“The Two Greatest Athletes We’ve Ever Seen Are Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King”
Tim Ryan and Gil Clancy – for many THE finest double-act that ever in terms of the calling of a big fight. Clancy, who was of course a great trainer as well as announcer, is enshrined in The International Boxing Hall of Fame. Many people feel Ryan – who is once again available to be voted for on the ballot papers, this time for 2023 – should be right there with his erstwhile partner, with his very good and constant friend.
Ryan covered, amongst other things, no less than 10 Olympic Games. Tim also called, with Clancy, over 300 pro fights, many of them of the super fight variety. Today, the 83 year old whose work was never affected by a huge ego, says it would of course be an honour to go into The HOF; but at the same time, Tim does not see it as a priority.
Tim was kind enough to speak with ESB about his long broadcasting career:
Q: It’s great to be able to speak with you, Mr. Ryan. Fred Sternburg feels passionately that you should be enshrined in The Hall of Fame, right alongside the great Gil Clancy. What would mean the most to you – going in, or the fact that you would be in there with Gil Clancy?
Tim Ryan: “Yes, Fred – we call him “Too Fred” – he is very insistent and he cares about my welfare (laughs). I think the latter. My feelings all along, since we both retired from the business, and we remained good friends and we saw as much of each other as we could, I was not at all surprised that Gil was inducted, and that’s all I really cared about. Frankly, I was never even thinking about myself getting in there. That never crossed my mind. I really mean it when I say it wasn’t a goal of mine.”
Q: You two worked so well together. Gil the crusty Irish guy, you perhaps the scholar? You just bounced off each other so well.
T.R: “We did. I think the fact that we had such a good personal relationship – when we first started to work together, and Gil is 16 years older than me – so I had this kind of elderly respect, respect for my elders, and of course he had so much knowledge of the sport. I knew that he was the person people wanted to hear talk about the progress of a fight, and the whys of why it’s going in one direction or another, and my job was to describe the blow by blow and give him the space to describe why things are happening. And it was just a pleasure for me to have that professional work with him, and our friendship was growing. Covering the sports that I did, my interpretation was that the audience wants to know, A: what’s going on, and, B: hear from the expert to tell you why. With Gil it just became so easy. No-one wants to be impeded in any way by the play-by-play person. I’m constantly watching sporting events on TV and I’m saying to myself how that person needs to stop talking as much (laughs). Even now, in my years of retirement, I can’t get away from that.”
Q: You also made it a thing to portray the personalities of the fighters, and fans loved that.
T.R: “Yes, that’s exactly how we tried to do it, and it came naturally to us. Our relationship just seemed to blossom from the beginning and it just clicked. In my book, I do cover our trips to Ireland – “Two Micks on the other side” – those trips were the highlights of my career. I had covered some boxing before working with Gil, but together, we did over 300 fights. The first fight I ever got to call of any stature, was the Ali-Frazier fight, on the radio. New Zealand Radio couldn’t afford to send a guy to cover that, and the people at Madison Square Garden called me a couple of days before the event, asking me how would I like to cover the Ali-Frazier fight for New Zealand Radio! I said I don’t care how it works; I’m going – of course! That was the first big thing and because I was the only English language guy, the broadcast went to all the armed forces, all around the world. So that was a very exciting thing for me and it of course helped me with the rest of my career as far as boxing went.”
Q: What a first gig! To cover that incredible fight. Was it just you talking by yourself?
T.R: Yes, it was. What happened was, it was going to be a big closed circuit event and it was a time when pay-per-view events were coming in in theatres, in tents, anywhere they could get a screen in. They were not having any radio broadcasts in the US and in other parts of the world – Great Britain I believe did cover it on radio – so New Zealand asked if anyone could cover it for them, that they couldn’t afford to send anyone (laughs). But then some of the promoters found out that the fight could be shown to the Armed Forces on pay-per-view, meaning they wanted to get the soldiers to pay for it. That story broke in The New York Times two days before the fight and of course it made those promoters look like jerks.
“So, they agreed to let it go to the Armed Forces Radio network, which had always carried every world heavyweight championship fight – it was part of their culture. So who was the only English-speaking radio announcer who could provide that feed? That was me. They called me and said I wouldn’t get any money and I said I didn’t care if I never got a dime! So that was a huge hit for me, and it got a lot of publicity. Then, when boxing came back to network TV, I was already at CBS doing other sports. They knew I had already done boxing and they told me I was the boxing guy! That’s when they hired me and they hired Gil.”
Q: You really have had an amazing career, and that’s just the boxing side of things. You covered 10 Olympics?
