By Thomas Hauser:
Another HBO boxing telecast has begun. Everything is hot. Pulsating theme music, computer-generated graphics, sizzling video clips, the electric voice of Jim Lampley. Then Lampley delivers the familiar words, "Working with me tonight, as always, HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant." And suddenly, the screen is given over to a white-haired man in his early seventies who speaks in a slow measured cadence and seems like a period piece from another era. Larry Merchant is on the air.
Merchant is man of personal idiosyncrasies who, by his own account, has never smoked a cigarette, had a cup of coffee, or eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his life. He's a commentator with a self-described "built-in bullshit detector" who declares, "Despite the reality of what goes on inside the ring, the business of boxing is based on illusion. And if you want an example, I'll give you an example. The last big fight that Mike Tyson won was against Michael Spinks fifteen years ago."
Merchant is also one of the best in the world at what he does for HBO.
Merchant was born in New York on February 11, 1931. His father ran a laundry and dry-cleaning business. His mother was a legal secretary. As a boy, he was interested in astronomy and opera. More conventionally, he played football for Lafayette High School in Brooklyn and fondly recalls a 62 yard touchdown run at Ebbetts Field in his final high school game.
"When I was a kid, "Merchant says, "my heroes were sportswriters. Dan Parker, W. C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Jack McKinney, A. J. Liebling. And I was kind of romantic about wanting to leave New York and go far away. My imagination took me as far as Oklahoma."
Merchant enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, and was a walk-on for an Oklahoma football team that was in the midst of a 31-game winning streak. Inhis sophomore year, he went to the Sugar Bowl as a last-string halfback and watched from the bench as the Sooners beat North Carolina 14-6. The following season, he injured his shoulder in a scrimmage, cried for three days, and decided to refocus his energies on journalism.
Ultimately, Merchant became editor-in-chief of The Oklahoma Daily, one of the best college newspapers in the country. "But a week before my term expired," he remembers, "I was removed as editor because of a series of articles I was running about McCarthyism and a loyalty-oath requirement that had been passed by the state legislature."
After graduating from college with a degree in journalism, Merchant returned to Brooklyn where he received token payment as backfield coach for the Lafayette High School football team. "My brother was captain of the team," he recalls. "And a fellow named Sandy Koufax, who played basketball for Lafayette, was one of his friends. Sandy was in our home a lot, and I saw him play basketball from time to time. Baseball was his second sport then."
After that, it was two years in the United States Army highlighted by a year in Germany as a sportswriter for Stars and Stripes. Then, in 1953, Merchant was discharged from the military and took a job as sports editor for the Wilmington News in Wilmington, North Carolina. "Not long after I started," he remembers, "the managing editor told me, 'The only time you can put a picture of a Negro in the paper is if Jackie Robinson hits five home runs.' I didn't stay around long after that."
A six-month stint with the Associated Press followed. Then, Merchant went to work as an assistant photo editor for the Philadelphia Daily News and, at age twenty-six, was named sports editor.
"I probably did the best work of my life in Philadelphia," says Merchant. "I hired some terrific writers and wrote a column five days a week. One of the things I'd learned from reading Hemingway is that the losers are often more interesting than the winners and sometimes even more noble, and I put that philosophy to work. I was one of the new, young, irreverent, hands-on writers, who got in the trenches and wanted to know how things really worked. Philadelphia is also where I got my education in the culture of boxing. Archie Moore used to write me long letters filled with philosophical musings and historical insights. Archie was an extraordinary character in addition to being a great fighter, and he helped me to see boxing through a larger prism."
Eventually, Merchant relinquished the role of sports editor to concentrate on his column and a morning radio show. Then, in 1965, he moved to New York with a significant increase in salary to replace Leonard Shecter, who was retiring as a columnist for the New York Post.
Over the next ten years, while at the Post, Merchant wrote three books, hosted a radio show, and did some television commentary in Boston (his first TV work). "But there came a time when I started to feel burnt out as far as the column was concerned," he acknowledges. "And I became less and less eager to go to the ballpark."
