Larry Merchant: photo by Holger Keigfel
By Thomas Hauser
The recent contract negotiations between Larry Merchant and HBO offer insight into several facets of the relationship between boxing and the media.
As virtually every boxing fan knows, Merchant’s previous contract with HBO expired on June 1, 2007. It was widely anticipated that, thereafter, his employment would be terminated by the network. But after much drama, he was offered and signed a new agreement that calls for him to remain with the cable giant until May 31, 2009. HBO has an option to extend his services through May 31, 2011.
HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg declined a request to be interviewed for this article. But many present and past HBO employees were willing to talk about the matter on condition of anonymity while others agreed to speak on the record.
Merchant is a calming presence, not the sort of person one would expect to find at the center of a storm. He’s 76 years old and has called more than 600 fights during his 29-year career with HBO. He has never been a traditional television commentator. At his core, he’s an old-time, old-line, old-school journalist with ink in his veins. He has never promoted himself as a show business personality. His responsibility, as he sees it, is to commentate insightfully on HBO fights. He’s quiet and well-mannered, a voice of reason who tells it like it is when the emperor has no clothes.
Most viewers like Merchant; some don’t. But everyone agrees that he speaks the truth as he sees it. Seth Abraham (former president of Time Warner Sports and the original architect of HBO’s boxing program) calls him “one of the pillars of HBO’s boxing franchise” and “the conscience of HBO boxing.”
“Over the years,” Abraham says, “Larry’s contribution to HBO has gone far beyond his work behind the microphone. Even though Lou [DiBella] wore a diamond stud in his ear, Lou was a suit when he was making fights for HBO. Lou was management. And Larry was never a suit. He was an ombudsman, a voice for the fan, and a reliable knowledgeable sounding board for everything we did.”
It’s not often that the public figures one looks up to in youth turn out to be as decent and honorable as they appeared to have been when viewed through adolescent eyes. But as new generations of journalists and TV personnel have become Merchant’s co-workers, they have found him to be a man of integrity and grace. His presence in the sweet science gives boxing and everyone associated with it a bit more dignity and class.
In late 2005, Ross Greenburg began planning to remove Merchant from his role as lead analyst on HBO’s World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights. His primary motivation is said to have been a desire to appeal to a younger audience demographic. Toward that end, Greenburg met with Max Kellerman (now 33 years old). In March 2006, a contract was signed. Informed sources say that it called for Kellerman to serve as lead analyst on all Boxing After Dark telecasts and perform desk duty on selected pay-per-view events through May 31, 2007. Thereafter, Max would assume Merchant’s role as lead analyst on all World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view shows. The contract runs through May 31, 2010. Kellerman received in the neighborhood of $10,000 for each Boxing After Dark telecast. When he stepped into Merchant’s shoes, his salary was to rise to approximately $550,000 a year.
In 2003, Showtime brought Al Bernstein in to fill a vacancy in the lead-analyst position on Showtime Championship Boxing. Before Bernstein was hired, Jay Larkin (then the head of Showtime Boxing) sat down with blow-by-blow commentator Steve Albert and asked him how he felt about the move and what he thought the chemistry between him and Bernstein would be like. Albert responded enthusiastically.
There is no evidence that Greenburg had a similar conversation with Jim Lampley regarding his partnering with Kellerman. To the contrary, replacing Larry with Max was Greenburg’s call, plain and simple. Informed sources say that he did it with relatively little staff input and against the wishes of most of the people who deal with boxing at HBO.
Moreover, as one current HBO employee observes, “If you’ve promised a person’s job to someone else, the only honorable thing to do is pick up the phone and tell him; or better yet, tell him face-to-face. And that’s particularly true when the person you’re terminating is Larry Merchant, who has been with you for 29 years.”
But that call wasn’t made. And ultimately, Merchant was left dangling for months while his future remained in doubt.
Multiple sources say that it wasn’t until November 2006 that Merchant was advised that his role on World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights as he knew it was about to be terminated. At that time, Greenburg offered him a slot on Boxing After Dark and unspecified “other duties” at a seventy-percent cut in pay.
Merchant was prepared to begin the process of stepping back to make way for a successor, but not to the degree that Greenburg wanted. He pressed for clarification of just what those “other duties” would be and learned that they were largely illusory. In essence, Greenburg simply wanted him to trade jobs with Kellerman.
