Al Bernstein is not a man prone to regularly go off on other sports commentators but the longtime boxing analyst says he felt compelled Saturday to jot some thoughts on ESPN (and to a specific extent, the producers who made the assignment) using Stephen A. Smith on commentary prior to the Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight. It was an interesting post, not only because of Bernstein’s credibility in boxing, but because it hit on the worst of ESPN: bombast and self-aggrandizement over all.
“I'm not saying Horn has faced super tough competition, but don't sit there with your co-host and laugh and mock their names after you have admitted you didn't even do any homework on one of the fighters who is in the main event, let alone his opponents,” Bernstein wrote. “When I have covered other sports beyond boxing I make it my business to NOT overreach and make statements based on no knowledge. Instead I actually prepare, so that I can stay in my lane, be factual, and do the job I'm being paid for. When I covered major league baseball or the NBA on SportsCenter when I was at ESPN, I didn't offer unfounded opinions on players who I did not cover on a regular basis…. Boxers deserve respect and accuracy when they are reported on.”
As the public face that runs the place, ESPN wants Smith to be everywhere—and he’s a clearly a boxing fan. (He’s also a Floyd Mayweather hype man which will be interesting to watch prior to the Connor McGregor circus.) But Bernstein, a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, hit on an important point: Why is ESPN putting on a guy who admits that he doesn’t know much about the people’s he’s speaking about, in this specific case? The answer: Because someone decided that bombast and the potential to go viral was more important here than reportage or informed analysis. That’s also why you saw Smith front-and-center after the fight. Could this be what people want? After the fight, sure, if you are looking for a designated guy to go off, SAS is the Joe Pesci of the profession. Before the fight, it just makes your production look amateur. NBC Sports boxing analyst and longtime cruiserweight fighter BJ Flores also expressed his displeasure, retweeting someone critical of Smith.
The Pacquiao-Horn fight, as SI’s Greg Bishop chronicled here, was all kinds of crazy, with most boxing observers believing Pacquiao was robbed. ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas went so far as to say that the decision was corrupt, a remarkable charge on live sports television. He also told Horn in a post-match interview that he thought he lost the fight.
The good news for ESPN is that the fight was a ratings winner. ESPN’s said live coverage of the Pacquiao-Horn part of the card drew a 2.4 overnight rating and the entire “Battle of Brisbane” event (10 p.m. ET to 1 a.m. ET) drew a 1.8. If you want a comparison, the fight viewership should be a touch more than what CBS drew (3.5 million viewers) for the final round of PGA Tour: Travelers Championship. ESPN said it was the highest-rated fight on record for a cable network this decade. Las Vegas was the top local market for the fight with a 4.0 metered market rating.