In 1975, Merchant left the Post with the intention of writing books about Muhammad Ali and Oklahoma football. "But the next day," he remembers, "I got telephone calls from CBS and NBC and wound up as a reporter and commentator for one of NBC's weekend sports shows." Two years later, he was named producer of the network's Sunday-afternoon NFL studio program.
"By then," Merchant continues, "I had a girlfriend who was an actress and hadgone out to California. For a while we were bi-coastal, but eventually I moved to the west coast. I wrote a general-interest column for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner for a year. Then the cable revolution began and, in 1978, I started commuting to New York two or three times a month to host a show on USA Network called Sports Probe. That same year, I got a call from Ross Greenberg, who asked if I was interested in trying my hand at boxing commentary."
Merchant's first fight for HBO was James Scott versus Eddie Gregory at Rahway State Prison on October 12, 1978. He's been a presence on the cable network ever since.
"My philosophy of commentary," Merchant explains, "is to try to convey who the fighters are and what the event is about. It's not my job to be a cheerleader. I'm skeptical of hype and false narrative. I don't avoid talking about corruption in boxing. When a fighter performs poorly, I tell the audience that I think it's so. I have a lot of respect for the courage it takes to be a fighter, and I never lose sight of the fact that the fighters are the stars of the show. But when a young man enters boxing, he promises to take great risks and make great sacrifices in exchange for commensurate rewards, and he has to be judged on his performance. I look at the sports world as perfect with its imperfections. I don't make things up. My goal is to get viewers involved and be honest at the same time. And I have to say, it's both rare and precious to me that the people who run HBO Sports have always encouraged me to be myself and say my say even when that makes things more difficult for HBO."
There have been two rough spots in Merchant's tenure at HBO. The first came in 1990, when Don King and Mike Tyson demanded that he be removed from HBO telecasts of Tyson's fights
By Merchant's recollection, "After Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, King tried to overturn the knockout and Tyson went along with him. My view was that it wasn't HBO's mission to promote and market Mike Tyson, so I asked a lot of painful questions. Mike and Don didn't like it. And Tyson at that time was hanging out with people like Eddie Murphy, who could snap their fingers and get a director fired on the spot. So when Tyson and King were renegotiating their contract, Tyson decided to flex his muscles and told HBO that he didn't want me to do his fights. HBO, to its credit, stood by me, and Tyson left."
Seth Abraham (the person at HBO primarily responsible for the King-Tyson negotiations) recalls, "For sixteen months, (HBO Sports vice president) Bob Greenway and I had been negotiating with Don King and his lawyer for an extension of Tyson's contract. On a number of occasions during those negotiations, Don referred to getting rid of Larry. And each time, we told him, 'That's not on the table. Let's move on to the next issue.' So the question disappeared. Finally, in October of 1990, we reached a tentative agreement on a ten-fight deal for one hundred million dollars. King and I had dinner in Chinatown. I gave Don the contract, which he said he'd bring to Atlantic City to review with Tyson. And the next morning at ten o'clock, my telephone rang. It was Don on the phone with Mike and John Horne. Tyson began the conversation by saying, 'I'm so happy I'm staying with HBO and that I won't have to deal with Larry Merchant anymore.' I said, 'Mike, that's not in the deal.' Then the screaming began. Don, Mike, and John Horne shouted and yelled at me for a half hour. I wouldn't budge; and a deal that had taken sixteen months to negotiate blew up in thirty minutes."
Ross Greenberg (Abraham's successor as president of HBO Sports) expresses the view that, "It wasn't really about Larry. King was looking for an exit strategy because he wanted to start his own pay-per-view operation to make more money for himself. And to do that, he had to take Tyson to Showtime. Larry was a convenient excuse; that's all."
But Abraham has a different belief and states, "I think that Tyson made his feelings about Larry known to Don early in the game and that Don misread both Mike and HBO. He thought that getting rid of Larry wouldn't be a big deal to us as part of a hundred-million-dollar contract extension or, if it was, that it wouldn't matter much to Tyson in the face of a hundred-million-dollar deal. I honestly believe that it was Mike who killed the contract."
The second rough spot for Merchant involved the now-famous mariachi band incident.
