The mini-revival of Friday night boxing after a 15-year lapse has provided one of the more entertaining breaks in summer television sports-watching. Through the seven-week run which ends this Friday, the matches have been available to 70% of the nation's viewers over some 80 stations, and the ratings, while certainly not exceptional, have been encouraging enough to bring boxing back on a regular and extended basis next spring and summer with perhaps as many as 20 bouts from May through September.
If you missed the fights—overall, they have been excellent—one reason could be that they didn't come on the air until at least 11:30 p.m. EDT. Another could be that you live in a city like Detroit or Philadelphia where they were not shown. TVS, part of the Corinthian Broadcasting Corp., best known for college basketball and 1974 World Football League telecasts, produced the fights in conjunction with Madison Square Garden. While TVS got off to a late start selling commercials, sponsor reaction was strong enough to indicate that advertisers no longer feel jaded about boxing.
The Friday Night Fights were one of the main contributors to America's addiction to television back in the days of 10-inch screens. Starting with Willie Pep vs. Chalky Wright in 1944—a bout carried only in Philadelphia, Schenectady, N.Y. and 100 veterans' hospitals—Friday fights ran on NBC for 16 consecutive years or until both network and sponsors became a bit punchy. When the show went off the air it held the record as the longest running program, and it was pretty much undefeated in bringing audiences to attention. Every neighborhood bar in the country seemed to have a pool on rounds—or, in the custom of that time, most folks would bet "black trunks against white trunks." Ralph (Tiger) Jones was served up on Friday evenings more often than fish. Jake La Motta became as familiar as Lucy. But Fridays also brought such notables as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson. Because of his exposure on Friday evenings, Referee Ruby Goldstein became such a celebrity that he was booked on the first Ed Sullivan show along with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. And Gillette's singing parrot with the insistent "7b Look Sharp..." jingle became a celebrity in its own right.
One voice survives from this era and it is instantly identifiable to a whole generation of fight fans. It is the "voice of Don Dunphy, who, fittingly, served as catalyst for the 1975 revival. Dunphy seems to have been leaning over ring aprons, microphone in hand, since James Figg reigned as heavyweight champ in 1720. His mellifluous, friendly voice has been transmitted over every electronic means available to boxing since the late 1930s: radio, television, movies, cable-and theater-TV. Dunphy estimates that he has done "some 1,600 bouts," but others feel that his guess is low. "Sometimes people look at my face and think I must have taken many of the punches I've described," says Dunphy, who is now 62.
Dunphy first became known nationally in the early '40s and he is still going strong when virtually all the other famous voices of that era have been stilled. A little over a year ago he drove from his home in Manhasset, N.Y. to the Island Inn at Westbury to see Jerry Quarry work out. "People were being charged $1 to watch," he says, "and I was fascinated to see three or four hundred there on a Saturday afternoon. Most were youngsters who hadn't seen much boxing. I thought about it for a couple of days and then I called Gillette in Boston. While Gillette didn't get into this series, word got around and that may be how the current show got on the air."
When Don Dunphy first spoke up on television there were 135,000 sets in the country. Today there are more than 100 million. He got his break in radio—in 1941 when Ted Husing could not work the first Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight. Twenty announcers auditioned for the assignment, each man recording four rounds of a Madison Square Garden light heavyweight fight between Gus Lesnevich and Anton Christoforidis. Dunphy, who had done a lot of sports broadcasting in New York, some of it at $7 for a seven-day week, was a late entry, but got the job. "Louis-Conn drew the biggest radio audience ever for anything outside of an F.D.R. Fireside Chat," he recalls. "People have wondered why I thought I did the best job on the Lesnevich-Christoforidis audition. I called them Gus and Tony throughout."
Dunphy says that the best fighters he has seen are Featherweight Willie Pep, Lightweights Roberto Duran and Bob Montgomery, Middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson and Light Heavyweight Bob Foster. "It is hard for me to separate Joe Louis from Rocky Marciano as the best heavyweight," he says, "and there would be times when Muhammad Ali might be able to stay away from both long enough to finally get to them. Other times they would get him. Overall I'd say Marciano was the best, but anyone can argue it." As for the best fights: "The first Louis-Conn fight and Ali against Joe Frazier in 1971."
In the second fight of this summer's series, Middleweight Mike Rossman gave an excellent example of the steadfast faith that audiences have in Dunphy. Rossman came out for the seventh round against Mike Nixon. "Until I heard Mr. Dunphy say it while broadcasting," Rossman said later, "I didn't realize I was bleeding."