by David P. Greisman
For years, boxing fans watching ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” had studio host Brian Kenny. But when Kenny left the network, he was replaced by Bernardo Osuna, who in turn has stepped into a role as an on-site reporter at the bouts.
This season has brought a new studio host in Todd Grisham, whose credits include sports-casting gigs, several years with World Wrestling Entertainment, and a job for the past year and a half with the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
Grisham, 37, spoke with BoxingScene.com on March 4, discussing how he became the host of “Friday Night Fights,” how he first became a boxing fan nearly 30 years ago with the three-round war between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns, and much, much more.
BoxingScene.com: What are your other duties at ESPN besides hosting “Friday Night Fights”?
Grisham: “It’s kind of like a potpourri when you’re at ESPN, especially if you’ve been there as long as I have; I’ve been there about a year and a half. Basically you get the schedule about a month in advance, and you don’t know what’s going to be on it sometimes. Right now I’m doing a lot of college basketball, men’s and women’s. I was doing ‘NBA Tonight’ for a while. I host ‘SportsCenter’ pretty regularly. And my staple now is ‘Friday Night Fights.’ ”
BoxingScene.com: You’ve said that you’d always wanted to be in broadcasting. A lot of people want to become athletes. Why did you want to pursue this field?
Grisham: “Well, I wanted to be an athlete and a rock star, too, if you want to get real specific. But I learned by the time I was in college that I was better at talking about sports than playing them, although I played on scholarship for soccer. I went one year to a school called Wingate University in North Carolina, and then I transferred to [the University of] West Georgia. I got an academic scholarship, so it was much more affordable.
“As a kid my dad traveled a lot; he had to go overseas. It’s not like today where there’s Skype and text and email. We didn’t even talk that much because it was so expensive. We used to love watching baseball together and boxing and whatever sports were on, so when he would come home, I would basically give him a replay call of everything he missed. I was like 7 years old. My mom would say, ‘You’re just becoming the next Howard Cosell, aren’t you?’ I remember that story, maybe because my mom brings it up all the time. But I just loved explaining the sports to my dad that he missed, or missed with me watching.”
BoxingScene.com: How’d you end up as host of Friday Night Fights?
Grisham: “As soon as I got hired at ESPN, kind of what they tell you to do is to think about what you really want to do here, what your ultimate goal is, find the person who runs that and do a meet and greet. You never know what can happen. It may be 10 years before you’re doing ‘NFL Live.’ You may get it right away. You may never get it.
“So I was always a big boxing fan and I always wanted to do ‘Friday Night Fights.’ So probably two or three weeks after I got hired, I met with Matt Sandulli, who’s the executive producer of the show. I went and said ‘Hey, play-by-play, hosting, whatever, I’d just be happy to be part of the team, part of the show. I’ve been a fan for a long time.’ He said, ‘Great!’ Last year I filled in twice, maybe. And then this year a spot opened up, and he was generous enough to let me have it.”
BoxingScene.com: You said that you were always a boxing fan. Where did your fandom come from?
Grisham: “I was trying to think of the first fight that I ever remember seeing. I highly doubt it was on pay-per-view. I don’t know if we got HBO. The first one I remember seeing is Hagler-Hearns. I must have been 8 or 9 then. I don’t know how I saw it or where I saw it, but talk about a great introduction to boxing: a war. I just remember seeing that, and thinking, ‘Wow, this is so raw. There’s no teammates. It’s you and him. The only person you can blame is yourself.’ I thought that was really cool.”
BoxingScene.com: That’s either the best possible introduction or the worst, given that nothing can compare afterwards.
Grisham: “You’re 8 years old, it’s a few rounds, and the next fight goes 10, you’re like ‘Wow, that’s even better.’ … When I say ‘big boxing fan,’ I won’t pretend and say I was a Ring Magazine subscriber, but any time it was on, I was watching.
“Being in Atlanta, Evander Holyfield’s my favorite athlete, bar none, of any sport. So I remember probably one of my best sport viewing moments: me, my dad and my brother were at home in Atlanta, and finally Holyfield was getting a crack at Tyson. I was like, ‘Dad, come on, we’ve got to get the pay-per-view.’ And he’s one of those old school southern guys: ‘I’m not paying for that. We already pay for cable. Why should I pay again?’
“But for some reason on this night, my brother was home from college at the University of Alabama, my dad was like, ‘You know what, let’s get it.’ I was thinking in the back of my head, ‘This better be a good fight.’ And the first round, if you remember that fight, Tyson catches him with like a hook, and Holyfield’s off balance in the first round and looked like he’s going to go down. He held in there, and by the end of that fight, me, my dad and my brother — my dad’s pretty unemotional — we were up standing off the couch, jumping and screaming.
