MERCHANT BROUGHT SUBSTANCE, ELOQUENCE, HONESTY TO HBO COVERAGE
By Charles Jay
Whether it is voluntary or not, Larry Merchant will soon be leaving his role on HBO's World Championship Boxing. His contract, which runs out in June, will not be renewed.
It seemed inevitable, as Merchant appeared out of place in an atmosphere where intellect has found itself going out of style. Be that as it may, Merchant was a welcome constant, in that he was thoughtful and thought-provoking in his commentaries. For those who appreciate neither of those qualities, he had diminished appeal, so naturally you will hear the chorus of fans opining that this moment was long overdue.
Could it be something he said?
You bet. And most likely, something that somebody didn't agree with. When you're around for as long as he has been, and you have the temerity to voice an opinion that may not constitute the pursuit of safe ground, that's going to happen sooner or later.
The question is not - nor should it ever be - whether you or I always agreed with him. After all, what person of genuine thought and conviction would ever ask you to do that anyway? I didn't always sympathize with his point of view, but I could appreciate his presence in an overall sense, and that's what is most important.
Part of Merchant's special value is that he brought a bit of badly needed intellectual honesty to some of HBO's telecasts. If one of the network's offerings was a dud, perhaps because it was a compulsory part of its agreement with a particular marquee performer, he pointed that out. When the network had one of those gratuitous double-main event cards specifically designed so that the two winners could meet in a legitimate HBO fight, he explained to the audience that this was "how the business works." When the fight was simply bad - both going in and coming out - he often apologized to the audience.
Believe me, these are good things.
On another website, Bob Arum, an old Merchant nemesis, recently castigated him for this kind of behavior, especially as it regarded a Miguel Cotto tuneup fight Arum had maneuvered onto HBO for the purposes of hyping a better upcoming fight (which will take place against Zab Judah). I would admit that inasmuch as HBO is, at the very least, a quasi-promoter, that kind of thing on the part of an employee may seem insubordinate, and if I were an executive there I might be very anxious about him crossing that imaginary "line." But if there is indeed a line, Merchant has toed it with a considerable degree of responsibility.
A writer and editor for more than five decades, he brought something of a journalist's sensibility to the proceedings. Countless times he kept "celebrity" color commentators in their place when they were being somewhat disingenuous or tried to hyperbolize a bit too much. His sense of balance has kept the commentary on some of those shows from descending into painful insipidity.
Oh yeah, I know the one about Larry Merchant never having been in the ring. That anthem has been heard time and again. It's funny though - if you examine it, you'll find that more often than not, it seems to be invoked when he has caught one of his colleagues with his pants down (figuratively speaking) or when a fighter, manager or promoter wants a convenient device to avoid answering one of Merchant's tough and pointed questions.
It's not that I haven't cringed on occasion as a result of something Merchant has said or asserted. I found it highly irresponsible, for example, when on one HBO telecast he credited other people with breaking a series of stories on Nevada commission member Tony Alamo that I had owned, nurtured and developed, through quite a bit of effort, for quite some time. True, it demonstrated a certain ignorance and lack of due diligence on his part. But frankly, I'm not so sure that's not the case with the vast majority of people who call themselves part of the "boxing media," and Merchant's level of wit and wisdom with words is so rare that it can make an occasional slip-up somewhat excusable.
Another reason for this panegyric about Merchant is that I realize what is on the immediate horizon. Word is out that HBO is going to bring Max Kellerman over from its "Boxing After Dark" series to take Merchant's place.
To use an analogy indigenous to Max's beloved New York Yankees, this is not exactly like bringing Mickey Mantle up from the minors as the heir to Joe DiMaggio. Rather, it's a little more like trading Willie Randolph straight-up for Horace Clarke.
Which is to say, it's wine for water.
At least it looks that way now.
Maybe Kellerman will prove me wrong. Maybe he won't.
Either way, this looks like a case of "out with the old, in with the new," if you will, on the part of the people at Time-Warner. And Kellerman, despite ratings disappointments at a couple of his stops along the way, has carved out a nice little career riding on the networks' belief - which may be illusory - that merely foisting someone "youthful" in front of the camera is going to somehow recruit a younger demographic and hold their attention.
