Jim Lampley: Boxing’s Vibrant Expressionist

By David Matthew on November 16, 2011
Jim Lampley: Boxing’s Vibrant Expressionist
Despite his position in the sport, Jim Lampley’s enthusiasm for calling fights is undying.

“The bottom line is that boxing attracts literate observers because the psychological confrontation between two fighters is so compelling—and so identifiable…”

Ever since I became enchanted with the sport of boxing (recognizing I’m of the younger boxing generation), I have attached Jim Lampley’s voice with the most powerful moments in the sport. Nobody calls fights like Lampley. With an image-rich, eccentric commentating style matched with a mastery of literary expressionism, Lampley is in a class of his own. While there are many boxing commentators who employ a standardized approach to calling fights that seems somewhat scripted—the free-flowing fluidity and emotional color of Lampley’s commentating has become the sport’s signature soundtrack backdrop while watching scientific pugilism take place before our very eyes.

While Lampley’s career in commentating has transcended boxing, having anchored a record 14 Olympic Games for U.S. television broadcasts, it is clear that his passion for boxing is deep and genuine. Technically speaking, Lampley is a color commentator for HBO’s World Championship Boxing. That said, it is abundantly clear that the quality of Lampley’s boxing acumen and sophisticated analysis matches up formidably when contrasted with the “experts” who accompany him on boxing telecasts. His rich knowledge of the sport from a historical perspective matched with the mere fact that he has been calling the biggest fights in the sport for 25 years and counting gives Lampley a true insider’s perspective. Despite this prestigious place in the sport, Lampley’s enthusiasm for calling fights is undying, seemingly born anew with each telecast as his eyes light up as soon as the cameras go on in anticipation for the bouts he is about to call. During the most dramatic moments in a fight, Lampley often becomes emotional, expressing his subjective impressions as the drama unfolds. It is both endearing and refreshing to witness these moments, as it sometimes feels as if Lampley is articulating exactly what is going in on your head at the most pivotal moments of a fight—and he does it with a classy professionalism that heightens the culture of the sport.

When Lampley is absent from a boxing telecast, the quality of color commentary just isn’t the same without him being ringside to conduct the punch-by-punch commentary and orchestrate the telecast. This perhaps is the truest sign of his distinction in the sport—and is indicative of the signature style that Lampley has branded for himself.  I recently had the honor to sit down with Jim Lampley for a brief interview and was thrilled to hear his insight on a number of topics ranging from his favorite moments in the sport as a commentator to his thoughts on the upcoming Miguel Cotto vs. Antonio Margarito fight on December 3rd.

Aficionados, enjoy…

David Matthew: How did you get started with boxing and commentating?

Jim Lampley: My father died when I was five years old. I remember when I was eight years old and my mom sat me down to watch Sugar Ray Robinson on Friday Night Fights—and she said, “If your father were here this is what he would do.” Then I watched Cassius Clay at the 1960 Rome Olympics and was instantly a fan of his flamboyance and showmanship. As a teenager in Miami, boxing became my favorite sport. I used to hang out at the 5th Street Gym to watch fighters train—including Muhammad Ali and Luis Rodriguez.

I saw my first prizefight on Feb. 25, 1964, when Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston in Miami Beach—and won. Three days later he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which was one of the most difficult adjustments—emotionally and cognitively—that I ever made in my life. I had to learn how to accept the fact that this man (Ali) with whom I had partially fallen in love had a slave name and I was a white kid in the South raised on the right side of the civil rights movement. I was deeply immersed in boxing as a fan. 

Then I went to work for ABC sports at 25 covering college football. I spent the next 12 years basically avoiding boxing because Howard Cosell called boxing for ABC Sports. He called the fights by himself and was extremely proprietary about boxing and had he known how much I loved boxing he might have had me beheaded. When Cosell stopped calling fights in 1981, there were several years of transition and they discovered how much I liked the sport, and in 1986 I started calling fights and haven’t stopped since.

DM: Can you recall some of your favorite moments ringside?

JL: It goes to precious memories, and while there’s nothing about this that is my favorite, the fight that people most remember me calling is Tyson vs. Douglas in Tokyo. Certainly that was the most unusual and unexpected fight I ever called. Obviously, George Foreman knocking out Michael Moorer—not only because what it meant for the sport but also personally because George had become my very good friend.

