Most casual sports fans probably know TV broadcaster Jim Lampley best for his work on HBO´s World Championship Boxing and HBO´s pay-per-view telecasts, alongside the irrepressible Larry Merchant and velvety Emanuel Steward. Their commentary is often more intriguing, combative and colourful than the fights. Lampley is also the voice and face of the Olympic Games, a record 14 of which he has anchored on U.S. television networks. Of course true sports aficionados know and respect him for his singular work as substitute host on The Jim Rome Show, where he has torn up the airwaves with a dazzling blend of knowledge, wit and eloquence. There’s no mystery why Rome calls Lampley, “the smartest guy in the Jungle."
For those of us who’ve been around a bit longer, we know that Lampley possesses one of the most remarkable resumés in sports-broadcasting history – including working Super Bowl XIX with Al Michaels, covering the Indy 500, Wimbledon, the Ryder Cup, and anchoring most recently the 2008 Beijing Olympics – and has distinguished himself among his peers for his uniquely cerebral and probing take on sports, his passion, and his courage to speak his mind and to call something as he sees it.
It’s hard to believe that the ageless Lampley will turn 60 on April 8. He looks and carries himself like a man 20 years younger, and his observational powers and magnetic voice have lost none of their resonance or appeal over time. He is speaking most forcefully these days about boxing – and if one senses some defensiveness in his stance, it’s understandable. For better or worse, Lampley has become the “voice” of boxing, and one of its most passionate spokesmen – a double-edged distinction, given the ostensible chaos and corruption of the boxing world and the upsurge of interest in mixed martial arts, which despite disclaimers seems to have taken some of the thunder and many of the fans away from boxing. When asked if we’d like to chat with Lampley, TORO jumped at the chance and talked to him about boxing, mixed martial arts and almost 40 years of sports broadcasting.
Q: You’ve had a remarkable career as a sports broadcaster. Are you happy now to focus on boxing?
A: Oh, I love boxing. Boxing was my favourite sport when I was a kid. And when I began my broadcasting career, covering other sports, I was obviously an across-the-board omnibus sports fan and awkward about that, but pretty shortly into my broadcasting career I got hired at ABC Sports. I was working at the television-network level, but I was working at the television network where Howard Cosell individually controlled the exposure of boxing. You may recall that Howard used to call the fights on ABC by himself – no expert commentator. So at that time I stayed away, and didn’t have anything to do with boxing until Howard eventually left the telecast in the mid-’80s, and then I started calling fights. It remained my favourite sport in a private way.
And I think for a television sports commentator boxing offers you a freedom, an ability to participate in the editorial landscape that isn’t as existent in other sports, because it’s more of a subjective call. It’s not as statistically based. It’s not as empirically limited as doing what you do with other sportscasting pursuits. Football play-by-play: basically you’re there to say “second and nine” and then pass it on to the expert commentator. Baseball play-by-play: I’m not good enough to do it, never have been. Basketball play-by-play: fleeting, limited, impressionistic. Boxing: you sort of state the case for what you really believe you’re seeing, which may differ dramatically from what the guy in his living room is seeing. That’s okay. And you’re telling stories from round to round that are much more unstructured and free form than is the case for other sports. So, just as a technical pursuit, it’s the thing that I like the best, along with hosting the Olympics. I’ve managed to get my career down after 35 years on networks – I’ve managed to get my career down to where I truly most want it to be, which is just calling fights and hosting the Olympics, and that’s all I do.
Q: I was going to ask if you ever miss doing football.
A: No no, no. I love football. But the commentary on football – unless I were hosting the NFL studio [show] as I did at NBC back in the early 1990s – play-by-play on games is to me a real chore. I’m not saying it isn’t fun to do the game. But the preparation can be mind-numbing. I don’t call football games unless I draw up my own spotting chart, which is a matter of using your hands and doing something sort of artistic, and I was never good even in the third-grade science projects, so it’s a challenge to go through all of that. And there’s such tedium in a whole football season that doesn’t exist for me in calling fights.
