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Larry Merchant discusses Malignaggi firing, looks back on times he caught heat

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The longtime HBO commentator was no stranger to controversy, and has some thoughts on Paulie Malignaggi’s Showtime exit.

Nonito Donaire v Jorge Arce Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Paul Malignaggi’s marriage to Showtime’s boxing arm ended in a manner that seemed to fit the caffeinated personality and life story arc of the Brooklyn talent — things ended rapidly, with Paulie’s out-spoken nature and overflowing pridefulness on full display, and sending signals to both his considerable fandom, and also the legion who took issue with his jagged rants which have become more frequent as his fighting career reached the almost-finished line.

Hall of Fame analyst Larry Merchant probably gets more first place votes among contemporary fight fans asked to choose the all-time number one color man, but Malignaggi had a chance to catch the former HBO fixture, when his longevity caught up to his analytical skill set. Merchant, laying low in Santa Monica, taking no chances with coronavirus, watched Malignaggi’s fruitful partnership with the premium cable property dissolve, and it had him recollecting some of the more “interesting” drama-filled periods in his 35-year run with the former boxing broadcaster.

And, like most of us outside looking in, Merchant needed to learn more, to get a better sense of why and how it got to the point of fracture. Still, today, a majority of fight fans are seeing the firing in a political context, a “right vs left” construct. But, in fact, Malignaggi got terminated because of a long list of transgressions, seven or so years of intermittent “jackpots” which at times embarrassed, infuriated, and frustrated Paulie’s superiors, and sometimes his colleagues.

That’s not to say they didn’t and don’t have great affection for him. Asking around, you don’t hear anyone portraying him as a monster who got what he had coming to him. His co-workers regard him as a superb color man, and enjoyed him and his contributions to the product. This is an age unlike any other, because of the power of social media, and the change in how “news” is presented. Merchant, age 89, mentioned that in a half-hour phone conversation to discuss the divorce between the media and entertainment entity and the fightgame lifer.

He brings more than a lot to the table on the matter. Because Merchant went through a disturbance while he was in the analyst chair at HBO that allows him to know better than most some of what Paulie might be feeling.

MERCHANT CAN RELATE TO A DEGREE TO MALIGNAGGI

“I’m a guy who got in trouble and I apologized,” said Merchant, who joined HBO in 1978 and stayed until the end of 2012.

He surely did “get in trouble” and feel the heat from all angles as the 1997 HBO production of the Oscar De La Hoya vs Pernell Whitaker bout played out. The clash, tagged “Pound for Pound,” unfolded at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, and Top Rank acted as lead promoter. Fans were encouraged to consider that the winner should be seen as the pound for pound best among active pugilists.

De La Hoya debuted professionally in 1992, after winning gold at the Olympics. He bested 23-2-2 Jeff Mayweather in only his fifth pro bout, won a super feather title in his 12th outing, and by 1997, he’d be tabbed as “the present and the future of the sport” by seasoned boxing assessors.

With a 23-0 record, his talent matched well with an aesthetic appeal, which lured even sub-casuals to tune in to see what the fighting pride of East LA looked like with his shirt off. Promoter Bob Arum realized, though, that Oscar’s drawing power could be enlarged, if he were embraced with full ardor by the same people who placed Julio Cesar Chavez on a throne. Every Mexican boxing fan tuned in June 7, 1996, when the baton-passing bout went down in Vegas.

Did most who saw Chavez fight Whitaker think Chavez deserved a draw when he battled Pernell in 1993? Pundits didn’t think the judges got it right, and Sports Illustrated gave “Sweet Pea” the cover, screaming “Robbed!” to readers.

The Virginia native, elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006, by 1997 had passed his peak athletically, and burning the candle at both ends had taken something from his skill set as well.

Whitaker came to the ring 40-1-1. It wasn’t pretended that he was peak Whitaker, but he told press in the lead-up that he would turn back the clock, and summon a vintage showing. The clash was not marketed along racial/ethnic lines, but beneath the surface, of course that contrast would be considered by some citizens. And, for the record, I don’t write that with an implied tone of disdain. Pride in one’s heritage isn’t something that people need to apologize for. But the way the pride is advertised can open up cans of worms. Ideally, there is some degree of color blindness when fans lean in to watch two combatants clash to seek supremacy. But now and again, the sticky matter of race elbows its way into the fistic scene.

