it means?' I actually looked it up in the dictionary."

It's hard in the initial going for a two-man announcing team to coordinate in terms of timing, anticipating each other's comments, and the allocation of subject matter between them. With three people working together, it's even more difficult. Also, three-man announcing teams need glue to hold them together. Jim Lampley does that brilliantly for HBO Championship Boxing and HBO-Pay-Per-View. Keith Jackson and Frank Gifford did it for Monday Night Football. Right now, no one is doing it effectively for Boxing after Dark.

The roles are blurred. At times it seems as though Max is serving as analyst and blow-by-blow commentator, with Fran being reduced to making occasional comments. Punches are missed; key moments pass without comment.

"There have been times when I've been guilty of talking when it would be better for the blow-by-blow guy to talk," Max acknowledges. "I've stepped on Fran a little bit because we don't have our rhythm down pat yet, but we'll get it right."

"It takes time to develop roles for each person and for everything to mesh," adds Greenburg. "There was a time when we had to explain to Larry that he wasn't the blow-by-blow announcer and that he should focus on his own role within the announcing team. And look at what happened. Larry and Jim developed into the best in the business. People have to be patient. It takes time for an announcing team to jell."

That's true. But sometimes, when things jell, you get Jell-O. And that leads to the issue of chemistry.

Chemistry is crucial to television. Chemistry can take Harold Lederman (a pharmacologist with a voice that makes Howard Cosell sound like a nightingale) and make him a cult figure. Chemistry can turn Michael Buffer (a former male model and used-car salesman) into an international icon.

Three excellent commentators can sit together at ringside, and the pieces of the puzzle might not fit. The chemistry between them simply might not be right. In that regard, one thing HBO should consider doing is switching Lennox and Emanuel Steward. Put Lennox on HBO Championship Boxing and let Emanuel be the voice of authority on Boxing After Dark. Alternatively, it could expand Harold Lederman's role on the late-night series. Max, Harold, and Lennox might be a nice fit, with Fran moving to the desk on HBO Pay-Per-View fights.

But there's a larger issue regarding Boxing after Dark; the quality of its fights. When Boxing After Dark was at its best, the key to it's success wasn't great fighters. It was great fights; fights that fans talked about around the water cooler on Monday morning.

The first four Boxing after Dark telecasts featured the following match-ups:

Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Kennedy McKinney (February 3, 1996)

Arturo Gatti vs. Wilson Rodriguez (March 23, 1996)

Virgil Hill vs. Louis Del Valle (April 20, 1996)

Azumah Nelson vs. Jesse James Leija (May 1, 1996)

That's a pretty high standard to follow. And in its current incarnation, Boxing After Dark is falling short of the mark. For purposes of comparison, let's look at the first four shows on the "new" Boxing After Dark.

April 29th saw Andre Ward versus Andy Kolle and Acelino Freitas against Zahir Raheem. Kolle didn't belong on HBO. In fact, he didn't belong on ESPN. All HBO had to do was look at the list of fighters he'd faced. Kolle's nine previous opponents had 21 wins in 77 fights. Ward-Kolle was an obvious mismatch designed to showcase Ward. As for Freitas-Raheem; styles make fights, and badly matched styles make bad fights.

May 27th saw the second installment of the new Boxing After Dark. Paul Williams against Walter Matthysee was an entertaining match-up between two punchers, one of whom had extremely limited boxing skills. The main event (Jhonny Gonzalez versus Fernand Montiel) was a boring fight, which was predictable since most of Montiel's fights are boring.

The opening bout on June 24th (Joel Julio versus Carlos Quintana) was a good fight; the undressing of a prospect. The main event (Calvin Brock against Timur Abragimov) was horrible. The crowd booed throughout. Long before it was over, fans were streaming toward the exits. For the third month in a row, the featured attraction on Boxing After Dark was a sedative.

The July 29th fights were also a disappointment. Joshua Clottey versus Richard Gutierrez wasn't bad, but its primary purpose seemed to be to establish Clottey (a 6-to-1 favorite) as the next opponent for Antonio Margarito on Showtime. The main event (Vivian Harris against Stevie Johnston) was awful.

