Is Larry HBO’s Merchant of Menace?

By Robert Ecksel on September 21, 2011
Is Larry HBO’s Merchant of Menace?
“It’s part of the deal,” said Larry Merchant. “If I dish it out, I have to be able to take it.”

After Saturday’s fight between Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz, Larry Merchant, not for the first time, finds himself in the crosshairs…

I admit to having a soft spot for Larry Merchant. It’s not because of his age or race, but because he’s been there for half a century dedicatedly reporting on the fights. If you think that’s easy you should try it sometime. It’s not just the amount of hard work involved. It also means having to deal with, and having been able to deal with, more rogues and scoundrels than you can imagine. To have put up with that for decades, while keeping his head clear and anger in check, is no mean feat.

I grew up in Philly and read Merchant religiously when he wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News. I was just a kid, but boxing seduced me when I was a kid, and he was my first introduction to boxing journalism. Even back then he was eloquent and opinionated, and I accepted that as being part and parcel of what a good journalist was supposed to be. 

After Saturday’s fight between Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz, Merchant, not for the first time, finds himself in the crosshairs. Some fans have never bought his wise old sage routine. They prefer someone who sucks up to the fighters instead of asking tough questions, and that’s their prerogative. But it’s my prerogative to feel otherwise. For better or worse, Larry Merchant is part of my boxing DNA, and I relish that simple fact.

Merchant was born on Feb. 11, 1931, in New York City. His mom was a legal secretary. His dad was a “small businessman” who ran a laundry and dry-cleaning business. “My father was also a big sports fan,” Merchant told me. “My father and uncles took me to baseball games all the time. Saw a lot of football games. Pretty much my life outside school was athletics.”

Baseball and football are okay, but they’re not the fights, so I asked Merchant if boxing was part of the equation.

“It was,” he said, “because boxing was a mainstream sport. The first boxing event I can remember is listening with my father to the second Louis-Schmeling on radio. I had an uncle who fought in the amateurs. There was some distant relative, I mean some very distant relative, who had been a professional. So a lot of people were connected one way or another to boxing in those days.”

After graduating from high school, Merchant attended the University of Oklahoma. He was on the football team—“Football is a passion of mine”—but a shoulder injury KO’d his career in college ball. Fortunately the college newspaper, the Oklahoma Daily, had an opening suited to his talents. Merchant became sports editor and then editor of the paper.

But “I wasn’t 100% committed to being a sportswriter,” he said. “At one time I thought I might like to write about science, another time about politics.” He also thought about being a football coach.

After graduating from college, Merchant became backfield coach at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. But as usual there was a war going on, the Korean War, and Merchant was drafted and shipped off to Germany where he became sports editor of the Stars and Stripes.

At war’s end Merchant was discharged and, having found his niche, was hired as sports editor of the Wilmington Daily News in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1953. Then he worked for the AP for six months, before landing the plum position of photo editor at the Philadelphia Daily News. “And from that I became sports editor when I was 26 years old. I was there 10 years.” That 10-year stint at the Daily News was followed by another 10-year stint, but at the more prestigious New York Post in the Big Apple.

Merchant did his first radio and TV during this time. He worked at NBC for a couple of years as a reporter, commentator and producer, before leaving New York and moving to the sunny clime of southern California. “I had written some books,” Merchant said, “sold one, wrote a screenplay, came out here and the cable revolution happened and I got sort of recruited into cable.”

Initially he was host and producer of a showed called “Sports Probe” on the USA cable network, which Merchant described as a “Meet the Press of Sports.” But that was the minor league. The major league, HBO, hired him to do their color commentary and analysis for the fights—and the rest is broadcast journalism history.

“I had, in a sense, burned out as a columnist after 20 years,” Merchant said, “and I liked TV for two reasons. Number one, I liked the technical people—everybody seemed to be on their toes trying to make the best show they could—and secondly, it was just another way of telling a story. There came a time when I felt I wasn’t as eager to go to the ballparks as much as I had been, and I had to make a decision on whether I wanted to be one of those old columnists who kept repeating himself or did I want to move on.”

