Larry Merchant is still observing
Larry Merchant believed much of his job, when ringside for HBO Sports, was to be an observer. There were many times during broadcasts when he wouldn’t say much – or at all – during a fight. He would just observe the action for rounds at a time and, while it’s been several years since he’s been at the network, he’s still intently watching the fight game with great interest.
Yeah, still observing the scene.
It’s been a few weeks since HBO announced this would be its final year broadcasting boxing. So what will be going through Merchant’s mind during its final broadcast?
“I don’t know; I think it’s already gone through my mind. I happened to be visiting some friends and relatives in New York when I got a call from a reporter asking about the announcement that HBO was leaving boxing and I said it was a (Saul) ‘Canelo’ (Alvarez) body blow when it actually happened, even though all of us ringsiders knew it was coming – we just didn’t know when,” said Merchant last Thursday afternoon, while having lunch at R+D Kitchen in Santa Monica, California.
“It had a glorious time for almost half-a-century and so long, champ,” said the man who was there for HBO’s first foray into boxing in 1973 till his final telecast in 2012.
So will he keep his HBO subscription?
“I probably am,” said Merchant, who added, “I have more than a viewer’s interest in what HBO does in its next life. If they put on good shows, I’ll stay with them and there’s some indication recently of them doing things that engage me. I guess I have a certain kind of inner loyalty to a company I was with for 35 years and I just want to see how it plays out.”
The last big pay-per-view event HBO Sports distributed was the September 15 middleweight championship rematch between Gennady Golovkin and Saul Alvarez, for which Merchant happened to be in attendance at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Merchant believes this bout, which was won by a razor-thin margin by the Mexican star, lived up to it’s billing, “I think it did. It was a different kind of fight from the first fight; both made adjustments. I think that Canelo was highly motivated and inspired by a chance to redeem himself and become a great man in his country and all of the fight fans down there and how important it is and he stepped up. Like everyone else, I thought it was a very close, intense fight and I thought the difference was something that not all fighters get credit for – but Canelo landed a lot more clean, hard body punches and a younger guy beat a great old champion.
“I’ve got nothing but good thoughts about Golovkin, who’s one of the best middleweights of modern times, certainly,” continued Merchant, of the 36-year-old, who suffered his first pro loss on that night, “but he ran up against a young, highly motivated kid and he lost. I’m curious to see what his next step is with all the opportunities out there with new platforms and somebody would love to have Golovkin, I’m sure, and pay him well and there are a lot of good young middleweights, junior middleweights and maybe a welterweight named (Errol) Spence (Jr.) who are potential opponents for Canelo.”
“So I think that passing the torch the way they did in that fight was good for the game.”
Alvarez has always been a great gate attraction but, in Merchant’s estimation, did he become a great fighter?
“Look at his record. He’s fought some of the best guys out there when he was the heavyweight champion of the box-office and didn’t have to fight the best, some of the good talent out there that he fought,” answered Merchant, pointing out Alvarez’s resume, that includes Golovkin (twice), Floyd Mayweather Jr., Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, among others. “He wants to be great and whether he’s a great fighter or not, maybe he needs a few more big dramas in which he can show what he can do as a middleweight. But I wish there were 10 more out there like him.”
Speaking of Spence, unlike most pundits, Merchant is all aboard when it comes to him facing Mikey Garcia. While many believe Spence is simply too big and strong for Garcia, who’s currently a unified lightweight champion, Merchant opined, “It’s a fight that every fight fan has to see. It’s the right fight, in my view, for both fighters in that it would get a lot of attention in the boxing world and maybe help them both break out beyond the boxing world.
“If Spence wins because he’s so much stronger, then he’s just beaten a smaller fighter that took the shot. If Garcia wins, who knows what happens? If Garcia loses, he can always go out and fight (WBA lightweight champion Vasiliy) Lomachenko or some of the other welterweights out there. Again I’d love to see Spence, who is a naturally bigger than a welterweight, fight Canelo. So it would set up a lot of things.”
Keep in mind that, in the past, Merchant basically came up with the idea for Shane Mosley and then, later, Manny Pacquiao to move up in weight and face Oscar De La Hoya.
The most notable heavyweight fight on the schedule is the December 1 pairing between WBC titlist Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. When asked if he was excited by this match-up, Merchant answered, “I would say more curious than excited. I don’t know whether Fury still has enough to go in against a dangerous puncher, who can move some and has his own individual boxing-punching style and I want to see if Wilder is the legitimate next top American heavyweight. This would put us on a path to a big showdown with the recognized heavyweight champion of the world.”
