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Best I Covered – Larry Merchant

Former HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
02
Mar

Boxing fans will know Larry Merchant for his outspoken and candid views on HBO Sports for over 35-years, where he was never hesitant to ask the questions others would shy away from.

Merchant, whose real name was Kaufman before he changed it to convey its literal translation into English, is the eldest of three children. He was born in New York on February 11, 1931.

Although he was born and raised in the midst of The Great Depression, his parents were able to shield their young family from the harsh difficulties of the period.

“I don’t remember it as a hard time,” Merchant told The Ring. “My father managed the family laundry. We lived in apartments in the Bronx, Upper Manhattan and then Brooklyn, and I was oblivious (to the crisis). We had food on the table and furniture in the rooms.

“My mother was a great example of early feminism, she was always practicing shorthand and working on a typewriter and became a legal secretary. I would say we were lower-middle class. We didn’t have to scrap for food or anything like that.”

It was during those years that Merchant became interested in boxing.

“The first big fight I was ever involved in was when I was 7 years old, my father told me I could stay up and listen to the rematch of [Joe] Louis and [Max] Schmeling. It had political undertones because of the German’s invading Czechoslovakia and about to start the [Second] World War and whether or not Schmeling was connected or not to Hitler or the Nazi’s, he was branded in that way and Joe Louis had lost to Schmeling a couple of years earlier and represented American power and combativeness. I listened to the fight and Joe Louis knocked Schmeling out in the first round. I keep telling people that was because he didn’t want me to stay up too late.”

As a youngster he enjoyed playing games with his friends and was a good student in school.

Larry Merchant

“I was a month short of my 17th birthday when I graduated high-school,” he said. “Then I went to the University of Oklahoma, in part because I thought I could play football there. I was on the team for two years as what I call a last string half back.

“I got injured in football and I transferred into Journalism as my major and that’s how it started.”

Merchant was then drafted into the Army to serve during the Korean war. He spent two years in the Army and was based in Germany for one of those years.

“I wound up working as a sports writer for the Stars and Stripes in Germany and Europe,” he recalled, referring to the US military newspaper. “That’s where I covered my first fights, every division had boxing teams and I covered some of those fights.

“The big games in America at the time were baseball and boxing. I just covered them naturally wherever I was.”

Upon returning to civilian life, Merchant based himself in Philadelphia where he spent 10-years as a columnist.

“Philadelphia was a great fight town,” he explained. “There were so many fighters that they had to separate which ones were going to become pros in what they call the gym wars between fighters. I saw some pretty good fighters in that time.”

All told, Merchant worked for the Philadelphia Daily News, New York Post, Associated Press and as the sports editor for a smaller newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina.

“I covered a lot of big fights in that time frame,” he said. “That’s where I covered these fights, [Muhammad] Ali, [Sonny] Liston and so on.”

However, Merchant decided he needed a new challenge and left the print media in 1976.

“I had written a book, [The National Football Lottery] that was bought by a producer and they were trying to make a movie out of it,” he said. “I came to California and met my second wife. I did some part-time television work when cable television happened and they were looking for newspaper men to be television men. That’s how I evolved and gravitated.”

In 1978, Merchant began working for HBO, where he enjoyed a hugely successful career, one he looks back on fondly.

“I was very fortunate that I had this great boss – he wanted to be me,” quipped Merchant. “As a columnist, I was somewhat provocative from time to time and they wanted someone to tell it like it is and provoke fighters with contracts with HBO and promoters and managers and so forth. My boss, Seth Abraham, who I still communicate with on a weekly basis, he lives in New York, would say to me, ‘You make my job harder, but keep doing what you do.’ I was very lucky to have television executives like that because nobody wants to deal with a character like me.”

Merchant was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009.

Although, Merchant, now 91, no longer works for HBO, he is remarkably spry and sharp for a man of his years. He still watches boxing from his home in Santa Monica. And even though he hasn’t attended a fight for a couple of years because of the pandemic, he intends to go again when it is feasible.