Merchant decided to move on. Goodbye written word. Hello TV.

“I’d always been attracted to boxing as much because of boxing writers as the prizefights themselves,” said Merchant. “I just found that the writers had such a rich area to write about, with the shenanigans outside the ring, with all the hustlers and rustlers around the ring, and the drama going on inside the ring, that if you cared about competition, if you cared about drama in sports, if you cared about human behavior as a way of looking at sports, it just seemed like a very rich territory.”

I asked Merchant which sportswriters influenced his early work and he rattled off some iconic names: “W.C Heinz, a great boxing writer, John Lardner, who wrote a lot about boxing, A.J. Liebling, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Dan Parker in particular, who was a columnist at the New York Mirror, an old tabloid, and who wrote a lot about the colorful characters around boxing. And of course there was Hemingway, who wrote about boxing.”

Because of my interest in boxing and fine writing, I want to know if Merchant recalled some boxing writing that was especially vivid.

“I tell the story of my first fight at Madison Square Garden. I was taken by an uncle, the uncle who had once been an amateur, and it was a spirited fight between two fighters whose names I’ve never forgotten: Bobby Ruffin and Johnny Greco. And the next day I read in the paper, in Dan Parker’s column, how Ruffin, if I remember correctly, ‘Gave up his fish dinner in the corner’—that was the way he put it—and I can remember thinking: I’ve got to find a way to get closer to the ring.”

Having been a boxing insider for most of his life, Merchant has seen the game’s popularity wax and wane. I have my own thoughts on the matter, but wanted to know what Merchant felt were the reasons that boxing is now held in such low esteem. 

“It’s basically societal reasons,” he said. “Once upon a time, a young athlete would dream of becoming champion. There weren’t a lot of high school graduates, much less college graduates, and virtually every town had a gym. And kids, whether they were from coal towns or mill towns or big cities, for some of them boxing was a way out and up. But today there are alternatives, so that part has changed.

“Boxing is no longer a mainstream sport, but it has a devoted smaller following. It is a very big deal in the societal fabric still for Latinos—they’re just the latest racial or ethnic group that has dominated the sport—which is a growing presence in America, which is why the sport will always be around in one form or another. And boxing, like every other major American sport except American football, has been globalized. Look at the rosters in baseball. Look at the rosters in basketball and hockey. Look who’s dominating tennis. So boxing is more global now.”

Merchant continued: “In that sense, there’s been a tectonic shift of the plates in boxing, and it’s noticeably no longer the kind of socially acceptable kind of competition it once was. All the heavyweight prospects are playing linebacker. But it’s also a shift in the sense that boxing is entertainment for most people who go [to the fights]. It’s not a gut thing.”

The latest kerfuffle to ensnare Merchant is nothing new or anything to get worked up about.

“I’m not to everyone’s taste. They have their favorites. And my feeling is that a fighter is a performer who’s frequently getting millions of dollars to get on his stage, and there are times when a fighter doesn’t perform up to his standards, or does things that have to be questioned, so that’s my role as a journalist. I’m trying to find the story and what happened and why it happened.

“When a great singer or band or musician performs in public and the critic or the reporter goes to write about it, if his performance is beneath his customary standard or is in some way not what he normally does, then it’s going to be written about and talked about. We’re not just there to worship and/or appreciate, which is what every performer thinks every critic or reporter should do. We’re there to ask questions. And in my mind, there’s no hard questions if you know the answer.

“I understand that the passionate fan who wants to celebrate or commiserate with his champion doesn’t want to hear or see him in a way others might see him, and I get that, but it’s part of the deal. If I dish it out, I have to be able to take it.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. the thresher 08:54am, 11/07/2011

    Welcome aboard, Jack

  2. RG 09:40am, 09/26/2011

    I’ll cancel my subscription with HBO if they fire him.