Q: Let me make a comment on the sort of discourse we receive when we watch these boxing matches hosted by you and Larry Merchant in particular, and Emanuel Stewart: the philosophical, provocative, sometimes controversial back and forth differs from anything we get, say, with John Madden, to use an example from football. I’ve always found it refreshing, but you put it into context when you said that you enjoy a freedom commentating on boxing that you don’t with other sports.
A: One thing I always say about boxing is, and again, it affects the role of the sportscaster: Most sports start out from a platform of perceived legitimacy. They tried to fend off accusations of illegitimacy. In boxing you sort of start at the level of corruption and try to go up from there. So, you’re in a freer landscape to begin with. I mean, there’s no outrage. What could you possibly see that you haven’t seen before? And the truth is always stranger than fiction. And so that presents a palette where if you can think in a provocative way, like Larry Merchant, you can scare up really interesting angles for stories, as he does.
And the other thing is of course we’re on a premium-pay cable network, and therefore there are no advertisers. And as a sportscaster I can absolutely tell you that your level of freedom is dramatically affected by the fact that there are no advertisers who are invested in the broadcast. You know, if we make a risky joke or an extreme observation, you don’t have to worry that Procter & Gamble is going to call the salesman on Monday and say, “We don’t like that.” And that’s a big help.
Q: What are your feelings about boxing in the present age – can you give me a capsule state of the union as it were about the boxing world today?
A: The most globalized sport and probably the most rapidly globalizing sport over the course of the past 20 years. Therefore dramatically misunderstood, particularly in the United States where there’s this romantic perception that boxing is still supposed to be a sport governed and controlled by black American fighters, with occasional entertainment from foreign shores, as opposed to what it really is, which is a very dramatically globalized melting pot.
It’s a sport in which anything and everything can happen in all corners of the globe now. The world’s best and most exciting fighter is a Filipino. The best heavyweight is a Ukrainian. The second-best heavyweight is his brother. Anybody who might endanger them is probably in Eastern Europe or Africa. The British no longer are horizontal jokes, but rather are almost uniformly formidable in every weight class. Two of the top six or seven fighters in the world are Britons, and one of them has a chance to end his career with a mark that’s almost equal to Rocky Marciano. It’s striking what has gone on in terms of the migration of prominence, not talent, but prominence in boxing from the United States to other shores. There are still good American fighters. They’re just being swamped in the marketplace by fighters from other cultures.
Q: Does that also point to an ethos that has changed in the United States? I mean, we’ve seen the same thing with baseball and basketball.
A: People ask me, where are the heavyweight contenders from America? And I say, they are playing power forward or outside linebacker. There isn’t the same kind of gritty street culture and poverty in America that once prompted kids to go into boxing.
Q: I’ve always been a boxing fan – but quite frankly, I have no idea which organizations are running the show today – I don’t really know who the heavyweight champion of the world is. But I know a hell of a lot about MMA fighters of every stripe. Is this a question of MMA marketing their product better, or novelty, or a genuine passing of the guard when it comes to pugilistic sports?
A: Let me answer your question first with a question. So I can be sure of something. Do you know a lot about MMA fighters of every stripe, or do you know a lot about UFC fighters, and mostly exclusively UFC fighters?
Q: Very good point. Of course, mostly UFC fighters.
A: I think that what’s perceived as the giant success of MMA is actually the big success of the UFC. Because there are several other MMA organizations which have gone bankrupt or are struggling now. So it’s really only UFC which has achieved this cachet that people keep talking about. And if you think about it, it’s a little like saying that if a boxing organization, like the WBA or the WBC or the IBF could concentrate so much power and promotional credibility they would eliminate attention paid to the others, and their people would be seen as the people and they would have a marketing niche that proceeds through kind of star identities that sell. And one of the things that bothers you about boxing, and bothers most people about it, is that there might be four champions in any given division at any given time. They’re called champions because they have belts from governing bodies with no hierarchy to tell them that one of them is more important or more prominent than the others.
