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Toe-to-toe with HBO's Aaron Cohen

Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz face off at

Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz face off at a press conferece about their upcoming fight. (June 28, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

One does not readily associate Manhasset with boxing. You want to talk great lacrosse, Manhasset's the place. 

 Jim Brown? The NFL legend got his start there. But you have to look a little deeper for the boxing connection -- that would be Aaron Cohen, whose writing on boxing has been stellar.

 Cohen is the voice of HBO's 24/7 series, a reality-type show that serves to hype all the networks big fights. To say that Cohen is THE voice, is not entirely accurate. Liev Schreiber is the actual voice. But Schreiber's words come from Cohen. Every single line of narration spoken on that show, since it's inception in 2007, has been written by Cohen. The fighters bring the chaos and comedy, Cohen provides the show with its soul, its wit and its pace. 

Cohen is becoming the go-to guy in television sports writing. He's covered every Olympics since 2000, he worked on ESPN's documentary 'Fab Five' and, in addition to his 24/7 work, he wrote HBO's recent Derek Jeter documentary. He is a 14-time Emmy winner, which is twice as much hardware as seven-time champion Manny Pacquiao has earned. The 33-year-old Harvard grad aspired to write for Sports Illustrated, but an internship at SI fell through, so Cohen took an internship with Bob Costas and has been a TV writer ever since. SI's loss has been television's gain. 

As HBO is set to premiere '24/7 Mayweather-Ortiz' on Saturday, The Neutral Corner caught up with Cohen.
 

Neutral Corner: So when it's Floyd Mayweather Jr. on 24/7, how soon do you start salivating? 

Aaron Cohen: Floyd definitely makes it easy. And fun. There is a genius to his improvisation, and when you start  to juxtapose Floyd's voice with our narrator's voice, that's really fun. Yes, as a writer, I do salivate when Floyd is part of the show.

 NC: There seems to be two Floyd Mayweather Jrs. One is a guy the viewer really can't stand and the other is a pretty good guy. Is that a fair assessment?

 AC: The thing that always strikes me so much is that as soon as he wins the fight, he's always so gracious, so humble. Everything is gone and he's over there hugging the other guy. He can be incredibly charming. But when he's doing Floyd, it's so convincing. It gives his persona credibility. When you are watching him go crazy you don't think he's faking it. I think for some athletes, boxing being a good example, that's the way they motivate themselves. That's the way they bring it to the next level.

 NC: Who is your favorite guy to write? 

AC: I think Floyd is the obvious answer. But honestly, when a new person comes on the show with a new story and whole new team and entourage, I like the idea of starting from scratch with those characters. When an Ortiz comes into the mix and you have a clean sheet of paper, for a lot of casual boxing fans, 24/7 is the way they follow the sport. So we are telling them the story for the first time. I had a lot of fun writing about Miguel Cotto when he was on or Antonio Margarito, but, of course, Floyd and Manny Pacquiao are huge stars and I like writing about both of them. 

NC: Which fighters do you like to watch?

 AC: As much as watching a bloodbath in the ring is exciting, I honestly think watching Floyd fight is amazing. It's like this invisible thing happens. You don't see him winning, but he's winning. And by the end of the fight it is usually a convincing win. A bloodbath or an old-fashioned brawl is fun, but I have learned to appreciate Floyd. That's how I've learned boxing. 

NC: What's your dream 24/7?

 AC: I'd be lying if I didn't say it was Mayweather-Pacquiao, but I think it's nice when a guy like Ortiz comes around. I will be stoked when the bell rings for that fight. I'll be 50-50...not really sure who's going to win. But for this era of boxing, it's Mayweather-Pacquiao. That's Colts vs. Patriots. It's Yankees vs. Red Sox. There are a lot of people who want to see that happen.

 NC: Tell us a little bit about Victor Ortiz?

 AC: There are a lot of athletes, guy who come from tough places or broken homes, just real dire circumstances. Ortiz is about as bad as you've ever seen. The nice thing is that his brother is a character in the show. They are very close.

 NC: Why is boxing so compelling?

 AC: I am a big sports fan. This stuff comes naturally to me. I love Olympic sports. I work the Olympics every year. I was a very casual boxing fan before I started working on 24/7. It's cool to write about baseball, football or basketball, but boxing is so primal. It's two guys fighting each other. Boxing, to me -- it's the primal combined with the spectacle. You are anticipating and you're building up to 36 minutes in the ring. At 11:45, when that ring clears and it's just Floyd and Victor in the opposite corners and the bell is about to ring, that feeling of anticipation is so cool. With boxing, it's the simplicity but also the spectacle.

 NC: How much footage do you watch for an episode?

 AC: The producers go through lots of footage. There are basically two senior producers -- Bentley Weiner and Scott Boggins. They are each in an edit room. On this show, Bentley is worrying about Mayweather stuff and Scott has Ortiz. They come up with the story lines for the segments. They have a wonderful team of shooters and photographers. They put together the segment and leave spaces for where the narration is. We call it a scratch track. They worry about the whole car and I worry about the wheels. We'll go back and forth and talk about the episode. For the close and the essays, we'll have a meeting, I'll write  a script for them and they will produce a segment around it. It's totally collaborative. By the end of it, they will have watched hundreds of hours of footage.

 NC: I always find it really funny when fighters reference the show on the show. You must, also.

 AC: It became evident that the show was going to become a character right at the start...with De la Hoya-Mayweather. The second episode started with Floyd watching the show with his guys and he got really pumped. We are cognizant of not being too self-referential. But you want to capture the reality of their routine.

 NC: Knowing that they watch the show, has it ever altered a decision about airing something?

 AC: No. It's pretty much 'no holds barred.' If something comes up that's difficult, there are conversations and meetings and we want to prepare it the right way, the fair way. But that's been a huge part of the show's success, having this raw element to it. Our first responsibility is to the viewer.

 NC: What's the most memorable thing you've written on 24/7?

 AC: There are so many, but probably my favorite line, the most memorable thing for me, was when Juan Manuel Marquez drank his own urine. The challenge was, how to do it. How do you get this in and not be contrived? It was in episode 2 of Mayweather-Marquez.

 [Cohen later emailed us the exact sequence. Here it is: 'When the training session ends, the gym empties quickly. And if Juan Manuel Marquez has shown himself to be a fighter who will go to any length to gain an edge, the conclusion to his day shows just how far.... He drinks his own urine.']

 NC: Not enough gets said about the theme music.

 AC: It's a phenomenal cut. It was composed by Jose Cancela and Amy Marie Beauchamp of A&J Music Productions. Music has always been a big part of the show. Starting with the theme music and the commercial music we add. You can't do any better. In sports television, anyone you talk to [says] music is a big part of keeping the viewer energized. There has never been a single conversation about, "hey, let's get new music." When Eric Mangini was coaching the Jets, he was a big boxing fan. He played music at practice. He called and asked HBO for the music.

 NC: OK. You've just finished a draft. You are looking at your computer and you start reading it back in your head. Is it in Liev Schreiber's voice?

 AC: It's definitely in his voice. I can't do an imitation of him by any means, but in my head it plays that way. He's a very cool guy. He's into the show and he's a big boxing fan. He's the best narrator working

 

Cohen has agreed to answer two additionals questions on Twitter. For the  two bonus questions, login to Twitter and check the accounts - @casswriter44 or @aaronrcohen.

 

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