  3. "Old Yank" Schneider 08:43am, 09/26/2011

    Howard Cosell “invented” brash sports journalism that begged the viewer to shout at the screen about how biased, uninformed, rude, obnoxious, cruel and self-aggrandizing he was.  The “fit” between he and Ali was about as perfect a cosmic alignment as we ever get to see in sports – a syzygy of two personalities with riveted fans (I tossed that word in for Robert as proof that I’ve got a sense of humor about highbrow writing – after all, how many opportunities in life come along where you get to use one of the only words in the English language that has no proper vowels?).  The notion that Cosell would never act like Merchant is patently uninformed.  Cosell INVENTED the style that Merchant mimics.

  4. KLM 01:51am, 09/26/2011

    Robert Ecksel - Nice comment, right on time! Hey Robert, I am loving all of the comments here. Whether I agree or disagree, this is a great outlet for fans to express themselves.  Thank you.

  5. Your Name 12:21am, 09/26/2011

    Larry is just a normal human being with a penchant to ask troubling personal questions and make controversial comments. He is transparent and has the gall to say what he feels. While his thoughts and views do not represent all of us,  that is just because there are two sides of the coin and some people see his side while others don’t. I don’t suppose he should be objective in his job and that’s what appeals to me, at least. Otherwise, he’ll be as boring as some boxing fights.

  6. MODI 07:17pm, 09/25/2011

    I am not one who has a soft-spot for Merchant. Now if you grow old in a loveable sort of way like Phil Rizzuto or Tommy Heinson, well then there is room to overlook flaws because everyone knows that you are a little senile, no one is really getting harmed by it, and you get extended the grandfather line of credit out of respect. Merchant is something entirely different and should not be given any 80-year old pass. Merchant has been actually PRAISED and rewarded for his “if I was 50 years younger” comment. In what journalistic universe is that acceptable? If a 50-year career in journalism should do anything, it should teach him to keep his cool under fire. I don’t expect veteran doctors to get squeamish at the sight of blood, and I don’t expect vet announcers to react in this manner no matter what the verbal assault. Merchant was completely out of line (for the nth time), and just because Merchant expressed a sentiment that many viewers agreed with, Merchant actually gets rewarded for being inexcuseably wrong. And the notion that a veteran announcer can’t ask hard questions and be fair is a false choice. The bombastic Cosell never shied away from asking tough questions in very difficult circumstances. And neither did Don Dunphy who was also fair… Could anyone imagine an old Dunphy saying what Merchant said?  How low should we lower our standards? I have no idea why we always request that fighters “hang it up” long past their prime, but give announcers life-time appointments…

  7. Robert Ecksel 06:56pm, 09/25/2011

    I don’t think HBO has any interest in hiring Teddy Atlas. Larry Merchant’s an amateur when it comes to stepping over the line. Teddy is the pro’s pro. Mayweather should stick with boxing and leave the hiring to Human Resources.

  8. The Thresher 06:30pm, 09/25/2011

    Last night on his Twitter account, Floyd Mayweather Jr made a suggestion to HBO about who might replace Larry Merchant:
    HBO needs to hire Teddy Atlas. He’s knows boxing. If anyone talks to him, thank him from me. I heard the positive stuff he said about me.
    Mayweather was referencing an appearance earlier this week from Atlas on The Jim Rome Show.

  9. Your Name 04:37pm, 09/25/2011

    Your Name, prove it

  10. Carl Jackson 03:53pm, 09/25/2011

    I’m 50, and Larry is part of my DNA too.  But he’s a blowhard.  Sorry, but it’s true.

  11. Your Name 03:52pm, 09/25/2011

    by the way, dana white exploits MMA fighters just about as brutally as boxing promoters have always exploited boxers. The guy makes millions off of every PPV - but the elite fighters don’t make that kind of money and the fighters receive a tiny percentage of the total gross.

  12. Ray 08:05am, 09/25/2011

    my opinion of boxing is very low . after what I saw from mayweather and the dont give a shit attitude from him. mayweather wants respect as a boxer he has got in most circles , but as a person with class he stinks and knows he does. larry merchant does not have a damn thing to do with the classless and cheap shot mayweather took . be a man not a boxer who had fear of losing if he didnt take a cheap shot. it sums up boxing today. MMA is way better and thats why boxing has become a door mat to sports. the champion of boxing is a bottom of the barrel human. be glad when he is over and done goodbye dont come back Boxing has some sad days ahead the sport has no heros…he is no Sugar Ray or Ali.