“My dad’s no longer here, but when I look back and think about him, that’s one of the defining, happy sports moments of my life.”
BoxingScene.com: Did you have other favorite boxers besides Holyfield?
Grisham: “I remember watching ‘Tuesday Night Fights.’ When Vinny Pazienza would be on, I was always excited. I got to meet him a couple years ago through WWE. I liked him a lot. I liked Vernon Forrest, too. I enjoyed some of his fights. One of my favorite fights ever was the Vassiliy Jirov and James Toney fight. … I’ve probably watched Tyson-Douglas 40 times. The Bowe-Holyfield trilogy. The Ward-Gatti trilogy. I just get those classic fights over and over again.”
“I remember growing up watching ESPN Classic, which is so great and they even still show a lot of boxing. One of my favorite old-time fights is the Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight. That’s just such a great story, and a great conclusion, and the interview with Conn is great. Still today, if you want to watch great classic boxing, that’s a great channel to check out. I still flip it on every now and then.”
BoxingScene.com: You’ve said before that you were at Buster Douglas’ last pro fight against Andre Crowder in 1999. Was that your first pro card that you went to in person? And what is the story behind you being there for that fight?
Grisham: “My first pro card, I saw Evander Holyfield fight Vaughn Bean at the Georgia Dome. At the time that was the largest crowd [to see boxing in 20 years, according to the New York Times]. I saw that fight. That may have been my first one. But I was working in Iowa at a station called KTVO, it was my first TV job. I heard Douglas was fighting probably three or four hours away.
“I begged my news director, ‘Please let me cover it, it’s a big thing, a former heavyweight champion,’ and it was coming up on the anniversary of the Tyson fight [about nine years after the loss to Douglas]. It was the first fight that I covered, and the fight was a complete dud. It was on a steamboat, but Douglas won, and it turned out it was his last fight ever. So it was some boxing history, if you can call it that, for me. It was still a rush.”
BoxingScene.com: Had you done announcing or studio hosting for boxing before your guest hosting gigs last year?
Grisham: “Not for boxing. But I worked at WWE for eight years, if you want to call that combat. I did play by play for ‘Friday Night Smackdown,’ which is one of the biggest shows; it gets a couple million viewers a week. As far as boxing, I did boxing stories. I used to work in Tucson [Arizona], covered some fight cards out there, got to meet Sugar Ray Leonard when he was promoting a card.
“I’d covered boxing many different times and had been to several different cards as a fan. I think I saw Mayweather and Castillo; Wladimir Klitschko fought Jameel McCline; and I’ve seen a couple Mayweather fights. So I’ve been to fights, covered a few, but as far as [hosting] boxing shows, this is my first.”
BoxingScene.com: What excites you the most about your job as host of “Friday Night Fights”?
Grisham: “Well, the opportunity to go on the road the last three weeks is always exciting, getting to meet the fighters, kind of get in their head. I like the fact that you very rarely see a boxer that’s not 100 percent invested and believes he’s going to win. In football you can kind of tell if a guy is like, ‘We’re going to do our best’ or ‘I’m not feeling 100 percent.’
“But Kendall Holt, you’d have thought he was not only going to beat Lamont Peterson, he was going to kill him, and be the best that’s ever lived. And then after the fight he was like, ‘I had to cut weight, I’m going to have to go up, it wasn’t my night.’ I just think the braggadocio and the trash talking is really interesting to me.”
BoxingScene.com: What do you envision Friday Night Fights’ role as being in the world of boxing, both in terms of the bouts it airs and the studio segments it broadcasts?
Grisham: “To me, it’s almost like destination viewing. In the NFL there’s, what, four or five channels that focus primarily on it, and you can go online and get all the NFL news you need. It changes at any moment. But in boxing, if I can say so, you come to ‘Friday Night Fights,’ you get the highlights of all the big fights that maybe you missed, you get the latest news — Dan Rafael is great at literally giving you stuff 10 seconds before you go on the air.
“And some people don’t have pay channels. They don’t get to see HBO and Showtime. So they turn to us and we give them what they can get. And then hopefully we get a big fight like we’ve had the last two weeks. That makes it even better. Boxing fans, casual or passionate, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, let’s see what’s going on in the boxing world. Let’s check out Friday Night Fights.’ ”
BoxingScene.com: You’ve said your years working for World Wrestling Entertainment were an education and also prepared you for working for “Friday Night Fights.” In what way?
