An interview with Larry Merchant

HBO Sports' longtime boxing analyst Larry Merchant began his career in print journalism, first as sports columnist with the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Post, then as a general columnist with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. MerchantRecently, with Merchant's HBO contract about to expire, published reports speculated that the network was poised to replace Merchant, who has been with HBO for 29 years, with Max Kellerman (who worked HBO's "Boxing After Dark" series). That angered many writers, including Bob Raissman, the New York Daily News' sports media critic, who wrote that swapping Merchant with Kellerman "would be like replacing Picasso with the guy who sells the Velvet Elvises outside of Graceland."

On the eve of last weekend's Miguel Cotto-Zab Judah pay-per-view fight, HBO signed the 76-year-old Merchant to a two-year extension (though his on-air presence will be reduced). I spoke with Merchant, a longtime Southern California resident and a member of Los Angeles' World Boxing Hall of Fame, about this and other local boxing issues.

LA Observed: What was your opinion about the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight?

Larry Merchant: It was an extraordinary event but an ordinary fight. I think that the fight had resonated, particularly in Southern California, since it was first announced, and it built to a tremendous climax, which was evidenced by the record-breaking pay-per-view and gate numbers. Along with that came expectations that you're going to have some explosive drama. Given all the buildup, it's understandable that many fans were expecting something more than a high-level boxing match. Everybody wanted it to be a great fight as well as a great event. It's very rare that those kind of expectations are met: Ali-Frazier I and Hagler-Hearns are once-in-a-decade events.

Within the boxing world, it was not a surprise, even if it might have been a disappointment. As I said before the fight, everybody recognized that, by all that is holy in boxing – and not much is -- Mayweather was supposed to win a boxing contest. He's in his prime, he's an outstanding boxer. Given that, Oscar performed better than many people expected him to. A great boxer is like a great pitcher – he doesn't let the great hitters hit – and Mayweather didn't let De La Hoya hit. So, there was no shock.

LAO: What will De La Hoya's legacy be, in and out of the ring?

LM: I think he's an extraordinary personality and force within the boxing world and an outstanding fighter. He was at his best as a welterweight. He disappointed some people who were hoping, given the liftoff he had coming out of the [1992] Olympics and his early successes, that he would become the Latino version of Sugar Ray Leonard. It turned out he wasn't quite that good. But he was very, very good, and he fought everybody.

As important, he's the face of the Hispanic take-over of boxing. Various ethnic groups have been dominant in boxing over time, and Hispanics have become more and more dominant over the last 15 years. Oscar became the face of that and became a huge attraction. That's a significant contribution he's made to the sport.

LAO: Do you think he should continue fighting?

LM: If he fought as well he did to lose a close decision to the guy recognized as the best fighter in the world, pound-for-pound, he's still very capable of fighting. He loves doing it. He loves being on the stage. He's never really been hurt. He's kind of an executive fighter, in that he can afford to fight once a year and that he runs his own promotion company. Lastly, but hardly leastly, he generates so many dollars. Who could blame him for not wanting to fight?

Eventually, the marketplace will determine whether it's worth his while to keep fighting. Right now, in my estimation, the biggest event that could be made in boxing would be De La Hoya against Cotto. It would be a huge event, not like the one we just saw [with Mayweather], but very, very big. He would make a substantial amount of money. It's like Muhammad Ali once said: "How come they don't ask David Rockefeller to stop making money?"

LAO: You just signed a two-year extension with HBO after published reports alleged that the network was pushing you out of the analyst position in favor of Max Kellerman. Why do you think the network want to make a change?

LM: They weren't pushing me out. They were replacing me on the big fights, and they wanted me to take over "Boxing After Dark." I rejected that.

You know, 29 years with one show is amazing in a business with a short attention span. I'm an old guy now, and it's amazing that something like this hasn't happened before. People come in and have their own ideas of what shows they want to do and who they think should be on the shows. And, every network has sensitivity to demographics: who's watching? And so, they decided that 29 years was enough and that they would ease me out. I understand that, and I was cool with that. There are other things out there for me -- I could go back to writing -- but they changed their minds. So, now I'll be doing roughly two-thirds of the work I've been doing. That’s good for me because now, at the end of my career, I can go into new media [of the Internet]. I'm having discussions with people about that.

LAO: What do you think about Max Kellerman, who is being groomed to take your place/

LM: Max is different. Look, nobody is going to be like me in the sense that I come from a newspaper background, a reporting background. Today, there are fewer and fewer people who come from writing and go into television. They're people who've been trained and have ambitions to be in television before they had ambitions to write. It's a different breed of person in the business today. I would say that Max is young and enthusiastic. And, he's a big boxing fan.

LAO: What fights are you most looking forward to this year?

LM: The Jermain Taylor-Kelly Pavlic fight for the middleweight championship [scheduled for September]. Pavlic is a very aggressive kid from Ohio, and both fighters are undefeated. I would love to see [Manny] Pacquiao fight [Marco Antonio] Barrera or [Juan Manuel] Marquez again – both are very worthy opponents. I would hope to see some kind of a heavyweight unification, but I'm not going to hold my breath on that. Then, I would like to see [Shane] Mosley fight Mayweather or Cotto.

LAO: What's your view of mixed martial arts?

LM: It's a car-crash movie. It's what I call "honest wrestling," as opposed to staged wrestling, for normal-sized white guys. They have very good hype and marketing. We'll see whether it's the next evolution of hand-to-hand combat or whether it's a fad that will go.

LAO: You've written several books, including And Every Day You Take a Bite and Ringside Seat at the Circus. Will you ever sit down and write your memoirs?

LM: Yes, I have a title and chapter headings. All of this came about during the long negotiations with HBO. Hopefully, in the next couple of years, it'll come out.

June 14, 2007 2:45 PM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor

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