For years HBO blow by blow announcer Jim Lampley and Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein shared a long-running joke that they were destined to never work together. But the intersection (finally) of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao has changed that.
With HBO and Showtime jointly producing the Welterweight Unification Championship megafight on Saturday (the card starts at 9:00 p.m. ET), HBO’s Lampley and Showtime’s Bernstein (along with HBO’s Roy Jones) will call Mayweather-Pacquiao from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The fight is part of a pay-per-view card that also includes super bantamweights Leo Santa Cruz-Jose Cayetano and featherweights Vasyl Lomachenko and Gamalier Rodriguez on the undercards. Last week I had an enjoyable joint interview with Bernstein and Lampley about calling the fight.
You’ve never worked together, correct?
Lampley: We have never worked together on a fight. We have joked about it privately, speculated with each other in personal conversations, and thought it would never happen. We thought it would be something missing from our combined career resumes. But now here it is. I called a fight for Showtime in August 1987 at a moment where I had left ABC Sports. I had not decided where I was going or what I was doing. I was invited by Jim Spence, the former ABC Sports executive who at that moment was consulting with Showtime. I remember working the fight [Evander Holyfield-Ossie Ocasio] with Ferdie Pacheco and the telecast took place in San Tropez, France, so it was the most physically beautiful boxing telecast ever because it was the only one ever with frontal nudity. I think Ferdie was perfectly appropriately for that scene. Al was either not there or not yet working for Showtime. So we have chatted with each other over the years, have chuckled that it would never happen. But now here it is.
Bernstein: It did look like this would never happen. The irony is we did work together on an Arli$$ episode in which we were supposed to be a broadcast team. Same in the movie, Play It To The Bone. We have joked about it and I think it adds another fun element to this whole thing, an extra factoid.
How much did you personal lobby to be part of this broadcast?
Bernstein: I didn’t. I just let it take shape. I didn’t really lobby for it. I knew they would mix the broadcast teams and I was certainly hoping I would be a part of it. I didn’t really discuss it with them.
Lampley: As time went on, I grew far more toward the notion that the fight would not take place. I described that on my studio show, The Fight Game, as the low anxiety conclusion. If you went to the conclusion that it would not take place, you are able to get out of the barber shop, grocery store or shopping mall faster rather than deal at length with the constant, ongoing questions: “If it isn’t happening, why isn’t it happening and can you explain that to me?” It was easier to think: “It’s not going to happen. See you around.” With that in mind, I also knew if in fact it were ever to happen, everything about this negotiating would be delicate and tenuous up to and including the question of who would call the fight. So absolutely not: I never lobbied anybody or reached out to anyone. All I wanted for the culture of our sport and the people that follow it was for the fight to take place, and I didn’t want to be any kind of obstacle for that by having my own desire or personal agenda. I was perfectly happy if the fight would take place elsewhere under different circumstances with other broadcasters. I’d have a party, sit at home and watch. But to actually get to call it with Al Bernstein—a bonus.
How many previous Mayweather or Pacquiao fights have you been involved in?
Lampley: In both instances it might be more than 20 or 30. [HBO said Lampley has called all nine Mayweather fights that HBO aired on pay-per-view and 17 Pacquiao pay-per view bouts.]
Bernstein: I’ve done three Pacquiao fights and I believe I have done five or six Mayweather fights.
Will there be any kind of rehearsal prior to the fight?
Lampley: We will have a rehearsal on Thursday. Al, Roy Jones and I will sit down and call a fight together off a monitor and get a feel for each other’s rhythm and our way of doing business. It’s literally a rehearsal but not a dress rehearsal: We don’t have to put on tuxedos. It’s very useful to sit there to get insight into how this person’s thinks while they are working. But even the physical language is meaningful: How do you sit at the desk? Do you wave your arms around? Do you have other unconscious movements? Everyone has their own style so its meaningful, useful and kind of exciting.
Bernstein: The other thing is we are going to be calling the last fights Mayweather and Pacquiao had. That’s smart because we can simulate these two men and how we would have done those fights. I am going to sit down and approach like I was sitting down with Jim and Roy and we were doing that fight. I will literally have a set of notes that will simulate what I would do and I’m hoping to give them a good feel for how I would do it. And I will get a feel for them. We do have the advantage of all of us having seen each other work, though it is different than working together.
You both have called a lot of big fights. What are the specific concerns about calling this particular fight and does the popularity and extent of this fight change anything for you?