I wonder if they're giving the younger demographic enough credit.
If this is what HBO thinks is going to sell boxing to a younger audience, and compete with a freight train like mixed martial arts, this sport is further behind the curve than I thought. Furthermore, if that is indeed their intention, it's a little unfair to Kellerman.
"HBO is acquiescing to a certain conformist notion that is happening right now," says Patrick Kehoe, a featured contributor at BoxingScene who is currently working on a book about the Ali-Frazier trilogy, "which is to say that it's all important to be plugged into what's fashionable and 'of the moment' and the people who make those decisions - we have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they're aware of it - are of the feeling that fashion trumps substance for some unknown reason."
With that, I think it's appropriate to segue into material that is related to this.
A little while back I wrote a story taking Kellerman to task for making a qualitative comparison between Paul Malignaggi and former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn. I won't summarize it, but you can read it right here:
Some of the comments this evoked on the forums were pretty amusing:
"Sh*t, pointless article!!!"
"Get a hold of yourself Charles, it sounds like you're jealous of Max."
"conn and maliggnaggi have caertain things in common.... most notably a lack of knockout power. conn only had 15 KO's in 64 career victories.....also, conns reputation as great is based a lot on a loss to joe louis... much like maliggnaggi gets his credit for losing to miguel cotto." (I have purposely reproduced this comment "as is")
Funny thing about these comments is that what these fans were doing, somewhat unwittingly, was providing justification for the construction of my story in the first place.
Yes, I would concede that most competitors who fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight title might become primarily known for that fight, at least when people take only a cursory glance at a man's career. But it was clear that people were not familiar with the career of Billy Conn. I thought I capsulized it in the piece, to the extent space would allow.
Hey look - if you don't know anything about Conn's opponents, that's fine. But it certainly reinforces my point. Boxing is littered with "pundits" and "commentators" who make sweeping statements about a current fighter, relative to "all-time greats" - without any real sense of what has happened for "all-time" - simply in the interest of creating the illusion of profundity. Since only a small share of the audience has a genuine historical perspective, that goes largely unchecked.
But it is intellectually dishonest.
If you don't understand that point, or don't want to, then indeed my story will be "pointless" to you. So will most of my others.
One of the strongest things boxing has going for it is its legacy; its history. If that history is mangled or distorted, it will de-value the accomplishments of professionals of the present day who really DO deserve that comparison. I have no interest in what Max may have tried to do in "covering his ass" at a later time in the telecast (somebody in the truck probably woke up). It shouldn't have been there in the first place.
"When he (Kellerman) tries to bring in his historical knowledge of boxing, that's something he hasn't quite mastered yet - the analogy, the simile, if you will," says Kehoe. "When he's on camera, people who know boxing to a certain extent know that he's still on a learning curve with regard to that."
But should someone sold to us as an "expert" still be on a learning curve?
"No, because it's HBO. It's the 'Big Chair'," Kehoe says. "If you're not ready for the Big Chair, well......Look, he's the one who is supposed to be the expert commentator. He's the one who is supposed to provide the context, which Merchant did pretty darn well."
Indeed. If someone is going to hold himself out as a "gatekeeper" of information - if he's going to occupy the "big chair," as Kehoe describes it - he should take great care that it's not DIS-information he is purveying and that if it is, he fully expects to be held accountable.
Yes, Conn and Malignaggi were alike. They're both white. They both wore boxing gloves. And those gloves did not carry a lot of power in them. But that's where the comparison - qualitative or otherwise - ends. Using Kellerman's parameters, you can make endless comparisons between individuals, but it doesn't mean any of it is relevant. I sincerely hope Kellerman will bring more gravitas than that to the table over the course of time, as he has big shoes to fill. There's no "jealousy" here - just some perspective I thought was needed. Sorely.
You may disagree. Therefore, you are cordially invited, to make any substantive comparisons between the two aforementioned fighters, if you feel strongly enough that the criticism was out of line.
Just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org .....
....and meet two conditions: (1) make an intelligent argument, and (2) make sure you let me know who you are and what part of the country (or world) you are from. There will be no hiding behind anonymity if you are looking for a response (or an argument, for that matter).
I'd be delighted to hear from you.