Johnston is a shot fighter. After being knocked out by Juan Lazcano in 2003, he was out of action for two years as a result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident. HBO executives sought to justify the match-up on grounds that Stevie had wins this year over Steve Quinonez and Robert Ortega. But Quinonez has lost five of his last six fights and Ortega has lost eleven in a row.

Johnston's reflexes were slow and his balance was poor. Harris knocked him down four times before the carnage was halted. HBO can and should demand more competitive fights than this.

But August 19th might be worse. Boxing After Dark has only one fight scheduled for that night: Paul Williams against Sharmba Mitchell. Williams is being built for bigger and better things. Mitchell is 36 years old. In the past two years, he has won two fights and been knocked out twice.

Greenburg defends Williams-Mitchell with the observation, "There's drama in the possibility that a crafty veteran like Sharmba Mitchell might expose a young fighter like Paul Williams." But then he adds, "Yes, that one concerns me."

It should. Fights on HBO have a greater degree of importance than those on other networks simply by virtue of the fact that they're on HBO. When Boxing After Dark veers away from its stated mission of putting young fighters with great potential in competitive fights, the sport loses an important opportunity and HBO's subscribers are shortchanged.

"We want to be consistent," Greenburg says, "and from time to time, catch lightning in a bottle with a great fight."

But lightning is more likely to strike in the form of a classic battle like Gatti-Rodriguez or Barrera-McKinney when a match-up is great to begin with. And as Greenburg acknowledges, one great fight doesn't make a series. The key is consistency.

Some of this year's Boxing After Dark match-ups have sent a confusing message to the public regarding the quality of HBO's telecasts. And more to the point, a few more fights like the ones viewers have seen over the past four months and Boxing After Dark will no longer be "must see" television for boxing fans.

Devotees of the sweet science expect the best from HBO.

* * *
And a note on boxing's other "premium" cable network --

Earlier this year, Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein suggested to executive producer David Dinkins Jr. that the network's telecasts could be enhanced by the addition of spot commentary from Dr. Margaret Goodman.

Goodman is a neurologist who, until last year, was chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission. In that capacity, she fought for the implementation of life-saving medical reforms and refused to deviate from her commitment despite pressures that were put upon her. This May, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored her with the James S. Farley Award for "honesty and integrity in boxing."

Dinkins suggested to Showtime Boxing tsar Ken Hershman that Dr. Goodman be on-camera for the network's June 3rd telecast of Castillo-Corrales III. Hershman gave his approval. Dr, Goodman was sent production schedules and tapes to study. She and Dinkins discussed what her role would be, what she would wear, and other details of the telecast. Showtime put her name on the list of people who were to receive ring-access credentials.

Then Bob Arum and Gary Shaw (who were co-promoting Castillo-Corrales) got into the act. Both men have crossed swords with Dr. Goodman in the past over the issue of what constitutes proper medical standards for boxing. Shaw and Arum caucused. Shaw called Hershman. And Hershman pulled the plug on Dr. Goodman's appearance.

Shaw refused comment when asked about the matter. "I'm not going to go there," he said, "because I don't think it's a story."

Hershman was equally reticent, saying, "We opted not to do it. It was a production decision. I'm not going to discuss with you what goes on behind closed doors."

Since Dr. Goodman's non-appearance, Showtime Championship Boxing seems to be snake-bitten. Call it "the curse of the red-headed ring doctor." Castillo-Corrales III was cancelled when Castillo failed to make weight. A month later, the network's July 8th card was cut in half when the IBF cruiserweight title bout between Steve Cunningham and Guillermo Jones fell out. Let's hope that James Toney and Samuel Peter show up for their scheduled September bout.

Meanwhile, let it be noted that, if Gary Shaw and Bob Arum had monitored Jose Luis Castillo's weight with the same diligence that they monitored the Showtime announcing team, Castillo-Corrales III might have happened.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com



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