“I Find That This Music Sucks!” — Larry Merchant Visits Leave it in the RinG Radio – Talks De La Hoya and Tyson
by Esteban Walters
Longtime sportswriter and famed boxing commentator Larry Merchant recently ended his 35 year tenure at HBO as a boxing analyst and commentator, and the 81-year-old firecracker — considered by many as one of the best ever in his field of work — plans to stay involved in the sport and working with HBO when his services are called upon.
Merchant got his start as a print sports columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, and a reporter for The New York Post before joining HBO in 1978. Larry called his last fight on December 15, 2012, when WBO super bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire starched Jorge Arce in three rounds by knockout.
Merchant visited Leave it in the Ring Radio on January 24th to discuss the past and present with hosts David Duenez and Gabriel Montoya. Larry talks about his role as a journalist and commentator — and how they relate to one another, where he thinks the sport of boxing is headed, and what the future holds for the longtime journalist and voice of HBO boxing commentary. As well as some good tidbits on some of Larry’s beefs and controversies over the years, and how HBO responded to any contentious embroilments involving their colorful commentator.
Below are the quotes from the show.
WHETHER HE BELIEVES THAT HE WENT THROUGH SOME OF THE SAME TRANSITIONS, AS DO FIGHTERS, IN TERMS OF PERSONALITY AND SKILL-LEVEL
Larry Merchant: “I’m sure I did. I don’t think I was the same guy last year, as I was fifty years before. But I don’t know that I could define it. I think we all become visitors of the past in a way, but sometimes we can use it as a positive fashion… and you’ve seen more, and you can see things in perspective. Sometimes when you’re young, you don’t have perspective, you’re a young fire-brand, and sometimes you’re an old fire-brand. So I like to think that I’m still a fire-brand. That I had more perspective and more knowledge.”
David Duenez: “I buy a lot of fights on DVD, and fights going back to the 70’s and 80’s. And when you’re on there, young, you’re almost a guy that… you’re almost in disbelief that, ‘I’m here, this is great, this is fun. I’m trying this out and I have to try new things.’ But then it goes into the 90’s where it was like, ‘okay I’m here, but now I have to call out what’s really happening in front of me.’ You were real brash and sometimes you said things [that] upset a lot of fans. But later in your career, at the end of your career, you still were the same way, but you weren’t as aggressive unless you were provoked.”
Merchant: “Well, look, you’re perception is you’re perception. Back in the day I got… I had problems when I was a sports editor and editor of my college newspaper, when I upset the powers that be. This goes back a long way. Sometimes it has to do with who you’re working with, because at the end of the night we are all telling stories. By that I mean, there’s a narrative, there’s the fight itself, when you’re doing a live event. There’s how you frame it, how you comment on it. There’s how you wrap it up, and what questions you ask. So that sometimes, if colleagues [are discussing] certain issues that you feel have been covered well, [you] go somewhere else. So maybe I, in fact, infected my colleagues in some ways, just as they influenced me. The important thing is that, at the end of the night, that all of us… it’s a team that does this, including the producers and everyone that puts the show together, and sometimes there are issues. Maybe fighters have gotten more used to being questioned closely after fights, and understanding what we try to do during and before fights. Times change, athletes change, fighters change, and announcers change. Whether this is just merely the art of life, of becoming more experienced and philosophical, and more questioning, and skeptical, or even cynical, I leave to others to judge.”
Gabriel Montoya: “What was your original… how would you describe what your role was supposed to be. I had a discussion recently about something you said regarding [Juan Manuel] Marquez… kind of alluding to the whole PED cloud that was surrounding him due to [strength & conditioning coach] Memo Heredia being in his corner. And I remember last year you and I talked, and you didn’t seem to think much of the whole PED thing, citing, [Fernando] Vargas and [Shane] Mosley losing, or not looking very good [while] on [PEDs]. So I am curious, what do you think your role is ringside? Is it to be a journalist? Is it to be just a commentator?”
Merchant: “I think those are mutual things. They’re not mutually exclusive. As a commentator I try to do my homework going in. I try to catch myself up on the stories of these athletes. I try in the days before the fight to be up to the moment, and interview everybody, and follow stories, and personalities, and character, and what got them here, and how they are likely to respond to an opponent or situation at this time of their lives. That’s what has always interested me. Whether I address them in the same way, I don’t know. I hope I’ve learned something over time. But I hope that the end result is there, and if something happens that is outrageous, I’m not afraid to say it’s outrageous. This is after all boxing. And to try to say it in an entertaining way, and a direct way, to communicate what my thoughts are. And sometimes there’s a spontaneous combustion between commentators and events, just as there are between fighters and fighters.