As Merchant recalls, "In 1997, Oscar De La Hoya challenged Pernell Whitaker for Whitaker's welterweight title, and the whole promotion was about Oscar. That was understandable, since Oscar is such a big attraction. But then I found out that they were going to bring a mariachi band into the ring to play music for him and do nothing for Pernell. I thought that was unfair to Whitaker, and the way I expressed that thought was to say, 'As wonderful as mariachi music is, in this setting it sucks.' Anyway, Bob Arum was in negotiations with HBO at the time and he was also trying to ingratiate De La Hoya with all the Mexican fans who didn't root for him. Arum decided that my remark was something he could exploit to his own economic advantage, so he turned it into a cause celebre. I had some conversations afterward with Seth Abraham and Ross Greenberg and made a public apology, and that was the end of it."
"Larry could have chosen his words differently," says Lou DiBella, who was senior vice president for HBO Sports at the time. "And if he had it to do over again, he'd probably use different verbiage. But in the end, it was much ado about nothing. Larry wasn't demeaning anybody's culture. He was expressing the view that, in a fight between a great champion and a charismatic challenger, the champion should get his due. The whole thing was blown out of proportion by Arum as a negotiating ploy. That's what really sucked."
Abraham concurs with DiBella and adds, "I was sitting at the fight with Arum; so obviously, neither of us heard the broadcast live. But it didn't take long for us to hear about it. And what happened, really, was Arum saw Larry's comment as giving him the opportunity to renegotiate Oscar's contract with HBO. And we did renegotiate; not by changing the fights that were already in place, but by extending the contract with a higher license fee for the additional fights. You know, boxing promoters are incredibly resourceful. Larry gave Arum a hammer, and Bob hit HBO over the head with it."
And there was one more repercussion.
"Oscar's next fight was against David Kamau in San Antonio," Abraham remembers. "Things were pretty inflamed down there. There were some threats, and we thought there might be a security risk for Larry and the entire HBO Boxing crew. So I made the decision that, as a precautionary measure, Larry should sit out that one show. I wanted to let tempers cool down a bit."
Merchant is always willing to speak his mind. Thus, when asked to provide capsule IDs, he attaches the following labels to key participants in the aforementioned incidents:
Don King -- "An evil genius"
Mike Tyson -- "An emotionally-disturbed washed-up sociopath"
Bob Arum -- "A brilliant scorpion"
Oscar DeLaHoya -- "A terrific fighter and an interesting kid"
Lou DiBella -- "The kind of guy we'd all like to be if we had the time"
Ross Greenberg -- "To the television manor born"
Seth Abraham -- "A visionary executive and a friend"
Meanwhile, Merchant's contract runs through June 2007, at which time he'll be seventy-six years old. And the people who have worked most closely with him at HBO are full of admiration for him:
* Seth Abraham: "There are very few people who know as much about boxing as Larry, and I'd be hard-pressed to name anybody who knows more. I'm not talking now about rattling off statistics. I'm talking about the essence of the sport. And Larry never gets in the way of the story. He lets the fight carry the show."
* Ross Greenberg: "Larry is capable of turning a phrase in the heat of battle in a way that makes a broadcast even more dramatic than it might otherwise be. HBO has always felt that we have to give our talent the ability to speak their mind. And Larry's tell-it-like-it-is journalistic attitude is enormously important to us."
* Lou DiBella: "Larry has been the most consistent commentator in the business over the past generation. He knows the business. He conveys the truth. He's television with a journalistic sensitivity; the best of both worlds. In fact, I'll go one step further and say that Larry and Jim Lampley are the best broadcast combination in the history of boxing."
* Jim Lampley: "Larry is one of the most intellectually disciplined people I've ever met. He's a creative skeptic who expresses the unexpressed doubt and guides our telecast in a way that increases our integrity. By his commentary, Larry assures the audience that we, as announcers, won't be improperly influenced by the business interests that surround us. And he knows as much about the truths of boxing as any person I know."
And Merchant's thoughts?
"I find it a little surprising that I still love to do this," he says in closing. "But I'm not anywhere near to being burned out. It's all still fascinating and exciting to me."