By Mitch Abramson
Larry Merchant’s unmistakable shock of white hair was hard to miss on Tuesday, a surprising and welcoming sight on an otherwise snowy day in Manhattan.
But what in God’s name was Merchant doing at the Kingsway Gym, a-hard-to-find boxing hub located up a flight of stairs on a side street? It was dreadful outside, snow blanketing the streets. Had he taken a wrong turn, taken an uptown train instead of a downtown one?
No, Merchant was in attendance for a public workout involving Mikey Garcia and Juan Carlos Burgos, ahead of their junior lightweight title bout at the Garden, as part of his research for Saturday. Merchant, whose contract with HBO was never renewed last year, is working the international broadcast for Top Rank.
Regardless, it was still a surprise to see Merchant that day. But the more he mingled it became apparent that Merchant, after 35 years at HBO, wasn’t there simply as an observer. No, at the age of 82, he's still lucid and refreshingly candid and quick with an opinion. And he was brutally honest in his assessment of Garcia, one of the top young fighters in the sport, who’s being groomed for stardom by his promoter Bob Arum with a potential fight with Manny Pacquiao looming. But there’s just one problem, as Merchant sees it.
“I don’t know if he has the right personality for that,” Merchant said of a potential roadblock to mainstream success for Garcia. “But he has a background. He’s a bright kid and an exciting fighter. Is he one of those larger than life or outrageous personalities that people want to root for or against? I don’t think he can manufacture that. But he is so good and there are so few American stars that he could emerge.”
Arum has made it clear he sees Garcia, who’s stopped 16 of his past 18 opponents and is a graduate of the Ventura police academy, as a future star and pound-for-pound king and an ambassador of the sport. And Merchant has no doubt that Garcia (33-0, 28 knockouts) has the requisite boxing chops to handle his business in the ring. The question is whether Garcia can do what Pacquiao did- rise up in weight while carrying his power and skills with him, Merchant says.
“I and many others in boxing regard Mikey Garcia as one of the best young fighters in the world and if he is then he should win [the] fight [on Saturday],” Merchant said.
"Within the boxing world, he’s already a high-rising star. The question is whether he can transcend the boxing world and very few fighters do that. And he will need some significant wins and from all accounts the plan is to get him and Pacquiao and see if he can earn a larger fan base much the way Pacquiao did when he came here and he won some significant and exciting fights and then beat [Oscar] De La Hoya.”
Merchant isn’t sure if Garcia, who holds the WBO title, is ready for Pacquiao and will use Saturday’s fight as a measuring stick.
“I think having had one fight at junior lightweight and having another one and fighting two guys who are considered the best in that division would give us a real clue,” Merchant said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody at 135 that would give us any better of a clue and sometimes the agendas of the two fighters determine whether they’re going to collide. If Pacquiao is going to fight [Timothy] Bradley in April, Pacquiao is not a sure winner. So all he can do is what he can do and he’s young enough that somebody will come along and give him an opportunity for a big fight.”
The Cuban star Yuriorkis Gamboa has surfaced recently as a possible opponent for Garcia should he win on Saturday. Gamboa's promoter 50 Cent has fired some verbal shots at Garcia via Twitter, trying to tempt him into taking the fight with both camps going back and forth.
“Gamboa would be a good opponent,” Merchant said. “He’s a good fighter. We don’t see enough of him but he can fight and I think that would be the winner [who] gets the shot. And I think in the fight world people would want to see if Garcia is the kind of fighter who can shoot up the weight in the weight classes the way Pacquiao did, the way Broner is trying to do and so on. He’s a smart calculating kid and he knows it’s his time to take the shot.”
While having Garcia, who is from California, fight at Madison Square Garden in an area not all too familiar with him might strike some as odd- Merchant sees the benefits of performing in New York and having the fight here.
“I think if you want to make a guy a star it has to at least include New York,” Merchant said. “And he is a West Coast based fighter. He comes from a fight family and he looks like he has the stuff to be an elite fighter. Whether you make it to stardom where a non-fight fan or a casual sports fan thinks I’ve got to see this guy- that’s almost like another game and it remains to be seen.”
Two fighters who have had no such trouble connecting with the public are Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., who are back to trading barbs again, with Pacquiao recently challenging Mayweather to a fight for charity, giving fans hope the two could still face off in the ring. Merchant isn’t so sure.
“Well, I’ve been telling people for three or four years that I thought it would happen and I’ve been consistently wrong,” Merchant said. “So I don’t claim to be an expert on that because obviously there are other considerations for both of them. They’ve made a lot of fights. They’ve made a lot of money. And it’s not going to happen anytime real soon. But listen, Tyson and Lewis didn’t happen in their primes and yet it was a huge event when it happened. So is it conceivable? Yes, but I think there’s a question about Manny and whether he’s the Manny of story and song, whether he’s really going to be an elite fighter for very long.”
Merchant says he couldn’t tell based on his performance against Brandon Rios if Pacquiao is still a fighter on the top of his game.
“It did not answer it for me,” Merchant says. “It showed that he’s a very special athlete who was able to make yet another reinvention of himself. Whether he can beat an elite opponent using that style or if he has yet another gear we don’t know. But I think if he’s going to fight Bradley, which seems to be the opponent of choice at the moment, I think that’s a very tough fight for him.”
As for his own career in broadcasting, Merchant hasn’t exactly slowed down after moving on from HBO.
“I’m a gun for hire or a tongue for hire,” Merchant said of his status as a broadcaster.
“Maybe that’s a better way to put it. And I did more events last year, in the first year after 35 years with HBO then I’d done in the last several years at HBO. I did about eight or nine fights and a couple of movies, doing cameos basically.”
And he’s still hungry to work, still imbued with the desire to plug away as a broadcaster.
“Well I hope so,” Merchant said of having the same energy and desire to work. “And the whole thing with Zou Shiming, the Chinese fighter, fascinated me and I’m going for the fourth time to Macau next month. I’m going to the gym and watching him and talking to his wife and getting stories. I realized this is what I like to do, so every once in a while, I do it,” he said with a chuckle.
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for The New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.