Merchant suggested a variety of alternatives, one of which conformed to Greenburg’s desire to have him give up World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights. Larry said he would become the lead analyst for Boxing After Dark if he could also be the matchmaker for BAD. He felt that HBO could, and should be making better fights than it was. But Greenburg rejected the offer, saying that HBO’s management team was perfectly capable of making good fights. Ross also voiced the view that it would be improper for one person to make and then commentate upon fights, despite the historical precedent of Gil Clancy, Ferdie Pacheco, and Alex Wallau doing so at CBS, NBC, and ABC respectively.
Thereafter, other than offering a bit more money, Greenburg refused to budge and Merchant readied to leave HBO. It wasn’t a negotiating ploy on Larry’s part; he wasn’t posturing. He felt unwanted and thought it was time to go.
“I don’t blame Max,” Merchant told intimates. “Every job in television is open to competition. This isn’t about Max. It’s a decision that Ross made with regard to me. He never told me why he was doing it. I’m sure he’ll be asked at some point and he’ll say something like, ‘Larry was here for 29 years and we love him but we have to look to the future.’”
“I’m not going to dodge the reality of what’s happening,” Merchant continued. “Change of this nature causes anxiety, but I feel good about myself and I’m optimistic about the future. I have a lot of good memories. When I look back over the years, that run in the eighties with Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, and Duran was fantastic. Holmes-Cooney was a fascinating event. Tyson-Douglas, Holyfield-Bowe, Gatti-Ward, Barrera-Morales; those fights were extraordinary. But all good things come to an end.”
On February 28th, Greenburg and Ray Stallone (HBO’s vice president for sports publicity) met with Merchant in Los Angeles to discuss how his departure from the network would be handled from a public relations point of view.
“They were in a very self-protective mode,” Merchant said afterward. “Ross wanted to be seen as the good guy who asked me to stay on. They handed me a written outline of how they hoped I would explain this to the media; the idea being that HBO offered to keep me on in a slightly different role but that I wanted to go in a different direction. It was corporate-speak and ignored the reality that Ross made it very clear to me by his words and actions that he wanted me out. I said I’d think about it. We agreed that Taylor-Spinks [on May 19th] would be my last fight. Then they asked what sort of pomp and circumstance I wanted at the end, and I told them that I didn’t want a grand tour. Whatever I do, I’ll plan it myself.”
Thereafter, Merchant drafted some farewell remarks that he intended to share with viewers on May 19th. When asked, he told Rick Bernstein (executive producer of HBO Sports) that he did not want an on-air tribute at the close of the telecast.
Then the landscape shifted. Word began to leak out that Merchant wouldn’t be continuing at HBO, and there was an outpouring of emotion from the boxing community. It came from fighters, writers, managers, promoters, television personnel, and fans. There was anger over his imminent departure, coupled respect for Merchant himself.
“Ross didn’t have a clue as to the backlash he’d get because he doesn’t understand boxing fans or most of the people in boxing,” says one HBO insider. “He had no idea how many people would stand by Larry, and he had no idea that there would be such a negative reaction to Max.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Seth Abraham. “Larry and I were together for 25 years and I consider him a friend, so I’m not a dispassionate observer. But having Larry or not having Larry doesn’t change the audience demographics. And a broadcast team is just that. It’s a team. Larry makes everyone else on the team better. He asks the right questions. He has the right follow-up. He never tries to be bigger than his fellow commentators. The question is not whether Max is better than Larry. The question is, ‘Will Max make the team better?’”
“Just because you’re the head of a department doesn’t mean that you have a monopoly on brains,” Abraham continued. “Sometimes you have a monopoly on shortsightedness and stupidity. That’s one reason I’ve always liked consensus. When I was at HBO, I had the final vote, subject at times to the approval of [CEOs] Michael Fuchs and Jeff Bewkes. But there were occasions when I would think one thing and Ross, Lou [DiBella], Mark [Taffet], and even [financial officer] Barbara Thomas would have a different point of view. When that happened, I’d go into Bryant Park, sit down with a cup of cappucino, and ask myself, ‘Why do these very intelligent people have a view that’s different than mine?’ And often -- not always, but often – I’d come around to their view. Larry brings so much to the telecast. He’ll be missed in many ways. If I were the president of HBO Sports – and I’m not, it’s Ross’s decision to make – I would renew Larry’s contract.”
Blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley also sang Merchant’s praises. It’s axiomatic in boxing that styles make fights, but styles also make announcing teams. The chemistry between Lampley and Merchant is superb; a blend of fire and ice. The one time that Lampley and Kellerman had been paired (on HBO’s October 14, 2006, telecast of Joe Calzaghe versus Sakio Bika), the on-air chemistry between them had not been good. There were fears that replacing Larry with Max could wind up being the equivalent of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
Lampley spoke of Kellerman in complimentary terms but had special praise for Merchant. “Larry is not replaceable,” Jim said. “He’s unique in the history of our sport in terms of his integrity. The term ‘truth-teller’ is often used. It’s the kind of flattery that anyone would like to hear, but to say it about Larry is to say it in the purest possible sense. Larry has never shilled for a moment. He has never bent to corporate will for a moment. Whether dealing with a fighter, a promoter, a corporate executive, a major sponsor, anyone; he has never said a word that he didn’t firmly believe was the truth. I can only hope that someday, somewhere in my career, I can look at myself and, in my heart of hearts, believe that I’m as courageous as Larry. He inspires me every day that I work with him and he will continue to inspire me after he’s gone.”
Others were less charitable in viewing the situation. “I don’t understand who Ross thinks he’s appealing to with this move,” said one industry insider. “I keep hearing, ‘Younger demographic! Younger demographic!’ Let’s get real. Does Max appeal to young urban blacks? You’ve got to be kidding. Young women? I don’t think so. The NASCAR crowd? No way. Instead of pandering to a younger demographic that he doesn’t understand, Ross should try appealing to a boxing demographic. Better fights will attract more viewers.”
Meanwhile, Kellerman was in a difficult situation. The lead analyst position on World Championship Boxing was his dream job and he was on track to get it. But the issue of Merchant’s termination was making Max a lightning rod for criticism of HBO, and he was being attacked on both a professional and personal level.
“Max is a provocateur, not an analyst,” said one member of HBO’s production team. “To be an analyst, it’s not enough to be able to talk. You need judgment and maturity and you have to know what you’re talking about. There are times when Larry pauses on air to search for the right word. That’s not age. That’s thinking before he speaks instead of shooting off his mouth.”
On a February 17th Boxing After Dark telecast, Kellerman had likened Paulie Malignaggi to Billy Conn. As reported by Internet writer Charles Jay, “Max proceeded to make this comment about Malignaggi as the self-proclaimed ‘Magic Man’ entered the ring: ‘He’s an ethnic white guy, fights in the Northeast, doesn’t hit with a lot of power, and so inevitably he reminds me of the great Billy Conn, light-heavyweight champion, who gave a very good showing against the great Joe Louis, a heavyweight, much like Malignaggi gave a very good showing against Miguel Cotto at junior-welterweight.’”
“INEVITABLY he reminds you of Conn?” Jay wrote. “I had no idea of the inevitability of that comparison. That’s kind of like saying that, because they’re both loud, obnoxious, and Jewish, Kellerman should be compared to Howard Cosell.”
Actually, most people who meet Kellerman and talk with him one-on-one find him rather likable, whereas Cosell was even more abrasive and unpleasant in person than he was on television. Also, Cosell frequently sought to undermine his commentating partners, while Kellerman does the opposite. By way of example, Lennox Lewis says, “From the very beginning, Max has done everything he could to make me feel more comfortable behind the microphone.”
Regardless, Max has lobbed quite a few hard verbal shots at targets on the air. And in boxing, when you throw punches, punches come back.
“Replacing Larry Merchant with Max Kellerman is like replacing Jack Nicholson with Jack Black,” Ron Higgins of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal wrote. “Kellerman has zero journalistic background and is just another blabby radio-talk-show host whose schtick plays well on TV for the attention-deficit-disorder demographic of video-game zombies who prefer their knowledge in five-second sound-bytes.”
Doug Krikorian of the Long Beach Press-Telegram declared, “In what has to be one of the most misguided decisions in sports television history, HBO president Ross Greenburg has decided not to renew the contract of his longtime boxing analyst, Larry Merchant, and replace him with Max Kellerman. Omigod! What is Mr. Greenburg thinking? If he wanted a clown, I’m sure there are plenty available at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus that are a lot more entertaining than Max Kellerman. Kellerman has a superficial knowledge of boxing, makes a lot of noise, and offers the kind of opinions one routinely hears in places like beer bars, fraternity houses, and barber shops. Greenburg is insulting the intelligence of his audience.”
But no critic was more persistent than Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News, who, in a series of columns, attacked Kellerman for “smug rants designed to pander to the coveted younger demographic,” and proclaimed, “Replacing Larry Merchant with Max Kellerman would be like replacing Picasso with the guy who sells the velvet Elvises outside of Graceland. MeMax’s greatest asset is his ability to self-promote. He has fooled more than a few TV and radio suits, who again prove that having a brain is not a prerequisite for becoming a network sports executive. If HBO honchos dump Merchant in favor of Kellerman, it will signal a lowering of journalistic standards, which have always separated HBO Sports from all other TV sports operations.”