A “Great White Hope” is not trotted out in brazen fashion these days, but that doesn’t mean the motivation to usher in a light-skinned repudiation of diversity has disappeared. And yes, the traffic can go both ways; Malignaggi got lured into making waves when he was asked about a black fighter declaring he’d not lose, ever, to a white one.

Historically, the Great White Hope has been presented as an antidote to an infection, almost. Jack Johnson’s story got a surge in sharing in 2018 when the first African-American heavyweight champ received a pardon, from President Trump, for an unlawful conviction that was racially motivated.

No one debates we are not living in racially tempestuous times, but in Johnson’s day, unrest bubbled and boiled over. Johnson won the lineal heavyweight crown in 1908, and his victory rubbed aggrieved whites the wrong way. His being with white ladies didn’t just get chattered about, the feds made a case against the stellar pugilist. And then more voices in the press got bolder, talking about Johnson’s “illicit union” and railing against the practice of interracial hook-ups.

In 1910, our Congress passed a law which sought to address the supposed scourge of prostitution. This “white slave traffic act” became known as the “Mann Act,” after its chief author, James Robert Mann, who served for Illinois in the House of Representatives for 26 years. This law purported to exist to save “any woman or girl” from “prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” But it was white ladies who were assumed to be the ones ensnared into webs of deviancy by so-called “foreigners.” Some feminists at the time protested that in fact that black women, and women of Asiatic origin could also be found doing sex work.

The feds arrested Johnson in 1912, and declared he had kidnapped one Lucille Cameron. She told authorities that she hadn’t been taken against her will from Wisconsin to Chicago, and that she had worked as a prostitute before she met the boxer. The NY Times’ headline read “Johnson Weds White Girl” when the fighter and Lucille got hitched in December 1912. Yes, these were different times. But maybe not as much as many of us had hoped and assumed. The viral video of George Floyd served as a brutal wake-up call and impetus to re-charge the movement to advance movements for equality. And also a countering movement which holds dear alternative points of view, a bit of which Malignaggi shared to the IFL video platform on April 22.

FIGHTING TO TAKE DOWN JACK

Authorities kept hunting for dirt on Johnson; his ex-companion Belle Schrieber told law enforcement what they wanted to hear, and Johnson faced a trial for his alleged misdeeds. Johnson in June 1913 got convicted but skipped out on bail and lived as a fugitive until he turned himself in, in 1920. Some hoped that he’d do some time, and then be sprung, and be able to fight Jack Dempsey. In September of 1920, Johnson received a one year (plus a day) sentence. Johnson stepped out of Leavenworth in July of 1921, with the $5 given to every person finishing a stint at that lockup. And until he died in a car crash, in 1946, Johnson dealt with expectations, and bias and oppression, above and beyond what the “average” back American would have to contend with.

That all men and women are created equal is not universally embraced in America, then or now. No black fighter fought for a heavyweight title after Johnson took on Willard until Joe Louis met James J. Braddock, in 1937.

Johnson is not always recalled correctly, because his flamboyant side didn’t endear him to many, and that included people like Louis.

“Jack Johnson ruined boxing for blacks,” Louis wrote in his autobiography, “especially black heavyweights.”

Here’s how it was put in a 1959 Sports Illustrated piece: “Deplorable as it was, Johnson’s free use of his fists was less obnoxious to the respectable world than his propensity for marrying white women. He married four times, and only the wife of his early youth was of his own race. In addition, Johnson made no effort to hide his dealings with numerous women to whom he was not married. Such a boldly uninhibited personal life, combined with his liberal use of liquor, made Johnson an object of moral censure on a nationwide scale.”

Johnson’s life and times are not easily reduced to pithy summation, and same goes for the subject of race in America, and how issues of race are perceived and handled within the boxing sphere. The Johnson case isn’t the only, and might not even be the best example to trot out, to make the point of the accursed stubbornness of unrest propelled by racial tension inside boxing. But Merchant has put in his time studying texts and working to educate himself on the experiences of black Americans, I know. So he came to the table in 1997 with a solid sense of the role of race in prize-fighting and our nation’s history.

