Last Saturday a 42-year-old Manny Pacquiao stepped into the ring, and even before the opening bell one sensed the curtain was descending on an extraordinary career. This feeling had much to do with the retrospective video featured before the main event, narrated as it was by a 90-year-old Larry Merchant. Fitting it was to have what most of us hope will be Manny Pacquiao’s final fight introduced by the commentator whose words had been a soundtrack for almost all of “The PacMan’s” biggest battles. It’s been an incredible run for Pacquiao, but listening to Merchant reflect on it had some of us in turn reflecting on the amazing run he and his broadcast partner Jim Lampley enjoyed for many years.
On January 22, 1973, a broadcasting start-up by the name of Home Box Office debuted in the sport of boxing, the inaugural show featuring George Foreman’s legendary second round annihilation of champion Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica. For decades after, HBO then brought us countless memorable nights of great boxing action featuring the fight game’s biggest stars.
In September of 2018 HBO announced its departure from boxing, attributing it to the prevalence of streaming networks such as DAZN and ESPN Plus. Whatever one’s opinion on how the fight game has been affected, no one can question the network’s dedication to the sport or how commentators Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant put our emotions into words, describing the action and drama unfolding before us in a visceral and vivid manner.
Love them or hate them, fans were interested in hearing Larry and Jim vocalize the violence until the bitter end, as for almost a quarter century the duo led the network’s broadcast team for boxing. Given that span of time, and both men’s talent, it wasn’t too difficult to rank the most memorable hits, so to speak, in the impressive run of Larry and Lampley. Check ’em out:
12. “Derrick Jefferson, I LOVE YOU!” It’s not easy to please a gruff, impatient old-timer. Like many of his generation, Larry Merchant wasn’t much interested in anything other than a “bloody good fight,” and when the action didn’t live up to his expectations, he let you know. Thus, when a scrap evokes a joyous emotional response from the same guy who once compared a title fight to “watching hair grow,” you know you’ve seen something special.
For the six rounds it lasted, unbeaten Derrick Jefferson’s stepping-stone match against veteran spoiler Maurice Harris was entertaining enough, with both men hitting the deck, but far from riveting. However, when Jefferson leveled Harris with a left hook that looked to have somehow been launched all the way from his hometown of Oak Park, Michigan, the low-key “Boxing After Dark” undercard was instantly elevated to a whole other level of excitement.
But perhaps more important than the fact that it was widely hailed as the “Knockout of the Year” was the fact that the undefeated prospect’s one-shot win was greeted with such passion by the 68-year-old Merchant. After the fight was officially waved off, Larry screamed out: “Derrick Jefferson, I love you!” Such a pronouncement from the curmudgeonly Merchant has to rate as one of the highest accolades ever received by a professional prizefighter.
11. “Well, you only have to be knocked out for ten seconds!” Being the bearer of bad news is never an easy task, but having to inform a fallen fighter who has no recollection of being knocked out that they just lost their world title has to be especially difficult.
On July 29, 1988, reigning WBA welterweight champion Marlon Starling defended against unheralded challenger Tomas Molinares. Starling dominated most of the fight, outclassing the undefeated challenger before, shockingly, Molinares leveled him with a right hand after the bell ending round six, leaving “The Magic Man” sprawled on the canvas. Referee Joe Cortez incorrectly ruled the punch to be legal, and proceeded to count the champion out.
But if that wasn’t bizarre enough, Larry Merchant’s post-fight interview with Starling surely was. Marlon, who slurred his words throughout the interview, was shocked to hear Larry Merchant tell him that he had just been counted out. “Do I look knocked down? Do I look like I’m wobbled?” said the “Magic Man,” confused as much as frustrated. Instead of trying to talk sense into a clearly bewildered Starling, Merchant was classy enough to pull the plug on the interview, electing not to embarrass the fallen champion any further.
10. “A fitting end to a great, great prizefight!” It was something different, not to mention refreshing, when Lampley, Merchant and company donned their casual wear to host a series of excellent boxing cards under the title of “Boxing After Dark.” The late night fights meant less, but often produced more, as the series often featured two fighters anxious to remain relevant and who would then rumble with fitting desperation.
The inaugural episode was staged in the legendary Fabulous Forum when WBO 122-lb champion Marco Antonio Barrera defended his title against former champion and Olympic gold medalist, Kennedy McKinney. And while the match-up certainly promised action on paper, it’s unlikely that the boxing world expected the kind of fireworks that they witnessed, as Barrera vs McKinney became an instant classic that saw each fighter hit the deck, the momentum shift multiple times, and ultimately featured a closing round knockout that saw Barrera dramatically retain his title.
