A Tribute to Larry and, What's This, a Defense of Arum?

By Michael Katz


A Tribute to Larry and, What's This, a Defense of Arum?

One of my favorite radio characters was Boston Blackie, "friend to those who have no friends." Larry Merchant doesn't need Blackie's assistance; for Bob Arum, it couldn't hurt.

In the buildup to what could be the second biggest sporting event of next Saturday, Arum has been insulted by Richard Schaefer, the Swiss cheese who fashions himself a great boxing promoter because he's got Oscar de la Hoya's company - and its HBO support system - with which to play. Without mentioning Arum by name on a conference call, Schaefer said boxing's problem was "a handful of promoters who keep pissing on the sport." He said if these unmentioned Arums believe so strongly, "The sport is dying, the sport is dying," they should quit promoting and retire.

Again, without mentioning the promoter's name, Schaefer belittled Arum's results in getting only 300,000 pay-per-view buys to a double-header featuring de la Hoya and Bernard Hopkins in separate bouts, proclaiming it ?one of the worst jobs of promoting.?

Boston Blackie to the rescue. We need not go into my long bumpy confrontational relationship with Arum. But first, 300,000 buys when the two fights contain Felix Sturm and Robert Allen shows no lack of promotionl work - the double-header got a lot of extra ink when Arum fanned Hopkinis' threat to walk out because Joe Cortez was appointed his referee - but the sophistication of the hardcore fan who knew this was merely an infomercial for the scheduled Hopkins-de la Hoya showdown later.

Arum, in fact, is one of the few promoters around who do more than just take money from cable giant and casino, but actually works at his trade. He recently held successful pay-per-view show without HBO in San Antonio for Manny Pacquiao - against a rather unknown opponent, Jorge Solis - and put on a smashing underard. All the great promoter Schaefer did was try to stop the show because of Golden Boy's claims to Pacquiao.

Meanwhile, for all its big names - Hopkins, Sugar Shane Mosley, Marco Antonio Barrera - Golden Boy has shown to be one top rank amateur. Start with the undercard for its $55 show next week. If, as is quite possible given the fighters' styles, de la Hoya-Mayweather turns out to look like a Johnny Ruiz exercise in boredom, the televiewers will hardly get their money's worth from the trash underneath.

At most Golden Boy shows, despite a formidable list of publicity hounds, press kits are seldom ready for the press. These people have no idea of what they're doing. In New York, where they kicked off the national tour to hype the event, they had de la Hoya scheduled to ring the bell to start trading that day at NASDAQ; he wound up at the New York Stock Exchange, where he was not expected. All these great minds at Schaefer's command could come up with only ?The World Awaits? for the title of the show. I would have picked the Chicken and the Yegg - the Chicken for my old nickname for Oscar, yegg for the gangsta Mayweather tries to emulate.

Before de la Hoya's meeting with Fernando Vargas, Schaefer had me removed from Oscar's suite before a press conference was to start. Okay, I've only been writing about boxing for 40 years. But how the hell can Golden Boy not give Budd Schulberg accreditation to this over-rated show?

I don't think the Yankees and the Red Sox play every weekend, and I have no idea of who will be plying whom in the NBA and NHL playoffs. But a match between a 34-year-old fighter who has seen better days and who is only 2-2 in the last several years against boxing's best proponent hardly ranks up there with the Kentucky Derby.

Yes, it'll make a lot of money, which is very nice as Mr. Bernstein reminds us in ?Citizen Kane,? if all you want to do is make money. In fact, a lot of money may be the very reason de la Hoya has taken this mission almost impossible.

He'll make upwards of $20 million, but a victory won't mean anything in terms of his relative place in the boxing pantheon. He was never in the same league with the Sugr Ray Leonrds or Emile Griffiths. The same might be said for any 2007 boxer; they have emerged from a shallower pool of fighters than was the case only a quarter-century ago and let's not go back to the Fifties. De la Hoya, unquestionably, was one of the finest of his time, which is all we can say conclusively about any of them. Whether or not he beat Pernell Whitaker, he won more rounds against the Sweet Pea than most mortals did.

