Interview With HBO Boxing Icon Larry Merchant

15.01.07 - By Ricardo Lois, HBO boxing and Larry Merchant go hand and hand. Since I started watching the sport, Larry has been on the air for every HBO Championship Boxing broadcast I can remember. Will some boxing data geek correct me, or does Merchant have a Hearn-ian like attendance streak on Championship Boxing?

Boxing fans either love him or hate him. Merchant pulls no punches as a commentator and is not in the business of soothing the ruffled feathers of any boxer, promoter, or manager. If a fight stunk, Larry tells viewers and boxers using much more eloquent words..

Recently I spoke with Larry regarding the state of boxing, inside and outside of the ring. Struggling on how to present our conversation to boxing fans across the globe, I decided to provide the transcript of our 30 minute conversation…

BC: Where is the state of boxing right now from a business and athletic perspective?

LM: It is not news that boxing is no longer a mainstream sport. It has been in decline for some time and it is what I would call a niche sport with a solid, loyal following that allows around 200 boxing cards to be televised a year.

It is no longer a big deal in the American scheme of things, unless someone breaks into the mainstream and is a celebrity fighter. There are some people doing very well financially, because the television generated revenue at the top of the food change is considerable.

American boxing has problems. Like other sports, primarily hockey, basketball, tennis and golf, it has been globalized. America no longer exclusively dominates these sports. There is globalization and America does not dominate all the divisions in boxing, particularly the heavyweight division.

There is a perception that without a clear heavyweight champion, which I believe means an American heavyweight champion (chuckles), that it diminishes interest in the sport among the casual fan. There are sports fans who will watch an occasional big fight, even if they are not boxing fans, per say. The heavyweight champion, theoretically, the guy who can beat any other man on the planet under the Marquis of Queensbury rules, drew interest from the casual fan. They wanted to see who this character was.

America dominated the heavyweight division for much of the 20th century up until Lennox Lewis and now all the American heavyweights are playing linebacker some place.

BC: The business demise is clear, but athletically, how does the sport compare to yesteryear? Are the fights we are seeing, due to globalization, as good as in the past? Is the competition in the ring comparable to what it was when you were first getting into the game of boxing?

LM: The elite fighters of today are as good as any of the past, generally, they are on the same level. On point of view is that there are simply not as many elite fighters. One take I have is that if we did not have as many divisions, for example, middleweights fighting in three different classes, and we forced them into one weight class, you might get more elite fights.

Economically, it seems everyone wants a belt, everyone has a belt, and because that ups their value very often, not all the time, because there are guys with belts nobody wants to see, but many times it gets them recognition at the price of not having the best fighters fighting each other as much as they should.

There were probably more good fights in the old days. The level of professionalism, in terms of skill, might have been at a higher level. We are seeing more guys who are "athletes" today, improvising personal styles.

BC: You would not be mentioning Floyd Mayweather, would you (laughing)?

LM: I do not believe that Mayweather belongs in that category. Mayweather is a classically trained fighter, in terms of his skills.

BC: Maybe someone like Zab Judah, a fine athlete, who is not polished as a boxer?

LM: Right, you see guys like Judah, Roy Jones, who are brilliant athletes. Maybe better athletes than we used to have in the ring. So they improvise personal styles, usually based, on first not getting hit, and second using their athletic skills to out quick an opponent and not have to take chances. We see some of that.

I see other fighters who are not well schooled. We are seeing more South American fighters, for example, from Colombia, and they are not really well schooled. They may be tough, they maybe strong, they maybe willing, but they are not well schooled. The one place where I see just about every fight well schooled as a professional is Puerto Rico. That does not mean every fighter is not well schooled, I just mean to say that we are seeing more freelance, improvisational fighters than we used to.

BC: It is a bit of a catch 22, if we look at it. Some of these skilled fighters, like Judah and Jones, they do not make for great fights, but then we take Edison Miranda, who is not the best schooled fighter, but he brings more excitement to his fights.

LM: I do not mean to imply that every fighter in the so-called old days was a well schooled fighter. There were brawlers. Jake LaMotta was a brawler, Graziano was more a puncher, than a boxer. Many were tough, crowd pleasing fighters.

It may turn out that Edison Miranda is good enough with that style to become an elite fighter. But we have seen a number of Colombian fighters who have wonderful records, especially knockout records, and the first time they fought a well schooled fighter they were exposed.

BC: What I implied is that you need both type of fighters, well schooled and brawlers, to make interesting fights.

LM: That is true, but the highest form of a prize-fighter, is being a puncher-boxer.

