By Steve Kim
In the aftermath of Larry Merchant’s verbal altercation with Floyd Mayweather on Saturday night (shortly after the sucker punch heard ’round the world leveled Victor Ortiz), if you typed “Larry Merchant Mayweather” into Google, you’d get a listing of over a million results. Just in case you’re the lone person who hasn’t seen the exchange (and seriously, you just might be the only one), log on to YouTube, where there are a multitude of uploads dedicated to it. As it related to “Star Power,” ironically, it was Merchant, the longtime boxing analyst for HBO Sports, whose star has shined the brightest.
After telling a tantrum-throwing Mayweather, "I wish I was 50 years younger and I’d kick your ass," in response to the temperamental pugilist’s claim that Merchant didn’t know “sh*t” about the sport, Merchant immediately became a part of pop culture. Want proof? Go to TMZ.com and you’ll see Merchant, of all people.
His stunned look into the camera after Mayweather started in on him has already become a popular avatar throughout the internet. Someone also created a particularly clever fictitious fight poster (yfrog.com) and for a spell, Merchant was trending on Twitter.
"Twitter? What’s Twitter?" joked Merchant on Monday afternoon. At that point, he understood that his post-fight interview with Mayweather was an insta-classic that will be forever immortalized. Yes, at age 80, Merchant has finally arrived.
"It’s weird and exhilarating and funny," said Merchant, who has been on a multitude of radio shows and has been asked to do numerous interviews in light of this past weekend’s events. "I mean, I get a message from my granddaughter in grade school saying, ’Merchant pride!’ and such. So it’s been kinda fun, although I’m not completely comfortable with being a center of attention because I think the fighters and the fight are the stars. That’s my personality. I’m the guy on the sideline kibitzing. So y’ know, it’s been an interesting few hours."
For the most part, the interview seemed relatively tame. It’s no secret that the two haven’t always seen eye-to-eye but for the most part, they seemed to be playing nice on this occasion. But things turned ugly as Merchant kept pressing Mayweather for an explanation on the ending of that fight near the conclusion of the fourth round. In a split second, Mayweather was at his petulant worst.
"I was surprised," Merchant admitted. "You saw a quick look at the camera (from me) and I guess I’m thinking, ‘I’m asking him questions so he can explain his side of the story,’ but at the same time, there was a growing volatility in the crowd. The crowd was really upset. What the crowd saw was one guy hitting another guy who was turning away and wasn’t fighting, hitting him with a sucker punch. Now, it may be a legal sucker punch. He had every right to throw it- but should he have thrown it?"
As the hysteria unfolded, the usual overdone cries of “another black eye for boxing” and promises to never, ever purchase another Mayweather event (or any pay-per-view card) were heard. According to Merchant, who’s covered the sport for decades, incidents like these don’t cripple the sport or business as nearly as much as the general media or casual observers would like to believe.
"I think that polite society got tired of boxing a long time ago," he said, laughing. "Maybe [Mike] Tyson drove polite society away from boxing. But no, I don’t think an incident like that affects boxing one way or another. There have been ’long-counts’ and ’other-counts’ and other controversies down through the ages and more often than not, it provokes interest. Certainly from what I’m sensing now, it caused a buzz through the sports world and even beyond, so I don’t know how you measure that. But Floyd likes to play the villain but he also wants to be loved and I’m sure he’ll go for both next time."
Merchant has a point. Regardless of who you ultimately blame for what took place at the MGM Grand, boxing was the talk of the town. It was the subject around many a water cooler and half of that story was Merchant who, many years ago, was a tough, hardnosed newspaper reporter in cities like New York and Philadelphia. The feedback was immediate.
"I had a sense that it would cause some buzz but by the time I got to the restaurant, meeting some friends after the fight, the thing had gone around the world six times and people were calling me and texting me and coming up to me and telling me, ’I’ll protect you Larry!’ and yelling at me, ’50 years! 50 years!’ In that sense, it was exhilarating," said Merchant with a chuckle.