T.R: “Yes, ten Olympic Games. I started my career covering Hockey for NBC, and they bought the rights to cover the Olympics.”
Q: If someone asked you, could you say what your favourite sport is?
T.R: “I’d have to say football as far as the team sports. Then tennis and ski racing. I guess because I did both myself, not competitively (laughs). So to be covering those sports, with giants like Roger Federer, those were really fun times for me because of my own personal experience in those sports. I never did box (laughs).”
Q: All these giants you have met and covered and been around, have you ever been starstruck?
T.R: “I don’t think so much that way, but using Federer as an example, I got to cover him during the highest point in his career, and I had had so much experience covering so many big names in other sports. So it’s not a case of being overwhelmed by them, and going, ‘wow!’ Unless they have made an impression on you that transcends their talent and their sport. And I think Federer and Ali, and Billie Jean King, for me to be around them, interviewing them, those would be three people where I would say, ‘boy, am I glad to be working in this business and being around them.’
“I’ve been asked, who are the greatest athletes I’ve covered, and I go quickly to Ali and to Billie Jean King. What they achieved outside of the area in which they were competing – and I don’t need to tell you what those achievements are. But Ali did the whole Muslim thing and ends up being a worldwide ambassador, and Billy Jean King literally changed the face of women’s sports, as far as they should be paid equally. Billy Jean King, what she’s accomplished, is remarkable. So, it’s those two for me. The two greatest athletes we’ve ever seen to this day, all of us. That’s my view.”
Q: When you are commentating, when you are with an expert co-commentator, is it harder to disagree with people like that, simply due to who they are? If they say something you don’t agree with, is it tough to say so based on their reputation?
T.R: “Yes, that has happened. I can’t recall the specifics off the top of my head, but I know there were circumstances where I challenged their comments. But when I do that, it’s more so to give that expert a chance to prove me wrong or to prove me right (laughs). Sometimes the fan sitting at home doesn’t agree with the expert, so my job is to represent the viewer. So I have no problem challenging the person sitting next to me. And most of them take that in the right spirit. Later, we may laugh about it, or they may say they were glad I brought it up.
“I think of Sugar Ray Leonard. We were friendly with Ray, as we were also with Marvin Hagler, but more so with Ray as we had spent more time with him and had really gotten to know him. And that fight, it was very close, and I scored it by a point for Hagler and Gil scored it by a point for Ray. And later, Ray asked us how we had it? He couldn’t believe it when I told him and he challenged us. I said to him, let’s watch it on tape. And we did, and we scored it – he, Gil and I, and we had such a laugh. But he was on my case because I scored it the other way.”
Q: That fight, it still causes THE debate now, all these years later – who really won! For what it’s worth, I had it for Ray by a couple of points. I think he bedazzled Marvin.
T.R: “Well, the term you use is the reason he won the fight. That he bedazzled him. But my take, and of course you’re doing this round by round. There were a couple of rounds where Ray was being dancing Ray, where he was looking good, moving, using flurries, getting out quick before he got nailed. But my view in some of those cases was that the best punches, the scoring punches, were from Hagler; but there were fewer of them, but [they were] more impactful. But I did only have him winning by a point. It was very close but I just saw it for Hagler. But the point is, and your right, I’m thrilled that people still talk about that fight. It was a terrific fight, from both of them, it was exciting and it was close and there was debate at the end. How much better can you see boxing? There’s nothing better than that, right (laughs).”
Q: Agreed. And what we know now about Sugar Ray Leonard, how he had gone through some tough times in the years before that fight. Ray’s autobiography is a great read. Is that one still your favourite fight?
T.R: “It is, but it’s partly because of all the attention that it got – that we are still talking about it all these years later. But one fight that really stands out for me is the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fight. That guy who came flying in. It was just dumb luck that he hit the ropes and didn’t land in the middle of the ring. That could have been so much worse, and it was a pretty good heavyweight fight as it was. Going to South Africa to cover a heavyweight fight was also some experience, with the setting and the politics and the racial setting. But my career is a little different to guys who only covered boxing. And the fights in Ireland, with Barry McGuigan, which was during the troubles. I was totally into that whole thing, what with my Irish heritage. I was there to work of course, but it was such an experience. That experience, it meant so much to me and to Gil. It was really special for us. We had a driver who was an ex IRA guy. We asked him to take us to the Catholic area, and he was a little reluctant. The whole thing was just, it had a great impact on me.”
Tim Ryan’s excellent book – “On Someone Else’s Nickel: A Life In Television, Sports, And Travel” was released in 2016.