The situation reached critical mass in Las Vegas during the week leading up to Oscar De La Hoya versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. Greenburg had wanted to replace Merchant with someone who would elicit a reaction from the media and fans, but this wasn’t the reaction he wanted.
“Ross is all alone on this one,” one HBO insider said. “Kery Davis, Mark Taffet, Rick Bernstein, Barbara Thomas; everyone thinks he’s making a mistake.”
The HBO bubble that Greenburg lives in was bursting. His decision to terminate Merchant’s tenure was being attacked as evincing a lack of respect for boxing fans and boxing. It was suggested by one observer of the scene that HBO launch a new TV reality series entitled Greenburg-Merchant-Kellerman 24/7.
One moment spoke volumes. Several days before De La Hoya-Mayweather, Greenburg came into the media center at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, walked past dozens of writers and other “boxing people” without a word, and sat down next to former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. By virtue of his position as president of HBO Sports, Ross was the most powerful person in the room. But he didn’t seem to like the people he was sharing the room with very much.
Meanwhile, an extremely troubling issue had arisen. Earlier that week, Greenburg had been interviewed by Michael Hiestand of USA Today with regard to Merchant’s contract status.
“Larry is still throwing a 95-mph fastball and hitting the corners,” Hiestand quoted Ross as saying. “We’d never give him a reduced role. We’re working to hammer this out.”
The words, “We’d never give him a reduced role,” were at odds with the truth.
Time Warner (HBO’s parent company) is a media-entertainment conglomerate with a long tradition of journalistic excellence. Time Magazine and CNN are among its component parts. Closer to home, HBO prides itself on its journalistic integrity. That’s the philosophy behind its boxing telecasts and shows like Real Sports.
For the president of HBO Sports to be quoted in “America’s newspaper” and for that quote to be false was disheartening to a lot of people at HBO.
Then everything changed. Depending on one’s point of view, either Greenburg blinked or had a change of heart.
On Friday, May 4th (the day before De La Hoya-Mayweather) Ross asked to have breakfast with Merchant at the MGM Grand and made an unexpected offer. His proposal was for a two-year contract with options at HBO’s election for two years more. Merchant would work all of HBO’s pay-per-view boxing cards (an estimated six per year) and half of its World Championship Boxing shows (Larry would choose which ones). His role on the telecasts would be the same as in the past. Other details (including salary) were ironed out at a May 8th meeting in New York when Merchant was in town to tape commentary for the network’s replay of De La Hoya-Mayweather.
Merchant considered the agreement to be fair and was pleased with it. Then, a week later, he received unsettling news in the form of a telephone call from Rick Bernstein. Bernstein had been a strong advocate for Larry within HBO. Indeed, some people had begun referring to him as “the janitor” because, in the words of one co-worker, “he’s trying to clean up the mess that Ross has made.”
Bernstein told Merchant that there was a snag. Greenburg had thought he could persuade Kellerman to accept a lesser role on World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights and continue as the lead analyst on Boxing After Dark. But Max was objecting to Larry’s new contract on grounds that he had a contract of his own and expected it to be fulfilled. Short of that, Kellerman was demanding parity with Merchant in assignments and refusing to work Boxing After Dark subsequent to May 31st because it wasn’t required by his contract.
“HBO has gotten locked into bad longterm contracts with fighters in the past,” marveled one network executive. “But this is the first time that HBO has gotten screwed on a longterm contract with an announcer.”
Regardless, Greenburg was now backing away from the agreement that he and Merchant had reached. If Larry’s new contract was to be finalized, he would have to accept a lesser number of fights than previously agreed to and would no longer have the right to choose which fights he worked.
Intimates say that Merchant was shaken and angered by the new turn of events. “This knocks me for a loop,” he said. “I was prepared to leave. I had come to grips with it emotionally. And now, to be told that we have a deal for me to stay on and, less than ten days later, to be told that the terms of the deal are changing; I’m not happy about it at all. In the three decades that I’ve been at HBO, nothing like this has happened to me before and I’m not aware of it happening to anyone else.”
Once again, Merchant’s status was in limbo. Taylor-Spinks came and went. Larry finished the telecast not knowing whether he’d sit behind an HBO microphone again.
Then another precinct was heard from. At the kick-off press conference for his July 14th fight against Alfonso Gomez (which will be televised on HBO), Arturo Gatti was asked what he thought about Merchant’s possible departure. Gatti has fought under the HBO banner twenty-one times. Only Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr have made more appearances.