  13. "Old Yank" Schneider 07:24am, 09/23/2011

    Last post was for Robert.

  14. "Old Yank" Schneider 06:57am, 09/23/2011

    Dana White’s savvy, success, wealth and charitable proclivities make him no more or less capable of a worthy opinion than the savvy, successful, wealthy and charitable Rush Limbaugh.  An ability to see where these men find an opportunity to grind their axes is an important point in critically analyzing their words.  Such is my opinion.

  15. mikecasey 04:27am, 09/23/2011

    Larry and Gene Tunney in a time tunnel interview:
    Larry: Tell us about those punches that Dempsey knocked you down with in that epic seventh round.
    Gene: Larry, my dear fellow, they transported me to a surreal and oddly comforting world, specifically Eliot’s poignant and decayed landscape of sawdust restaurants and oyster shells, where elegant ladies spoke of Michelangelo. It was the kind of cerebral treat, you see, that can only be experienced when said punches are delivered with the skill and timing with which Jack’s biological make-up is imbued.
    Larry: You’re not from around these parts, are you?

  16. The Thresher 05:23pm, 09/22/2011

    One final post. As for senility, I would not say Larry is senile but I would say he is verbally constipated and terribly corny.

  17. The Thresher 05:05pm, 09/22/2011

    But he is a great salesman as well and one DOES need to be circumspect.

  18. The Thresher 05:04pm, 09/22/2011

    It doesn’t preclude anyone from doing anything. All I am doiing is defending someone who has been a superb achiever and is greatly respected in the sport he represents.

    Lot’s of people criticze Dana but they never finish the sentence. They say he is such and such and when someone pushes back, they give you a glazed look.

    One can like both MMA and Boxing. I have never found that to be an issue. I like boxing better and recently turned down an offer to write for an MMA BLOG/Magazine, but I’ll still watch it. Watching a prime Cung Le or Scott Smith is a joy. That’s all I’m saying. In short, I like White because of the product he has put out.

  19. Robert Ecksel 04:53pm, 09/22/2011

    The Thresher—I agree. He’s a very savvy businessman. I respect his having made it big. But that doesn’t preclude my taking what he says with a grain of salt, as opposed to accepting it as gospel truth, especially when there are ulterior motives.

  20. The Thresher 04:43pm, 09/22/2011

    Robert, Dana White is a Boston home boy and is a great example of how an entrepreneur can still make it big in the US.

    I admire him greatly for what he has achieved and for what he has done for charities in Las Vegas. I have nothing bad to say about him because if I were Dana, I’d be doing and saying the same thing about boxing. It all about business and he is one very savvy businessman.

  21. The Thresher 04:36pm, 09/22/2011

    KLM, Thanks my man

  22. "Old Yank" Schneider 02:56pm, 09/22/2011

    Robert—Very true.  And have you ever seen him do an interview?  Whew!  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

  23. Robert Ecksel 01:30pm, 09/22/2011

    Has Dana White ever had anything good about boxing (except than he’s a fan of Manny Pacquiao)? Nothing would make him happier than to see boxing die so that he can reap the spoils. Boxing is his straw man, his test crash dummy, his punching bag. If he isn’t given the opportunity to dump on boxing, he’ll create the opportunity. That’s his predictable m.o.

  24. KLM 01:11pm, 09/22/2011

    The Thresher - nice post.

  25. "Old Yank" Schneider 12:17pm, 09/22/2011

    The Thresher – I don’t know if you do or don’t agree with Dana White.  I’m not on the same page as Dana White.  I’ve got no interest at all in softball interviews – none; I’d rather take a knitting class for the blind then listen to softball interviews.  If a high-profile athlete can’t handle tough questions, then he should refuse interviews – Mayweather walked and that was his right.  Did Merchant do anything illegal?  Let’s call it a cheap-shot interview where Mayweather had an obligation to keep his guard up at all times.  It looked to me like Merchant KO’ed Mayweather with the cheap shot – evidenced by Mayweather not being able to handle the interview.  Can Merchant appear mean-spirited and can he talk-down to people?  Yup!  Kinda reminds one of virtually any interviewer in the mainstream press conducting an interview with Sarah Palin—gotcha, mean-spirited, ambush journalism – cheap shots.  Does she or Mayweather deserve it?  I don’t know; not a call I can make comfortably.  If Merchant has consistently crossed the line from tough interviewer to ambush, cheap-shot journalism, then perhaps Dana White is more right than wrong.  But I don’t see Merchant as quite that kind of journalist.

