Memories of Larry Merchant at HBO, Not Just Another Pretty Face
By Ivan Goldman
As if we didn’t have enough trouble in this sport, this Saturday will be Larry Merchant’s last broadcast as a ringside analyst for HBO. The scene will be Houston, where he’ll be calling the Nonito Donaire-Jorge Arce super bantamweight title fight.
Merchant’s departure after 35 years with the network is a drama that threatens to overshadow the bout itself. One thing I can guarantee: Larry, who will be 82 in February, will have plenty of intelligent and interesting things to say. He always does, on or off camera. A Hall of Fame broadcaster, Merchant plans to keep working in some capacity. He came up through newspapers and has written books as well.
Larry, unequivocally the most important voice in boxing, has often been compared to the late Howard Cosell. But ABC’s Cosell was a circus act. After he quit boxing in disgust, he wrote a disgusting book that slammed, often unfairly, just about everyone he ever worked with — or saw from afar or maybe just heard about. Merchant has always cared about delivering engrossing, germane material that wasn’t necessarily aimed at making him the star of the show. Unlike Cosell, he understands he may not be the only guy in the room who knows anything.
Many of us remember that after the Victor Ortiz-Floyd Mayweather fiasco, when an irritated Merchant pressed Mayweather about his two sucker punches that ended it, Floyd blurted out, “You don’t know shit about boxing” and took him to task for never having boxed. Larry responded, “I wish I was 50 years younger and I would kick your ass.” (Eventually Floyd would apologize, and Larry, who wasn’t one to hold a grudge, accepted.)
Never boxed? Maybe. But he fought. Many of us recall that after Daniel Zaragoza defeated Wayne McCullough in 1997, a shouting McCullough supporter got into his shot. Larry dispatched him with an excellent straight right that I sure wouldn’t want to get tagged with. Many viewers didn’t even notice the shot because it was thrown so fast. I ran into California referee Gwen Adair a few days later, and it was all she could talk about. “Wow, she said. “Did you see Larry Merchant? He was great.” And Gwen has seen plenty of punches. Larry was a tough Brooklyn kid who made the University of Oklahoma football varsity as a walk-on, and it was just as difficult a feat then as it would be now.
Once, when I was doing a column about George Foreman, I asked Larry whether his co-worker Foreman, who was a bully and a creep for much of his life, had really changed for the better or whether his smiling new persona was just a ploy to earn more money. Larry thought about it and said, “George is nice to people he doesn’t have to be nice to.” It was a perfect way to make the judgment.
I was a little hard on Larry once after I thought he became too abrasive with Bernard Hopkins on camera. But he didn’t hold it against me. I think he used to really get down on Hopkins because of the Philadelphia connection. A former sports columnist for the Philadelphia News, he thought it was important for a Philly fighter to live up to the reputation and slug it out with anybody. Crafty Hopkins has never been quite that guy. Also, he seemed more than willing to accept junk fights ordered up by alphabet gangs so he could increase his record of title defenses.
Larry has encouraged me more than once in my campaign to free railroaded Philly fighter Anthony Fletcher, who sits on death row in the Pennsylvania prison system even though the evidence proving his innocence has sat in the Medical Examiner’s Office for more than twenty years. If it were up to Larry I suspect Fletcher’s plight would have been featured on his network.
Like any avid fan, Larry gets really stirred up over awful officiating. Like many insiders, he knows terrible decisions are sometimes not just stupid but downright corrupt. Favors change hands. But if we can’t provide the evidence, we can’t say it or write it without being sued down to our last dollar. Frustrating.
Boxing writers seem to take special joy in watching Larry because he expresses himself with such wit and style. He doesn’t waste words, and he doesn’t repeat himself. I once asked him where he comes up with his lovely analogies and other prose gems. Ideas often come to him, he said, when he goes for walks.
HBO has looked to him for advice, particularly when it came to creating exciting match-ups. He ain’t just another pretty face and he doesn’t try to describe every event as though the Hindenburg were catching fire.
A few years ago HBO, seeking a younger audience, tried to demote Merchant to Boxing After Dark only. He refused and was ready to quit, but Max Kellerman, who was supposed to move up into Merchant’s position, gallantly stepped in and volunteered to share the job with Larry. They took turns on the big fights ever since. Max was reluctant to be the guy who retired Larry. It was the smart thing to do — and also the decent thing. I know a lot of us were relieved. We just weren’t ready to quit Larry cold turkey. I’m still not ready.
Ivan G. Goldman’s critically acclaimed novel The Barfighter is set in the world of boxing. Information HERE