Larry Merchant, the poet laureate emeritus from HBO Boxing, is holed up in his home in Santa Monica, California, and like all of us, he’s waiting to see how all this March Madness into April Showers of fear, doubt, sorrow and anxiety will play out.
“You know, I’m so old that I’ve been quarantined for years, basically,” he said chuckling.
His wife has been ill for awhile, and so Larry is stepping up and steering a bit more of the ship right now. And he’s learning about himself, and about his significant other.
“One of the things I discovered as this pandemic unfolded and there was a rush to get toilet paper, was that unbeknownest to me, or even her, she had virtually loaded our garage with boxes of toilet paper, so I feel rich in that regard. It’s a currency now!”
Sounds like Merchant, who went from being a columnist at the New York Post to HBO for a magnificent run, which ended in 2012, is holding on to proper perspective.
“I’m 89,” he said, “and still mostly present. I get out once a day for a walk, and try to follow all the protocols, and be smart about it.”
The missus watches over him, makes sure he has the Purell and isn’t touching things or rubbing his face. After all, the virus wouldn’t care that Merchant won the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Sam Taub award for excellence in boxing broadcast journalism in 1985, the BWAA’s James J. Walker Award for long and meritorious service in 2007, and in 2009 was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.
We trafficked in some memories, like That Interview with Floyd Mayweather, which went off the rails and cemented Merchant’s legendary status as an “observer” of the sweet and savage science.
Younger fans may not know of this event, which is at the top of the list when referring to post-fight occurrences and will be remembered more so than the bout. Sept. 17, 2011, Mayweather took on a young buck, 24-year-old Victor Ortiz. Ortiz beaten Andre Berto in an eliminator, of sorts, for a Floyd lotto ticket. In Las Vegas, Floyd showed Ortiz about levels. And about protecting yourself at all times.
Watchers on HBO pay-per-view saw a curious ending at MGM Grand. Ortiz had some luck in round four. He got over-loaded with a surge in adrenaline and aimed a headbutt at the 34-year-old Mayweather.
Ref Joe Cortez chided him, and Ortiz was contrite as Cortez called time. He apologized to Mayweather, went to hug him and kiss him on the cheek. For real. Cortez took a point from the younger pugilist, then gathered the combatants together to get the fight going again. Cortez stepped back to signal the action could re-start, but not forcefully. Cortez, whose last year as third man was 2012, looked to the timekeeper as he gestured for the welterweights to fight.
Floyd took advantage of Ortiz’ loss of focus, as Victor wasn’t clear on how to proceed thanks to Cortez being adrift; Ortiz was not sure if the round was over. Floyd ripped a left hook and right hand follow, and down went the underdog. He didn’t beat the count, and much chatter ensued for weeks afterward.
Larry Merchant, who’d started as an analyst at HBO in 1978, went into the ring, and with his typical journalistic thoroughness, sought clarity.
After a bit, Floyd didn’t appreciate the questioning, but it started out OK. They looked at the replay, and Merchant in no way overstepped a boundary, or even pressed hard. Floyd got huffy — maybe he heard the mix of cheers and boos in the joint?
“You were in charge of the fight, you were aggressive, in training, in taking advantage of—” Merchant said, and then was interrupted.
“You know what I’m gonna do? You never give me a fair shake, you know that? So I’m gonna let you talk to Victor Ortiz, alright,” Floyd bellowed. “I’m through, they can put somebody else up here to give me an interview.”
Larry leaned in. “What are you talking about?”
Mayweather associate Leonard Ellerbe threw some gas on the fire, barking at Larry, “You heard ‘im!”
“You never give me a fair shake,” Floyd screamed. “HBO need to fire you. You don’t know shit about boxing. You ain’t shit! You not shit!”
Merchant wouldn’t back down a half-inch: “I wish I was 50 years younger and I’d kick your ass!”
“You won’t do shit,” said Floyd, as he jetted, scowling. Merchant didn’t miss a beat, turning to Ortiz, and getting his take on the bizarro “two-piece” ending.
About that “theater of the unexpected” greatest hit, I asked Merchant to remind me of the after-effects, and what his wife had to say about the contretemps.
“She was watching the fight at home. She often came to fights, but I don’t exactly remember why she didn’t come to that one,” Merchant told me. “She was with a friend, and when it happened, they both fell on the floor laughing. But then the aftermath was a discussion that caromed around town with friends, and so forth, for a number of days, about my use of ‘was,’ if ‘I wish I was fifty years younger’ was correct grammar. One of the friends decided that since it was kind of a street-level exchange, that ‘was’ was okay.”
The face that Merchant made in the interview was absurdly classic; I joked that I would still like to make a tee shirt of it, but Floyd would want a cut maybe, so it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
Some have wondered: how would Merchant, then 80 years old, have fared against Floyd as a 30-year-old?
“No, I had no fighting experience at all, or very little of it. When I was a little boy, I lived in upper Manhattan at that point, in Washington Heights. Two friends were giving me a hard time. And I ran into the alley, and called up to my mother about what was going on, and she poked her head out the window, and sized up the situation and said immediately, ‘Fight your own battles!’ So I always knew, I couldn’t wait for help. I had to hit or run!”
There was more chat, about government, science, philosophy. Many of us are maybe looking at the world through a changed lens.
“Should gun shops be closed, like other businesses?” Merchant asked rhetorically.
“Yeah, when we think we’ve seen everything, we haven’t,” he said, voice trailing off.
“It’s the theater of the unexpected is life, Larry,” I said.
“Gee,” Merchant said. “I wonder where that came from?”