“My mother once told me, ‘It’s better to be good than lucky because you can always be good but you can’t always be lucky,'” he said. “Later on, she said to me, ‘You were born under a lucky star.’ That’s the way I was with my parents, they worked so hard, they were striving to do better and I absorbed some of that, I guess.”

In this ongoing series detailing the “Best I Covered” of veteran boxing commentators, these are Larry Merchant’s picks:

Best Boxer: “The first big fight I actually covered was Sugar Ray Robinson versus Carmen Basilio. Robinson was past his prime but you could still see how great he once was. There were other fights on television in which he demonstrated that, which I saw when I was younger. After Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong, he was the star and as I used to say, ‘I thought every black kid in America wanted to be Sugar Ray Robinson.’ Because he created a kind of style with his hair, with his convertible car, that would be parked outside Madison Square Garden. He was an enormous presence after Joe Louis. Joe Louis, I think was the first black America hero, he was a gigantic figure who crossed racial lines and so on. But Robinson was what I call a cultural star in his style in and out of the ring.”

Best Puncher: “I think George Foreman was a tremendous puncher. George created the impression he was impregnable, nobody is impregnable but he sure created the impression. When George went to fight Ali, people were worried about Ali. It didn’t turn out that way.

Best Defense: “I think [Willie] Pep was regarded as the best pure boxer of his time. I went to see him after I came out of the Army and he was knocked out in the second round [Lulu Perez in 1954] and it turned out to be a fixed fight.

“Pernell Whitaker was a master boxer. I think of boxers as prizefighters, it’s hard for a prizefighter to make the big prizes as a defensive wizard. Whitaker had some pretty good purses.

Only the finest boxers of each era impressed Merchant enough to earn his praise. Pernell Whitaker ws one of them.

“Mayweather used television to build an image of himself that built a fan base, particularly because at that moment there were no signature American heavyweights at the top. There was at a time when America dominated boxing, which it no longer does. It took something special for a boxer to get recognized because people go to prizefights, in my opinion, to be moved, or thrilled in some way and defensive boxing doesn’t do that.

“Whitaker had a style, having won a gold medal, he was celebrated for that. Mayweather overcame his defensive posture because he was a lot of fights as a lightweight, where I think he was at his best, knocked out a few people and then if he was fighting somebody who was a serious threat later in his life he fought very defensively and he was highly skilled coming from a family of boxers. He knew how to use modern technology to make fans root for or against him.”

Best Overall: “I’d have to say Ali. He had an improvised style, he was a boxer who was so quick that he could hurt people badly. What was so special about him was that he had otherworldly athletic skills. He was a tough brave fighter, which we saw in the first Liston fight, how he stood up to Liston and made Liston quit.”

Best Knockout: “Ali’s knockout of Liston. I was sitting in the second row of that fight and everyone around me saw the punch. It’s still seen curious that it carries so much power in it. Later on, I once did a documentary special with [Mike] Tyson in which someone had found a frame-by-frame sequence of that knockout punch. You see that the punch that Liston – who knew that he couldn’t go the distance with Ali – hurled himself at Ali at the start of the fight and Ali hit him with that quick right hand and, as the photo showed, Liston walked right into it. He never saw the punch, which always magnifies the impact of the punch because you don’t have a chance to brace yourself in any way.  I always thought that would end the discussion that Liston took a dive. Nobody could ever explain to me why Liston would take a dive. This is the only thing he knew how to do, how to work, how to make money, and he was going to throw the heavyweight championship? He got beaten again. From my own personal observation and others I respected, he knew that he was in with something that he didn’t know and it was that quick right, right on the chin. This is the tell-tale, Liston’s neck jerked back after Ali hit him.