Beyond that, the Gatti-Ward trilogy, the Morales-Barrera trilogy, the Pacquiao-Marquez trilogy, the Bowe-Holyfield trilogy. The simple fact that I’ve been privileged to be ringside for so many of these kinds of events is something that I treasure. Every night when I go to bed I think to myself it’s incredible that I could’ve wound up being given the privilege to have called more great fights than anybody who had ever lived.

DM: A little about your commentating style. There are a lot of boxing fans who enjoy your commentating for its distinctive and eccentric qualities. The unique vocabulary you employ for fights along with unforgettable commentary such as “Bang! Bang!” when Pacquiao fought Clottey. These kinds of things are signature commentating styles. Do you ever pre-meditate this or is it all spontaneous?

JL: I’m glad to hear that people think it’s eccentric. I certainly didn’t premeditate “Bang! Bang!”  which a fair number of HBO executives didn’t like. That was a spontaneous moment of abstract expressionism aimed at communicating that we were looking at the same thing round after round—and there are only a certain number of ways you can say this over and over again. I decided to go for something that reduced it to the absurdity that it was. Fans loved “Bang! Bang!” 

The bottom line is that boxing attracts literate observers because the psychological confrontation between two fighters is so compelling—and so identifiable. A woman or a casual fan may be intimidated by all the complexities of a pro football game or a baseball game. But the layman doesn’t look at boxing and initially see complexity. He sees something of which he thinks he can identify with right away. At the end of the day, there isn’t much mystery even within the psychological nuance of a confrontation where one man is trying to tell another man in every way that he can, “I’m more man than you are.” They breathe on each other, they sweat on each other, they bleed each other. They share things that people don’t share in any other mode or activity in life. It’s unique and one-of-a-kind and I think that’s why so many people with literate backgrounds and literary pursuits have been fascinated by it over the years.

One of my great privileges when calling boxing is that I’m not locked into habit language which goes with a particular sport. This is subjective, this is individual. I can make it up as I go along and that’s what I do.

DM: I think that subjective richness and expressionism really was on display when you called the Cotto-Margarito fight. It really brought out the emotional color of boxing and you called it in a very unique way.

JL: I think Miguel Cotto is one of the most interesting people in the sport. He’s as much real man as anyone I know. I say that because he shows his emotions—he does not try to hide them. He has achieved both triumphs and tragedies in the ring partially as a result of his willingness to show his face for who he is. I’m fascinated by the complexity of what he faces on December 3rd against Margarito. He was forced—whether justifiably or unjustifiably— whether legally or illegally—he was forced to surrender. His will was broken in the first fight with Margarito. There is a perception in the sport that once that has happened it’s impossible to reverse it. So it will be interesting to see whether Cotto deeply believes that Margarito fought him with loaded gloves (and I think he does). Is the expectation that he’ll be fighting Margarito on fair terms this time enough to wipe out the psychological deficit of what happened the first time? Or is he still up against it because he had to take a knee and surrender—which you know is the last thing he wanted to do.

DM: Indeed. How much longer can we expect to see you ringside calling fights?

JL: I’m 62. Larry Merchant is 80.  We have two different roles, but I’ll call fights for as long as I can reasonably and competently call fights without destroying my dignity. Does that mean I’ll be doing it when I’m 75? I don’t know. That depends on how well I weather the 15 years between now and then. However, if I feel at 75 the way I feel now I’ll be calling fights.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. vincent 12:17am, 12/16/2012

    The thing I will remember about Lampley’s boxing commentaries was his prophecy-like prediction/statement right after the first Pacquiao/Barrera fight which was “A superstar emerges in San Antonio!!” It was soothsayer’s perfect foretelling of an individual’s future in his career. But I cannot also forget him for obscenely, moronically shouting “bang, bang, bang!” repeatedly during a particular fight. And sometimes I find him so cheap and low when his commentaries become obviously biased in favor of a fighter he’d like to see win during a bout. The late Steward was more objective and fair; he always based his running analyses and commentaries on what was really happening in the ring.

  2. TEX HASSLER 01:30pm, 11/27/2011

    The only problem I have with this article is that Jim Lampley does not know much about boxing!