Grisham: “If I just said, ‘Hey, there’s two guys fighting in the ring tonight,’ you might be like, ‘Oh, well, let’s go gamble, I don’t know who these guys are.’ But if I were to tell you, ‘This guy has been been dodging him, refuses to fight him and finally was forced into a mandatory challenge,’ if this guy says, ‘I’m going to destroy him, he’s never going to fight again,’ then all of a sudden it’s a must-see event.
“It’s kind of like that with WWE. If you just walked into a gymnasium and saw two guys in there wrestling, it may not be that interesting. But to me, it’s all about the story, it’s all about the background. There’s always a story within a story. It’s just like in the NBA. You need a star on your team, a guy you put your marketing department behind.
“Boxing is that way. Even if Adrien Broner turns out to be a dud somewhere down the road, and I highly doubt that he is, he’s been able to get people’s attention just because of the way he carries himself and just because of the way that he talks. You want to see him win big or lose big, but you care. That’s how it was in WWE. You got to get people at home to care enough either to buy the pay-per-view or invest two hours each week in our programming. That’s the way I look at it.”
BoxingScene.com: What kind of prep and attention to detail goes into your role? I haven’t noticed mispronunciations of boxers’ names, for example, which is one of my pet peeves.
Grisham: “For the most part, especially on Friday, I know 90 percent of what I’m going to be talking about and who I’m going to be talking about. I definitely want to get the names right. But that’s no matter what the sport is, soccer or college basketball. I take it very seriously. Like I said, it’s a job that I wanted. It’s a job that I campaigned for. It’s a job that I got.
“I don’t pretend to know everything about boxing. The reason we talked was because of the Lucas Matthysse thing [Grisham said on-air that he had never seen Matthysse fight before, and this scribe criticized him in a column]. I was just being honest. I’d heard about him. I knew he was a great fighter from what I’d read. I hadn’t seen him fight until the [previous] week. I thought there was a large segment of the people watching that hadn’t seen him fight. Sure, a lot of people had.
“Look, there’s 17 weight classes, 10 different competitors, so if you’re a casual boxing fan, that’s a lot of boxers out there that are considered quote-unquote contenders. My whole thing was, ‘Look, this guy’s legit. If you haven’t seen this fight, wait until you see these highlights. This guy’s unbelievable.’ Just because a guy’s 24-0 means nothing, as we saw a couple weeks ago on ‘Friday Night Fights’ when Delvin Rodriguez destroyed the Comanche Boy [George Tahdooahnippah].
“I take it very seriously. The guys on the show — Joe [Tessitore], Teddy [Atlas] and Bernardo [Osuna] — they’ve all been covering boxing for over a decade. I’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to say stuff that maybe people will think, ‘Why did he say that?’ But I’m learning and I’m getting better. I prepare. Like you said, I have a very diverse schedule. Thursday night, I might be doing two college basketball games. I spend as much time as I can on studying boxing. I’m reading all your stuff. And Dan Rafael, the amount of content he puts out is just unbelievable.”
BoxingScene.com: You bring up a fair point. With such a diverse schedule, how much boxing are you able to watch these days?
Grisham: “Thank God for DVRs, you know. There was that Showtime card [featuring Ishe Smith vs. Cornelius Bundrage], and I got home to watch it and I was looking at my Twitter feed, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, worst fight I’ve ever seen, most boring thing ever,’ so I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to sit through that.’
“Obviously I’ll watch all the big fights. I’ll watch any fight that I know we’re going to be discussing, like the David Price fight this past week with Tony Thompson. Any main events, I’m definitely watching and try to watch live. I order almost all the pay-per-views. But am I able to watch ‘Solo Boxeo,’ am I catching every one of those? Probably not.”
BoxingScene.com: Who do you talk to, read, and how often? How much research are you able to do during the week between everything else that you’re doing?
Grisham: “You know, the way that Twitter works is so great, because you follow five to 10 guys, and boom, a story pops up and a link, and you read it. As far as destination viewing, obviously ESPN Boxing is my No. 1 source. But I’ll scan Twitter, scan the Internet and just read columns and read whatever the hot news item is of the day. I enjoy reading ‘Ring Magazine.’ I subscribe to that.”
BoxingScene.com: Any highlights for you so far?
Grisham: “Being in the crowd for the last two weeks, getting to see those fights. The Kendall Holt-Lamont Peterson fight was just a good experience to be there. Being able to see it, just like any fan watching at home, if you see a big knockout or a big fight or something cool that happens, the first thing you do is call or text a friend. You want to talk about it.
“So the fact that I can watch something and now I get to talk about it with experts, and do it on TV in front of a national audience — which I’ve wanted to do since I was 8 years old.”
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at email@example.com Tags: Boxing Television