“There was a better knockout of Ali. That was his knockout of Foreman. I have a personal story. I was on a plane with Ali and others, it was a private plane. It went from New York to Paris, Paris to Zaire and about half hour into the flight, Ali seizes the loud speaker system and starting riffing and the whole plane was rollicking with laughter. He told us for the first time in his life he was on a plane with two black pilots and he didn’t know if they were going to find Zaire or land it at the airport. In that moment it was very funny. Then he hangs up and he comes out and sits next to me and says these words, ‘If he doesn’t get me in seven, his parachute won’t open.’ and what he was saying was: George Foreman’s weakness was his stamina, which was true. Maybe Angelo Dundee had whispered it into his ear in training. Well, Ali then knocked him out in the eighth round [laughs.]”

For most people, Muhammad Ali’s stoppage of Sonny Liston in their infamous rematch was mired in controversy. Merchant, who was sitting only a few feet away from the ring on that night, begs to differ.

Most Underrated: “Little guys, especially in America, are not stars. When Mexican fighters started to fight more in America, a few featherweights stood out. And when Manny Pacquiao came on the scene, Manny made himself into an international star with the unknown fan base that materialized when he fought. It made him an attraction and he had that big personality and smile and fought anybody and everybody. And even if he didn’t win, he won.

“Looking back the name that keeps popping into my head is Evander Holyfield. Tyson is a legendary figure; George Foreman was bigger than big. But Holyfield, who bested Tyson twice and beat Foreman, he fought his ass off against everybody and he was a light heavyweight. People still smile when you talk about Evander Holyfield. They know he was good but I think he was a lot better than good. He intimidated Tyson; he was the first guy to beat Foreman [in Foreman’s comeback.]”

Best Event: “Marvin Hagler versus [Thomas] Hearns and [Sugar Ray] Leonard versus Hearns, were magnificent fights. You don’t often find fights between two outstanding fighters who can box as well as bang and just throw down like that.

“Oscar and Shane Mosley, they had sparred as kids, both from the Los Angeles area. Oscar was the bigger star but every fight fan had to love Shane, he was such a crowd-pleasing fighter. Mosley beat him and beat him again but that first fight was a helluva fight. It was the start of new era, a new cultural time in boxing because he was an American of Mexican descent and Mexican-American. Fans didn’t know what to make of [Oscar], he was not their favorite guy, he’s too Americanized, but he fought everybody and never ducked anybody.”

Strangest Moment: “Fan man at the Bowe-Holyfield fight at the Mirage.”

Most Emotional Moment: “Two fights I can think of are Tyson-Douglas and Pacquiao-De La Hoya.

“Tyson-Douglas was certainly an emotional moment, it happened to happen on my birthday. In the first two rounds, Douglas was going after him with his longer reach and his jab and giving him more punches than we had ever seen Tyson take. Tyson was a 42-1 favorite to win, it was perceived to be just a tune up for the first Tyson-Holyfield, but Holyfield got Douglas instead. At the end of the fight Jim Lampley said it best, ‘Mike Tyson has been knocked out.’ That was the headline, it wasn’t that Douglas had beat him, it was Tyson had lost.

“Pacquiao stopping De La Hoya and ending his career. De La Hoya was a helluva good fighter, he was a larger-than-life cultural figure, good looking kid, who won a gold medal, promoted as a crossover star and helped to build the Mexican presence in boxing. It was a personal story of what he had done for boxing and carried it in 90s and early 00s. I had come up with the idea of the fight. I said, ‘It was a fight I’d like to see, both had large fan bases and it would be a mega event – and who knows, maybe Pacquiao is the Henry Armstrong of our day.’ But then if I was betting the fight, I’d probably bet on De La Hoya. In any event, Pacquiao was just too quick. And as I said at the time, he beat him with a thousand left hands. There was Oscar sitting on the stool at the end of the fight saying, ‘That’s it.'”

Biggest Controversy: “I guess there was some controversy about various scoring of fights. But I don’t really know.”

