Back in the day, when I was a kid and the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns-Roberto Duran foursome ruled the sport, I absolutely loved boxing. It was probably my favorite sport, and I’d watch and watch and watch, rooting for the underdogs, blasting the favorites, anxious for my hero (Leonard) to vanquish all foes.
Then, gradually, I lost interest.
The game was just too brutal and inhumane. No union, tons of trauma, lots of creepy older men making millions of unsophisticated youngsters from the inner-cities. I walked away, and—with rare exception—never looked back. What once seemed magical and splendid felt grimy and gross.
That being said, the one redeeming aspect of the sport was its announcers and, in particular, Al Bernstein. Throughout my childhood, Al was the soundtrack to boxing. Appearing primarily on ESPN, he broke things down, explained the mechanisms in easily understood terminology, brought humanity to a vicious world. He wasn’t a smooth, silky voice lording from above. No, Al was human and gritty; my type of guy.
One can follow Al on Twitter here, and order his new book, Al Bernstein: 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths about Boxing, Sports and TV, here.
Al Bernstein, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Al, oftentimes when I ponder boxing I think back to Tex Cobb taking an absolute beating at the hands of Larry Holmes. It wasn’t only an embarrassingly brutal fight, but it was also the last one called by Howard Cossell. And here’s the thing: I love boxing. I truly do. The athleticism, the strategy, the artistry. But it’s also ugly, brutal, occasionally debilitating. Al, you’ve devoted much of your career to boxing. Does that ever come with a crisis of conscience?
AL BERNSTEIN: Interesting question. Though I boxed as an amateur and played many sports I have to say that most of my endeavors in life have been decidedly non violent. From music and theater to horseback riding to writing and everything else in between I have embraced things that don’t fit the boxing paradigm. And yet, so much of my adult life has been about boxing. Though I have covered other sports I am known for boxing. There have been occasions when I am sitting there calling a fight when the violent nature of the sport seems overwhelming. But, since I treat it as a sport I am able to compartmentalize enough to get that out opt my head. Gene Hackman once told me that he is sometimes ashamed that he loves boxing as much as he does. But, I believe it is a sport—I feel that even participating as an amateur, as I did, can be a very rewarding experience.And over all these years the one core thought that guides me is the unabiding respect I have for all boxers.
J.P.: This might be a bit more lame than my general questions, but I have to ask: A seminal moment from my youth was Leonard-Hagler. I watched the fight on a closed-circuit showing at Westchester Community College with my dad, and all I wanted was for Sugar Ray to win. Afterward, I was euphoric, giddy, floating. Al, what do you remember from the event? The night? And who do you think actually won?
A.B.: It was one of those amazing nights at the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace that defined the 1980s in boxing. A few years earlier I had called the Hagler-Hearns fight in that same venue. The Four Kings (Hagler, Leonard, Hearns and Duran) were boxing royalty and all the events involving them were special. The big fight atmosphere that week was amazing—unlike anything—even for that era. Everyone was there that weekend and I had an interesting vantage point to see the great and near great on hand because I was singing doing my musical show at Caesars for three nights leading up to the fight. The audience each night was a who’s who from that time. The fight was interesting, but was certainly not like Hagler-Hearns. I thought Hagler won the fight by 2 points as one of the judges had it. It could have gone to ray by a little, but the 118-111 score was absurd. It was an amazing event though.
J.P.: I have a theory. Recently, after the death of Ali there have been a bevy of Best Living Fighter lists—and Mike Tyson never cracks the Top 10. Like, never, ever. They say he never fought anyone. They say he was severely flawed. They say he was an embarrassment against Holyfield. And, while the points are sound, I feel like people forget how absolutely dominant and impenetrable he was for a window in time. Al, is Tyson simply not as good as I remember? Or are people suffering from fogged memories?
A.B.: I think the truth on Tyson in his prime is somewhere between those two extremes. He was dominant over a decent group of heavyweights and that Tyson would certainly be a hand full for any heavyweight in any era. Bu, he was a smallish heavyweight who would have trouble with two types. Really big strong men who could physically handle him (Like Lennox Lewis and probably George Foreman) or terrific boxers like Ali or a Larry Holmes in his prime. Of course, Holyfield had his number and the reason for that is Evander’s toughness and chin combined with his accurate combination punching, ability to counter, and creative arsenal of punches. Tyson was very good in his prime, but I think he’s in the middle of the top 10 heavies of all time and certainly not in the top 10 all time fighters of all weights—not even in top 30 for me.
J.P.: I’m embarrassed to say that I wasn’t aware that you are, at your core, a newspaper guy. You started your career in 1974 as the managing editor at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago. So … what was the scene? The situation? How did you land the job? What were you covering? Good memories? Bad? Both?