  26. The Thresher 11:28am, 09/22/2011

    Here is Dana White’s take:

    “These guys get done fighting and he jumps in the ring and just starts saying off-the-wall, weird, rude shit to these guys. Who the hell would want to do an interview with him? ... I actually thought that that was very embarrassing for HBO. The guy is senile, he’s out of his mind. He’s up there berating Floyd, but Floyd can’t say anything back to you?”

  27. mikecasey 07:58am, 09/22/2011

    Yes, Yank, it’s certainly a strange old mixture with Larry!

  28. "Old Yank" Schneider 07:55am, 09/22/2011

    Mike—In an era where a freestyle rap-off can demonstrate just how quick, sharp and creative a young mind can be the aging Merchant can’t compete.  He needs to gather his verses in with a slow-tempo pause, followed by a collected restart of the next verse – staccato in super slo-mo if you will.  He’d be schooled badly by today’s freestyle poets.  But there is still something cool about an 80-year-old guy caring enough about what he says to engage his brain before he starts his mouth.  The problem often arises in the level of agreement that follows.

  29. mikecasey 06:23am, 09/22/2011

    Very, very interesting, Robert. Boy, Larry drops great names here. I have one or two of Lardner’s books that my dad passed on to me. And Red Smith was an ace. I remember he did a story on Langford when Sam was in his dotage. He told Red that he was blind but couldn’t complain because he was still able to enjoy a drop of gin. Smith quoted all of that and then planted one word at the end of it - Tragic? - and it was the question mark that was so clever.

    I think the problem that Larry Merchant has today - and I’m slowly getting there myself - is that things are no longer as simple and forthright as they were. We have become a ridiculously hyper-sensitive society and we have to give everything a name now. Tell people that punching a fellow motorist is known as ‘road rage’, and 300 more people will punch 300 more motorists. Even telling a joke is sometimes a dangerous thing to do.

    We have gridlocked our mouths and brains with political correctness - which of course frequently leads to panic and saying the wrong bloody thing anyway!

    Merchant does blow hot and cold for me and there is always that temptation to give him a nudge when he’s formulating a question. But nor would I like his job in this era!

    Nice article and some cracking good observations from our guys here.

  30. Robert Ecksel 05:59am, 09/22/2011

    Old Yank—I know what you mean about Merchant’s sometimes schizoid tendencies. He may have issues. We all have issues. But I almost blame him less than I blame boxing which, since it’s the ultimate guilty pleasure, fosters ambivalence. I think it’s the poetry side of things that sucks me in. So much written and spoken commentary is drab and robotic, that when I hear something that speaks in a language that’s light years from the gutter, I tend to fall for it.

  31. "Old Yank" Schneider 03:26am, 09/22/2011

    Robert—I’ve been hot and cold on Merchant for his entire career.  Why?  Because he has a history of flipping from garbage to gem in his writing and interviews at the blink of an eye.  One never knows which Merchant is going to show up.  There are times when the erudite Merchant’s condescension drips off of every word that is delivered in staccato phraseology as if he’s interviewing fighters who should be winning spelling b’s rather than fights.  And then in his next interview or commentary he grasps and delivers a point as if he’s one of America’s greatest poets.  There is something almost schizophrenic (of the manic/depressive sort), in what shows up on any given day with him.

  32. David Matthew 09:01pm, 09/21/2011

    Very good piece on Merchant—filled with a lot of facts/history I was previously unaware of.

  33. Robert Ecksel 01:47pm, 09/21/2011

    Thank you my brother.

  34. The Thresher 01:43pm, 09/21/2011

    That was an excellent piece, Robert.