  3. BigMikeTampa 10:53am, 11/26/2011

    Super Nova-Dont hold back, how do you really feel? LOL!!

  4. the thresher 01:01pm, 11/25/2011

    LOL

  5. David Matthew 07:54am, 11/25/2011

    if “SuperNovaHypeJob” is a “respected poster” (lol) from another site - then perhaps he can come out of hiding and address me as a real man would.

  6. The Thresher 11:01am, 11/23/2011

    The thing with Lampley is that he engenders polarized reactions. You either hate him or love him.

  7. The Thresher 10:58am, 11/23/2011

    SuperNovaHype Job is a respected poster from another site.

  8. Robert Ecksel 10:28am, 11/23/2011

    Where did he come from? Agree with him or not, we can’t accuse him of being shy.

  9. The Thresher 09:58am, 11/23/2011

    Holy Moley

  10. SuperNovaHype Job 09:26am, 11/23/2011

    Absolutely moronic article on a man who is not only a hindrance to the sport with his highly unusual and intense commitment / bias towards the HBO fighter of the day but this “writer” also has the audacity to wrote an open love letter to a walking fraud, a dope smoking wife beater!  David Matthew get your head out of your ass and join all the credible scribes with integrity by calling for a complete overhaul of the HBO team.

    Lampley should be fired to make room for a knowledgeable boxing expert!  This guy has been fired from every gig he’s ever had yet you’re either too stupid to do your research or intentionally left that out.  Stop the bull shit!!

  11. BigMikeTampa 08:33am, 11/20/2011

    Sorry….new to this site and didnt plug in my name, I am “your name”. If I get heat Id like to at least own it LOL

  12. BigMikeTampa 08:31am, 11/20/2011

    Good interview. You’ll never agree with an announcer/color commentator all the time. It is a knowledgable division of opinion that fuels a healthy debate in any sport which keeps it interesting which is why you can see in the neighborhood of 1000 comments on some sites on a particular polarizing topic or match-up. Ok, so he never boxed….Angelo Dundee (not that Im comparing their knowledge) never had a match either. I have fought and would absolutely take Angelos opinion to heart even if I disagree….

  13. Cheekay Brandon 05:16am, 11/20/2011

    I’m honestly surprised at all of the criticism/dissent.  As an absolute sports fanatic who pays close attention to the science of commentating in many sports, I can confidently say that Lampley is among the very finest in any sport.  He style fits the spectacle of boxing to a T and boxing telecasts without Lampley providing play-by-play are a completely different experience. If anything, I’ve found his color commentary companions to be far more flawed. It is his companions who are often biased to a fault and detrimentally influence the fight watching experience (I must say, though, Roy Jones Jr is quite good, perhaps surprisingly). Lampley is remarkably consistent and fair most of the time.

  14. Pete The Sneak 10:48am, 11/18/2011

    Nice interview Dave. While I too have my issues with ‘Lamps’ at times being a bit too condescending when calling fights and how he is able to see punches landed by a certain fighter (which he is clearly pulling for) that no one else can or has seen, I do agree that he is and has been the modern day voice of Boxing over the past 25 some odd years. I also agree that when he is not doing the telecasts for HBO fights, I do miss him. Lets face it, who here didn’t get goosebumps when Lampley was yelling “It happened, It happened”, shortly after Big George’s unexpected kayo of Mike Moorer. Like him or not, I do give the guy props as he more times than not does make the fight more fun to listen too. Peace.

  15. the thresher 06:03pm, 11/17/2011

    But the interview was a splendid one.

  16. the thresher 05:42pm, 11/17/2011

    Yes, Lampley is poetic and illustrative w/ his play by play commentary as he refres to fighters as “Tomato Cans.”

    He can be 99% great otherwise, but that 1% mistake makes him a loser in my mind. To insult those who have provided you with a great career is about the lowest insult I can think of.

  17. mikecasey 03:10pm, 11/17/2011

    Tumbo/Raxman - go to YouTube and watch Jerry Quarry’s knockout of Jack Bodell in 1971. I think it’s still there, but look for the version where Harry Carpenter gives his summation at the end. It is quite brilliant. Carpenter promoted the fights and the fighters - not himself.