A.B.: I was the sports editor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and my goal from the time I was 10 years old was to be a sports writer. After college I got a job as a reporter at Lerner Newspapers, but in hard news. I covered politics, community affairs, etc. I did an investigative series on an illegal land deal for which I won an award by the Chicago Newspaper guild and that propelled me to the job of managing editor of part of the newspaper chain. I was really young, like about 26 or 27—too young. My goal of being a sports writer was pushed father away as I served as editor of that newspaper. I freelanced in sports, but lived in the news world. And, I wasn’t even really writing much for the paper. I got promoted for my writing and then I was an administrator. By the time I was 30 I was burn out on being a newspaperman. To this day I am proud of the work I did in community newspapers, but I got burnt out. However, the experience that gave me has been so valuable in everything I have done since. That foundation served me well.
J.P.: You were hired by something called ESPN in 1980. Were you more of the “Holy shit! This is going to be huge!” camp or of the “What the hell is ESPN, and will this thing last a month?” camp? What were the early days of the network like?
A.B.: I was ecstatic to be able to break in with ESPN. Remember I was having a hard time even getting to cover sports! I wrote a book on boxing and did a little TV in Chicago and then when ESPN came to Chicago as one of the four stops for the Top Rank Boxing Series I clawed my way in as a kind of helper because I knows there boxers in that area. then I got a chance to sit in on one of the shows and it went from there. We were all inventing cable television back then. ESPN was only in about 3 million homes when I started doing boxing in 1980. And yes, we did not know how long it might last. Everyone cashed their checks very quickly. It all felt like television’s version of community theater. But, it was becoming a cult hit and the boxing show was the most watched series on ESPN in those first four or five years. In my book I wrote that “we were to television what M.A.S.H unites were to medicine.” Still with not too many resources we made some very good television. many talented people worked at ESPN in those early years and we all felt like a band of brothers pushing forward. those were halcyon times for the Sports departments of the over the air networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) and the creature comforts for those folks were pretty amazing. Not so much for us. LOL But, I certainly didn’t care. I was thrilled to be sportscasting and to grow along with ESPN. It was exhilarating.
J.P.: TV seems like a pretty thankless profession, oftentimes ruled by surface imagery, sexiness over skill, youth over knowledge. Yet you’ve survived and thrived for nearly 40 years. How?
A.B.: Well, sports television has gone through some seismic changes since 1980 and I have been around to see all of them. Navigating through those changes can be tricky and I have hit some bumpy spots like everyone else, but overall I have been really fortunate. Perhaps one key for me is that as a broadcaster I have always lived in the present. While I appreciate sports history and honor it, I don’t litter my commentary with references to the past. So, I don’ think audiences of any decade feel like I’m looking backwards. While I have adapted and evolved, especially by embracing things like social media, I have actually never changed my approach to sportscasting or my methods. The exact same guiding principles and technique that I used in the 1980’s are the ones I use today. While I hope I have improved on some technique from the very beginning there has been little or no change in how I do it. This was a risky approach because the role of analyst or color commentator has indeed changed over these past 36 years. In recent years many networks and indeed producers have come to value argument over discussion, opinion over information and loudness over intelligence. Humor on sports telecasts has become more sophomoric and commentators on live events often talk about topics only vaguely related to the action in front of them. That kind of behavior was once chastised, now it is encouraged. All this is not to say there are not many talented sportscaster who ply their craft superbly, but for the most part sportscasting has become about the sportscaster overpowering the event, not just enhancing it. All this is especially true for the analysts, more so than the play by play announcers. So, for me to be an analyst who is operating somewhat differently to the pervading atmosphere has left me open to danger. I was very fortunate when I left ESPN, where the “chew the scenery” approach by analysts had been firmly installed, to go to Showtime where they wanted my approach specifically. And from 2003 to now have been tremendously enjoyable and fruitful for me. I enjoy sportscasting as much today as I did in 1980.
J.P.: Calling a fight seems nearly impossible. I mean, I’ve covered my share of ring action, and I struggle to simply figure out the sequence of a combination. So what are the keys to doing televised boxing well? Is it instinctive? Are you furiously jotting notes? Both?
A.B.: The first key is to be well prepared. That’s true of anything I guess, but a sportscaster needs a lot of information to be good. As an analyst on a boxing event I have several responsibilities. 1. To use data, stats and conversations with the boxer to at various points in the match help explain something that happened and or add to the viewer’s knowledge of the fighters themselves. 2. Analyze the action so that you can add insight into what has just happened and what might happen. Those are my two main mission statements—and a third, ancillary one is to be entertaining and interesting in the way you do those first two. I come to ringside with bullet point notes culled from all the prep work that we have done leading up to the fight and from viewing video of the fighters on the card. I have made rules that I live by. 1. Try never to over talk the event ( a common malady these days in sportscasting), 2. Never talk in the first or last 15 seconds of any round (so as not to interfere with the play by play person) 3. Try to never talk in spurts longer than 20 seconds because action can change so quickly in a boxing match 4. most important of all check yourself constantly to make sure you are talking about both fighters and not dwelling on just one, which leads to 5. Be fair and NEVER prejudge what the themes will be in a fight or sporting event. There may have been times in these many hundreds of boxing shows I have done where I may have violated some of those rules, but I assure you it was never intentional. Even With the structured and organized approach I try to take, there is instinct involved. You need an innate ability to read the ebb and flow of the boxing match to be effective as an analyst on live boxing. You have to be in the moment and most of all pay attention to every detail as much as you can.