MERCHANT VS MARIACHI

“I felt the promotion was way over the top in promoting the fight basically for Oscar, the young bright star putting a lot of asses of seats,” Merchant said, of the 24-year-old Oscar’s test versus the 33-year-old Whitaker. “Pernell was a long time champion, a well-regarded champ and all the pre-fight hype focused on Oscar.”

This was Whitaker’s ninth defense of a welterweight crown, and he deserved to come in 42-0, being that he didn’t deserve a loss against Jose Luis Ramirez or a draw with Chavez.

On the broadcast, Merchant said: “You know, guys, it really doesn’t make any difference what kind of music they play before a fight. But I’d like to remind you and everyone out there that both Pernell Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya are born and bred American.

“This is a gesture to the great American, er, the great Mexican fight fans, who support the promoter. But, in a way, it slights the fans of the champion whose title is at stake, Pernell Whitaker. In other words, in my view, as wonderful as the music is, and it is, in this setting, it sucks. Unless they follow it with some soul music, which I don’t think they will,” he said, chuckling.

Jim Lampley noted that the Star Spangled Banner is a nice song.

“This is a marketing ploy, using music to get Mexican fans, not Mexican-Americans, but Mexican fans to support De La Hoya,” Merchant said.

Lampley lay out, and then commented on the presence of Thomas Hearns ringside.

“HBO got swamped with calls and letters,” Merchant said, from his home in California. “I didn’t think there would be severe pressure (on management) to do something.

“I was conscious about these things,” he said, so he knew he’d have to follow up, when momentum grew regarding his music critique. “I was supposed to know what words mean. I figured, I will take the hit. The word ‘suck’ had an emotional impact to De La Hoya fans. I’m supposed to know that, I didn’t realize that. That was not my intent, and I accepted responsibility.”

Merchant gave a heads up before the Oscar-Whitaker match to high-up producers that he’d be speaking to what he perceived was unfair treatment of Pernell in the hype-up of this battle.

“I felt I needed to give them a heads up, because I knew it could be volatile. None of them thought that it would be ‘burning down the house.’ So I felt covered by that. But I was treated rightly by (higher ups when the issue became nuclear).”

People who’ve followed the Malignaggi forced exit from Showtime know that Merchant’s mariachi moment and what Paulie said to the IFL guy are basically apples and oranges. Merchant said what he said on air, Paulie wasn’t in a Showtime chair when he reached to push away, and then reached for the third rail.

Now, Merchant wasn’t a “go along-get along” guy, he’d every now and again go where others feared to tread, and his superiors would semi-regularly have to convene and process some remark or critique Larry shared on air. His back and forth with Floyd Mayweather after Floyd caught Victor Ortiz sleeping when ref Joe Cortez called for a break will be in the top half of any decent Merchant obit. Seth Abraham and Ross Greenburg and Lou DiBella and Rick Bernstein would hear from promoters, every so often, because Merchant went off script. And by that, I mean he didn’t abide by the unwritten part of his contract, the part which makes the announce team part of the promotion, because the platform provider has a vested interest in making the A-side attraction seem as alluring as possible.

“It’s as though (Roy Jones) thinks fighting stiff competition means fighting only stiff,” said Merchant the night Jones made easy work of Clinton Woods in 2002. Teeth were gritted and deep breaths were taken, but Merchant risked the blowback, because he had to speak his conscience, not every time he wanted to, but often enough to satisfy that conscience.

Paulie had his tenure with Showtime cut because of his behavior off-air. His defenders say that his firing is an example of “cancel culture,” of political correctness run amuck. But the IFL interview represented things coming to a head, not an isolated incident which proves there’s a vast left wing conspiracy to silence “conservative” voices in the fight game.

Brendan Schaub, the ex-MMA fighter, has done a podcast and on-camera work for Showtime. He did a bunch of work in the lead-up to the Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor fight. And he told Joe Rogan on Joe’s podcast right after the 2017 #Maygregor bout that Paulie spat at a fan who was heckling him, while on the clock for Showtime.