BC: A Marco Antonio Barrera type?

LM: The way Barrera is fighting now. Pacquiao is a very wonderful, aggressive fighter to watch, but he has gotten better and better schooled. Miguel Cotto is a well schooled, aggressive fighter. You can be well schooled and aggressive or well schooled and never take a chance and people do not want to watch you.

I would just say the best fighters are usually guys who can box and punch, guys who know how to break opponents down, guys who know how to play defense, as well as offense, guys who know how to please a crowd. It is not impossible, but a very high standard, but that is the standard that boxers should try to reach. I am not sure there are many trainers in the sub-culture of boxing who do that anymore. There are fewer of them.

Boxing has declined in America, because it is no longer part, of what I call, the social fabric. Once upon a time, when kids did not even graduate high school, when there were gyms in every town, and multiple gyms in ever city, it was a place where kids with some athletic abilities and dreams and hopes and ambition would wind up at these gyms. From all of that quantity, we would get some quality.

I do not know that we have the quantity anymore and I do not know that we have the number of trainers who can earn a living without having to have an elite boxer, just by having a gym and teaching kids how to box.

Boxing has always been about money. I believe what Cus D'mato once said, the idea to in professional boxing is to make money and the way to make money is to have a style that makes people want to see you. By that definition, guys who are just pure boxers are living off of the money and excitement generated by the fighters who can put asses in seats.

There are a number of good fighters, if we could get them to fight each other instead of protecting their territory and some minor title or belt and hoping to cash in so their grandchildren do not have to work. In the best of all worlds, Jose Luis Castillo would be fighting Ricky Hatton in two weeks. Instead they are fighting some other guys before they fight each other.

BC: A lot of boxing people are looking to the fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. as the event of the year, inside the ring it probably will not be a good fight…

LM: We do not know that. Sometimes big fights meet or exceed expectations.

BC: True, but looking beyond that one event, what are some of the best fights that could be made in boxing during 2007 from your perspective?

LM: The heavyweight fight I would like to see if Klitschko v. Valuev. That would be an enormous fight in Europe. I would like to see Calzaghe fight Kessler. I would like to see Taylor fight Miranda or Abraham. I would like to see Mosley fight Cotto.

BC: Bringing up Cotto v. Mosley, and being that Mosley is promoted by Golden Boy and Cotto by Top Rank, given the current animosity between both promotions, how soon before they bury the hatchet and start working together to make big fights?

LM: Eventually, when the money gets big enough, look if King and Arum can get together on fights, then De La Hoya and Arum will eventually get together on fights.

BC: What is your opinion of Golden Boy Promotions, now that they have been around for a few years?

LM: You really will not know what kind of promotional company they are until a couple of years pass and the old lions now at the top, De La Hoya, Mosley, Barrera, Hopkins, are gone. Will they get top fighters and develop top fighters? That remains to be seen, they have some other very good young fighters in the lower weight classes. We will see if they can develop and market them so that the public wants to see them

Given that, I think they have done one hell of a job of becoming a real force in boxing. I think Oscar has done the best job for a fighter, or former fighter, who got into promoting. He uses what he has to promote. I never seen a fighter get out there to hustle and promote. Once Roy Jones was fooling around with promotions and said, "I can't kiss a fighter's ass," well, sometimes that is a promoter's job.

I give them very high marks, very quickly they have become a real force. They have some major fights in the first half of the year. They are not the ones crying about bad business. The guys crying about bad business are the ones who used to make more money than they are making now.

Don King does not own the heavyweight division, though he has some pieces of heavyweights with titles. Klitschko is the one series money making fighter in the division and King does not have him. For them, the boxing business is bad, relative to what it once was.

I see a lot of good fights our there. Peter and Toney was a good fight for boxing. I am interested in Adamek, who I think is the most exciting and best light heavyweight out there.

Sometimes, when we look back, we tend to remember all the good fights and forget the bad and mediocre fights we have had. Those went on to, trust me. Every Friday Night Fight in the old days was not a great fight.

BC: People may love you or hate you, but you are one of the most recognized figures in boxing. What is it like looking back on all the experiences you have had within boxing? Is it surreal?

LM: No ten or twelve year old decides that they want to be a boxing announcer. It was nothing I ever planned, it evolved in that direction. I have been very fortunate, being with one company and one show for 29 years. I have seen a lot of good stuff, and some bad stuff. To me boxing is not just fierce drama, but it is also a chance to observe human behavior in and out of the ring and that has been rewarding to me.

Article posted on 15.01.2007

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