People who watch MMA, a lot of them pay attention only to UFC. Now what does that mean? UFC hires their own announcers – they don’t deal with a Larry Merchant and a Jim Lampley picking them apart from a perspective of legitimate honesty and saying whatever they want to say. We’re talking about an organization where the promoter has hired the commentators. Now that’s an entirely different kind of broadcast than what we do or what anybody in boxing does. That’s really a lot more like pro wrestling. Because then they tell the story that they want to tell.
So the bottom line is, they have a tremendous advantage, UFC does, over what goes on in boxing. Is that because boxing people are dumb and UFC people are smart? To a certain degree, yeah. No question about it. They have done a better job of organizing and promoting the product to make an impact on the marketplace over the course of the past 12, 15 years. Does it mean that UFC, or MMA, is as legitimate and important and resonant a cultural experience as boxing? Not in a million years. Not even close. Boxing is a sport with a 120-year history, and extremely deep penetration in various cultures around the globe – most particularly American culture where it has produced some of the most prominent socio-political figures to be found in all of sport, most notably, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. No Joe Louis, no Muhammad Ali, no Barack Obama.
And so I think you have to be careful about judging something purely on the basis of a market penetration as opposed to looking at the institution as a whole. One thing we try to do at HBO Boxing is what you talked about earlier: it’s to look at the institution as a whole and present in an unvarnished fashion.
Q: Do you think MMA will, in the end, fade, survive or supersede boxing?
A: I think it’s here to stay. I think it’s here to keep existing. I think in a hundred years from now it will be interesting to see how variegated their experience is. But I believe there’s room for both, and that both are going to continue to exist and both are going to produce stars. And you know, I used to think of this in terms of “I like boxing because it’s better.” But now I think of it in terms of “I like boxing because it’s boxing” – and some people like MMA because it’s MMA. It’s no better and no worse, it is what it is. And I think there’s room in the cultural marketplace for both.
Q: As a boxing commentator you’ve had the opportunity to call some of boxing’s most famous moments: when Julio César Chàvez knocked out Meldrick Taylor with two seconds to go in the last round, or James “Buster” Douglas’s upset of Mike Tyson for the world heavyweight championship, and the “It happened ... it happened!” moment of George Foreman´s comeback against Michael Moorer ... any personal favourite moments – both as commentator and as a “secret” fan?
A: Clearly, unquestionably my favourite moment both as a broadcaster and as a “secret” fan, is Foreman knocking out Michael Moorer to win the heavyweight championship at age 45. And there are a thousand reasons for that. You know, I worked with him. We have a friendship. We are about 2½ months apart in age – he was born in January, I was born in April, 1949. And it was something I flat out told him he couldn’t do. And he had flat out told me that he could do it.
And the line itself is clearly the most succinctly memorable line of my boxing-commentating career. If somebody knows me for something I said, particularly in boxing, more often than not it’s because of “It happened ... it happened.” And typically, I think for something like that, it was completely unplanned, and in fact pretty much the product of the serendipity of unplanning. Because as referee Joe Cortez was standing above Michael Moorer and counting, I was thinking to myself, “Why aren’t you the kind of guy who thinks in advance about what might happen here and have something pat and penetrating ready for this? Why didn’t you sit up last night and say to yourself, exactly what should I say if George pulls off what he told me he was going to do and knocks out Michael Moorer and wins the heavyweight championship at age 45?” And all I can think about was, somehow, “It happened ... it happened.” Well, looking back from the perspective of 13 years down the road, that was the right line, and I’m glad that it came out that way.
And there’s lots of other moments – I can never forget what happened at the end of Chàvez vs. Taylor, and no one can ever forget what happened in Tokyo with Douglas and Tyson, and to call Gatti vs. Ward, and Barrera vs. Morales, those trilogies, Bowe vs. Holyfield, that trilogy, all those things are amazing ... but far and way the one moment would be “It happened ... it happened.”
HBO Canada is now home to HBO’s most popular, action-packed live-sports series: World Championship Boxing (WCB) and Boxing After Dark (BAD). Subscribers can now see approximately one fight per month from each series – live, uncut and commercial-free. More info: www.hbocanada.com
Salvatore Difalco is, among many things, senior writer for TORO and the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories.