Larry Merchant may be the longest-running television star who, in the teevee jargon, couldn't find the camera. For 35 years, he was a commentator on HBO boxing shows. For 35 years, the camera had to find him. It usually found him with his eyes cast down. Or he'd be looking out of the frame. On his face, that it'll-come-to-me look that writers get when they're beseeching a muse they're not sure exists.
The words would come to Merchant, they always did. Then the real trouble began. That voice. Almost no one talks for 35 years on television without wearing out whatever their original voice was. If not empty imitations of themselves, they become parodies and they're the last to know it. But that didn't happen to Larry Merchant. He began, 35 years ago, talking like a man who'd been to every ringside in every city for every championship fight and not only had heard all the answers, he'd asked all the questions.
So Merchant talked the same way at the end as he did at the start. People called him cranky and jaded and tired. He was 81 years old. People sometimes wondered, when he was lost riffling through the thesaurus of his mind, if the old man would ever get around to asking the damned question. They wanted to hear what nonsense the fighters would try to say out loud -- as in Las Vegas on Sept. 17 a year ago when Merchant put a microphone in front of the mighty Floyd Mayweather Jr.
"And then you poked him," Merchant said. "What's your story?"
So began the moment that must be high in any appreciation of Larry Merchant. We'll get to the rest of it. How a kid from Brooklyn plays football in Oklahoma ... how he helps revolutionize sports writing ... how he wishes Vitali Klitschko were a Montana cowboy ... how he asks Nelson Mandela the question every honest fight reporter must answer for himself. We'll get there after this moment with Mayweather, for in this moment we see everything important about the most important television commentator in boxing history.
There was Mayweather, his face swollen, a championship belt slung over a shoulder. There was Merchant in his tux and bow tie, holding the HBO microphone. He was talking, but not into the camera. No, no, he seemed to be muttering into his tux lapel, not to the millions who ponied up $49.95 each to see the fight and hear this interview. There was in Merchant's voice the sound of an old man disturbed by this thing the kid did.
Mayweather had knocked out Victor Ortiz in the fourth round. He did it with two sucker punches. After apologizing for a head butt, Ortiz had backed away, hands down, looking off to his left. That's when Mayweather unloaded a left hook and straight right. Then he stood alongside Merchant and said he had done nothing wrong. Fighters, he said, know they must defend themselves at all times.
When Merchant wouldn't settle for that malarkey, Mayweather snapped. "I'm through," he said. "Put somebody else up here and give me an interview."
"What are you talking about?" Merchant said. He turned to face the fighter, no old-man voice now. How old is 81? This old: He was a foot from the fighter's snarl, a Brooklyn street kid angry: "WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?"
"You never give me a fair shake," Mayweather said. " HBO needs to fire you. You don't know s--- about boxing. You ain't s---. You not s---."
As the fighter turned to walk away, Merchant raised his chin and shouted after him. "I wish I was 50 years younger," he said, "and I'd kick your ass."
It's not Cronkite on Vietnam or Murrow on McCarthy. It may even have been beneath Merchant to go back at the fighter in kind. But there's no denying that it was good stuff considering the circumstances; he stood in a boxing ring, not at a church social. There was also this: If not in those exact words, every interviewer at some point in a career, on behalf of his offended readers/listeners, has wanted to react in that exact spirit to the aggrieved bluster of self-important buffoons.
So, a year and more later, in celebration of that moment, I asked Larry Merchant the question he had asked Mayweather: What's your story?
"It was spontaneous combustion, and it's a giggle to me now," he said. "That night my grandson said, 'You've gone viral' and I was 'trending' ahead of Justin Bieber -- whatever that means. An hour after the fight, they had sweatshirts for sale: 'Merchant-vs.-Mayweather.' I was just reacting to what he said in there. Yeah, I've been confrontational, too much so maybe. But you've only got a couple minutes to get to the heart of it. It's not like going to Mickey Mantle's locker and he's not there, so you hang around for 45 minutes, going away, coming back, waiting for him to get dressed, to speak to you. In the ring after a fight, you gotta get to the point. So you can come off as brusque. In this instance, he got personal. This was personal. He came at me like a bully, and I went back at him reflexively."
How old is 81? Merchant remembers the Louis-Schmeling rematch, 1938. His father ran a laundry in Brooklyn. "He let us stay up late to listen to the fight," Merchant said. "I didn't understand its meaning, in any sociological sense, but I'd heard Hitler and I knew that something bad was happening." He was a 5-foot-7, 155-pound fullback at Lafayette High who scored one touchdown, that on a 62-yard run. He once told the Secondsout.com writer Thomas Hauser, "When I got to the end zone, my first thought was, 'I've just scored a touchdown in Ebbets Field, and I'm standing where Jackie Robinson plays.'"
How old is 81? He played for Bud Wilkinson before Bud Wilkinson was a god. Merchant knew Oklahoma only as a Broadway musical and as a football team that had come east to play Army. With no idea he'd ever play, Merchant enrolled at Oklahoma in 1948, Wilkinson's first season. A shoulder injury his sophomore season -- he had not yet been in a game -- ended Merchant's playing days.
He'd already become a newspaperman, editor of the school paper until he was dismissed for the kind of work that would become the signature of his career; he had published a series of articles denouncing McCarthyism. By then, the great sportswriters W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon had shown Merchant he could do more than god-up athletes. He could be a reporter and writer whose subject was sports.
"In the mid-fifties, I was part of a broad-based movement that sprang up in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Miami, North Carolina, Texas, no doubt elsewhere," Merchant once wrote. "We hurried along changes that began after World War II when Dick Young of the New York Daily News and Milt Gross of the New York Post descended from the Olympian view of the press box to the dugouts and dressing rooms, much as Ernie Pyle had gone in foxholes. ... We were irreverent, announcing ourselves by debunking heroes and myths that didn't stand up to scrutiny. We were humanistic, measuring athletes as people as well as performers. We felt we had ringside seats at the circus, not pews in church."
How old is 81? Merchant can tell you where he was on Sept. 23, 1957. He was on press row at a ring set up over second base at Yankee Stadium. It was Carmen Basilio against Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight championship. Merchant was the kid sports editor and columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News. "Twenty feet away from me, there were Hemingway and DiMaggio," Merchant said. "I knew immediately that I was in the right place."
In Philadelphia and later at the New York Post, Merchant did 18 years of columns on the circus of sports before, burned out by deadlines, he quit newspapers intending to write books on Muhammad Ali and Oklahoma football.
"But television called," he said. First a weekend show, then an NFL producer's job. In 1978, early in cable-TV history, a start-up organization called Home Box Office sent him to a fight. For the next 35 years, he stayed at ringside for HBO.
"I've been lucky," Merchant said. "Over all those years, in terms of production values, the quality of our fights -- I've been part of probably the best boxing series ever. Boxing is full of colorful characters, a great stage for human behavior. HBO turned me loose to do what I do. There were complaints from promoters and from some fighters, but HBO wasn't intimidated. Being provocative was part of the show, sure, but it was never shilling for the show. I can't even think that way."
Yet, by being at ringside, being a television star however reluctantly, Merchant brought respect to a sport that often has shown it deserves none. To see Muhammad Ali today is, for many, cause for sorrow. Merchant once did an interview with Nelson Mandela, the great man who had been an amateur fighter and into his 80s remained a knowledgeable boxing fan. "I asked how, as a pacifist, he justified a game that could be as brutal as boxing," Merchant said. "His answer was, 'They chose to do it voluntarily.' This was a man who knew what it was like to have no freedom. He valued the choice.
"I accept boxing the same way. They signed on for it. Hemingway said never fall in love with a fighter, they'll always break your heart. So maybe I've built up antibodies to it, that I can both feel for them and stand outside of them as an observer. These men have given us part of their lives to enrich ours -- and theirs. It's all been fascinating, to be a ringside observer of the human condition."
Boxing isn't dying, certainly not dead, Merchant said. Then he named the heavyweight champion of the world, the Ukrainian whose name is largely missing from today's sports conversation. "If Vitali Klitschko came from a ranch in Montana, he'd be on the cover of People magazine once a month," Merchant said. "Someday, there'll be a Tiger Woods of boxing. Everybody will pay attention then."
How old is 81? Merchant insists it's too young to retire. He says his deal with HBO will have him parachute in for the occasional big fight, maybe when the Tiger Woods guy fights Vitali Klitschko's grandson. "I'd be the kibitzer-in-chief," Merchant said. "I don't know that it will happen. But I'm hopeful that I won't disappear."
The day after Merchant's final ringside-commentator work, a Hollywood agent called. Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro may reprise their famous boxing roles. Only now, Balboa and LaMotta would be old men. The filmmakers want Merchant to do a cameo. He'd play the role he has always played best. Himself.