Bernstein: I’m going to sound like a manager who says we take it one game at a time, but I see all fights the same whether it is a six-round preliminary fight all the way up to Pacquiao -Mayweather. My role does not change. Now the amount of material you get and the nature of the material of you get and how many superlatives you use will change. But for me, my role is the same. I want to enhance the event for the viewer and not dominate it. I have two jobs as an analyst. One, I want to bring anecdotal material to the broadcast that is not being done by the play by play person that pertains to the moment of the fight. The second thing is analysis of what has happened, what is happening and hopefully foreshadowing what might happen. Those rules are very well defined for me. So I will approach things the same way. The only difference is in some ways you have to ferret out the stuff smarter because there is so much information available.
Lampley: A preliminary fight in Atlantic City would be more difficult because I would be far less likely to have familiarity with the fighters. I don’t think you can find any two fighters on the planet who I am more familiar with than these two guys. I have called dozens of their fights. So the level of preparation that I have to bring to this is actually less than would be the case for the undercard. I have to work to prepare for that. But the nature of my role is different than Al’s. I am a caption provider. He is a context provider. It makes all the sense in the world for the context provider to be preparing in advance those elements of context that he thinks will fit it at some point during the call. For me, I am just trying to look at the picture and provide the right caption. To some degree, the more naturalistic you approach that, the less preparation you bring to it and the better you will be. As for the size of audience, as you know I have hosted Olympics and Super Bowls. This is pay-per-view. This audience is dwarfed in size by others. I don’t get nervous or overwhelmed or hyped up in any way about that. This is what I do and what I have done for 25 years. You don’t want to get to hung up on the aura of the event because the job is the same for that preliminary fight in Atlantic City. It differs only in the sense that I am far more familiar with these fighters and therefore more inherently prepared to see what they do.
How do you feel about publicly picking a winner?
Bernstein: I never pick winners. I have hard and fast rule that if I am announcing a fight, I would never pick a winner, nor do I want to pick a winner publicly. If I may be so bold, I don’t even understand why an announcer involved in an event would pick a winner. I don’t get that. I know that person is analyzing a game beforehand and will come back and analyze it at halftime and then afterward. I do not want to know their opinion of who will win. I want to hear why one team may win or not but I would never pick a winner in a fight I am working on.
Lampley: The proper discipline is not to pick a winner. I think it is particularly meaningful because we are dealing with individual athlete head to head. It is not like picking one team to beat another. It is picking a person to beat the other person. In this instance, I would never publicly pick a winner. I also—and this is different from all—I don’t score fights. A lot of blow by blow guys do score fights and put themselves into the scoring. I think that is wrong. I never want the viewer to think my call of the fight in some way is connected to my score. “Okay, he has Pacquiao leading now, he has to back that up with the way he calls the fight.” While I have violated what ought to be proper discipline for quite a number of fights in the past—I can remember sitting on radio shows in Vegas saying I think this guy will win—it probably was not the best of ideas and I will stay away from it in this particular instance.
Bernstein: The thing that Jim said about doing play by play and not scoring is good. I have done play by play and would not score it. I can say honestly that of all the years I scored fights—and every producer, every network wants the analyst of the fight to score—I never wanted to score a fight. Even as an analyst, I don’t like scoring fights. I understand it is part of the job and you do it but for me, my druthers are I’d rather not score.
How important is it for boxing, if it is at all important, for this fight to be compelling and entertaining?
Lampley: Well it’s better for boxing if this fight is entertaining and compelling. There is always a residue of disappointment when the audience gets tremendously excited about something in advance, and then what happens in the ring does not play up to their expectation of appealing, exciting violence. I have called a number of fights which disappointed the pay-per-view audience because they were more tactical than what the audience hoped or dreamed they would see. So it is definitely good for boxing if this fight produces something in the way of memorable drama or fireworks.
But that just isn’t always the case. One of the things I am frequently asked by general media in the build up to the fight goes along the lines of: Will this be the most significant fight you have ever called? And I always say I don’t have a clue until they fight. Oscar De La Hoya versus Felix Trinidad was unbelievable significant going in, not so much going out. Same kind of thing with Mayweather-De La Hoya. So you hope for something memorable, dramatic and meaningful but you ever know what are going to get. And the best illustration of that is in my nearly 30 years of calling prize fights, if you ask what is the most significant one? It was a completely unheralded Mike Tyson title fight in Tokyo against a guy [Buster Douglas] who did not have a chance. That is the most significant fight I called.
Bernstein: Jim made the point that in terms of sheer number of homes that will get the fight—I just did a fight for ITV in England that was probably viewed by more homes than will view this fight. But a lot more people will see this because houses will have 10-12 people having parties. The reason these fights are important to boxing is because this is when the casual sports fan drops into the sport. The mainstream sports media does not cover boxing much. But they do cover these fights. To the casual sports fan and casual sports media person, these fights are their window to boxing. So it is always helpful when they are good. In the grand scheme, it is not the death knell for the sport when it isn’t. But it helps propel it when it is. Now, we live in a time where boxing is proliferating in terms of its availability to people. This is a year where boxing has been available to more people than have had it available in along time. So I think the synergy of this fight happening while all that is happening is good for the sport. Jim made the point that not all fights will be brawls or wars and this is where I think the responsibility of the broadcasters come into play. Just because a fight isn’t [Arturo] Gotti-[Mickey]Ward or [Marco Antonio] Barrera-[Erik] Morales or [Diego] Corrales-[Jose Luis] Castillo does not mean it is not interesting and a little bit of it is what we do with it.
