Jim Lampley: Boxing’s Vibrant Expressionist
“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.
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.