Exclusive Interview with Max Kellerman
It’s hard these days for even a casual boxing fan to be unfamiliar with the work of Max Kellerman. One of the sport’s most colorful and outspoken authorities, Max began his boxing quest back in 1989 when as a slight, 16 year-old, New York City high school student he started a public access boxing show known as ‘Max on Boxing’. The show’s popularity was so great that it went on to thrive for eight years, gaining the attention of the most respected figures in the sport as well as countless other notables including Dustin Hoffman and David Letterman. Max’s seemingly endless boxing knowledge landed him a job with ESPN shortly after his graduation from Columbia University in 1998, and for the next five years Kellerman elevated ‘Friday Night Fights’ to a premier sports feature which has staged some of the most exciting bouts of the decade. This past year at the tender age of 30, Max landed his own network show, ‘I, Max’, which airs weekdays at 6pm on Fox Sports Net. While ‘I, Max’ is a general sports show, Kellerman is by no means moving away from the world of boxing. Still featured on FSN’s ‘Sunday Night Fights’ and Thursday editions as well, Max is destined to remain a boxing fixture, and as he promised, “I will be in boxing as long as the industry will have me.” I got a chance to catch up with the great boxing mind this past week and you won’t want to miss what he had to say.AL: So first off, how do you like working on ‘I,Max’ compared to ESPN ‘Friday Night Fights’?
MK: Its great. I mean ‘Friday Night Fights’ was just a boxing show. This is more like a combination of ‘Friday Night Fights’ and ‘Around the Horn’ in the sense that I’m opining like ‘Friday Night Fights’ and I’m talking to the camera and to someone else but I’m also hosting and doing more general sports like ‘Around the Horn’. So its sort of an amalgam of those two shows.AL: Do you feel like when you left ‘Friday Night Fights’ you were leaving a sinking ship?
MK: No, I think it’s a great show and I loved working on it. I didn’t feel like oh phew I’m getting out at the right time or anything like that. I kind of like the way the show is going now with the guests they have on, because I know what my opinions are (laughing) but now I get to hear them from the special guests. And I still watch it cause my boys are on there, you know Brian and Teddy and Joe Tessitore. But I didn’t feel like I was getting out just in time, I just had a better offer.AL: I know that ESPN has substantially reduced the amount they are paying promoters and subsequently the fighters. Do you think they will survive with that practice?
MK: Yeah, they’ll work something out. Boxing always does great numbers compared to the money you put in. You’re always gonna get more out if you’re smart. But you know if you look at the fights we’ve had on ‘Sunday Night Fights’ so far, the first one I do its Robbie Peden and Nate Campbell. I thought that that was a better match-up and a better result than anything that had been on ‘Friday Night Fights’ in years. Then this Thursday I’m going out to do a live show for James Toney/Rydell Booker so I’m still doing boxing on Fox and if you look at the strength of the match-ups that I’m involved in, they’re great.AL: Max, do you think a boxing league will ever be created and what do you believe is the biggest obstacle standing in its way?
MK: A boxing league ultimately will be created. The biggest obstacle in its way is the history of the sport. It did not evolve with a central authority or a perceived major league so the DNA is not there. If you look at something like the ‘Ultimate Fighting Championships’, the UFC is a brand of mixed martial arts. But because it began, most people’s exposure in this country to mixed martial arts came from the UFC. That’s the recognized major league brand and because it’s a privately owned league they have much more control over their product. Boxing, just because it developed the way it did is a sort of quasi-legal back-alley thing that then branched out into the mainstream but never really had a perceived major league or major tour that was considered legitimate. Because that’s never happened before it’s harder for people to get their minds around how to organize the sport. The best thing that can happen is a corporation with very deep pockets investing real money in a three to five year plan. If someone does that and they go about it the right way, they will own the boxing brand and boxing will be as big as anything except the NFL. It’ll be bigger than NASCAR. AL: A few days ago I went to a press conference held by J.A.B., and Lou DiBella and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad were slamming ESPN incidentally. But what do you think the chances are of a union thriving in boxing?
MK: Well that’s the first step to creating a league. Like when you play a boxing video game, you say why isn’t this guy in this game, why isn’t that guy in that game, why does the game that has George Foreman not have Roy Jones? Because there’s no union, there’s no collective bargaining process. So the health of any league is totally dependant on having a union. You know if the promoters are so shortsighted that they can only say oh we don’t want a union because they’re too powerful and we get a smaller cut of the pie, then they’re being really foolish. If they don’t get it right now the promoters and TV networks have a bigger slice of a tiny little pie. But when you look at the numbers they may be better off with a much smaller slice of a much larger pie. But to get the larger pie you have to foster the creation of a union. You have to make sure that happens because once you have a union, you have collective bargaining and once you have collective bargaining you can have a healthy league. AL: As far as the state of the game, in most sports athletes have gotten better over time, but in boxing...
MK: …I think there’s a difference between greater and better. I don’t know how useful it is to talk better. In boxing, probably there were better fighters in the ‘50’s than there were in ‘40’s because there were more fighters fighting. In a larger pool of fighters you’d expect to find more good fighters and also those fighters will become more experienced the more they fight. On the other hand, old timers who make that claim are ignoring the fact that…you know every top sprinter in the world today is better than Jesse Owens. In the one sport that can be measured objectively there’s nothing left to argue. But Jesse Owens won more races and more gold medals by a wider margin than any of these guys do today, so you can make the argument that he was greater. Greater is actually a useful term, better not as useful. Even when you say in boxing they may have been better in the ‘50’s because conditions lent themselves to creating better fighters, you’re still not arguing they’re greater. Greater has to do with how well you fared against your contemporaries. If you can demonstrate that Bernard Hopkins dominates his contemporaries more thoroughly than Carlos Monzon did then you can start the argument that Bernard Hopkins is a greater fighter whether or not he is better. Then of course there are also considerations of the strength of the era, you know it’s easier to dominate a weaker era. But the argument that there were just more good fighters in the 50’s, that they were just better is sort of meaningless. You’ll never be able to know because you’ll never see them in the ring together.AL: Well the point I was really getting at is that the quality of life in America has gone up so dramatically since the earlier part of the 20th century it may be that athletes in the sport of boxing have softened up a little and there’s not as big a pool of hard-nosed, tough as nails fighters out there.
