Joseph Santoliquito

Q & A: ESPN’s Brian Kenny

He’s been boxing broadcasting’s white knight since he first began as the studio host of Friday Night Fightsin the fall of 1998. While sports talking heads jibber, jabber and try to fake their way through anything related to boxing, fight fans know what they hear from Brian Kenny is the genuine thing.

There is no sportscaster today in America who is as immersed in the sport as the 48-year-old Kenny, who aside from hosting ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights the last 13 years, also handles myriad responsibilities at ESPN. He anchors Baseball Tonight,SportsCenterand sometimes subs for Colin Cowherd, hosting Cowherd’s radio program, The Herd. Kenny may be a jack-of-all-trades but he is a master of one sport – boxing.

While other members of the mainstream media blow off boxing as a niche sport, Kenny is one of the few who steadfastly champions the sport and accepts all its warts. He’s become a stable to boxing fans, not only for his straight-forward approach, but also for his no-holds-barred style, especially when it comes to interviewing subjects like Floyd Mayweather Jr. Some of their on-air squabbles have been Ali-Cosellesque.

But boxing almost lost Kenny to an entirely different line of work. He seemed headed in the same direction as his father, Charles, a New York City police detective. Kenny even took the police entrance exam and was deep in the interview process with the Nassau County police department when he landed his first fulltime gig, in Kingston, N.Y., making the transition from news to sports.

The RingManaging Editor Joseph Santoliquitospoke with Kenny in mid-February, just after Friday Night Fights launched another new season. Kenny spoke about his relationships with Mayweather and long-time former partner Max Kellerman, he relayed some humorous behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and dispensed opinions on the state of boxing and some ideas he feels can aid the sport. Santoliquito reports:

“When I arrived in Bristol, Brian was already on the air doing a radio show. He arrived at 8 that morning, and wouldn’t be going home until midnight, after hosting Friday Night Fights. He’s a machine, and a close, powerful ally to boxing. It’s interesting how Brian laughed at the notion of one day being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He’s our generation’s Don Dunphy. It’s not that out of the question.”

 

The Ring: What do you think of this new marriage between Bob Arum and Showtime, arranging for the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley to be hyped on Showtime’s parent company, CBS? Could this mark the return of boxing to terrestrial TV?

Brian Kenny: I don’t know about that. I know competition is good. I also know with HBO being so far ahead of everyone else that it wasn’t a healthy environment for the sport. It’s why I think this move is good for the sport. It might show other places that they could jump up, get in there and compete. And Showtime is an obvious place that can jump in and show that they can do it. In terms of promoting the fight, Showtime’s ties with CBS are being helpful to get the fight exposed to the mainstream. But I don’t see boxing going back to terrestrial TV. Actually, I can only see pro football staying there. Think about it. What sports are on terrestrial TV today, other than the NFL? That’s really it. I know boxing people were hoping so long that boxing could be on network TV again, but network TV isn’t network TV anymore, at least not the network TV it used to be in the 1980s and as recently as the mid-1990s. Today, you can be huge on ESPN; you can be huge on HBO. The proliferation of cable TV has blended in the minds of the fans; it’s what this generation has grown up with. It’s a matter of finding what you want on ESPN, or ESPN2, or any other cable network. I will say this, having Showtime involved at this level will force HBO to compete a little more than they have, but I don’t see boxing returning to terrestrial TV because of it. I want to be a clear though: HBO being at the top level of the sport has been good for boxing. It’s just always good to have a competitor because makes for a healthier climate.

The Ring: What changes have you seen in TV sports coverage since you started in the business?

BK: In 1985, when I got out of college and got into TV, there was a huge explosion with cable and a re-emphasis on local news. Now this is where the future is, it’s much more in blogging and writing and it’s vastly different from when I first got in. Maybe it’s a good thing. Local TV turned into a parody of itself. It’s why I got into sports. I was in general assignment reporting when a position opened in sports and I auditioned for it. I found myself at landfills and at taped-off murder scenes, where no one is glad to see you. As a sportscaster, everyone is glad to see you. When I first started, the general assignment stuff was you’d go to courthouses and county meetings, things like that, and there was a lot of it. That’s what I was going to do. My weakness on air was being on-air (laughs). I was a good writer; I’d write my own stuff. But my on-air performance was so stiff. I was awful (laughs). The only way to get better than that was to get thrown into the fire. I spent one year doing news reporting and that was enough for me (laughs).

The Ring: A lot of today’s sports coverage is concentrated on contractual issues and the business end of sports. Do you think that’s taken over for the actual coverage of the events?

BK: No, not really. I think boxing is unique in that we struggle sometimes on SportsCenter, where we’ll talk about the relevance in covering the new manager of a team. We find it more interesting the hiring of a new coach or GM. It happens a lot in pro team sports. What can this guy do to help a team or turn the course of a franchise around? In boxing, I don’t think fans are that interested in contracts and the money, unless you’re Floyd Mayweather talking about it (laughs). If a guy is going to talk about a contract nonstop, that’s news. At least with someone as high profile as Mayweather, you have to make it news.

The Ring: Can print journalism survive the Internet?

BK: I think eventually everything is going to the Internet. Sports fans will eventually digest their media very differently. See how quickly we’ve already made that turn in the last eight, nine, 10 years. That will change the way it’s put together. You have a lot of opinion from a million different entities and there isn’t a lot out there that’s reliable. Hopefully, something morphs into something real, but you have to look, you have to look hard in blog posts to find the talent and stay with it, trusting their credibility.

The Ring: Where do you see sports journalism heading?

BK: I see it continuing to be a pretty huge industry that’s always going to have people’s interest. It doesn’t have to be the main sports we cover. It can be a variety of other sports, because there’s always the human drama in sports. It’s a microcosm of life, a look at character, victory, striving to achieve. That always captures people’s imaginations. I think it always will.

The Ring: What’s your opinion on Olympic-style drug testing in boxing?

BK: I think it should be there for every sport. In boxing, I think it’s especially dangerous to have fighters who may be using and the damage they can do if they’re on performance-enhancing drugs.

The Ring: During the time you’ve covered boxing for ESPN, did you have your suspicions some fighters were using performing enhancing drugs?

BK: Of course. I think there have been a lot of fighters that I thought were on the stuff. I won’t get into names, but we know fighters who have tested and were caught. To me, it’s a matter of the culture being as clean as possible. Everyone needs to agree on that, and you have to have testing for it.

The Ring: What did you think of Showtime’s “Super Six” concept and its shorter bantamweight tournament?

BK: I love the concept. It proved to be very difficult to pull it off, though. That said, they made a very exciting tournament. The bantamweight tournament has been done before with the four fighters, and set up for the two winners to meet. But using six fighters, that was complicated and it took years. Don’t get me wrong, it was very ambitious what Showtime tried. It’s hard on the fighters. They’ve been asked to go through a lot, and we saw the effects, with guys dropping out and not being able to continue.

 

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Photo / Emily Harney

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