By Thomas Hauser
When Lennox Lewis (pictured) and Vitali Klitschko meet in the ring on June 21, one of the most important people in the arena will be a 48-year-old woman with long brown hair wearing jeans and a form-fitting top. Tami Cotel is the production coordinator for HBO Boxing, and virtually everything that happens on fight night will bear her imprint.
Cotel was born in Chicago and grew up in Phoenix. Her father was a jeweler; her mother a real estate broker. "I had a rough childhood that I don't talk about much," she acknowledges. "In high school, I got into theater to help overcome my insecurities. To pay for college, I worked as an actress and a dental assistant."
In 1975, Cotel left Phoenix for Las Vegas, which she regarded as the entertainment capitol of the world. "I auditioned for some of the girlie shows," she recalls. "Follies Bergiere, Hallelujah Hollywood, Lido De Paris. If you made the top-ten cut at a dance audition, the next thing that happened was someone would say, "Okay, everything off from the waist up." You couldn't be just a dancer. You had to be a topless dancer, and you had to have a decent cup size. I made it to the final cut for every show I auditioned for, but I wouldn't take my top off. I was afraid my mother would find out and kill me, so I had to do something else to support myself."
Thus began a career in the hotel industry that ranged from accounting to sales to a front-desk job. Cotel even took sports bets at the Stardust Hotel and Casino. Then, in 1982, things got scary. A benign tumor was removed from the back of her neck. In the process, seven nerves were severed from Tami's spine, leaving her partially paralyzed from the waist up. "I could use my hands, but not my upper arms," she remembers. "I could move my head up and down, but not from side to side."
Three years of intensive therapy, six days a week, followed. Some muscles never came back, but other muscles were trained to compensate for their loss. By 1985, I was healthy again," Cotel continues. "But as my physical condition improved, I realized I was unhappy because I wasn't doing anything creative anymore. I was making good money, but I felt like a robot."
In 1985, Cotel left the hotel industry to work as a runner for a local production company called Mr. Camera. "My mother always told me that the most important qualities to succeed at any job are reliability, honesty, and common sense," she explains. "I figured I had those qualities, so why not give it a try."
One of Mr. Camera's clients was HBO. In 1985, Larry Holmes defended his heavyweight title against David Bey, and the cable network hired Mr. Camera to prepare a short profile piece on Holmes. While the piece was in production, Ross Greenburg (then executive producer of HBO Sports) met Cotel and asked if she would work the fighters' dressing rooms on fight night.
"I said 'yes,'" Cotel remembers. "Then Ross decided that HBO shouldn't use me in the locker room because I was a woman. So instead, they let me work the holding area, where the fighters stand after they leave the locker room and are waiting to start their ring walk. The first fighter I tried to hold back was David Bey, who knocked me over and pushed his way to the ring. That was my introduction to boxing. I thought I'd never work for HBO again. But after that, every time HBO did a fight in Las Vegas, Ross hired me for the holding area. And I started doing all the other things that no one else wanted to do; little parts of everybody else's job. Getting stats on fighters, making telephone calls. If Ross or anyone else screamed for something, I'd run and get it. Ross was the first producer I worked for in live television. He scared me to death, but I learned from him what live television is all about."
"Then, in 1986," Cotel continues, "Larry Holmes fought a rematch against Michael Spinks. Larry lost on a decision and left the ring before he was interviewed. Ross was screaming, 'Somebody fucking get Larry Holmes. He's leaving the ring.' So I ran to the locker room, got there before Larry, and picked up a headset. Larry came in. Someone closed the door behind him and said no interviews. Larry was crying. His family was crying. I felt so bad for them that I started crying too. Larry looked at me and said, 'Tami, don't cry, honey. Tell HBO I'll give them an interview.' From that point on, it was okay with HBO if I was in the locker room."
Cotel now has a company of her own. She does a variety of production work apart from boxing, but HBO is her primary client. The network hires her as an independent contractor, and she books everything else around their boxing schedule. She has worked all but two of HBO's fight cards since 1985.