The bottom line is that not everyone enjoys Merchant. To some, he’s a hard-to-please curmudgeon who doesn’t appreciate the finer aspects of the “Sweet science.” On the other hand, to his many supporters, he’s that hard-line critic who does his job in probing and asking the tough questions. Perhaps he could try and placate everybody by dumbing himself down to the lowest common denominator of boxing fan but that’s not who he is. He’ll leave the pom-poms and unadulterated adulation to others.
Whether it’s Lennox Lewis, who tried to wrestle the mike away from him (nearly lifting Larry off the ground), or any other boxer biting into him, Merchant will hold his ground. "Look, I’ve done by now probably thousands of fights and fighters just come out of heated battles for an hour or so and sometimes, some of them get into an excited mood and they don’t want to answer questions that are put to get answers and then more questions to the answers. So it happens occasionally," he explained. "Bernard Hopkins and I once had a real back-and-forth off-camera and the next night, he stood for an interview and said, ’Larry, we oughta take our show on the road.’"
The truly ironic part of this past weekend is that Merchant, from his ringside perch, was really enjoying Mayweather-Ortiz.
"I like the fact that Mayweather was coming out in a more positive way than we’ve seen him for years and trying to fill the holes that Ortiz was leaving for him. And it was a more crowd-pleasing effort on his part, absolutely. He was winning the fight, dominating the fight and it was turning a little bit. Ortiz realized he couldn’t stand outside, couldn’t box this guy. He had to use his physicality and just his size to try to muscle him around and roughhouse him and he was starting to do that. He landed a few shots, so who knows where it would’ve gone? Anybody’s guess is that Mayweather would’ve found a way to deal with whatever if the fourth round didn’t happen. He could’ve gone back into a boxing mode. We don’t know."
A few minutes after Ortiz was counted out, Mayweather discovered he wasn’t the only master counterpuncher in that arena. He said of his “50-year” line that, "It was a spontaneous combustion, a counterpunch but it was NOT a ’sucker punch.’"
Oh, to be 1961 all over again. However, Larry hasn’t begun doing roadwork just yet.
"Maybe later in the week, after I consult my cardiologist and my urologist and all the rest of the ’ologists’ that I see," he quipped. “But as you know, Mayweather wants to fight me but I’m not going to take a blood test."
The aforementioned poster (web editor’s note: *see poster at the top of this article) is a work of art and yes, Merchant has seen it (He loves it, by the way). And he’d actually like a copy or three (as would I), so if anyone knows who created this masterpiece, please get in contact with me and I’ll make sure he autographs one back.
Seriously, that thing is priceless.
Later on this week, our very own Luis Cortes III, a Philadelphian, will be doing a multi-part series on the recently deceased George Benton who, to me, was a great trainer. Benton, along with Lou Duva, was in the corner of one champion after another for Main Events back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Merchant covered Benton during his days as a respected middleweight contender.
"I loved George Benton when I was in Philadelphia. He was never a champ but everyone in Philadelphia called him ’champ.’ He beat Joey Giardello in a famous Philly fight. He was a great defensive master who could punch like hell but he didn’t always have self-discipline outside the ring and he became a top trainer and I knew him as a good guy at a time when boxing was deep and big in Philadelphia and elsewhere."
Merchant recalled one instance when, "[Benton] came out here as a fill-in, I believe, to fight a Los Angeles guy named ’Boardwalk’ Billy Smith, who was highly-touted. He went out in the first round, threw a few little punches, sized him up, came out in the second round, threw one punch and knocked him dead."
@jeremygattis tweeted to me that he changed the name of his fantasy football team to “Larry Merchant Time Machine”...I really enjoyed Carlos Acevedo’s recount of the Mayweather-Ortiz fiasco at http://thecruelestsport.com/2011/09/18/nightmare-alley-floyd-mayweather-jr-ko4-victor-ortiz/...The strong early ticket sales for Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito II prove that this fight belonged at Madison Square Garden the whole time. I expect December 3rd to be one of the most rabid, atmosphere-laden nights the sport will have in the United States. This isn’t going to be some stale arena setting where 80 percent of the patrons will show up ten minutes before the main event. Steve Kim-Rican can’t wait to be there (What? I’m not stupid, c’mon)...There is a very good chance that “Maxboxing Radio” with Corey Erdman and Yours Truly could be returning by next week…