After finishing up a 35-year run providing some of the most poignant words to some of HBO’s greatest boxing moments, you had to know Hall of Fame broadcaster Larry Merchant wasn’t going to rest on his laurels long. Since retiring in December, he played himself in a movie alongside longtime colleague Jim Lampley and got a call from Top Rank Promotions to help commentate on a historic boxing card that will take place in Macao next month alongside fellow all-time great broadcaster Tim Ryan as well as former colleague and legendary former heavyweight champion George Foreman.
RingTV.com had the opportunity to catch up with Merchant and discuss those subjects and more, including his thoughts on the announcement that Floyd Mayweather will jump ship to Showtime after fighting his entire prime on HBO.
RingTV.com: Next month, you’ll be headed to Macao to do some commentary for HBO2 alongside Tim Ryan and George Foreman. How excited are you to be back ringside calling a fight after a few months hiatus since your last broadcast?
Larry Merchant: Well, I’m very excited that I’m going to some place I haven’t been to before. My wife will be accompanying me and we’re making a trip out of it. It is shaping up like a great holiday for me. I’m looking forward to having some fun with George and Tim Ryan, who is also an old colleague.
In fact, the first fight I ever did was with Tim Ryan at NBC. It was in Paris for NBC and it was a heavyweight fight and a middleweight championship fight and we had some smiles in Paris. What could be better than that? I don’t know if “excited” is the word, but I’m looking forward to it, I haven’t seen him in a number of years. I’ve always thought highly of him as a broadcaster. I think we did at least one fight for HBO since that time and I don’t remember which one it was, but we did something where, for one reason or another he was pinch hitting. I don’t recall the exact fight, though.
I’m looking forward to the whole thing, the travel, the fights, the exotic location, the whole idea of the Chinese first gold medal winner making his professional debut and how this man responds. All of that and the two American fighters, both of whom I like, so lets have a good night at the fights.
RTV: Who reached out to you asking if you’d like to be part of this historic broadcast? Was it Top Rank or was it HBO? What made you decide to pull the trigger and get back on the saddle?
LM: Well, Top Rank asked me to do some international feeds of fights broadcast in America a couple years ago, and though I could legally or technically do that in my contract, I didn’t feel like doing that at that time. So, when I left HBO, we communicated it and here we are. It was a surprise to me. At the time we agreed to do this, there was no American television network that was going to do the event as far as I knew. Since that time, HBO2 is doing it and we just can’t get rid of each other it seems. Of all the things I anticipated or expected, it wasn’t that HBO would be involved.
RTV: If I’m not mistaken, you haven’t done any commentating in the Far East since another pretty historic night over 20 years ago, when in 1990 Buster Douglas shocked the world and knocked out Mike Tyson. Though Macao is not Tokyo, you think it will bring back any memories of that night where both Douglas and yourself turned in memorable performances?
LM: We actually did two Tyson fights in Tokyo. The Buster Douglas fight and the Tony Tubbs one (in 1989). If I’m asked about it, of course it’ll jar loose some memories, but not really. That’s over 20 years ago. I’ve been to Asia a few other times, professionally and personally. I’m looking forward to this because I’ve never been to Macao and Hong Kong. As I often did when I had assignments abroad, my wife and I made a trip out of it and will go other places while there. It’s one of my prerequisites. It has to either be a fight that I really want to see or a location I really want to be.
RTV: It’s been awhile since you and George Foreman have done commentary together. Do you think you’ll just pick things up where you left off all those years ago? Have you and George talked since this was put together?
LM: I don’t know. Look, we are who we are. I don’t think we’ve changed a lot and we’ll try and have some fun. And no, I saw George for the first time in a number of years when we did my last fight in Houston because he lives near Houston. But otherwise I hadn’t seen George around in a few years since a fight that we did in Germany, I believe where he was part of the promotion. I haven’t had much of a chance to socialize with him, but I’m looking forward to seeing him again.
RTV: I know in the recent past as you were winding down with HBO, Jim Lampley has done a number of broadcasts without you ringside next to him, but for the life of me, I can’t think of many times where you’ve been there and there is no Jim. Do you anticipate that feeling any different? I know being as professional as you are, you won’t have any problem, but given you’ve been with the same partner for 20 years give or take, just curious if you anticipate a different feeling?
LM: Of course it will be different. We were a team for 25 years, so it will be different. You throw three guys together, hopefully we find a way to enhance the fight, which is the main event, the fights and the fighters.
RTV: Speaking of no Jim, do you think Ryan will be able to do a good job refereeing your on-air battles with Big George? I know Jim was pretty damn adept at that.
LM: It is interesting to me that people remember the fact that we sometimes disagreed with each other. I think that’s great, it is the whole idea of being able to have a former athlete and his perspective and a journalist and his perspective, that occasionally you’re going to see different things with a different angle of vision. I guess that it is so unusual that people remember that. You can’t make stuff up, you don’t do it deliberately. You see the same things, you see different things, and you discuss them, and hopefully in a civil and entertaining matter.