Most Memorable Interview: “My most memorable one was not the same one that millions, if not tens of millions of people think was with [Floyd] Mayweather [Jr.] My favorite interview was Buster Douglas after the Tyson fight. Douglas’ mother had died two or three weeks before. His father was a really good, tough journeyman middleweight, who I once saw at Madison Square Garden, and (Buster) worked out in his father’s gym but he wasn’t the tough guy his father was. Here he had the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship. There was a kind of rift between him and his father. Everything was galvanized into making Douglas fight the fight of his life. Not just because he was fighting Tyson, not just because he was fighting for the heavyweight championship. When I went to talk to him after the fight, he was speechless, he couldn’t talk. I asked him a question or two and suddenly I realized, this is show and tell, I’m just going to let him stand there and let fans, viewers absorb the emotional moment and that lasted 20 seconds, a half minute, which is a lifetime in television. His handlers tried to get him to go back to the dressing room. I just stood there, I didn’t say anything, I wanted to wait for him to gather himself, which ultimately, he did. It was a great moment for me, the fact that I understood the moment in the moment. And it was great television, watching this guy who had pulled off this unthinkable upset pull himself together. That was high drama.

Merchant suggested a few De La Hoya matchups during his HBO tenure, but “Oscar vs. Manny” was the most sensational. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

(On the infamous Mayweather interview) “It was all intuitive, [Floyd Mayweather Jr.] punched at me and I counterpunched at him. I don’t know where it came from but it was a part of me. A lot of people thought at the time it was somehow planned, not improvised, that there was a script because they had never seen anything like it. But there wasn’t. In the days after that happened, I got an email from the head of HBO, telling me I had become a folk hero. HBO had never had any live performers who would generate that kind of controversy. Some people thought it was unprofessional of me, and they’re probably right. But it was very human of me, when he started saying, ‘You don’t know shit about boxing, HBO should fire your ass.’ We’re having a verbal street fight on a different level in the ring after a big event. It was what it was. I told people by the time I got out of the building they were already selling t-shirts on the internet: Merchant vs. Mayweather.”

Favorite Fight: “De La Hoya-Mayweather was certainly one. Bob Arum was a promoter who, to his credit, when I came up with the idea Arum practically jumped through the phone to say ‘yes!’ He did the same when we were at a post-fight soiree, (discussing) who should Oscar fight next and I was the one who piped up, ‘Shane Mosley.’ he literally leaped out of his seat and said, ‘yes!’

“Certainly Hagler-Hearns, where you could hardly breath for 8 minutes, where it was so intense.

“Ali-Foreman. Ali did not plan to fight that fight the way he did. He found that Foreman was a little quicker than he thought and he went to the ropes. To the horror of Angelo Dundee and other staff, (Ali wanted to) see whether he could make Foreman punch himself out. And after the incident on the plane, I thought, he was mind and matter and spirit above just about everyone. The last fight against Frazier, you could hardly believe what you were looking at. It was so intense and they were hurting each other so much.

“The Leonard fights which were extraordinary events and fights. I remember all the Detroit characters who came down to the fight [with Thomas Hearns] in Vegas. It was a major happening.

“[Julio Cesar] Chavez and Oscar. Chavez was a little past his best but it was a big fight for Mexican fight fans. The fact that Oscar beat him and then beat him again was a game changer for the fan base. He wasn’t just a pretty face.

“There were two fabulous Sugar Ray Robinson fights against guys who had beaten him. The one with Randolph Turpin, in the second fight, he busted Robinson’s eye up and the referee said to Robinson, ‘You’ve got one more round.’ and Robinson went out and stopped Turpin. He fought Gene Fullmer, he knocked him out with one punch, a left-hook. He came up as a junior lightweight in his teenage years and he grew into being a welterweight and he’s fighting middleweights late in his career. And some of them gave him problems, especially as he was getting older, and to see him in those two fights was some kind of definition of class in a fighter.”

Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him on [email protected]

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