Cotel's position is variously described as stage manager, floor director, or production coordinator. Generally, she arrives on site on Thursday evening for a Saturday night fight. After checking into her hotel, she touches base with the local state athletic commission, confirms the names of the referees and judges who will work the televised fights, and contacts each fighter's camp regarding the fighter meetings that will take place on Friday with Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and George Foreman.
Friday is more hectic. Tami makes sure that everyone shows up at the fighter meetings; attends the weigh-in; talks with each fighter's camp about HBO coming into the dressing room with a camera on fight night; advises each camp as to when the fighters have to be in the ring; determines which trainers will be hooked up to microphones; arranges for the judges to be on camera the following night; and gets the information necessary for HBO's on air graphics. Then comes an evening meeting attended by the entire HBO production crew.
On Saturday, things turn from hectic to frantic. Cotel arrives at the arena six hours before a fight. The first thing she does is check out the location of the dressing rooms. Then she times each fighter's ring-walk and, if it's a circuitous route, tapes arrows on the floor. This can be complicated when Naseem Hamed is planning to fly down to the ring in a harness from the upper reaches of the MGM Grand Arena. She also explains to security personnel that a cameraman will be walking backward in front of the fighters and that no one should get in the cameraman's way or block his view.
During the next five hours, Cotel makes certain that the house public address system has a properly-labeled audiotape with each fighter's ring walk music; puts the judges on videotape so their faces can be shown on air at the same time as their introduction by the ring announcer; reviews the timing of the referee's dressing room instructions with the local commission; talks with the ring announcer to ensure that what he says in the ring will have matching graphics on screen for home viewers; reminds each fighters' camp of the required time for the fighter to be ready to walk to the ring; and gets each fighter to weigh-in on HBO's fight-night scale. All of these tasks are complicated by the fact that every fight card involves different variables depending on the site and identity of the fighters and promoter.
Then comes the actual broadcast. Cotel puts this part of her job in perspective when she observes, "There are certain things that television needs and certain things that fighters need. Timing is crucial to a live broadcast. But a lot of television people don't understand how important timing is for an athlete. It always amazes me how, at every event, everyone at HBO works together and the fighters cooperate to form this puzzle that comes together so perfectly the minute we go on the air."
Meanwhile, Roy Jones speaks for his ring brethren when he says, "Tami's got a job where the person who has it can be a nuisance and a bother and in everybody's way, but she's not like that. Tami makes you want to help her."
Once a broadcast is underway, Cotel walks the first TV fight to the ring. While it's in progress, she alternates between watching from the HBO production area and revisiting the dressing rooms of the fighters who will be in the next televised fight. After the bout ends, she climbs into the ring and, if the fight has gone the distance, looks at the ring announcer's cue card. Then she whispers the result to the production truck over her headset so a fight-result graphic can be prepared in advance. Next, she brings the winner, and sometimes the loser, to Larry Merchant for a post-fight interview. And while Merchant's interview is going on, she races back to the dressing room to repeat the process for fight number two.
At times, things get physical; particularly in the ring after a fight when it seems as though every hanger-on is rushing to get on camera. Tami has blocked, pushed, and pulled countless entourage members out of view. She has crawled between people's legs to force a sight-line between Larry Merchant and the HBO television monitor. She has been knocked down, shoved, tripped, put in armlocks, and suffered bruises, sprained wrists, and cracked ribs. On one occasion, away from the ring, she was urinated upon. That occurred in Tijuana, where inebriated fans relieved themselves by pissing over a railing onto the floor of the fighter holding area below. Tami simply got a tarpaulin, put it over her head, and continued with her work.
Over the years, Cotel has earned the trust of virtually everyone in boxing. Before each fight, she's in dressing rooms where things get pretty raw. There are dozens of lurid stories she could tell, but she never tells them. It's almost as though there's a fighter-Tami privilege along the lines of the confidentiality one expects from a doctor, lawyer, or priest.
Cotel's most memorable moment in boxing came when George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer to reclaim the heavyweight championship of the world. "I remember going into George's dressing room before that fight," she recounts. "His protective cup had ripped; and George was sitting there with a needle and thread, very patiently sewing it himself. George is one of my favorite people. He has such a huge heart. When he won; oh my God, what an exciting wonderful moment that was."