RTV: One of the fights on the card in Macao you will be covering features former U.S. Olympian Brian Viloria, coming off the highest profile win of his career. This is a flyweight contest, a weight division that historically hasn’t gotten much love from the major networks, HBO in particular. Do you think there is any pressure on him and his opponent to deliver a memorable performance in order to try and secure another date for the little guys?
LM: Just to be straight about it, this is not regular HBO. It is HBO, but its not HBO. I think it is an opportunity for fans to see one of the best little men this country has ever produced, certainly in modern times and Martirosyan is a treasure in the middleweight division and a lot of players. It is a nice card from the point of view of pure fight fans as well as the atmosphere that will surround it.
It’s not that HBO was never behind these little guys, its that American fight fans were never much fans of these little guys. Viloria has a good record and is pretty exciting.
RTV: This whole broadcast was arguably built around Zou Shiming, the Chinese Olympic medalist that Top Rank signed. He’s 31 years of age, but again, fights in a shallow weight division where they could be aggressive in matching him in order to get him up the ladder quicker. What kind of ceiling do you think a 31-year old in a weight division like his has?
LM: I have to admit, that because we have done so little about these little guys, I mean, I will do my homework and get familiar, but I’m not all that familiar and there are a lot of little guys at the top that are from Asia and there could be a huge, huge television audience in China. I don’t know what that means, in terms of the money he makes and how quickly he is capable of getting to be a ranked fighter because of his amateur experience. There’s no blueprint to that. He’s got to create it himself.
RTV: What are your thoughts on Floyd Mayweather defecting from HBO to Showtime?
LM: It’s a big win and a bigger statement by Showtime. How it turns out remains to be seen. I don’t know. I mean, he’s obviously in terms of himself as an attraction he’s the biggest name champion in the U.S. And how that resonates in all the different areas and how they use that, I don’t know. A 36-year old saying he is going to fight that many fights in that time frame after historically being a once-a-year fighter as of late, I am watching with as much curiosity as the next guy.
RTV: You were known for being a call it like you see it guy, one of the qualities fans loved most about you. With Floyd, that rubbed him the wrong way because he is one of those guys who likes to hear what he wants to hear. Was there ever any struggle with HBO in terms of them asking you to not go certain places with Floyd, knowing that he would react negatively to any questions that didn’t serve him?
LM: I always said what I felt was the truth about Mayweather. I gave him the highest praise in being a skilled boxer, a virtuoso boxer and defensive wizard, etc. And as one of the best fighters of his time. If that wasn’t enough for him, that’s him. I just always was able to say what I felt was true. That’s as far as I can go. There were certain things I asked that he didn’t want to answer, but then again, he doesn’t answer a lot of things.
RTV: Jim Gray is comically known for a few situations in which he overly grilled some athletes, namely Pete Rose at the MLB All-Star Game many years ago. Gray works for Showtime and will likely conduct any postfight interview with Floyd after his fight with Guerrero. Do you expect that same Jim Gray to show up and ask Floyd the questions he doesn’t want to be asked?
LM: I don’t know, and Jim’s been at it for a long time, he’s good at it and we’ll see how the fights play out and how the shows go and even Brian Kenny, he’s had run-ins with Floyd that are virtually the same as mine when he was at ESPN. So, I’m not the only one, Brian Kenny is terrific at the job he does, we’ll see how the network as a whole deals with it. He’s obviously very important to them.
RTV: Any thoughts on the fight between Floyd and Robert Guerrero, though it is still a ways away?
LM: I don’t know what the odds are, Floyd will be a big favorite. Guerrero did what he had to do to get here. And I hope he can make a fight out of it. That’s always been my priority, I hope to see a good fight.
RTV: Last question, what are some of the plans the wife has for you guys while you are in Macao?
LM: We are still making plans but most of what she will be interested in, there are a number of things, but the travel part afterwards is what we are working on. We will do some research as far as Macao and Hong Kong and specifics and that’s part of the fun of this is what we want to see, (and) what the surprises are.
I’ve had plenty of good trips through boxing and other things outside my career, Africa, South Africa, etc. and I’ve always looked forward to it. I covered Wimbledon for many years and spent a lot of time in Europe and so on and I’m always excited to go just as I am now.
RTV: Thanks for your time as always, Larry.
LM: Thank you. I hope we are able to turn in a good night calling the fights and the fighters show up and make it easy for us and deliver good fights to watch.
Mark Ortega is the boxing columnist for the Martinez News-Gazette and is a member of the Boxing Writers Assoc. of America and the RING Ratings Advisory Panel. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org as well as followed on Twitter @MarkEOrtega.