Joseph Santoliquito

Q&A with Larry Merchant: “If I was 50 years younger …”

 

Note: This story originally appeared in THE RING magazine. You can pick up the January 2011 issue on newsstands or in our new digital format.

 

We’re used to him coming through our TV screen in measured, rhythmic tones. Hall of Fame commentator Larry Merchant has been part of this generation’s boxing lexicon since HBO began broadcasting fights. Merchant brings a clever, old-school sports columnist’s charm each time he speaks — a rare, august air at ringside that fight fans might never see again.

What no one expected to see was the pugnacious side of Merchant after the mid-September Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz fight. “Money May” flipped out on Merchant when the HBO analyst challenged him about the controversial ending of the fight, prompting Merchant to respond, “If I was 50 years younger, I’d kick your ass.”

The remark created a firestorm on the internet and in boxing chat rooms throughout the world. Mayweather never backed off from his stance that “HBO should fire [Merchant],” nor has Merchant backed away, either.

What Mayweather probably doesn’t know is that the Merchant of 50 years ago could have very well flattened him. Merchant remembers, bemusedly, drawing a 15-yard penalty on his first varsity football play at Ebbets Field, for hitting a little too enthusiastically as a hard-nosed defensive back for Lafayette High School. He grew up on the rough streets in the Bronx, N.Y., and had a few scraps here and there in his youth. What the public witnessed on national TV Sept. 17 was a part of Merchant not many know.

The Ring:We know quite a bit about you, but we don’t know much about your background?

Larry Merchant:I was born in 1931 in New York City, lived in the Bronx and Manhattan, went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. I’m the oldest of three, which made me a first child, grandchild, nephew, which resulted in a lot of attention. I was given a lot of freedom to go and see and do. I loved all sports, played football best. I went off to college, half a continent away, before I was 17. I had a kind of oblivious self-confidence that things would always work out.

The Ring:What position did you play?

LM:I was a fullback/cornerback. We were unbeaten in my senior year. I went to Oklahoma, which wasn’t a major power then but was about to become one. I was on the freshmen team and played the bench as a sophomore, including a Sugar Bowl, under Bud Wilkinson. I injured my shoulder in practice — I can still feel it if I fall asleep awkwardly — and started journalism school. I decided the pressbox was more suitable to my talent (laughs).

The Ring:How was that to give up football?

LM:Football was a deep part of who I was. I cried for a few days and got over it. But I went back to it as a backfield coach for three seasons at Lafayette. An assistant coach at OU gave me a playbook with his personal notes. We installed the Oklahoma offense and had dominant championship teams. My high school coach, Harry Ostro, is 96 or 97 and probably still doing pushups (laughs). As I do.

The Ring: What kind of player were you?

LM:I was a better player on defense. Dan Jenkins used to write for Sports Illustrated and we were covering a Cotton Bowl together and he told me he had asked Darrell Royal, who was then the coach at Texas, what kind of player I was, and Royal told him, “He’d go after you” (laughs). I told Dan that I wouldn’t always catch you, but I would go after you (laughs). I loved to hit.

The Ring:What did your father do?

LM:My father ran a little family laundry in Greenwich Village that was started by his parents. He played baseball in high school. My maternal grandfather was a longshoreman. From the ages of about 10 to 12 I’d travel on the subway alone for an hour on Saturdays to help my father out. I was raised during “The Great Depression.” But I wasn’t depressed (laughs). I was too young. I didn’t know much about it. I had a happy childhood, but I was hardly raised with a golden spoon in my mouth.

The Ring:You came up under some gritty circumstances then.

LM:My recollection of my childhood was always seeing my father on Sundays, because he left for work before I got up, and came home after I went to sleep. They were hard times, and everybody worked hard. On my maternal side, I can remember going with my uncle for something called home relief, which was to get a box of food from the government. My maternal grandmother was a great cook. My mother was a legal secretary, when few married women went to work.

The Ring: How did your early years shape you?

LM:Of course all of those experiences shape you. My father was a serious sports fan. He took a job as a teenager as an usher at Madison Square Garden, so he could watch the fights (laughs). We went to a lot of baseball games at Yankees Stadium. I had uncles who took me to ballgames and took me fishing.

When I was around 13, an uncle who was an amateur fighter took me to the Garden to see a fight for the first time. I remember it was decent seat, and it was a lightweight fight between a kid from Canada and a kid from Queens. Good scrap. Next day I read in the newspaper that one of them threw up in his corner. It was a revelation. Things were going on I couldn’t see. I had to find a way to get closer to the ring (laughs). I wasn’t fully conscious of it, but writers were as much my heroes as fighters. Unless you listened to a fight on the radio, usually a Joe Louis fight, newspaper reports were my experience of prize fighting. That’s how you found out about the fights.

The Ring: I’m assuming you’ve witnessed live some incredible things being in New York?

LM: I did. I was at Yankees Stadium the day Lou Gehrig made his famous “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. I was about 9 or 10, and I knew he had retired and that he was sick, but I wasn’t fully aware that he was dying. People were very somber, and I just didn’t fully get that. I was a kid. I can still remember Gehrig standing there. I was in the lower stands, and I remember it being a dark day. I remember the lineups of players out there, and there was this light peering right down on Gehrig.

I was also there when Babe Ruth made his farewell speech at Yankees Stadium, when he said “Baseball is the greatest game ever invented.” I remember seeing him as a kid as a first base coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They put him on first base, maybe as a publicity stunt, for a month or two as a coach. Those memories are there. I was a street urchin baseball sophisticate. I knew all the batting averages day to day. If the Yankees lost but Joe DiMaggio got a hit, it was a good day.

The Ring: I’m assuming you were a great student. Were you?

LM: I was a little precocious perhaps in writing, because I loved to read. I was a good enough student to skip three grades, which is what they did in those days and which is why I graduated so young. But I was less than stellar in the area of “conduct.” I guess even then I was a bit of a troublemaker. My mother would ask about those C’s and D’s, but must have thought some mischief was OK because she never made a fuss about it. When I was maybe seven, I had a skirmish with a few bigger kids and ran into an alley and called up to my mother and said they were picking on me. She leaned out of the window and yelled, “Fight your own battles (laughs).” I learned early in life, you have to fight your battles (laughs).

The Ring: Would you consider yourself a tough kid growing up?

LM:I wasn’t a tough kid (laughs). I just played ball from sun up until sun down, no matter what the season was. If I didn’t get home for lunch, it was OK. But I was smart enough to show up for dinner (laughs).

The Ring: Did your parents have aspirations for you?

LM:My parents hoped I would grow up to be a professional in something. They never directed me anywhere. My father went to night school at NYU, but no one in the family had gone to college or completed college, anything like that. They had aspirations that I would go to college. I did too. I knew I wasn’t going into the laundry business.

The Ring: But the writers were your heroes?

LM: Yes, they were. Red Smith was our god, then there was Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, who wrote a column in Newsweek, another wonderful writer; A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker; there was Dan Parker, who sort of informed us that the best writing in the newspaper came generally in the sports sections. They had the most freedom. They were stylists. Some of them were just beautiful writers, and that was one of the attractions of going into journalism for me — how well these guys wrote, and how vividly they wrote, and how funny some of them can be.

The Ring: Who was your favorite fighter growing up?

LM: Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, all you knew was that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the President and Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion. I also became aware of fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong and their fights would sometimes be on the radio. But Louis blocked out the sun in terms of how big he was. Louis was the first Afro-American hero in America. He was the crossover of all crossovers. There have been many black artists and performers, particularly in the jazz age, but Joe Louis the heavyweight champion of the world, was considered the strongest man in the world. That became more apparent after his second fight with Max Schmeling. Everyone was fearful that World War II was about to happen and we would get drawn into war and that Adolf Hitler was such a megalomaniac who had the history of the 1936 Olympics, spurning Jesse Owens — and here comes Joe Louis.

Louis came from the deepest South where segregation was alive and unwell. He was a national hero to kids, to everyone. I just happened to grow up in the center of the sports world, New York, where the great writers all wanted to be. It was a cultural center and a sports center.

The Ring: What led you to journalism?

LM:My parents didn’t understand why I went to journalism school, and they tried to figure how you make a living out of that (laughs). But what I think helped me was my senior year at Oklahoma, I was sports editor and editor of the school daily. My senior year, I wrote a piece for Sport Magazine on Billy Vessels, who was becoming the Heisman Trophy award winner. I got paid $250, which was a lot of money at that time, and my parents took a deep breath and maybe they thought I could make it (laughs). But my first job was as sports editor of the Wilmington News, in Wilmington, N.C. I wrote a lot about fishing, what they caught and what they caught it with. I’d go fishing with Captain Eddie for sailfish. That sort of stuff (laughs).

I was 23, a one-man sports staff. I have vivid recollections of that time. Then an interesting thing happened. I was there for just three or four months, because I used a photo of a black second baseman in the sports section. When I picked up the newspaper later that day, where that photo had been was a blank space. When I went into the office the next morning, the managing editor took me aside and said, “If Jackie Robinson hits five home runs in a game, you can put his photo in the paper, otherwise we do not have photos of Negroes in the newspaper.” When I went back to my apartment, I got a big jar and started to fill it with my change every night. When it was filled a few weeks later, I bought a tank of gas and left town. That was it. I went back home and got a job at The Associated Press, and went from there to the Philadelphia Daily News as an assistant photo editor around 1955.

The Ring: Your big break came soon afterward, right?

LM: There was a lot of transition going on at The Daily News. I was in the generation that looked at sports differently. The Daily News was housecleaning for financial reasons, and they made me sports editor. I was 26 and reflected a newish sensibility, heightened by TV — we assumed that fans knew the score when they picked up the newspaper. We wrote about the sports scene and what was behind it, about the athletes as personalities and people as well as athletes. My column was called “Fun and Games” to convey the idea that it isn’t life and death for us, that it’s entertainment we are passionate about.

The Ring: Like what you and Floyd Mayweather provided?

LM: (Laughs) This is the world of modern communication. By the time I was out of the ring, it was around the world three times (laughs). I’m getting messages on the internet — and an hour later, there was this poster up of Mayweather vs. Merchant, 1961 (laughs). Guys were selling T-shirts saying, “If I was 50 years younger … (laughs).” Most of the feedback I received was positive, some of it on the internet wasn’t.

It was a moment of spontaneous combustion. I wish I was smart enough to plan something like that, but I’m not (laughs). So it was a 15-minutes-of-fame thing, and I was in the merry-go-round for a few days there, and then it slowed down and I got off. There have been numbers of occasions when athletes have gotten hot with me, and I’d let them go on, and “Back to you Jim” and let viewers decide for themselves what they just saw and heard. But this was different. This was a personal attack. If what he did was legally sucker punch Ortiz, he was doing a variation of that of the same thing on me. He tried sucker punching me, and I counter punched. I had no idea it was coming and was amazed afterwards that it came.

I would like to point out that Mayweather has had these kinds of meltdowns with other people, too. He exploded on Brian Kenny, from ESPN, who is one of the most knowledgeable boxing people I’ve run across. This time it happened at the end of a fight. The crowd was incendiary. It was explosive, there was a lot of angry voices that wanted answers. I think he realized that whatever he did was legal, he wasn’t going to get the credit he always craves. And he went off. And I did. He never tried to apologize. To the contrary, he went to the press conference and reinstated his position about HBO firing me (laughs).

The Ring: Will you have any misgivings about entering the ring again after a Mayweather fight to do the postfight interview?

LM: I will give Mayweather a rematch provided the terms are right (laughs). With him, you never know how long it will take for him to fight again. Who knows whether or not it will be my turn to cover a Mayweather fight.

The Ring: Is there anything different that you would do? I have a sense that Lafayette High defensive back came raging out.

LM:I can’t deny it’s part of who I am. It’s like the crowd had an honest reaction to what they saw. They don’t read the fine print of the rules. It’s not on the back of a ticket stub. They saw one guy hit another guy who was looking away. They reacted with an honest emotion to it. It was legal and that was on Ortiz. He likes to turn his cheek to everything outside the ring, to stave off negative vibes, but you can’t do that inside the ring, and he paid the price for it. I’m not going to second guess the reaction of the crowd or second guess my reaction, which was a human response to being attacked. The aftermath was just a giggle. TMZ, which I had barely heard of, is intercepting me at the airport and restaurants (laughs). I treated it as Mayweather never laid a glove on me. I’m just a guy babbling about the fights and the fighters. I’m just another bit player in Floyd Mayweather’s reality show (laughs).

The Ring: How much longer do you see yourself doing this?

LM:As long as I love doing it, I’m able to do it (laughs), and as long as they’ll have me. I’ve had an amazing run, and I’m still standing, still here, still crazy after all these years. 

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