He is facing a Whitaker-like defensive genius in Mayweather, but the current version is in his prime. It's a nice fight between two of boxing's most skilled characters and I certainly would buy it if I have to give up my ringside seat to Mr. Schulberg or to his son, another star writer for boxingtalk.com, Budd Light (just joking, Benn Schulberg is a terrific writer in his own write). I mean, what do the Swiss know about boxing writers? In 600 years of peace, they've produced, what, the cuckoo clock (okay, boxing fans, in what great film did Orson Welles give that line? Okay, your time is up, it was ?The Third Man? and if you've never seen that or ?Kane? then what the hell are you doing reading this crap, get to the film library immediately).

Before you go, though, let me tell you a bit about someone who's been around boxing longer than I have, though he is of course outranked by Budd. I first met Larry Merchant while doing basic training in 1962 at Fort Dix, NJ. Not personally met, but became acquainted with his work. Every day at Dix, peddlers would come around selling the Philadelphia newspapers. That's how I met Merch. He was then the wunderkind young sports editor of the Philly Daily News and one of its featured columnists (among his hires was the now semi-retired Stan Hochman, a wonderful boxing writer). A couple of years later, when Merch shifted to the New York Post, I was able to tell friends that they were about to get knocked on their butts by this new voice in town.

He wasn't from Philly, of course. In fact, he had attended the same Brooklyn high school, Lafayette, that I did, though a bit earlier. He once scored a touchdown for the Frenchies - that was the un-PC nickname back then - at Ebbets Field. In India, the equivalent would be to score at the Taj Mahal.

Merchant has alienated many in the course of his brilliant career. Good. That's his job and there have been few who were better at it, in print or on television.

He won't talk about it, so I didn't bother him, but it's apparent that HBO, which likes to call itself the ?Heart and Soul? of boxing, is about to cut out its own heart, excommunicate its soul and muzzle the most intelligent ringside voice in boxing history. I will not shed tears for him, but for us. We have had some disagreements over the years, mainly for his preference of blood and guts over stick and move. But there can be no denying that Merchant is too good for what HBO Boxing is showing these days. Having him at Wladimir Klitschko-Ray Austin seemed as out of place as Mozart on the elevator. He certainly will not miss working the Arturo Gatti crap that is being cooked up by the once mighty cable network for Bastille Day, though it would havc been delicious to hear him yell, ?Aux barricades!? Merch loves Gatti, but not against a loser from ?The Contenders,? another contribution to the game from Jeff Wald, the same guy who supplied American culture with ?The Gong Show.?

This is nothing against Merch's reported replacement, Max Kellerman, who didn't make it on Fox Sports; Mad Max probably will be working fights that probably couldn't make it on Fox, either.

The word is that Merch will work the May 5 walkout bout to the Kentucky Derby and then add his bon mots to the Jermain Taylor-Cory Spinks thriller two weeks later. Then, at age 76, he'll be an obvious victim of age discrimination, not that I expect Larry to sue the hands that fed him. He's too classy for that; he'll land on his feet, he's too good not to. Besides, there was a time when HBO was not only his employer, but his ally.

Both Don King and Bob Arum hid behind the skirts of their fighters - Mike Tyson and Oscar de la Hoy, respectively - in attempts to silence Larry's voice. King took Tyson over to rival Showtime when HBO, which used to have a sports boss worth bragging on in Seth Abraham, refused to give in to the promoter. Arum wanted Merch fired for his ?this music sucks? line when the promoter had de la Hoya serenaded by a mariachi band before his challenge of Pernell Whitaker.

Of course, Arum was quoting Merch out of context. What Larry said was while he enjoyed the type of music, playing if for the challenger while not playing anything for the champion ?sucked.? In a sense, it may have helped contribute to de la Hoya's victory, stirring up the Mexican and Mexican-American crowd into cheering loudly for every Oscar punch, even the ones that Whitaker slipped or parried.

Funny, I don't recall Richard Schaefer protesting the unfair treatment by a promoter back then. Not that Oscar would do anything like that - except maybe to dictate all the terms from choice of gloves to how big a slice each side will receive.

What could HBO be thinking is beyond me. Boxing is not only dying, it is commiting suicide and this is not euthanasia.