For the time being, the biggest star in the division is Anthony Joshua, whose side seems to be delaying that fight. During his days on the beat, in times like this, Merchant would cajole Joshua for playing a game of keep-away.
“Look, I would love to see the forces in the universe come together to make that fight,” said Merchant of this situation, which seems to be at an impasse currently. “Is there some incentive for the Joshua side to take their time because Wilder’s an older fighter and Joshua can fill a stadium of 80,000 fans to see you or me? .So that’s what makes these things difficult to put together sometimes. But I think the moment is arriving for a big heavyweight fight, which there hasn’t been in some time.”
Merchant has always been a fan of fighters who…well, fight. And one young man who has piqued his interest is WBO junior middleweight beltholder Jaime Munguia, who has burst onto the scene this year. “He’s just a strong, crowd-pleasing young fighter,” said Merchant, who believes he is part of a crew who is breaking a long-standing boxing stereotype in boxing. “Along with (WBO super middleweight titleholder Gilberto) Ramirez and Canelo, suddenly the Mexican fighter doesn’t look like everybody’s little brother. He’s not 109 pounds and it would be interesting to see how those worlds collide.
Yes, by past standards, these are “big” Mexican boxers.
“That’s an interesting change in the boxing world and I just think there’s opportunities out there for big fights,” continued Merchant. “As you’ve seen in the past, those opportunities can overcome the tribal loyalties to networks, to promoters, and if everybody can make enough money, they’ll make these fights.”
It certainly is an interesting time in the boxing business with new entities getting involved. As we look at the schedule, there are more boxing outlets than ever. The question is, will this lead to a dilution of the product?
Merchant believes, “The more out there, the better; I think. Yes, everybody that comes into boxing like some of these new digital platforms and FOX on a major level. They protect their stars; they need those stars. But sooner or later, the stars have to align in a way that they clash.”
For the fights Merchant yearns for, there must be cooperation and compromise from these entities who have a vested interest in certain fighters and partnerships with various promoters.
One fight Merchant doesn’t want to witness again is the second go-around between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, which is being bandied about for 2019.
“I may see the replay,” he said, chuckling. “Look, we understand it’s business; we understand they’re stars, that they made hundreds of millions of dollars the first time and if they make a fraction of that, it will still be a good payday for a lot of people and, in its own way, good for boxing in that it shows boxing can generate the big bucks.”
However Merchant wryly points out that the entertainment value of Mayweather events, “ends once the first bell rings. That’s just the way it goes.”
Comments like this made Merchant who he was as a broadcaster. It’s rare nowadays to find someone who was willing to be as blunt as he was against the party line of his network or those in business with them.
But it has to be asked: Can there even be another Larry Merchant in today’s landscape?
“First of all, it starts at the top and who they hire and whether they’re going to hire somebody as a third man in the booth who adds something to the broadcast and is free to tell the truth as he sees it,” says the man, who pulled very few punches. “I came from a world of print journalism. That’s what we did and it was heroic of HBO knowing that to hire me and understand all of the pressure they had from fighters, promoters, whenever I said something that might have been unexpected by the fighters, who assumed that if HBO was signing them that everybody would give them nothing but love and pats on the back.”
Merchant has stated that, in this business, it’s not a popularity contest.
“But I don’t know; I don’t know if there’s anyone out there who feels like that anymore. Way back in time, every network franchise in sports had cheerleaders like the MMA announcers today,” he pointed out. “So hopefully there’s someone out there who can slap guys on the back or kick ’em in the back when they’re making millions of dollars and they’re not performing, then somebody has to say so.”
SANTA MONICA FLURRIES
Speaking of HBO, its been announced that it will broadcast the contest between WBA 175-pound titlist Dmitry Bivol and Jean Pascal, on November 24th from Atlantic City…Speaking of platforms, it looks like Golden Boy and Canelo are going into DAZN…Aaron Rodgers is literally the only thing keeping the Green Bay Packers from being a 4-12 team…So should we hold off on Elizabeth Warren ever throwing out the first pitch for the Cleveland Indians?…I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and I tweet (a lot) at twitter.com/steveucnlive. I also share photos of stuff at instagram.com/steveucnlive and can also be found at tsu.co/steveucnlive.