By Ryan Maquiñana
This week, one of boxing’s broadcasting legends, Al Bernstein, released a book titled 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths about Boxing, Sports, and TV.
Here is BoxingScene.com’s second of a two-part interview with the 2012 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, as we broke down his latest book, his reflections on the sport’s past, present, and future, as well as who or what exactly is “Velvet Al.” CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE.
BoxingScene.com: You break down a lot of greats in a kind of mini-vignette form. Did you enjoy that part of the book the most, or do you have a particular favorite anecdote in that book that stands out?
Al Bernstein: You know what’s funny, I put those in because I delivered them on ESPN. I thought it just might be fun to revisit them. They were delivered in a way that people will hear them in my voice. I hope they’re entertaining, and I hope they fit into the book because it’s another way, and also I thought it was a good way, to serve the base, too, to give people an idea of how I see these guys.
BoxingScene.com: A lot of these people don’t get ESPN Classic, so they haven’t been able to see them in recent years. For a lot of them, it’ll be for the first time.
Al Bernstein: Right, and that was my thought. My thinking was that they might get a kick out of seeing something on these guys, or some of these other people that they don’t hear. Take Matthew Saad Muhammad, for example.
BoxingScene.com: I was just re-watching his fight with Yaqui Lopez the other day. Wow.
Al Bernstein: Oh, was that something.
BoxingScene.com: That was something.
Al Bernstein: Unbelievable. I just thought that would be fun to toss in there, so hopefully people get a kick out of it. Naturally, chapters like that you have to kind of be at least moderately interested in boxing to like it. Although, some of those stories are human stories--Oscar Bonavena getting killed in a brothel, for one.
BoxingScene.com: In some cases, they’re larger than life, and in others, they’re cloaked in tragedy. And obviously, speaking of personal stories, you also dedicate a chapter to your wife, as far as everything that she went through in chemotherapy, and how the founding of The Caring Place came out of that.
Al Bernstein: I wanted to put that in for a couple of reasons. One, as I said, I put it in, because if there had been no Caring Place, maybe I wouldn’t have written it, even though I love and admire my wife and I think her story’s amazing.
But I think because something came out of it that’s public, and I thought it was a good tale to tell because it shows a couple of things. It shows when people get together—in her case, in this case, her and her oncologist—people with great thoughts…if they get together, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.
I’ve gotten great compliments on that chapter, and you know, she’s remarkable. I think that what came of it is special to me, and so I hope it’s interesting to people. And in two of the chapters that were most personal, I’ve received really good feedback on. That one, and the one I wrote early on, where I talk about my dad, the “Father Knows Best” one, that was more personal as well.
BoxingScene.com: In the book, you speak fondly of the various broadcasting partnerships, especially with Barry Tompkins, who I currently have the pleasure of working with at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. When he found out you were doing the interview, he told me to ask you about Velvet Al. So who’s Velvet Al? He wouldn’t tell me.
Al Bernstein: I may get this story wrong. (Laughs) When we had our tenth anniversary or something for ESPN, they had some guy make a ‘Velvet Al.’ You know, a velvet thing of a—you know how they used to make velvet Elvis things?
It’s like a picture, but it’s made out of velvet. It was so weird. And so they made one of me, so weird, and we had it up, and we used to bring it around the truck. It was so funny. We used to bring it from Gary Clem, who was the director, and they would bring it from place to place and hang it in the truck. We would just have a good laugh about it.
And they kind of brought the ‘Velvet Al’ everywhere we went, and I don’t know what happened to it eventually, but it was so weird. It just went away, but it was like this crazy, nutty thing, and I think we showed it on the 10th anniversary. We always used to joke about it, you know? Like a ‘Velvet Elvis.’ (Laughs)
BoxingScene.com: Out of your various assignments was working the Olympics, and in the past until recent years, the Olympics had been the springboard for building the next superstar of the sport. I still remember as a little kid, it was done to death by NBC. They had the commercial of Oscar De La Hoya and his story of growing up in East L.A. and how he dedicated his Olympic run to his late mother. I knew who Oscar De La Hoya was months before they even started the Olympics. What’s your take on the Olympics’ impact now?
Al Bernstein: Here’s the problem. One of the problems is, we talked about the coverage. Boxing, I was there when they were starting to ramp down on boxing. I was there for the ’92 Olympics. I did the NBC Games of ’92, and they still did a fair amount of coverage. They told the De La Hoya story for instance, right?
In ’96, that was the beginning of them making the conscious decision that they couldn’t—for instance, Floyd Mayweather beat a Cuban for the first time in I don’t know how long an American had done it—and they didn’t show one second of that fight! Even on the late show, at one o’clock, they didn’t show a second of that fight.
And I thought, you’re kidding. I understand you’re looking for the women’s gymnastics audience, but you could show highlights of this fight, and say, “We’ll be back to women’s gymnastics in two minutes.” I don’t think you’d lose your audience. In the meanwhile, you’d be reporting on something that many people would be interested in. They didn’t get that balance.
BoxingScene.com: Well, I guess that’s it. I was going to ask if you thought there were any grand elixirs to fixing the sport, although I’m sure that’s something that would require a multifaceted answer.
Al Bernstein: For the most part, the elixir is getting the cooperation of the promoters; that’s where we get into the “Cold War.” Number two, it’s too late to regulate how many divisions and how many champions there are, so they just have to keep making good matches.
Next, the elixir that would solve it would be more coverage, people kind of seeing or being aware of the good fights. A perfect example was [Carl] Froch and [Lucian] Bute. In America, probably nobody even knows that fight existed; they dubbed it, and people watched it on Epix. It didn’t get covered here, and nobody understood what it was. To me, that’s a big part of it.
And the thing is, boxing has found its niche. It has millions of fans; internationally, it’s doing fine. I do those fights on channel five. There are two million people watching live on free TV. And when there are free fights, there are 50,000 people to watch Tony Thompson, of all people.
I guess it’s a complicated question and a complicated issue, but there are some things that could be helpful—and also we deal so much in perception and reality. I have boxing fans that tell me there are no good fights anymore, and I reel off 10 of them, and they say they don’t know about them, and I know they don’t know about them, but that’s different from saying there are no good fights anymore. It’s just that they don’t know that there any good fights anymore.
But anyway, if there’s anything that has saved boxing, is the Internet. If there was no Internet, I’d hate to think where boxing would be.
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Al Bernstein’s new book titled 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths about Boxing, Sports, and TV can be found by clicking HERE . For The Caring Place, a program of the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation that is dedicated to easing the journey of those touched by cancer, click HERE .
Kim Francesca Martinez contributed to this interview.
Ryan Maquiñana writes a weekly boxing column for CSNBayArea.com. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Ratings Panel for Ring Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com , check out his blog at Norcalboxing.net, or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.