Montoya: “I was having a discussion with somebody about it, and I was actually kind of defending you and the HBO crew. This person wanted… I don’t know if you were aware, I cover performance enhancing drugs in this sport pretty in-depth. And they always want me to cover… ‘why haven’t you covered [Manny] Pacquiao? Why haven’t you outed Pacquiao?’ And this person was basically saying that it was unfair of you to bring up Heredia and that cloud, when you haven’t brought up anything about Pacquiao. And one, I didn’t think that that was your role to be an investigator…”
Merchant: “No I think it is part of my role, but has anybody brought up anything concrete about Pacquiao? Do you know of any concrete report? Any fight that he is directly connected with, who has been associated with the performance enhancing drugs? If you could show me some of that… I understand the atmospherics in sports today. The skepticism and cynicism about superior performance… what was Henry Armstrong on? I can name you five other guys who went through many weight classes in their careers. Seventy, eighty, sixty years ago… Ray Robinson started as a lightweight and was knocking out middleweights with one punch. So does that mean that he was on performance enhancing drugs, that didn’t exist at the time? So I try to keep in perspective, there are exceptional athletes who can do exceptional things sometimes. At the same time, when athletes have either been accused of, with reason, or have suspicious connections, and we see it in their performance at the same time. Then I think it’s reasonable to say, ‘okay, Marquez had a spectacular fight…’ I loved watching Marquez evolve over the years into the fighter that he became as a veteran. But here he is brazenly associating himself with somebody who was a known performance enhancing drug enabler. So [Marquez] has brought the suspicion on himself, I haven’t brought it on him.”
“Why is Pacquiao a suspect? Does anybody know any… can anybody give me… in other words; I’m not there to throw dirt on everybody that anybody suspects. I want… I am a reporter by nature, and I want to hear what the accusations are, and whether there’s anything to them.”
Montoya: “As a guy that’s covered that particular aspect of our sport for three years, I come back to the same thing with people who say that to me… is, ‘you show me the proof, I’d be more than happy to see it. Or you can give me a lead, I’ll follow it.’ What I won’t do is engage in a witch hunt, saying, ‘well that guy looks suspicious, so therefore he is.’ You have to have facts, you have to have connections.
“[Larry] you’re exactly right. If a guy hires [strength & conditioning coach] Victor Conte, or Memo Heredia, into their camp, they’re going to have to deal with the baggage that comes along with it. And that’s actually not your problem.”
Merchant: “Right. And then when they perform in unexpected ways… and then sometimes when they’re caught… we can put one, and one, and one, together, and get three. And I think on those occasions it’s legitimate to call out what the suspicions are. I mean, if proof means that we have to have scientific results… I don’t think we need scientific results to call out the fact that this person is doing some suspicious things, whatever it happens to be.”
WHERE HE SEE’S HBO’s BOXING COMMENTARY HEADING IN THE FUTURE, IN TERMS OF DIRECTION
Merchant: “I don’t know that they’re… that they are interested in provocative commentary. I don’t know what their goal is. What they think the role of the announcing team is. I only know that they hired a fighter, Andre Ward, who’s doing some of their commentary. And I like Andre Ward a lot as a fighter, and we’ll see whether he cannot just put words together, but not always agree with everybody else, have a stance, question stuff going on in [the ring], and so forth. Not everybody is cut out for that. So, I don’t know, and I’m curious to watch him develop, and I think he’s a smart young guy.”
Duenez: “When you say provocative commentary, was that the reason behind why you decided to retire?”
Merchant: “No, I retired because I had agreed a couple years ago to stay two more years, doing what I was doing, and then an after period in which I could be called upon to do certain things. That was my choice, I agreed to it. And I thought after 35 years that that was a pretty good run, and a time for closure. But it doesn’t mean you’ve seen or heard me for the last time, unfortunately for some people. And I’m having conversations with various people in the sport about doing various things, and I don’t know whether I will do any of them, or whether I’ll just sit back and watch it all unfold.”
WHERE HE SEE’S THE SPORT HEADED, AND WHETHER HE BELIEVES WARS BETWEEN THE SPORTS TWO BIGGEST PROMOTERS — GOLDENBOY & TOP RANK — ARE GOOD OR BAD FOR BOXING
Merchant: “I’ve always sort of… the economic model for boxing has evolved over time. The notion, for example, that the elite fighters fight no more than two times a year because they’re making so much money, and they’re maneuvering with their handlers, promoters, managers, advisers and so on… to make the most amount of money. Because it’s a sport that we love for its competition, it’s drama. But it’s also a hard way to make money, and it’s a business. And I think if we had more heavyweights people wouldn’t worry too much about it. In the old days… and I’m just talking about the 90’s, which was kind of the last golden age for heavyweights for Americans. If you didn’t have a good fight, in another month or two you knew you were going to see a big heavyweight fight, so it was okay. And like any sport, you’re not going to get a great event every time.”