But as it turned out, if Barrera-McKinney set a lofty standard for future episodes Boxing After Dark, amazingly it was far from the only high-water mark. Tua vs Ibeabuchi, Gatti vs Ward 1, Robinson vs Gatti 1, Morales vs Barrera 1, and most recently, Francisco Vargas’s 2016 draw against Orlando Salido, all served to define B.A.D. as one of the most entertaining broadcasts in boxing, showcasing the ambition, action and the artistry that fight fans live for.
9. “I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter in here, and I’m looking to be sure she’s safe.” Jim Lampley’s closing statement couldn’t have been more heartfelt. After one of the most unusual performances ever given on HBO, Andrew Golota was disqualified after he continued to pound Riddick Bowe below the belt despite numerous warnings and point deductions. To many observers’ surprise, Golota was controlling the fight, making Bowe look like a second-rate heavyweight. However, Golota’s inability to control himself coupled with some serious crowd tension and lax ring security eventually led to an explosion in the Garden, as following the end of the bout a brawl broke out in the ring and then a vicious riot in the rest of the arena.
It seemingly took forever for police to respond to the situation and in the frightening interval George Foreman was doing everything he could to restore peace in his vicinity, even protecting colleagues Larry and Lampley from harm as chairs and fists were flying all around them. It ended up being brilliant coverage from the HBO team as Merchant performed ringside interviews, Lampley carried out his blow-by-blow of the melee, and Foreman quelled tensions when he could. This was top-tier journalism on a most ugly but unforgettable night.
8. “The bad boy of boxing is getting spanked by Lennox Lewis!” You know when you gotta have a line of burly security men separating two fighters during the introductions, people are watching. But then again, people are going to watch Mike Tyson, period. We’re not all that civilized, after all. But Las Vegas wasn’t going to a part of the Tyson circus this time. Neither was New York, or Atlantic City. Despite what figured to be the richest heavyweight fight ever, some of the wealthiest cities in America turned it down. For some, Mike Tyson just wasn’t worth the aggravation anymore.
But others recognized a massive payday when they saw one and indeed both HBO and Showtime engaged in their first joint partnership to bring Lewis vs Tyson to millions of boxing fans. But after all the hype and investment and build-up, the fight itself turned out to be surprisingly anti-climactic, as Lewis dominated Tyson with his long jab and ring generalship, and put the former champion out of his misery in round eight.
7. “You don’t know shit about boxing!” Not long after rumours circulated that Merchant was about to be canned by HBO, he faced off with a brash superstar who was all too eager to put salt on his wounds. Floyd Mayweather, coming off a fourth round knockout of Victor Ortiz, was heading into his second fight of the night as he squared off against an aging Merchant who was eager to engage Mayweather in a heated discussion.
Merchant tried to get Floyd to address why he chose to pounce on an unsuspecting Ortiz even when Mayweather had complete control of the fight, to which a frustrated Floyd responded: “You don’t ever give me a fair shake! HBO needs to fire you! You don’t know shit about boxing!” But despite Mayweather’s entourage echoing his every word, an outgunned but unshaken Merchant was determined to get in the last blow. And that he did. “I wish I were fifty years younger,” the feisty eighty-year-old snarled, “and I would kick your ass!”
6.”Come on! Come on! Come on, let’s fight!” Everyone in boxing knew this was a pairing that virtually guaranteed something special and something especially violent. That said, all expectations were completely blown away when Arturo Gatti and “Irish” Micky Ward engaged in a riveting and surreal portrait of boxing brutality the likes of which we’ve rarely seen. Ward pulled off the upset in 2002 by defeating Gatti in one of the most thrilling and action-packed fights in boxing history. Outclassed for long stretches, Ward stayed in the fight with his vaunted left hook liver shot, flooring Gatti with it in an unforgettable ninth round en-route to a majority decision victory.
While the second fight belonged to Gatti, the rubber match featured the same kind of drama we saw in the first clash. Arturo was forced to overcome a knockdown and a broken right hand to out-hustle Ward and win the trilogy. These battles were not for the purists, not for the young boxers told by their coaches that boxing is about hitting and not getting hit, but for the fight fans looking for intense, non-stop carnage, and in that regard the Gatti vs Ward trilogy stands as a high-water mark for HBO boxing.
5. “All out war in Vegas!” It was the fourth and final chapter in one of the most remarkable rivalries in recent boxing history and both Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez were proving to be men of their word. In their three previous meetings, action and drama were in ample supply, but satisfying conclusions were not. All three bouts went to the scorecards and all three decisions had left more questions than answers.
Thus, in the days leading up to chapter four, “Dinamita” and “The Pacman” promised something different, something conclusive. Both were determined to not leave the outcome in the judges’ hands and both fought accordingly: with very bad intentions. It was action-packed from the opening bell, but in round five a fast-paced fire-fight turned into a war. Both men had suffered knockdowns and now it was the Mexican’s blood that was all over the ring, his nose smashed to pulp by Pacquiao’s heavy blows.