“Paulie almost got in a fight when we were doing a pre-show because the Irish fans were just harassing him,” Schaub said to Rogan. “And then the guy goes, ‘Paulie! I’ll kick your ass worse than Conor McGregor did!’ And then finally, Paulie goes, ‘Fuck this!’ Takes his things off and goes at him. So then Brian (Custer) gets between him and he’s like, ‘No, no! Paulie, don’t do this!’ And the guy’s like, ‘Do something! I’ll give you a worse beating than McGregor did!’ in his Irish accent. And Paulie can’t get to him, then Paulie goes (hawks) and spits on him. And then it was chaos.”

Paul Malignaggi told Ariel Helwani when asked on Helwani’s show that there were indeed hecklers giving him the business at the weigh-in, but after a micro pause, he says he didn’t spit at anyone. You can see him spit at Artem Lobov during a press conference for their bare knuckle boxing fight, June 22, 2019, however.

LAMENTING LARRY’S BUSTING ON THE BAND

When Seth Abraham deliberated on what to do about Larry following the mariachi meltdown, he didn’t feel like the camel’s back got broke. HBO backed Merchant, he worked the shows following the critique, but Oscar had another HBO fight coming up, in June. Publicly and behind the scene, there were calls for Merchant’s head to be placed on a platter. Menacing from the anti Merchant mob didn’t work — Larry worked the show April 18, 1997 with Jim Lampley and Roy Jones, calling the Junior Jones vs Marco Antonio Barrera 2 main event in Las Vegas.

Merchant said he was sorry the week after the De La Hoya win, when the PPV main event screened on HBO’s main channel April 19. And he also said he said he was sorry for offending anyone, to Steve Springer at the LA Times, in a column that ran April 15. Merchant weighed in ringside from Atlantic City again on April 26, when George Foreman main evented against Lou Savarese, and again in AC May 31, when Vince Phillips upset Kostya Tszyu. On June 7, Merchant sat with Lampley in Sacramento, CA to add color to the Ike Ibeabuchi-David Tua collision. The following week, would Larry be on the plane to trek to Texas, to be part of the cast working the De La Hoya-David Kamau production? They’d kicked the can down the road, but there was no space left to find room to maneuver.

“Seth wondered,” Merchant recalled to me, “if I went there, would the whole focus pre-fight be on me, rather than the fight? I had already given apologies, remember.”

On Thursday, May 29, word dropped that Merchant would not be working De La Hoya-Kamau. But he’d not be let go, either. Lou DiBella back then toiled as a VP.

“I felt the common sense thing to do was for me to have Larry sit this one out,” DiBella said at the time.

Don’t get it twisted, that kerfuffle contained race and ethnicity land mines in the mix. Some people thought that HBO took a harder line in this matter, on behalf of De La Hoya, and the Hispanic watching bloc, than they did when Don King demanded Merchant be bounced because he did too much “telling it like it is” when assessing Mike Tyson. Lose Larry, Tyson and DK requested when time came to hash out a platform deal. Abraham offered a 10-fight, $100 million package — but Larry would not be made to walk the plank. The deal seemed to be on the goal line, then the fumble, when Tyson got on the horn with Abraham, and told him he was so happy that Merchant wouldn’t be calling his fights. Abraham informed him that wasn’t part of the package, and Tyson very soon after that walked across the street and got a pallet of loot from Showtime.

THE BEST ANSWER TO WHY IS MOST OFTEN “MONEY”

Bottom line, though, the ‘Merchant-mariachi muddle’ and the ‘lose Larry or we walk’ incidences boiled down to money matters. Bob Arum cannily turned the leverage crank and got better terms from HBO for De La Hoya fights, because they were on the defensive after Merchant announced his disdain for tilted marketing moves. And King used that “issue” with HBO when he was going back and forth between Abraham and Jay Larkin peddling a package of Tyson fights.

The Malignaggi brouhaha isn’t a money matter, because while he’s talented, he’s not talent. The graveyard is filled with fellas who thought the world would stop turning when they quit that post, or stepped down from that office, or switched uniforms to a rival franchise. But guess what, the big orb stays in motion. Showtime Boxing will soldier on with other people giving their perspective on technique, strategy and the like. The replacement probably won’t be as skilled as Paulie is at seeing a fight and breaking it down. But the new hire will definitely will be less of a drain on higher ups in terms of needing to worry about how they’re conducting themselves off the air.