“You know, I’m kind of a pollyanna in a way about what’s coming up. I see a lot of young American fighters who are starting to get traction, like the two Garcia’s [Danny and Mikey], like [Brandon] Rios, like [Andre] Ward, like [Adrien] Broner. And I think, maybe we’re heading into a very good few years as these fighters become better known. I like some of the fights that are coming up, including the [Brandon] Rios-[Mike] Alvarado rematch, including [Tavoris] Cloud getting a shot at [Bernard] Hopkins. I think [Adrien] Broner is a terrific young fighter and a guy who may become a major attraction. I love both Garcia’s for that matter. So I’m probably more hopeful than I should be.”
ON WHAT ACTION OR COMMENT, GOT HIM IN THE MOST TROUBLE WITH FANS OR THE HBO CREW
Merchant: “Well, I’ve been very fortunate at HBO in a number of ways. But one of them is, from the start… I mean, they hired me, [and] I had a track record, I was a columnist for twenty years. I’d worked in television for a few years before I started to do fights at HBO, so they knew who they were getting. They knew that I was going to try to inform people, I was going to try to entertain people, and occasionally I was going to try to surprise people. And I was going to be skeptical of some matches, and sometimes cynical. And sometimes understanding of how the game is played, and that every fighter can’t fight the toughest guy on the block every time out. So they knew what they were getting, and they wanted someone to be edgy. And it wasn’t easy for them. I would just like to point out that [Mike] Tyson had an issue with me, a big issue. And so did [Oscar] De la Hoya. These guys were stars. These guys were pulling enormous audiences, and rather than fold up and go away, HBO said, ‘look, we’re paying you guys [the fighters] a lot of money, and we’ll decide how we are going to do the shows.”
Duenez: “What were some of those issues, if you can reveal that?”
Merchant: “Well, the famous… it’s no secret that the famous issue with De la Hoya was when I made a comment about [Oscar’s] music, and the comment was in relationship to the fact that, not just… now I have to admit that myself, I’m supposed to know about words, and I’m supposed to know that not everything is taken in the context of the full paragraph that you said it in, but that De la Hoya, who was a challenger… [switching gears] for a guy who had been an Olympic gold medalist himself, and had been a star attraction, and had been on many HBO broadcast, [Pernell] “Sweet Pea” Whitaker… now, Whitaker was in the second place in this promotion, it was almost like he was the challenger. A long time champion! And in that context I said, ‘I find that this music sucks.’ Now, I think, it was the wrong word to use because it provoked an emotional response, and I was wrong, and I apologized later. And Oscar De la Hoya, at the time, his promoter was trying to get him to be more popular with Mexican fans, who didn’t particularly love him etc… But [HBO] stood by me, and it was the same thing with Tyson. When we were calling attention to all of the distractions that seemed to be distracting him outside of the ring. Not in wanting to just diss him, or to just exploit some sensational story… it was in the context of a young fighter, who seemed to be distracted from what he does, and what got him there. And sure enough, eventually, it contributed to his downfall. But at the time, after he lost to Buster Douglas, and then tried to regain the championship through his promoter, and through a corrupt sanctioning organization… trying to overturn a knockout. So I had a few words to say about that, and not just on air. I actually testified at a hearing where that was being adjudicated. And testifying to the effect, that the promoters and the sanctioning group were trying to win outside the ring, what they lost inside the ring. So there were people around Tyson who were trying to egg him on, to show that he could still have the power to shake things up, and they tried to get HBO to take me off of his fights. And HBO said to him, ‘we’re paying you an awful lot of money to fight, you cannot tell us how to do our fights.’ Now, just think of a network… [Tyson] was like a franchise to HBO. They were selling a tremendous amount of subscriptions to HBO for Tyson fights. And unlike a normal network, which there have been a number of occasions where announcers and commentators have been literally kicked off events because of that FRANCHISE… the Masters Tournament, pro football, whatever, which was so important to the network that they weren’t going to jeopardize it. So HBO was a different cat in this jungle. HBO had a different idea about what all of their television was, and that included their coverage of sports. So I was fortunate, that the way I saw this colorful and sometimes corrupt world, was the way that they were happy to have it portrayed. But the promoters, and the managers, and the fighters often gave them grief for what I was saying. And [HBO] didn’t care, so I was lucky to have them.”
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