Lampley: What Al said is so true. We are at a moment where more than a dozen commercial television networks are presenting live boxing. That has not been the case at any time in history. So this is a tremendously propitious moment of ferment in the sport. But does the enormous amount of attention that is being paid to Mayweather and Pacquiao mean that there will be more attention to Canelo [Saúl] Álvarez, the sport’s next premier brand? He fights at a baseball stadium one week later. Does it mean there will be more attention for Gennady Golovkin, the No. 1 knockout artist in the sport, when he goes for his 20th knockout in a row against Billy Monore in Los Angeles on May 16? Or will those things remain completely unobserved by the general sports world, which thinks that the only fight on the schedule this year is Mayweather-Pacquiao? I think probably the latter rather than the former. But the bottom line is this is a moment where fights are available to be seen by viewers in more networks than has ever been the case in boxing in America. So who knows what will happen in the next two to three years. Will it be partially fueled by what happens in Mayweather-Pacquiao or will Mayweather-Pacquiao bet the ultimate blip on the graph? Either one is possible.
Will there be a rematch to this fight, in your opinion?
Bernstein: The reality of it: We know if Pacquiao wins this fight we stand a much better chance of a rematch. Or if it is a wildly close match and there is a compelling reason for a rematch. To me, the chances are probably a little bit more of it being a one-off but it is a hard question to answer. I think it will all depend on circumstances.
Lampley: That was the answer. It depends entirely on what happens in the fight. It’s like the question of how significant it is. Until we see it, we don’t know.
Both of you are used to working with familiar on-air talent and production people. How are you approaching working with people you normally don’t work with?
Lampley: Well, you just keep an open mind and a readiness to adjust to anything that might be different. But it is not overwhelmingly complex. At the end of the day the job is to see and call a fight accurately and intelligently for the audience, and we both have decades of experience dealing with that particular situation. It’s less a challenge and big factor than you might think it will be. It is the nature of our business that we are always adjusting to different situations, different physical circumstances, different personnel around us. You may spend most of your time working with the same show producer but there will be some situations where someone has a wedding to go to and you wind up working with someone else. Both Al and I have worked with various different personnel configurations over the years.
Bernstein: Jim made the point that at networks you deal with different producers and different people. The old ESPN series I did, there was a stretch where I worked with a different producer for eight straight weeks. You have to be facile in this business.
What will the day of the fight be like for you?
Lampley: My wife is in town, my manager is in town and my agent is in town. I am sure I will have a brunch or something like that. But the hay is in the barn by then in terms of preparation. I might sit down and go over notes or written material one more time to make sure nothing escapes my head but by and large the hard work is done on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday you just sort of relax, get your bearings and make sure your black tuxedo is hanging in the closet.
Bernstein: I am kind of a creature of habit for most shows. I will get up in the morning and call room service for coffee and a toasted English muffin. I will take a last look at my notes and go over in my head any standups that we have for our on-camera things and run through them. Then I’ll do something to relax myself, maybe watching a show on Hulu or Netflix.
You two clearly like each other and that should lead to nice chemistry. It’s not always the case when you are thrown in with a broadcaster you’ve never worked with.
Lampley: How could I not love him. He is a lover of boxing. He's a musician. He's an intellectual. I prize all of those things about my friends and particularly prize those things about Al. I can specifically remember one instance when I worked with someone I did not like and it is definitely a less comfortable experience. Roy [Jones] is one of my best friends in the world and I spend a great deal of time with him. Al and I have teased each other about this and it will be a fun night.
Bernstein: There are very few broadcasters that I have worked with that I can honestly say, "Gosh, I’m just not keen on that person." And I’ve worked with eight million partners like Jim has. Because we have talked about this so much, I always thought it would be interesting and a good mesh. Now we have the opportunity to do it. Jim has made some of the most famous calls in boxing history and it is fun to know you will be sitting there as a part of that. His broadcast mechanics are probably thought of as the best of anyone that works in this sport and I love that. That is a particular skill set that I appreciate. He's also a wordsmith and I like that. Lastly, I am confident that somewhere in the several hours we will be on the air we will have a funny interaction or two, and that will be a surprise to both of us. Maybe we’ll even make Roy laugh.