"The riot at Madison Square Garden after the first Bowe-Golota fight was very scary," Cotel says, continuing her review of memorable moments. "I was afraid something horrible was going to happen that night."
And of course, there was Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson in Memphis. As Iron Mike entered the arena, millions of people watched on television as he grabbed Tami by the arm, yanked her forward, and kissed her before she could pull away.
"That wasn't what it seemed," Cotel says. "I've worked with Mike since he started on HBO years ago. He knows that one of the rules of my job is, I'm never ever supposed to be on camera. So when he came in, he saw me, pulled me into the shot, kissed me, and said like a little kid, 'I got you on camera.'"
Meanwhile, ask people at HBO about Cotel and the accolades flow like wine at a Roman orgy.
* Ross Greenburg: "Tami does the job of five people; and she gets HBO into places we simply wouldn't get into without her. On the night of a fight, fighters aren't in the mood to do interviews. Trainers don't want cameras in the locker room. We get access because of Tami and the respect that the fighters and everyone around them has for her."
* Rick Bernstein [executive producer]: "We're stuck in the truck on the night of a fight, so Tami is our eyes and ears in the arena. And we trust her completely. I'll never forget the sense of urgency yet control in her voice during the Bowe-Golota riot at Madison Square Garden. All hell broke loose. Announcers' headsets were flying. And through it all, Tami weathered the storm, got the right people on camera, and helped keep the telecast seamless."
* Dave Harmon [senior producer]: "Tami is one of the classic behind-the scenes mechanics who the people at home don't know about who makes HBO what it is. There are times when it seems like she can arrange anything. I don't know anyone else who can do what she does."
* Jon Crystal [producer]: "Tami is a marvel. She makes things happen. Everytime someone tells me over my headset that we can't do something, I go to Tami and she says, 'Okay; I'll handle it.' And she does. She gets along with everyone. Fighters, trainers, managers, promoters, referees, judges, state commissioners, world sanctioning body personnel. Having her onboard brings peace of mind to a very difficult production process."
* Thomas Odelfelt [producer]: "Tami never complains; she never moans. She's like a ray of sunshine on our telecasts. And she can get people to do almost anything. We used to talk to the fighters about getting on our unofficial scale right before a fight, and they'd say, 'No way.' Then Tami would talk to them and, ten seconds later, they were on the scale. She's amazing."
* Marc Payton [director]: "Tami is reliable, tireless, polite, and thoroughly professional. You've heard the expression that everyone is replaceable. That might not apply to Tami. I depend on her so much. We all do."
* Jim Lampley: "Tami is the one totally indispensable element of HBO's boxing telecasts. If Larry Merchant goes off to his daughter's college graduation, if I'm indisposed, if the producer is in jail; all of that can be covered. The one thing that can't be covered is if Tami isn't there. She's integral and vital to our telecasts. And the primary reason is that, on top of everything else she does, the fighters trust Tami. From the moment HBO arrives on site to the moment we leave the air, the face the fighters look for is Tami's."
* Larry Merchant: "Tami does an amazing job of dealing with fighters, trainers, promoters, and God knows who else, most of whom are in states of emotion ranging from high tension to crisis when she deals with them. There's fight stuff; there's television stuff. There are time crunches and raging egos. You're talking about live television so things have to happen on a certain schedule, and Tami makes them happen. She gets jostled around physically and verbally, but always manages to keep the show together. And after a fight, when I go into the ring in the midst of what's sometimes absolute chaos, I know that she'll have everything the way it should be. The fact that HBO puts Tami on planes and sends her all over the world to do what she does tells you how important she is to our telecasts."
* Harold Lederman: "Tami brings so many intangibles to the table and does so many things that most people never see. She works long hours. She's terrific at everything. There are even rumors that Tami scores the fights for me, but I categorically deny that."
At the close of each HBO Boxing telecast, Jim Lampley reads the primary production credits. Then the silent credits appear on the screen. "Tami Cotel, Production Coordinator" is the first of the non-spoken credits. "I would love it," says Lampley, "if some day in the very near future, the powers-that-be at HBO instructed me to read Tami's credit out loud. She deserves it."