The first interview of sports broadcaster Jim Gray’s career came when he sat down with Muhammad Ali as an 18-year-old intern for ABC, and some of the most memorable sound bites he produced came when he stood toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson on Showtime.
Over the last 40 years, Gray has covered some of the greatest athletes of all time ranging from Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Tom Brady and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Gray has graced television screens for decades, but he’s now showing a penchant for the pen with “Talking to GOATs: The Moments You Remember and the Stories You Never Heard,” a 336-page book co-written by Sports Illustrated senior writer and frequent boxing scribe Greg Bishop.
Gray, who hosts a weekly radio show with Brady, had the six-time Super Bowl champion write the foreword for the book.
The book includes anecdotes like Gray watching boxing matches with Michael Jackson, and riding solo on Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s private plane, all the way to insight into watershed events like Mayweather Jr. fighting Conor McGregor, to The Malice at the Palace, the Olympic Games, and playing golf with Michael Jordan, and backgammon with Lucille Ball.
The hard-hitting Gray has never pulled punches with his questions, and his love for the glove covering the sweet science led to the 61-year-old being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2018.
Tyson paid tribute to Gray by introducing the broadcaster in his Canastota enshrinement with an emotional speech.
Gray paid tribute to Tyson and the impact he had on his career in journalism by dedicating the opening chapter of “Talking to GOATs” to Iron Mike.
The twelve-time Emmy Award-winner Gray sat down with BoxingScene.com to shed light on a handful of his most memorable boxing experiences, all of which — and many more across boxing and other sports — are intricately detailed in the book.
Why did you choose to feature Mike Tyson in the first chapter of the book? Why was your relationship with him special?
I’ve known Mike Tyson since the beginning of his career. I’d interviewed him in the Catskills before he became the youngest heavyweight champion of the world. We had developed a good relationship and Mike was always terrific with me. He even met my father at a restaurant. Every time I have seen him since all those years, the first thing he would say is, ‘how is your father Jerry?’
Mike was gregarious and outgoing, and his life was obviously a roller coaster. But I’ve always been attracted and fascinated by that. I’m attracted to people who can tell stories that are all unbelievable, but all true. I’m curious about that. It’s a different life than anything I can lead.
Mike can recite ‘Days of Grace’ from Arthur Ashe and have it tattooed on his shoulder, and know the tenets of Mao Zedong and have it tattooed on the other shoulder, and on the other extreme, he can tell you about how he impregnated a woman in prison.
Mike even sent me a letter from prison.
I’ll always be grateful to him because he always did the interviews no matter how the fight unfolded. For a lack of a better term, he helped make me famous, because that’s kind of what happened. I have tremendous appreciation and gratitude for him. He’s one of the last truly honest athletes where you ask him a question, and he answers it. He faces the music. He takes his own medicine. He bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear, and he came out to face the questions. He didn’t release a statement days later or hide behind a PR team. He was accountable and responsible, even when it was bad. He’s honest, and one of the last honest ones out there who doesn’t couch it or spin it.
I never felt imperiled that he was going to do any physical harm to me, even when he threatened to kill me and Don King, and 45 seconds later, kissed me on the cheek. The kiss was far more disturbing and bothered me than him trying to kill me. There have been a lot of moments in interviews with Tyson — ‘I broke my back, spinal’ and the time Tyson said he wanted to rip out Lennox Lewis’ heart and eat Lewis’ children. There have just been so many instances where I was there with him asking the questions. It’s been a very wild, interesting and fortunate run. The good news is that he’s doing well now. I’m very happy for him. Mike said that I became his most trusted friend and that we became a ‘sensational duo.’ I’m honored by that.
Is it fair to say you were to Tyson what broadcaster Howard Cosell was to Muhammad Ali?
Many people have said that, and I’m really honored and humbled by that because I really love Howard Cosell. I had tremendous admiration for him as a youngster. We got to know Muhammad Ali so much better because of all of these interviews with Howard. When people compare it, it makes me feel good. I looked up to both of those guys
How did you land your first-ever interview with Ali?
It was the first interview I ever did, and I wasn’t even expecting to do that interview. It was in 1978, and I was editing videotape one day at the ABC affiliate in Denver and Muhammad Ali came into town. He was 2 ½ hours early. It was 7 a.m. and they couldn’t reach the sports anchor and reporter, so the assignment editor ran in and said, ‘go out to the airport and interview him.’ She was desperate, and they didn’t want to lose Ali, so I went out to the Stapleton International Airport and interviewed him.
I didn’t have a coat, a tie, or any preparation. I only knew him from his interviews with Howard. I got there, and Ali said, ‘you’re doing the interview?’ After the first few questions of a 45-minute interview, he told me, ‘you sound like the local Howard Cosell.’ When he said that to me, that was the biggest compliment I had ever had in my life. It gave me so much confidence, and it put me at ease.