PENTHOUSE:  Some columns write themselves. Then there are those where an astute reader can supply the engine. If I didn't think it important to thank Larry Merchant for all the years of quality, important to deflate Richard Schaefer's ego for selling sponsorships to Dr. Pepper and Tecate beer, my priority would have been an anonymous e-mailer who put the big weekend fight between Juan Diaz and Acelino Freitas into perspective. It's being billed as a lightweight ?unification? match, which is the capital of inane.

My anonymous reader - he said he knows me, he used to be in boxing, but is now making money, and he sounds too sane to be either of the Bobsey Twins, Rock Newman or Marc Roberts - said he could not believe HBO and Showtime both passed up Joel Casamayor, the REAL lightweight champion, facing either of the two alphabet titlists. Big Dadde also wrote that he knew the WBClowns would strip Casamayor and give its plastic belt to David Diaz because they knew that Erik Morales could never beat the Cuban exile but even in his dotage would be able to handle the modest talents of Diaz to win a Mexican record fourth title.

I agree. It is true, though, that Juan Diaz and Freitas, while not providing any legitimate 135-pound title claimant, should provide HBO viewers with some entertainment. Styles may make fights, but in this case, I don't think they make the winner. Diaz, the undefeated Baby Bull from Houston who is working his way through law school, is a light puncher who swarms his opponent. That should mean target practice for Freitas, a hard-hitting Brazilian. However, for someone who showed an alarming lack of character when he quit against Diego Corrales, Freitas may feel very uncomfortable in with a guy who never stops charging. I've got to go with the guts here - Diaz by points?.What's especially delicious is Freitas's trainer, Oscar Suarez, saying that Juan Diaz was better than Casamayor?.I'm sure you're interested, but even if not, my picks in Germany are Stipe Drews (how could anyone pass up a chance to bet on that name?) against Silvio Blanco and for Felix Sturm to avenge his shocking loss to Javier Castillejo?.Oh, and this is no big secret: I like Mayweather.

OUTHOUSE: Just when you thought Showtime was getting it right, the ?other? subscription cable boxing network goes out and buys Antonio Tarver's return against the well-connected, but otherwise inept, Elviro Muriqi. Bah, humbug?.The press release for Pete Manfredo's May 11 date in little old Rhode Island mentioned it was his first start since the ?controversial? quick third-round stoppage against Joe Calzaghe. The only ?controversy? was what the hell Manfredo was doing in a title fight in the first place. He's back among his own kind, against someone with a 19-10-2 record and only nine knockouts?.Michael Arnaoutis was intimidated the first time he was countered by Kendall Holt and, realizing he was in with someone with must quicker fists, stowed his aggression and turned a highly anticipated ShoBox match into a bore. Holt didn't help by taking the safe and sure way to victory?.I'm sure most of you were shocked by the report from David Mayo in the Grand Rapids Press that Floyd Jr. and Floyd Sr. have split again. There will be peace in the Middle East before any in that family.

DIS AND THAT: De la Hoya was in rare form on his conference call this week, saying of Mayweather, ?he didn't choose to be the villain, he IS the villain.? Oscar said ?he's not fighting no pushover here.? Really?...Mayweather was just as astute on his phone session with the inquiring minds. ?You got one fighter who's always in the best shape of his life and he always gets tired,? he said of de la Hoya?.Mayweather, who hangs around with a rap star, Four Bit is what I think he's called, something like that, sang his usual hymn to himself about how good he is. BUT, he's entitled to feel he's pretty good (not Sugar Ray Robinson good, of course) and on the call he was downright complimentary to three of my favorite fighters - Aaron Pryor, Pernell Whitaker and Larry Holmes. He said Pryor ?was Sugar Ray Leonard's greatest nightmare.? Pryor thought he was going to be Leonard's next opponent as he drove to Buffalo for a bout that was canceled when it was announced Ray had a detached retina - at that time, we didn't know much about laser operations and thought it was a career-ending injury. Pryor said when the news came on the radio, he pulled the car over and cried?.Good to see that Chris Byrd will be part of the broadcast team on ShoBox next week for its heavyweight matchups in Vegas erev de la Hoya-Mayweather. I didn't like the way Byrd, one of the nicest guys in the game, looked in his return from a year off following his second blowout by Wladimir Klitschko. He looked weaker than ever. I'm hoping he realizes his boxing future is not inside the ring.


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