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Re: "Larry Merchant and HBO"- Thomas Hauser article
“I’m not going to dodge the reality of what’s happening,” Merchant continued. “Change of this nature causes anxiety, but I feel good about myself and I’m optimistic about the future. I have a lot of good memories. When I look back over the years, that run in the eighties with Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, and Duran was fantastic. Holmes-Cooney was a fascinating event. Tyson-Douglas, Holyfield-Bowe, Gatti-Ward, Barrera-Morales; those fights were extraordinary. But all good things come to an end.”
On February 28th, Greenburg and Ray Stallone (HBO’s vice president for sports publicity) met with Merchant in Los Angeles to discuss how his departure from the network would be handled from a public relations point of view.
“They were in a very self-protective mode,” Merchant said afterward. “Ross wanted to be seen as the good guy who asked me to stay on. They handed me a written outline of how they hoped I would explain this to the media; the idea being that HBO offered to keep me on in a slightly different role but that I wanted to go in a different direction. It was corporate-speak and ignored the reality that Ross made it very clear to me by his words and actions that he wanted me out. I said I’d think about it. We agreed that Taylor-Spinks [on May 19th] would be my last fight. Then they asked what sort of pomp and circumstance I wanted at the end, and I told them that I didn’t want a grand tour. Whatever I do, I’ll plan it myself.”
Thereafter, Merchant drafted some farewell remarks that he intended to share with viewers on May 19th. When asked, he told Rick Bernstein (executive producer of HBO Sports) that he did not want an on-air tribute at the close of the telecast.
Then the landscape shifted. Word began to leak out that Merchant wouldn’t be continuing at HBO, and there was an outpouring of emotion from the boxing community. It came from fighters, writers, managers, promoters, television personnel, and fans. There was anger over his imminent departure, coupled respect for Merchant himself.
“Ross didn’t have a clue as to the backlash he’d get because he doesn’t understand boxing fans or most of the people in boxing,” says one HBO insider. “He had no idea how many people would stand by Larry, and he had no idea that there would be such a negative reaction to Max.”
“I’m disappointed,” said Seth Abraham. “Larry and I were together for 25 years and I consider him a friend, so I’m not a dispassionate observer. But having Larry or not having Larry doesn’t change the audience demographics. And a broadcast team is just that. It’s a team. Larry makes everyone else on the team better. He asks the right questions. He has the right follow-up. He never tries to be bigger than his fellow commentators. The question is not whether Max is better than Larry. The question is, ‘Will Max make the team better?’”
“Just because you’re the head of a department doesn’t mean that you have a monopoly on brains,” Abraham continued. “Sometimes you have a monopoly on shortsightedness and stupidity. That’s one reason I’ve always liked consensus. When I was at HBO, I had the final vote, subject at times to the approval of [CEOs] Michael Fuchs and Jeff Bewkes. But there were occasions when I would think one thing and Ross, Lou [DiBella], Mark [Taffet], and even [financial officer] Barbara Thomas would have a different point of view. When that happened, I’d go into Bryant Park, sit down with a cup of cappucino, and ask myself, ‘Why do these very intelligent people have a view that’s different than mine?’ And often -- not always, but often – I’d come around to their view. Larry brings so much to the telecast. He’ll be missed in many ways. If I were the president of HBO Sports – and I’m not, it’s Ross’s decision to make – I would renew Larry’s contract.”
Blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley also sang Merchant’s praises. It’s axiomatic in boxing that styles make fights, but styles also make announcing teams. The chemistry between Lampley and Merchant is superb; a blend of fire and ice. The one time that Lampley and Kellerman had been paired (on HBO’s October 14, 2006, telecast of Joe Calzaghe versus Sakio Bika), the on-air chemistry between them had not been good. There were fears that replacing Larry with Max could wind up being the equivalent of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
Lampley spoke of Kellerman in complimentary terms but had special praise for Merchant. “Larry is not replaceable,” Jim said. “He’s unique in the history of our sport in terms of his integrity. The term ‘truth-teller’ is often used. It’s the kind of flattery that anyone would like to hear, but to say it about Larry is to say it in the purest possible sense. Larry has never shilled for a moment. He has never bent to corporate will for a moment. Whether dealing with a fighter, a promoter, a corporate executive, a major sponsor, anyone; he has never said a word that he didn’t firmly believe was the truth. I can only hope that someday, somewhere in my career, I can look at myself and, in my heart of hearts, believe that I’m as courageous as Larry. He inspires me every day that I work with him and he will continue to inspire me after he’s gone.”
Others were less charitable in viewing the situation. “I don’t understand who Ross thinks he’s appealing to with this move,” said one industry insider. “I keep hearing, ‘Younger demographic! Younger demographic!’ Let’s get real. Does Max appeal to young urban blacks? You’ve got to be kidding. Young women? I don’t think so. The NASCAR crowd? No way. Instead of pandering to a younger demographic that he doesn’t understand, Ross should try appealing to a boxing demographic. Better fights will attract more viewers.”
Meanwhile, Kellerman was in a difficult situation. The lead analyst position on World Championship Boxing was his dream job and he was on track to get it. But the issue of Merchant’s termination was making Max a lightning rod for criticism of HBO, and he was being attacked on both a professional and personal level.
“Max is a provocateur, not an analyst,” said one member of HBO’s production team. “To be an analyst, it’s not enough to be able to talk. You need judgment and maturity and you have to know what you’re talking about. There are times when Larry pauses on air to search for the right word. That’s not age. That’s thinking before he speaks instead of shooting off his mouth.”
On a February 17th Boxing After Dark telecast, Kellerman had likened Paulie Malignaggi to Billy Conn. As reported by Internet writer Charles Jay, “Max proceeded to make this comment about Malignaggi as the self-proclaimed ‘Magic Man’ entered the ring: ‘He’s an ethnic white guy, fights in the Northeast, doesn’t hit with a lot of power, and so inevitably he reminds me of the great Billy Conn, light-heavyweight champion, who gave a very good showing against the great Joe Louis, a heavyweight, much like Malignaggi gave a very good showing against Miguel Cotto at junior-welterweight.’”
“INEVITABLY he reminds you of Conn?” Jay wrote. “I had no idea of the inevitability of that comparison. That’s kind of like saying that, because they’re both loud, obnoxious, and Jewish, Kellerman should be compared to Howard Cosell.”
Actually, most people who meet Kellerman and talk with him one-on-one find him rather likable, whereas Cosell was even more abrasive and unpleasant in person than he was on television. Also, Cosell frequently sought to undermine his commentating partners, while Kellerman does the opposite. By way of example, Lennox Lewis says, “From the very beginning, Max has done everything he could to make me feel more comfortable behind the microphone.”
Regardless, Max has lobbed quite a few hard verbal shots at targets on the air. And in boxing, when you throw punches, punches come back.
“Replacing Larry Merchant with Max Kellerman is like replacing Jack Nicholson with Jack Black,” Ron Higgins of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal wrote. “Kellerman has zero journalistic background and is just another blabby radio-talk-show host whose schtick plays well on TV for the attention-deficit-disorder demographic of video-game zombies who prefer their knowledge in five-second sound-bytes.”