Larry Merchant might be HBO Sports’ resident poet laureate, but Jim Lampley, the blow-by-blow announcer for the pay-cable giant’s boxing telecasts, is no fringe contender when it comes to making erudite observations.
Lampley, who will host a new HBO series on boxing debuting on May 12, The Fight Game With Jim Lampley, said much of boxing’s appeal owes to the fact that it is not regularly scheduled and thus as predictable in its presentation, as the major team sports. Football, basketball and baseball, Lampley concludes, are based on “abundance and regularity,” while boxing is more about “scarcity and irregularity,” which makes every fight card “an entrepreneurial snowflake. Why is this fight taking place? It is an underlying context that is unique in sports.”
Actually, Lamps made those comments to Houston Chronicle TV/Radio columnist David Barron prior to the March 24 fight in Houston in which Danny Garcia, the young fighter from Philadelphia, won the vacant WBC junior welterweight title by a unanimous decision over veteran Erik Morales. But I came away from reading the relatively brief item curious as to what Lampley’s new show was about, as well as his thoughts on a 38-year career in sports broadcasting that has carried him from boy-toy sideline reporter for college football telecasts to his current status as perhaps the preeminent voice of TV boxing.
Every conversation I’ve ever had with Jim Lampley has mentally engaged me, and this one – nearly an hour’s stroll down his personal memory lane – was no different. He even told me bits and pieces of his story that I’d never heard before, which is not unlike finding a box in the corner of your attic and discovering that it contained all manner of unexpected treasures.
But first, let’s take a look at The Fight Game With Jim Lampley, which is expected to consist of at least four episodes between now and the end of the year. It will not be a documentary, a format which HBO Sports long ago mastered, but more of a news-of-the-day studio show in which Lampley will be free to tackle any subject that is current or tickles his fancy.
Ken Hershman, the new HBO Sports president who recently came over from Showtime, is a longtime admirer of Lampley’s who wanted to give him more of a forum for expressing his views than is available while calling fights. Changes at the top always bear scrutiny, and Lampley is as anxious as anyone to see how Hershman’s leadership impacts HBO’s boxing package.
“There’s an openness and a sense of inquiry and curiosity in what comes next,” he said. “Ken is tremendously respectful of what’s come before. Good for him for that. It’s exactly how it should be. But he’s also tremendously confident of his own abilities and his belief to institute changes that will help the product.”
And what sort of product will The Fight Game With Jim Lampley be?
“It’s more in keeping with what Bob Costas did … on `Real Sports,’ which was intelligent treatises of boxing material,” Lampley continued. “What I’m trying to do is to launch something that deals in a 24-hour news cycle, just as a cable news show would. We’re shooting to show something in real time in the 24 to 48 hours before we go on, and we’d better be darn well prepared to discuss it.
“It’s not a documentary, it’s not a personality program. It’s a hard-informational presentation about boxing that will attempt to put together as much categorical data as we can deliver within a 30-minute package. If there’s a scoring controversy, Jim Lampley should be saying something about scoring. If Floyd Mayweather just fought Miguel Cotto the week before, we’re going to have something intelligent, and original if possible, to say about what happened.
“It so happens that my first show is six days before the 10th anniversary of the first Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti fight, which gives us a chance to commemorate that event. It’s important because it provides me a means from time to time to present the `Gatti List.’ Everybody puts together Top 10 pound-for-pound lists, and we acknowledge that Floyd Mayweather is the best fighter in the world. But the `Gatti List’ will be the Top 10 most entertaining fighters, those who minute by minute and round by round most earn fans’ pay-per-view money and viewing interest because of the way they fight. Arturo serves as the iconic definition of what that means.”
Strange as it may seem, so identifiable is the now-silver-thatched and bespectacled Lampley with boxing, that it took years for him to be given a shot at calling his favorite sport. When he joined ABC Sports in 1974, Howard Cosell was the network’s boxing voice and he didn’t want to share the microphone with anyone.
“I arrived at ABC Sports in 1974 as one of the first two people selected for the guinea pig role of being on the sideline with a microphone for college football telecasts,” he said. “Nobody had ever been in that particular position before. It was an experimental process, really.
“I managed to make it through three years on the sidelines before getting onto a staff that included Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, Bill Fleming, Chris Schenkel. Everybody there had a hall of fame resume. I was the newcomer, the fresh meat.
“`Wide World of Sports’ was the heart of the matter. It was a little bit of everything, and everybody had already done everything. Even Cosell had done wrist-wrestling, the New York State Fireman’s competition. And he loved doing `Battle of the Network Stars’ because it was prime-time.
“I spent three or four years in the 1970s building my career, doing all that stuff four, five, six times. I did the wrist-wrestling five or six times, the lumberjack contest five or six times.”
But what Lampley really wanted to do was boxing, which was always going to be off-limits so long as Cosell was around.
“Howard was extremely protective of his turf,” Lampley said. “He didn’t want anybody else to come near it.
“Anyway, in 1987, I was standing and watching Hagler-Hearns on closed-circuit in an executive suite. One of the ABC officials was standing with me, watching the fight. We were talking about it when he said, `You know a lot about boxing. How come you never said anything to us about doing boxing?’ I just gave him a blank stare as if to say, `Why would you even ask that? Everybody knows the answer.’”
Shortly thereafter, Lampley went to Atlantic City, N.J., to call a fight into a tape machine, to see if he really did have an aptitude for doing boxing. Alex Wallau, who had replaced the retired Cosell as ABC’s boxing announcer and was also the head of the network’s sports division, told Lampley, “We want to find a new identity for our on-air boxing telecasts and establish it because we’re going to sign this kid heavyweight.”
The kid heavyweight turned out to be Mike Tyson.
“My first boxing telecast on the air for ABC Sports was on Feb. 22, 1986, Jesse Ferguson vs. Mike Tyson in Glen Falls, N.Y.,” Lampley said. “That was the fight made famous by the `I’m-gonna-drive-his-nose-bone-into-his-brain comment by Tyson. After Tyson knocked Ferguson out with an uppercut, I remember driving back to New York and thinking, `This is going to be fun.’”
Not as much fun, though, as the Tyson-Buster Douglas fight in Tokyo that Lampley, by then with HBO, still claims is the most memorable event of his broadcasting career.
“Without question, the most unusual telecast I ever did,” said Lampley, who disagrees with those who insist that the main thing boxing needs is a return to over-the-air commercial television.
“I don’t think boxing is a commercial network television sport,” he said. “I think there’s a fantasy that to be real, you have to exist within a commercial network format. Boxing really doesn’t work there, and never has. It’s a bad marriage. It’s really a premium-cable sport.
“You need only watch two telecasts of the same fight, one with commercial breaks and one without, to see what I’m talking about. If you lose that minute between rounds, to a degree you’ve given up the heart of the experience.”