Stan Hochman: Larry Merchant seeks the truth in business of fun and games

The longtime HBO fight crew: Max Kellerman, Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant. After 35 years covering the fight game for HBO, Merchant retired in December.PHOTO: WILL HART
The longtime HBO fight crew: Max Kellerman, Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant. After 35 years covering the fight game for HBO, Merchant retired in December.PHOTO: WILL HART
Posted: February 10, 2013

By Stan Hochman

Larry Merchant says the best postfight interview he ever did started with 20 seconds of silence. Twenty seconds of silence! Anything past 2 seconds of silence is dreaded "dead air."

The producer screams, the audience fidgets, the announcer's career flashes before his startled eyes.

"Best interview I ever did was Buster Douglas, after he beat Mike Tyson" in 1990, Merchant said recently. "He seemed emotionally overwhelmed. His mother had just died, maybe a week before the fight. I'm holding back, asking the key question, how that affected his performance.

"Somehow, that had galvanized him. Here was a guy with great athletic ability, but he had never put it together before that night. I knew he wanted to talk about it, but he needed those 20 seconds.

"He had just accomplished this amazing thing and he needed the time to gather himself. I remember thinking, 'Keep him there and shut up.' I had this revelation. This is show-and-tell. When you have the show, you don't have to tell it.

"A managing editor once told me, 'If you have a great story, tell it. If you don't have a great story, write it."

Merchant will be 82 on Monday. He retired in December, after 35 years of dogged pursuit of great boxing stories on HBO. He was the third guy at ringside, along with a blow-by-blow guy and a fighter or trainer as the expert. Merchant was the storyteller, revealing the fighter's personality, relating it to the way he was fighting the fight.

And then came those hectic postfight moments in the ring, with the giddy, sometimes grumpy winner. "You have 2 minutes," Merchant explained. "You have a producer screaming in your ear. You have a guy who has just fought for an hour.

"Sure, there were times when I was more confrontational than I really wanted to be. Stuff happens. I had a trainer attack me because he thought his fighter had won the fight. Lennox Lewis grabbed the microphone and almost lifted me off the floor."

Fighters vented. Mike Tyson wouldn't speak with him for a year. One winner of a tainted decision thanked a long list of people. Merchant interrupted to say, "You might want to thank the judges."

In September 2011, there was Floyd Mayweather Jr. telling him that he didn't know bleep about boxing. And Merchant snarling back, "If I was 50 years younger, I would kick your ass."

When Merchant was 50 years younger, he was sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. He was taking names and kicking ass, surrounded by a posse he had hired, hard-driving guys with similar inclinations.

He'd yanked me out of San Bernardino, Calif., and told me where to park near Connie Mack Stadium so I'd find my hubcaps intact after games. And then he told me what we owed our readers.

"Inform 'em, entertain 'em, and every so often surprise 'em," Merchant said. He wrote incisive essays about pro football. He called his column "Fun and Games" as a stark contrast to life and death. And he'd open his occasional notes columns with "Some questions answered, some answers questioned."

Merchant informed, entertained, shocked. We were tabloid and proud of it. Not that everyone loved our swagger, our persistence.

There was that night in 1962 on the Phillies' charter flight, Merchant in an aisle seat, typing away. The catcher, Sammy White, peered over Larry's shoulder, unhappy with what he read.

"He yanked at the copy paper," Merchant recalled, "and it stuck. He wound up throwing my Olivetti [typewriter] down the aisle. I went to get it and some of the keys were twisted and some vital parts scattered.

"That night, I dictated a story that said it was the best throw he'd made all season. About a month later, the Phillies sent me an invoice, paying for a replacement and indicating it had been deducted from White's salary."

Norm Van Brocklin led the Eagles to a championship in 1960 and pretty soon he was grumbling his way out of town. Merchant wrote lusty columns lambasting ownership for reneging on the promise to make Van Brocklin the Eagles' coach.

"The fire commissioner was one of the owners of the team," Merchant said. "He didn't like some of the things Van Brocklin was saying about the ownership. He called me in, told me that the [newspaper's building] was located in a fire hazard. But nothing more happened."

Merchant changed the way sports were covered in this city. "We spoke truth to power," he says now. But it was more than that. He hired the lyrical Sandy Grady, he hired the fiery Jack Kiser, he hired Ben Callaway, a gifted outdoors guy, and he turned a deaf desk man named Steve Klessel into our amazing racing writer. He already had the tough Jack McKinney covering boxing and the Eagles.

"I remember those early days," Merchant said. "I remember thinking, 'I'll never do anything better than this.' It was everything I ever wanted to do in sports journalism. I found good people, turned 'em loose and then hoped to find ways to keep 'em.

"I was the photo editor, 12 photographers, all of us having fun. And then I wrote a story about Bob Montgomery, the former lightweight champion of the world. He was sitting outside a movie

theater, on a stool, selling tickets.

"He was ticket-seller and manager. I guess the owner felt there'd be no trouble with the lightweight champion in charge. I turned it in, but the sports editor didn't use it. And then, there was a housecleaning and they asked me if I wanted to be sports editor [he was 27].

"I remember the first big fight I ever covered, Carmen Basilio against Ray Robinson, Yankee Stadium. Twenty feet away, sitting at ringside, Ernest Hemingway and Joe DiMaggio. I thought, 'I am in the right place.' "

Merchant left the Daily News in 1967 to write columns for the New York Post. He wrote a couple of terrific books, then left print journalism to join NBC. He was the commentator on two of Muhammad Ali's fights. Hosted a lively talk show on cable TV. And then took his fearlessness and his journalistic instincts to HBO.

"First big fight was in Paris," he recalled. "Ernie Shavers against a colorful guy from California named Henry Clark. We took Clark to Versailles, followed him around. Did pieces about Paris and who came to fights in Paris. I was always looking for another way to tell the story."

And now, living in sunny Southern California, Merchant will look for another way to tell the story. Books? Perhaps. Documentaries? Maybe, based on pleasant experiences writing two of the Legendary Nights series.

"I've already signed up for a cameo role in a movie [Sylvester] Stallone and [Robert] De Niro are working on," he said. "Rocky Balboa meets Jake LaMotta. I'm the commentator. And there's a movie I'd love to see produced and that's the story of Moe Berg, the catcher," who became a spy for the U.S. in World War II.

Meanwhile, Merchant is surprised and pleased at the fallout from his nasty scene with Mayweather. "My wife, Patricia, watched the fight with a friend," he said. "They wound up rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.

"And then, later, because Patricia is the grammarian in the family, we debated whether I should have said 'was' or 'were.' We agreed, since it was street talk, that 'was' was OK.

"He had insulted me. I reacted. By the time I got back to the hotel, it had been around the world three times. My grandson told me I was out-trending Justin Bieber in the social media.

"We have a neighbor, a music professor. She was working in her garden when I walked past. She looked at me and told me, 'That was elegantly said.' Last person in the world I expected a reaction from.

"There was the chord it struck. We all can stand up to a bully. I guess it defined me. I know, it will be there, first paragraph of my obituary."

Hopefully, not for a long while, my friend. Not for a long while. Not with so many questions to be answered, so many answers to be questioned. Not while there are so many people out there to inform, to entertain and, every so often, surprise.

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