“This may be the best fight yet,” said Merchant. “I mean, they promised toe-to-toe but we’ve heard that before … seldom do fighters really try it at this level of the game.”
Seconds later a right hook buckled the legs of Marquez and the Filipino pursued his wounded quarry with fury, dominating the rest of the round. “Marquez still wobbling!” cried Lampley as the Mexican warrior was backed to the ropes. “But he is fighting back,” replied Merchant. “Five years ago we didn’t know he had that in him, but he is fighting back from some really killer shots.” “What a round!” cried Lampley as the bell rang. “What a round!” It was the perfect set-up for the more famous utterance from that great battle, heard four minutes later when Marquez provided the most conclusive of endings with a single monstrous right hand and Roy Jones Jr. declared, “He’s not getting up, Jim!”
4. “And somebody in a parachute has just landed on the edge of the ring!” As Rock Neumann aptly put it, “How does this stuff find us?” Riddick Bowe’s career was certainly full of surprises. He’d faced closeted kick-boxers, full-blown riots, and enough low blows to make you reconsider your career choice. Yet on November 6, 1993, “Big Daddy” faced perhaps as unusual a ring spectacle as you’re ever going to find. James “Fan Man” Miller, a supposedly unsuspecting paragliding enthusiast, coming in for a crash landing at Caesars Palace during round six of Bowe’s rematch with Evander Holyfield.
The initial reaction was shock and fear. Bowe’s wife, who was in the early stages of pregnancy, fainted as various fans, handlers, and security officers pounded the “Fan Man” into unconscious at ringside. It took almost thirty minutes to quell the tension in the arena, and while Holyfield’s revenge win over a foe younger, stronger and bigger was impressive, it’s still impossible to imagine what either fighter could have done to top the stunt the “Fan Man” pulled off that night as he paraglided into infamy and the HBO archives. As the “Fan Man” himself later stated, “It was a heavyweight fight and I was the only guy who got knocked out.”
3. “You’re gonna watch Lou Duva go crazy now!” In, as Lampley put it, “one of the most unusual calls in the whole history of the sport,” Julio Cesar Chavez hung onto his 68-0 record with his nearly impossible comeback stoppage of Meldrick Taylor, who was ahead on two of the scorecards with just two seconds left in the match. Referee Richard Steele’s decision has been fiercely debated ever since, but that takes nothing away from the battle itself, which was later recognized as the greatest fight of that year and of the decade.
Chavez vs Taylor represented boxing at its finest; a brilliant match-up between two champions in their prime, a fight that exceeded expectations with both fireworks and technical mastery, plus an incredibly dramatic finish. And regardless of your opinion on Steele’s decision, it was still a terrific night for boxing, even though the initial reaction from many was shock and disappointment given the masterful and gutsy performance Taylor had put forth for 35 minutes and 58 seconds.
But while the fight certainly ranks as one of the greatest broadcast by HBO, it was not one of the finest hours in regards to their commentary team. Lampley, Merchant, and Ray Leonard largely ignored much of the good work Chavez was doing inside, which they only began to acknowledge after Taylor was noticeably broken down from it. And it would not be the last time HBO commentators provided a biased perspective in their analysis, a critique which became more frequent in the years ahead.
2. “It happened! It happened!” Coming off his disappointing loss to Tommy Morrison, few still took George Foreman’s wild ambitions of becoming heavyweight champion again seriously. A year later Foreman was now 45 years old and not getting any younger, and it was hard to imagine he was getting any hungrier given his 16 months of inactivity as well as his job aboard HBO Boxing’s commentary team. But sure enough, Foreman would try his luck at the title one more time, against heavyweight champion Michael Moorer, a young, quick-handed southpaw expected by most to defeat “Big” George without great difficulty.
And indeed for much of their fight, he was effective in making Foreman look like the 45-year-old unworthy challenger many saw him as. But by the start of round ten Moorer was tiring and unable to break Foreman’s momentum as the former champion began to tee off with a barrage of punches, a barrage that ended with a perfectly timed right hand that slammed into Moorer’s chin and put him down and out. Ten seconds later George Foreman looked heavenwards before turning and kneeling in the neutral corner as Jim Lampley greeted the historic moment with the perfect exultation: “It happened!”
1. “This makes Cinderella look like a sad story!” Larry Merchant was spot on. James “Buster” Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, had just pulled off the biggest upset in boxing history when he knocked out the fighter some called the “the baddest man on the planet.” The crowd in Tokyo was stunned and silent. An inspired Douglas, still mourning the death of his mother, was on his game like never before from the opening bell, eventually dominating Tyson after showing tremendous heart to get off the canvas in round eight.
Two rounds later, Douglas would have Tyson flat on his back as he captured the title in one of the most dramatic moments in boxing history. In one of Merchant’s best interviews, the new champion broke down before explaining the unexplainable in jovial fashion. What a night for boxing! — Alden Chodash