“I wouldn’t want to speak to nobody but Larry Merchant after a fight,” Arturo opined. “Some people don’t like him. I like him because he’s real. He’s got balls to say it. If Max Kellerman goes to HBO, HBO is gonna go to shit.”
Still, time was running out. May 31st came and went. Now a new deadline loomed. On June 8th, the Boxing Writers Association of America was to present Merchant with the James J. Walker Award for “long and meritorious service to boxing.” The next night, Miguel Cotto versus Zab Judah would be televised from Madison Square Garden on HBO Pay-Per-View. The announcing team for that fight was still undetermined.
More negotiations followed. HBO refused a request from the Kellerman camp that it sweeten Max’s contract by relaxing an exclusivity provision that precludes him from appearing on ESPN. Merchant made several concessions with regard to terms that Greenburg had initially promised but later withdrew.
Finally, on June 8th, HBO issued a press release announcing that the network and Merchant had agreed to a new contract. “We are delighted to have one of sports television’s most respected broadcasters continue to call them as he sees them,” the release quoted Greenburg as saying. “Larry is an institution at HBO. Sharing the workload with Larry will be Max Kellerman, which essentially gives us two formidable broadcast teams on World Championship Boxing.”
Informed sources say that Merchant’s contract with HBO provides for the following: (1) Merchant will work half of all World Championship Boxing and up to six pay-per-view shows per year; (2) to ease Boxing After Dark’s transition to a new announcing team, he will work two BAD shows each year; and (3) he will have first priority on all fights outside of the United States. Beyond that, HBO will determine which shows Larry works after “meaningful consultation” between him and Rick Bernstein.
As for how things will play out, Merchant and Kellerman are said to have overlapping expectations. But each of their contracts is “pay or play,” an industry term which means that HBO can apportion air-dates between them as it sees fit as long as it pays them.
It would be unfair to Kellerman to judge his work against the standard that Merchant has set. Max should be allowed to rise or fall on his own merits. But he’ll be under a lot of pressure in the months ahead. And by refusing to work Boxing After Dark, he has created an opening for whoever fills BAD’s lead-analyst slot. As Earnie Shavers once said, “When you marry your mistress, you create a vacancy.”
Meanwhile, HBO has a new set of problems as a result of the resolution of L’Affaire Merchant. An announcing team is a network’s representative to the viewing public and, where boxing is concerned, the only constant the public sees from show to show. HBO is now in a situation where its flagship product (World Championship Boxing) has a schizophrenic identity. Some football teams have a quarterback controversy with two guys switching back and forth. HBO is on the brink of a lead-analyst controversy that will aggravate some viewers and create a certain amount of internal discomfort.
Greenburg’s critics say that his handling of the situation typifies a larger malaise within HBO’s boxing program. Dan Rafael wrote recently that Ross “bungled the entire Larry Merchant affair from Day 1, handling contract negotiations with his irreplaceable star analyst like a rookie instead of a seasoned executive.” One member of HBO’s production crew likens Ross’s championing of Kellerman to Coca Cola’s ill-fated product improvement (“new Coke”) of the 1980s.
And more than a few feathers were ruffled on June 8th when the annual Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner took place. Showtime CEO Matt Blanc and Ken Hershman (who runs that network’s boxing program) were there to see Steve Albert receive the Sam Taub Award for excellence in broadcast journalism (which was bestowed upon Merchant in 1985). Larry, as noted earlier in this article, was honored on June 8th for his long and meritorious service to boxing. Greenburg chose not to attend the dinner.
Still, as Seth Abraham notes, “One of the marks of good leadership is the ability to recognize that you’ve made a mistake and the willingness to change course. I think it’s to Ross’s credit that he took a step back, re-evaluated the situation, and changed his mind as far as Larry’s future at HBO is concerned.”
That brings us back to Merchant. On June 9th, HBO asked if he would be willing to cover its June 16th Boxing After Dark card at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Larry agreed and, the following weekend, flew from California to the east coast, did the show, and (on two hours sleep) flew back to California. At age 76. That’s a team player, the guy Greenburg wanted to terminate.
Merchant is satisfied with his new contract. “It worked out as well as I could have hoped for under the circumstances,” he says. “It’s a fair deal. It gives me time to do a few more things, personal and professional, that I want to do and keeps me involved with boxing. I’m satisfied.”
Then Merchant is asked what he thinks will happen with boxing at HBO over the next few years.
“I don’t know,” he answers. “One or two guys can change everything. And those guys can be in the ring or out of it.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org