MK: Also immigration patterns have changed. I mean there’s a whole host of reasons. You can look at movement to the suburbs in post-war America. But there’s a whole host of reasons why boxing’s popularity has been in decline. The single biggest factor is the organization of the sport itself because there’s no central authority, there’s no one looking out for the long-term health of the sport. What winds up happening is everyone looks out for the short-term interests even if it’s at the long-term expense. The example that I use is the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. Like if you have 100 people living in a commons, if everyone just takes their fare share, one unit, they can regenerate the grounds and it can be self sustaining. The problem is that the way it’s set up if I know if I take two units I’ve increased my welfare by 100% and I’ve only decreased the greater good by 1% then of course I’m going to take twice as much. The problem is everyone feels that way and everyone takes twice as much and it collapses. That’s boxing. It’s set up in a way where if I’m a promoter or a fighter I know that if I grab this meaningless WB whatever title I’ll get a little more money from the networks and I will serve my own short-term interest. The networks have no central authority to say yes in the short-term this is good for this promotion, but in the long-term you’re crippling the sport because you’re marginalizing it by making it difficult to follow and you’re diluting the value of titles. So the structural flaw of boxing is its biggest problem.AL: Just moving on for a minute, I know that when I went to the 1989 fight between Dennis Andries and Jeff Harding that’s what inspired my enthusiasm for the sport...
MK: ...yeah a great fight.AL: Was there a specific incident that inspired your boxing fanaticism?
MK: I remember my dad watching Ali fighting Earnie Shavers on TV when I was a baby. Then I was just a scrappy kid when my dad took me to the gym one day. I was eight years old.AL: What was the greatest fight you ever saw live?
MK: Overall it may have been Mosley De La Hoya I. It’s so rare that you see two legitimately great fighters in their absolute physical primes going back and forth probably at their peak weight in a fight of constantly shifting momentum, excellent action, fast pace and top notch skills.AL: If there were one fight in history you would have liked to be at, what would it be?
MK: Harry Greb/Mickey Walker. You know there are no Greb fights on tape and Mickey Walker was the welterweight champ. It was a very close fight between two of the best pound for pound fighters of their era.AL: I’m going to give you hypothetical match-ups between fighters in their respective primes and I want you to tell me who you think would be victorious. Roy Jones Jr. vs. Sugar Ray Robinson?
MK: Well after seeing Roy Jones get knocked out by Antonio Tarver its tough, but Roy Jones still enjoyed the size advantage over Robinson. Robinson was a tall welterweight and Roy Jones is a big middleweight. So its possible that Robinson catches Jones and knocks him out but its also probable that with Robinson at his peak in say 1947 at 145 pounds versus Jones at his peak, at168 pounds, let’s say 1996 or 1997, Jones could be very careful with him and outpoint him. But then again after seeing him get knocked out by Tarver, you know Robinson could punch with both hands.AL: Mike Tyson vs. Joe Louis?
MK: In their primes Tyson was too big for Louis, 20 pound weight advantage. Also, Louis was there to be hit.AL: Aaron Pryor vs. Oscar De La Hoya?
MK: Pryor...just too busy.AL: Lennox Lewis vs. Muhammad Ali?
MK: It’s tough to pick against Ali. I mean Lewis has a chance because he’s big and he can really punch. You know they both had their unorthodox styles, but Ali didn’t have too many problems with big fighters like Ernie Terrell. Then again, Lennox Lewis is not Ernie Terrell. I’d take Ali on points.AL: How would you rank a black fighter like Sam Langford who was never really able to fight the great white fighters of his era?
MK: Top five pound for pound based on the fact that he fought everybody in their respective careers. Like Joe Gans was the best pound for pound lightweight of all time when Langford fought him. Then Joe Walcott was one of the greatest welterweights of all time when he fought him. You know it was still early in the history of boxing, but still. Stanley Ketchel was one of the greatest…him and Bob Fitzsimmons the two greatest middleweights at that point in history. Langford fought him. Philadelphia Jack O’Brien was a great light heavyweight and Langford essentially went even up with all those guys, you know the greatest of all time in each of their weight classes and held his own with the top heavyweights of the day. So it’s difficult to evaluate his record but to the best of my ability I would put Langford as a top five pound for pound all time fighter.AL: And who is your top all-time pound for pound fighter?
MK: Ray Robinson.AL: Tell me how you think De La Hoya/Hopkins is going to play out.
MK: I think Hopkins is going to beat him on points. Oscar has too much pride to get knocked out. Hopkins will be a little tight in the beginning. Oscar will rally at certain points and at times steal some rounds. I think Hopkins is a more complete fighter, obviously a bigger fighter, physically stronger and he should win the fight on points.AL: How do you feel about the comeback of Riddick Bowe?
MK: Terrible. He clearly has brain damage and should not be fighting.AL: I know you’re really just getting started with I,Max, but do you have any aspirations to get back into boxing on possibly a much larger scale like HBO or Showtime?
MK: I will be in boxing as long as the industry will have me.AL: Anything else you’d like to add?
MK: ‘I,Max’, 6pm weekdays.
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