I came back and started editing myself out of the piece. But the news director, who probably didn’t even know my name, watched the film and said, ‘you and this tape are going on the air. It’s barely adequate.’ So I tell everyone I’ve been barely adequate ever since.
How did the Ali interview open your doors into boxing?
The Ali interview was sent to all of the other ABC stations. Ali recognized that, so I got credentialed to his fights and he let me interview him before and after his fights for the rest of his career. He felt like he was helping a young man move up. He opened all of the doors. When they see Muhammad Ali likes you, that opens all of the doors to all of the other fighters and athletes. They just see it, and it can multiply very quickly.
Bob Arum saw it as well, so he invited me to come to do all of his satellite feeds before the fights. It was brilliant at the time because stations didn't have to send their sportscasters out for travel. They were all able to get what they wanted, and all of a sudden, I was covering Hagler versus Hearns and all of the Top Rank cards.
Don King saw my work as well, and he hired me for King Vision, and that’s what eventually led me to Showtime.
You also covered Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s career on Showtime. What was the common thread among Mayweather with GOATs like Ali and Tyson, and other athletes you covered?
I take a look at Mayweather Jr. in a chapter about perfection, and how perfection defined him and his life. The 50-0 after his name is how he is defined in a lot of ways. He’s also defined by the zeroes in his checks. I’ve seen a lot of athletes achieve perfection, what led them to it, how it tormented them, how it affected them and what it meant to them.
In addition to looking at Mayweather’s perfection, we look at Dolphins coach Don Shula and how the perfect season in 1972 was so important to him and the franchise, as well as Michael Phelps’ pursuit of perfection, and how difficult it was with all of the mental health issues he went through to become a perfect swimmer.
Many fans have varying opinions of how you handled the Pete Rose interview at the 1999 World Series announcing the All-Century team, and your involvement in “The Decision” with LeBron James announcing his move to the Miami Heat in an ESPN TV special. What are your thoughts on that now that you’ve had time to reflect and look back at those events? Do you wish you would have done anything differently?
With Pete Rose, I was situated in the New York Yankees dugout and not near a television monitor to hear Vin Scully on the broadcast and the melancholic music. From where I was, it was a little flat seeing them near center field. You couldn’t see the tears in their eyes. This was a tremendous ceremony taking place with greats like Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson and Stan Musial.
When I came on with Pete after he received an ovation, I started asking him questions about gambling. There was a change in the tone and tenor from what had just gone on, from what viewers had seen, to my interview. I should have been looking at a television monitor. So yes, that I would change. As for the content of the questions, Pete had been asked these questions before and he had to know they were coming again. He had not been on a baseball field for 10 years.
The timing and the tone of the interview, had it been in any other time in any other place, would have been perfect. But because it was this time and this place, I can see now why it was jarring to the viewers and baseball fans. I’ve learned from that. After a long time in television, it taught me a great lesson — you have to be able to see and visualize what people at home are taking in. Your eyes and ears are great for what they can see, but you also have to know what it is that viewers are seeing.
As for ‘The Decision’ with Lebron James, I haven’t surveyed anybody, but what broadcaster wasn’t going to do that if they had the opportunity? You can quibble about how we went about it, and we could have been much more sensitive to the fans in Cleveland. We could have explained it better, and that all of the money that was given was the biggest donation in the history of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
‘The Decision’ was the player empowerment moment for this generation. Lebron James took all of the risk, and got vilified in some circles for it. And now look at the reward — he changed the paradigm of the NBA. What Lebron did changed everything for everybody 10 years later. It was like what Curt Flood did for MLB with free agency. It had an enormous impact. How ‘The Decision’ is looked at now is much different than how it was viewed when it happened.
What was the book writing process like for you?
A number of years ago, journalist and author Cal Fussman said, ‘with everything that has happened in your career, you should write a book.’ Fussman actually contributed the chapter in the book about Pete Rose. After we wrote it ten years ago, I felt that it was still too early for a book, so we held on to the idea.
I had no idea about writing a book, and it took more than the last 2.5 years to put it together. Thank God for co-author Greg Bishop. I saw in December 2014 that Greg wrote a Sports Illustrated story on Brady. Greg had unbelievable information in there about Brady’s family that only someone on the inside would know. I asked Tom about it later in the summer, and told him ‘this guy got it right.’ So that triggered me to contact Greg, since I had seen him covering boxing matches as well, and we hit it off.
He did a fantastic job in his first book. He was so dedicated, and he’s a spectacular writer. He was a terrific partner. He organized all of this — tens and thousands of interviews, events and videotapes. I’m so grateful to Greg for all of his hard work and for putting out something that we are both happy with. I’ll always hold him in high regard and tremendous gratitude because this is my first book and my last book.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Manouk Akopyan is a sports journalist and member of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America since 2011. He has written for the likes of the LA Times, Guardian, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Men’s Health and NFL.com. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan or via email at manouk[dot]akopyan[at]gmail.com.