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Jim Lampley reminisces over HBO Boxing's prominence, longevity and the joy of calling fights for 30 years

HBO Boxing announcer Jim Lampley

HBO Boxing announcer Jim Lampley Credit: HBO / Monte Isom

Jim Lampley did not hear the closed-circuit television or radio calls the night Cassius Clay dethroned Sonny Liston as heavyweight champion on Feb. 25, 1964.

That was because he was there, seated in the Miami Beach Convention Center, where “nobody called it for me but me.”

Later that night, he offered his own interpretation while sitting atop his home in what he described as a “drab, middle-class tract housing subdivision in Southwest Miami.”

“I was on the roof of my house after midnight, a 14-year-old boy screaming, ‘I have upset the world!’ and ‘I am the greatest of all time!’” Lampley recalled.

He already had been a fight fan for eight years by then, starting with a televised Sugar Ray Robinson-Bobo Olson fight in late 1955. Who knew where it all would lead?

It led to this: Over the past 30 years, Lampley has been HBO’s lead boxing blow-by-blow man, a job that made him the soundtrack of many of the biggest fights of the era.

That includes what he called the successor to the victory by Clay — soon to be known as Muhammad Ali — as “the biggest upset in the history of boxing, when [Mike] Tyson was knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo.”

Lampley said that 1990 shocker “to this day remains the fight that more people ask me about than any other fight that I ever called.”

There have been dozens of others, but soon there will be no more. HBO Sports recently announced that it would leave the live boxing business at the end of the year.

It will televise a card from the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 27, then one from Atlantic City on Nov. 24 and perhaps one more on Dec. 8, and that will be that.

Much as boxing migrated last century from broadcast TV to premium cable and pay-per-view, its latest future appears to lie in streaming services such as DAZN and ESPN+. (HBO’s premium cable foe, Showtime, plans to continue with boxing.)

Just this past week, DAZN signed Canelo Alvarez to a new, $365-million contract.

HBO Sports will live on, with enhanced commitments to non-live programming in journalism (“Real Sports”), documentaries, reality (“Hard Knocks”), conversation (LeBron James’ “The Shop”) and other initiatives. A documentary on Ali is due in 2019. Lampley himself will continue with the company as a producer.

But for the foreseeable future, live boxing is in HBO’s past. It has become an increasingly less central part of its program offerings, and increasingly less important to subscribers. Lampley said he was not surprised by the decision.

“Nothing lasts forever,” he said, “and it’s been abundantly clear to me for the last couple of years that there were tectonic shifts in the talent landscape and in the business atmosphere of boxing that might make it more and more problematic, not just for HBO, but for any premium pay cable platform.”

Larry Merchant, who spent 35 years at HBO, ending in 2012, put it this way in a statement when the news broke last month: "Once upon a time we were a promising kid. Then a challenger. Then a champion. A great champion. A long-time champion. And then a has-been who finally retired. So long, champ."

Harold Lederman, the scorer and analyst, joined World Championship Boxing in 1986. More recent cast members have included Max Kellerman, Roy Jones Jr. and Andre Ward.

Lampley said Alvarez’s new deal suggests the biggest names will do fine in the evolving media ecosystem, but that the sport’s larger business challenge remains marketing “across national boundaries and cultural boundaries in such a way as to maximize the most global sport.”

Regardless of the platform and business model, Lampley, 69, remains bullish on boxing’s appeal.

“One thing I’ve always said since I started covering the sport is regardless of all of the editorial suggestions that inundate us day after day, week after week, month after month with the notion that boxing is dying or dead or in some way losing its public grip, that’s a myth,” he said.

“As long as human beings walk on the planet, men and women are going to fight each other for money and intelligent entrepreneurs will find a way to present that in such a way that the audience will respond.”

Lampley said he is grateful that for the three decades he got to play a part in that drama, including highlights such as the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward and Erik Morales-Marco Antonio Barrera trilogies.

His first fight call on television, in 1986, featured Tyson knocking out Jesse Ferguson, then explaining his goal had been to drive his opponent’s nose bone into his brain.

His first pay-per-view event, in 1987, saw Michael Spinks defeat Huntington’s own Gerry Cooney.

“I learned that a much smaller man can easily beat a much larger man with speed and skill and precision,” Lampley said. “Every fight for 30-plus years I learned something, because boxing is a constant education.”

He joined HBO in 1988, and recalled many highs (and some lows). “I could go on and on and on,” he said. “I could talk to you about a hundred different fights that linger in my mind and leave me with a great feeling about the privilege that I had and the thrills that I had sitting in my seat at ringside.

“So I have a lot to keep in my memory bank and ruminate about for years to come, and rest assured I’ll figure out how to use these streaming services to see the fights I want to see.”

His mother sat him down in a quiet bedroom to watch that Robinson-Olson fight in 1955 to keep him occupied during a party for adults. His father had died a year earlier.

“I can remember my mother saying to me, ‘You’re going to do this, because if your father were still alive that’s what you would be doing,’” he said.

Soon Lampley was following the sport, with a special affinity for interesting names from interesting places. He was a fan of Dick Tiger and Emile Griffith, among others.

Later he got to know men in the fight game personally, including trainer and HBO analyst Emanuel Steward, whom he called “the deepest male friendship of my life.”

He also got to know Ali, the man whose victory he witnessed in 1964 after scraping up the money to attend by mowing lawns and washing cars. His mother dropped him off, drove around Miami Beach during the fight, then came to fetch him.

“You don’t expect that you will meet that person, that you will befriend that person, that you will have lengthy philosophical conversations, and that some day that man will babysit your 8-year-old daughter when you go out to run errands in New York,” he said. “That happened to me because of boxing.”

Lampley’s relationships will carry on, but the bouts themselves will be called by others. He said he understands and supports the company’s decision, even though he feels for those who worked on the telecasts over the years.

“At the end of the day I’m mostly grateful that I had a chance to call fights for 30 years on what was clearly the No. 1 platform for boxing during that period and therefore had a chance to call probably more truly great, significant fights in the sport during that period of time than anyone else who was doing what I did,” he said.

“I have a hard time conceiving of how anyone is ever going to be able to achieve the level of prominence and royalty that we experienced for that 30-year period of time. I wish everybody else who’s going to continue in the sport good luck and great thrills and terrific fortune because I had my time, and it was fun.”
 

HBO BOXING STATS

First telecast: Jan. 22, 1973, Joe Frazier against George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica

Total number of fights on HBO: 1,111

Boxers with the most appearances on HBO: Roy Jones Jr., 32; Oscar de la Hoya, 32; Shane Mosley, 27; Floyd Mayweather, 27; Manny Pacquiao, 24; Miguel Cotto, 24; Lennox Lewis, 23; Bernard Hopkins, 23: Wladimir Klitschko, 22; Arturo Gatti, 21; Pernell Whitaker, 19; Marco Antonio Barrera, 19; Mike Tyson, 17

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