  18. raxman 03:00pm, 11/17/2011

    i love this interview - damn him for mentioning pac and marquez trilogy i’m trying to escape that - every article on here is about them and i find myself compusively commenting at every turn!Do’h! i’m doing it again. the interview - i love hearing articulate people gush about this sport - the quote at the head, is great. but i agree with ted too - i dont buy his hype as spontaneous passion - and i too feel he disrespects a fighter who is being beaten - despite trying to express some respect here for anyone who gets in the ring he, as Ted comments below, quickly turns bully to “color” his commentary.

  19. te tumbo 02:52pm, 11/17/2011

    terrible timing to praise Lampley after yet another shamelessly biased broadcast last Saturday in Marquez v. Pacquiao*, which has become the trademark of HBO’s commentators aka shills. i trace their bias all the way back to the Chavez v. Taylor bout. i can still recall my increasing incredulity then outrage at the way that fight was called. we need more Bernstein’s & Tarvers and NO Lampley & Merchant & Kellerman et. al. shills and company men who care more about peddling product than promoting the best boxing has to offer.

  20. mikecasey 01:26pm, 11/17/2011

    A few years ago, David, Duke McKenzie listed his all time greats here in the UK. I couldn’t believe what he came up with. As a little side comment, he argued that Ray Robinson lacked charisma and could never be compared with Ray Leonard. My dad sent me the cutting with the word, ‘Bollocks’ attached to it—an ancient London term for ‘I don’t quite agree’. No, being a boxer doesn’t always mean you know everything about boxing An excellent point on your part. Tex Cobb once told me that Harry Greb was ‘a fluffy hitter’ and couldn’t trouble BHop in a mythical match-up.I had to retire from the argument gracefully.

    But too many announcers/commentators do come across as patronising, as Ted points out here.

  21. David Matthew 01:11pm, 11/17/2011

    greetings—thanks for reading….You know i’ve heard this argument time and time again that Lampley doesn’t know anything about boxing since he hasn’t fought himself.  I know that argument sounds sexy - but I don’t think it holds as much weight as it appears.  Sure - those who have fought have a unique insight into the sport that somebody who has never fought will never have - but that’s why you have Roy Jones, Lennox, Tarver - and other fighters to fulfill that role.  Lampley on the other hand has a diff. role…that is - to be poetic and illustrative w/ his play by play commentary.  He covers the emotional/human aspect of the sport w/ great talent and charisma.  He is also a historian/student/scholar of boxing and thus his perspective is more literary/observant than it is the perspective of a fighter.  I think you need both perspectives to give boxing the robust analysis/expression it deserves.

  22. mikecasey 12:13pm, 11/17/2011

    Ace of a comment, Bull.

  23. the thresher 11:43am, 11/17/2011

    I will never ever forgive Lampley for refreezing to fighters “Tomato cans.” When an announcer does something like that, it reveals a bit of where he is coming from subconsciously speaking. He also reminds me of someone who likes to pile on (or bully) another who is down. What Lampley lacks is experience in the ring and in the gyms. If he spent more time with the fighters, I think his attitude would change, but for me, he has a condescending approach (much like Merchant) that I just don’t care for. I also don’t care for his false hysteria and constant hype. I have come to appreciate Manny Steward more and more because he has been there and done it.

    That all said, he will be inducted into the IBHOF. Make no mistake about that. It’s all about seniority, tenure, and being a part of the boxing establishment.

  24. Joe 06:56am, 11/17/2011

    Jim’s ok but like so many of the rest makes comments about fighters as if he’s climbed into the squared circle.  I don’t particularly care for guys that have “domestic” issues either - just saying.  (Now I can’t stand Merchant - there’s a BIG difference)

  25. mikecasey 03:13am, 11/17/2011

    Is Jim morphing into Brian Wilson or is it the other way around?

  26. john coiley 02:42am, 11/17/2011

    I believe there is an ever so fine line between the physical and psychological warfare, that he who believes has a more inate ability to prevail. Not always true, mind you. One good shot from a heavy puncher can dispel all manner of debate.

  27. "Old Yank" Schneider 10:44pm, 11/16/2011

    Cool interview.  Lampley is well-spoken if he is anything.

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