  35. The Thresher 01:38pm, 09/21/2011

    I think you are right on both accounts. Liston was the bad guy and Patterson was the good guy.

    Conte definitely is that way and he knows how to get into the limelight.

  36. Robert Ecksel 01:34pm, 09/21/2011

    The Thresher—You make a lot of sense. Taking a cheap shot at Liston is no mark of a man, although Sonny could have crushed Merchant with just a stare. But I think Merchant was coming from that Floyd Patterson/Eleanor Roosevelt/Bobby Kennedy era of expectations, and Liston’s rise, at the expense of Patterson’s fall, was a slap in the face to many liberals that never got over it.

    Re: Victor Conte. He was at yesterday’s presser in NYC and I approached him in an attempt to talk. Someone had already asked a question about where he and Donaire met, and Conte went on and on and on. After 15 minutes I had to interrupt him to ask a question. It seemed to catch him off guard that someone would intrude on his narrative. I’m not into self-mythologizing, but I have the impression that it might sum up Victor Conte’s game.

  37. The Thresher 01:17pm, 09/21/2011

    Robert, good and a fair point and it’s taken. I go back and forth on boxing. I readily admit to being ambivalent. Always have.  I have come very close to walking away but I always come back because boxing is one of the few sanctuaries I have found in my 74 + years of life. That—and reading and golf and gardening and tending to animals and gardens. Am I cynical? I was born cynical.

    Interesting enough, I am about to write an article about this very subject and will submit it to you next week. It will explain exactly what my feeling about boxing are all about.

    Re Merchant, the Liston thing bothered me. What can I say. Here is an ex-con, one of 26 children, who can’t read or write, and Larry had to go after him where it would hurt the most. That’s not writing, that’s hate. I have always believed that Larry subconsciously does not like boxers. Just my opinion.

    Now if you read my last post, you would see that I lightened up on Larry, And I’ll maintain that posture. He has done some good things as well. Let’s leave it at that.

    As for Conte, I just don’t know what to feel and I admit my ignorance as to his transgressions. I do know that boxing is not a good place to go if you are looking for a moral high ground.

    By the way, where I begin to really get worked up is with those on the periphery of the sport. Promoters, some writers, some organizations, agents, etc. but again, I keep that stuff under a lid.

  38. Robert Ecksel 01:02pm, 09/21/2011

    The Thresher—After your many years in and around the sport, I’m a little surprised that some skepticism, perhaps even some cynicism, hasn’t crept into your consciousness. It almost seems a byproduct of breathing boxing’s fumes for decades. I’m all about advocating for the fighters and boxing in general, but that advocacy is broad and not selective. Didn’t you recently write about forgiving Victor Conte? Yet who has done more actual harm, Larry Merchant or Victor Conte?

  39. The Thresher 12:57pm, 09/21/2011

    To be fair, he did do a great job on a documentary featuing a reunion of Boby Chacon and Danny Lopez.

    However, I have thick folder on Merchant and just as soon keep it on file. Nothing is to be gained by hate.

  40. The Thresher 12:43pm, 09/21/2011

    Another thing comes to mind when he called Micky Ward a coward on the undercard of the Whitaker-De La Hoya fight. It was clear Larry had done no reserach on Ward and knew nothing about his left hook to the liver. Well, after he waxed Alfonzo (or whatever his name was), Larry was very quiet. Ward had not only iced his opponent, he had shut up the HBO team.

  41. The Thresher 12:40pm, 09/21/2011

    I will never forgive Merchant for what he did to Sonny Liston while he was a sportswriter in Philly. Sonny was coming back to Philly after having won the Championship and was expecting a nice crowd to greet him at the airport, but no one showed up and that really hurt Sonny.

    Larry was quick to put salt into the wounds when he wrote that maybe “Sonny was expecting a ticker tape parade. They could use his rap sheet for confetti.”

    I may not have it exactly correct but the essence is there. I thought that was an extremely mean-spirited thing to do to a guy who was already down. Ever since then, I have studied Larry’s behavior and it has confirmed my feelings about him.

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