PRIDE GIVETH, TAKETH

Merchant is able to walk some of a mile in another’s shoes, he told me he understands fighting pride, and how a fighting spirit would prevent some souls from offering that mea culpa, to keep a job.

“He’s a fighter, he’s made that way,” he said. “I didn’t find any animosity in what Malignaggi said. It was his opinion, how he saw things.”

Merchant when he heard Paulie talk about the magnificence of Eastern Euros consulted the RING ratings, which he keeps on his desk, near the iconic Dempsey-Firpo painting.

“He’s just plain wrong, look at the welterweight, junior middleweight, and junior welterweight divisions, there are a lot of Americans, most of them are black,” he pointed out. “There’s a proper way to put it, that boxing has become a more international sport than it once was. He leaves out Latinos, Central Americans, Mexicans, pretty important parts of boxing in the last half century.”

In other words, it’s fair to discuss ethnic trends in the sport, done right that wouldn’t be a fireable offense, Merchant said.

“But you want to put it in a broader context. And this, now, is a delicate time in the area of race relations in America. I’m sorry they kicked over the statue of Paul Malignaggi. But that doesn’t mean I think he was right. Him talking about oppression — depending where you are coming from, you may feel oppressed, and to deny that and suggest it doesn’t exist is being patently blindfolded to events. In this anxious time everything is multiplied by the pandemic, everything is being examined, under a big eyeglass. Corporations are getting anxious about (controversial statements on race), the way it can be used against them on the internet, maybe cost them money. People are losing jobs over it.”

Paulie could, perhaps, look at how Merchant handled himself publicly after the blowup. “I should have been smart enough to know that some words are loaded and they are not heard so much as felt,” he told the NY Daily News after his ‘97 benching was announced. “I should have been more deft in the point I was making. I should’ve taken a lighter approach. I just wanted smart and I don’t know if I’ll ever be that smart.”

It’s fascinating to dig into newspaper archives and see those quotes. You can hear the emotion in his voice, I picture Merchant’s face dropping some, indicating that he’s been humbled by the matter. He announces his fallibility, and isn’t digging himself a fox hole and lobbing grenades against haters. “While that doesn’t make you feel like dancing at the moment,” he said to close, “I dish it out and sometimes I’ve got to take it.”

On July 12, 1997, Merchant reclaimed his seat next to Jim Lampley and he analyzed the Lennox Lewis vs Henry Akinwande fight in Las Vegas. The story would have a tidier bow on it if I reported that Merchant’s tone stood out, with an added element of wisdom present from his lesson learned. But no — Merchant dished it out, two scoops, when he took aim at Akinwande for submitting a dreary effort and told viewers that Don King fighters Oliver McCall, Mike Tyson, and Akinwande had all turned in tainted outings recently. What did King have to do with that? Because King unduly influences the ratings, and undeserving fighters from the King stable are granted unearned opportunities. “Don King,” Merchant said in closing summation, “has corrupted the system.”

That strikes me as speaking truth to power, and I’m a hundred times more impressed by him saying that than I was when I heard him weigh in that night in 1997. Because I’m older now, I better understand how it’s much safer and “smarter” to stick to the party line, say the things that won’t make superiors wince. And not in the way Malignaggi did to IFL.

Here’s an ending note that can serve as a tonal guide for Paulie, if he’s tempted to come back and do a “woe is me” revenge interview trying to justify his views out forth to IFL, and install himself as exhibit A in the “cancel culture” scalp yard.

HBO went back to Texas for a Sept. 6, 1997 show, topped by a super bantamweight title fight matching Erik Morales against Daniel Zaragoza. Lightweight Floyd Mayweather sought to win his tenth straight as a pro, against Louie Leija in support of the featured match.

“It was in El Paso, and I was in the ring,” Merchant said. “A little claque of guys were sitting nearby, doing a chant of ‘Larry sucks!’ And what I did was put my thumb in mouth, starting sucking my finger. To indicate this was not life and death. Just poking a little fun at them, and myself.”