J.P.: You appeared as yourself as a fight commentator in Rocky V—a film even Sylvester Stallone has disavowed. I know this is random, but I’m wondering what you remember from the experience? And did you know the film was sort of a turd as it was being filmed?
A.B.: It was a nice experience, as almost all the movies experiences have been for me. It’s interesting to participate in film and episodic TV. Certainly different than doing live TV. I have had pleasant experiences around Sly over the years. I could not really tell if the film was going to work from the scenes I was involved in. I know the film was not the best of the series, but I was struck that Tommy Morrison was so professional in his approach to this film. He had never acted before and was thrust into this leading role. He was not exactly Olivier, but I thought he did very well given his total lack of experience. I will say he knew his lines for every take and was always trying to improve. In every movie I’ve been in I play myself and so the funniest Tweet ever sent my way said this. “I just saw you in Play It To The Bone. You came pretty close to nailing the character.” Now that was funny.
J.P.: You’ve said, “Ray Robinson is the best who ever lived.” Why?
A.B.: He was 131-1 as a welterweight. Think of that. And many of the men he faced would end up in the Hall Of Fame. Then he moved up to middleweight and was brilliant all the way up to 40 years of age. He did everything well in the ring. he had one of the best jabs ever, one of the best left hooks ever, a great right, superb uppercut, he moved like a ballet dancer and he could hit with astonishing power. He fought terrific fighters like Randy Turpin, Bobo Olsen, Jake LaMotta, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and many others as a middleweight. I just think he was everything you would want a boxer to be.
J.P.: Random one: I’m terrified of my own mortality. Absolutely terrified. I hate that I’ll die; hate the idea of eternal nothingness. This is the shit that keeps me up. How about you? What are your thoughts?
A.B.: That’s a deep question. I can say that as I have gotten older I think about mortality more. The realization that you have fewer years left than you have spent on earth can be daunting. But, my wife faced death when she had stage four breast cancer 13 years ago at much too young an age for that and through great treatment and her own efforts to help the process she is still here and living a very active life. So, a premature death has haunted our family—as it did for me as a youngster when my dad died when I was 12. But, I feel fortunate to be around and pretty healthy, still able to enjoy my profession, ride my horse, go sing in clubs from time to time and enjoy life. I have a 17-year-old son and that keeps you active and involved. The part of your question that does get me melancholy sometimes is realizing now that there are certain things in life I will probably never do that I want to—available time and circumstance will not allow them. I’m not religious so I see actual death kind of as you do. So, that makes me want to enjoy life as much as possible.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH AL BERNSTEIN:
• Five greatest right-handed Jewish fighters of your lifetime: Well, Dana Rosenblatt was a lefty, so that rules him out. Mike Rossman was half Jewish, does he count? LOL. I’m going to have to defer on this one—not sure I can come up with a good list.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): X-Men, Dmitriy Salita, unicorns, the Corner Bakery Café, Cindy Crawford, L.L. Bean, Stuart Scott, Synchronicity, Bon Iver, Lexis, LL Cool J, Chase bank, fish tacos, Trent Richardson, your left knee: X-Men, LL Cool J, Cindy Crawford, Stuart scott, LL Bean, Synchronicity, Lexis, Dimitry Salido, Corner Bakery cafe, unicorns, Bon Iver, Chase Bank, Trent Richardson, my left knee, fish tacos
• How many fights have you been in in your life? How’d they go?: In the ring about 20 or so (3 losses) outside the ring 5 or 6. One bad loss, one good win, others in between.
• Five reasons one should make Atlantic City his/her next vacation destination?: Hmm. My wife had a home in Brigantine, which is lovely. For AC, I guess the ocean, the taffy, the White House subs, headliners at the casino and gaming if you like it.
• Funniest thing you’ve ever seen Don King do?: He has never been funny to me.
• Three memories from your first-ever job: I worked a summer job at a candy factory on my summers to make mopey for school. It was packing boxes, shoveling chocolate into a vat and driving a forklift. It was great for staying in shape for sports, and since I lived with my single mom and we lived paycheck to paycheck so the money was helpful. The main memory I have of that is meeting some really great people who worked in that factory to support their families.
• If Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney fought 100 times, how many times would Cooney have prevailed?: I think 15 to 20.
• In exactly 28 words, make an argument for John Ruiz: He worked as hard as any fighter ever. He had courage and grit, he upset Evander Holyfield and he has really helped amateur boxing in the United States.
• Can a very pretty woman who farts hourly (and loudly) still be sexy?: Well, that’s only a few seconds of the hour, so probably yes. And, this is a very weird question.
• I absolutely loved Creed. Most of my friends did not. Your thoughts?: I think Creed is a really good film