Contrary to popular opinion, influence in boxing isn't limited to Don King, Bob Arum or whichever Latin American satrap is pulling the strings of the WBA or WBC. Packing a lot of clout behind the scenes is Mort Sharnik, the boxing consultant at CBS Sports. Since 1981, when Sharnik started emphasizing lightweights on the tube, he has become boxing's silent kingmaker, the ultimate gray eminence. He is rarely seen, never heard, always felt. He reaches down and ordains Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini or Hector (Macho) Camacho, say, as the new American golden boy. He sees that a man has a certain blend of talent and charisma, so he gives him TV time plus The Big CBS Buildup. Sure, God may have given Camacho his hand speed, but Sharnik gave Camacho a chance to be interviewed by Brent Musburger.
Sharnik's job at CBS is to advise his employers on the competitive nature of prospective bouts. This means 1) don't match champions with stiffs, 2) if necessary, make matches by telling the promoters the names you need, but 3) stay out of bed with King and Arum by avoiding long-term deals. Consultants have been VIPs at the networks ever since ABC got dragged into the quicksand with King's bogus U.S. Boxing Championships in 1978. NBC's consultant is Ferdie Pacheco, who doubles as its on-air commentator—a palpable conflict of interest. At ABC, producer Alex Wallau and director of program planning Bob Iger divide the boxing responsibility. Sharnik is a special case in that he isn't simply a consultant or buyer. He's the architect of both the lightweight boom and the lightweight Boom Boom. He persuaded CBS to give the smaller fighters access to television, then kept pushing the little pugs until they were pop heroes.
By showcasing Mancini, the recently dethroned WBA lightweight champion, Sharnik made him more than a club fighter from the steel town of Youngstown, Ohio. Being featured probably helped Camacho, the WBC junior lightweight champion from Spanish Harlem, stay out of jail. "For years, you've got to understand, people never looked at the little fighters." Sharnik says. "They looked at the big men. You had to be a Mexican or you had to be an Asian or you had to live out on the West Coast to have any interest. I perceived this great mass of talent—18 to 20 deep—that wasn't getting exploited. They were good, competitive fighters. They had stories to tell. What I did was give them identities."
Now anybody can put on Mancini, but not everybody can create a mystique around him. A former associate editor at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, where he worked for 21 years before joining CBS in '78, Sharnik has always loved personalities. Before Mancini's first CBS fight, in May of '81, Sharnik had the network establish the parameters of the Boom Boom story—how Ray hoped to win the title for his dear old dad, who was denied his own lightweight championship because of World War II. "Mancini is a child, not of his time, but of 40 years ago, when God, country and family were most important," Sharnik says. After Mancini's second CBS fight, two months later, the kid spontaneously kissed his father in the ring. Done! Star is born! The same This Is Your Life approach colored the CBS appearances of Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello and a raft of other lightweights. During Camacho's second network gig, in August of '82, CBS even had him do a promo in which he pirouetted before the camera and said, "Stay tuned for the Macho Man. That's me, Macho Camacho, and soon I will amuse and amaze you." Done! Instant box office!
Sharnik, 55, is a courtly, gentle man of considerable size—"I'm Gulliver among the Lilliputians," he says in reference to the lightweights he so favors. But he does have his critics. Arum, who would be enormously pleased to call the shots for all the networks, just as he does for ESPN, says Sharnik is a nice, know-nothing guy who has been "prostituted [by CBS] into approving matches that are disgraceful." The record, however, says otherwise. Sharnik may love to showcase his pet fighters, but he doesn't put them in against kittens.
Actually, any talk about mismatches may be beside the point. Sharnik is interested in bona fide competition, yes, but he's just as preoccupied with staging morality plays. You know, poor boxer, defending wife and kids, goes out to conquer forces of evil. "A prizefight is like a cowboy movie," Sonny Liston once told him. "There has to be a good guy and a bad guy. People pays their money to see me lose. Only, in my cowboy movie, the bad guy always wins." Sharnik favors the good guy, but most of all, he likes to put on a good show.