The photograph hangs in Larry Merchant’s home office, alongside a mock fight poster announcing a “bout” between Auguste “The Chisel” Rodin and Pablo “The Palette” Picasso at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. By contrast, there’s nothing hypothetical about Neil Leifer’s shot of Muhammad Ali standing over a prone Sonny Liston.
It was taken May 25, 1965 at St. Dominic’s Hall in Lewiston, Maine, just as Ali won his first heavyweight title defense. Merchant, then a 34-year-old sports editor and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, can be seen clearly in the background, his mouth open in awe. The moment signified the birth of something, not just in sports but in popular culture.
Even as he moved on — first to the New York Post, then to television — Merchant spent the ensuing decades as a member in good standing in what he calls “the Ali Marching and Chowder Parade.”
“It’s an old expression,” he concedes. “But I did a lot of Ali fights, for newspapers and, later, on TV. And what could be better than that?”
Men like Merchant marked their own times in relation to Ali’s. But even more lasting, perhaps, was the effect of Ali’s departure, as it left an un-fillable void. To this day, Merchant is asked the theoretical, if preposterous, question — infinitely more silly than the imagined matchup of two real champs like Rodin and Picasso — “How would Mike Tyson have done against Ali?”
The query — inevitably issued by boys who became men in the ’90s — isn’t merely ignorance. Instead, it reflects a kind of longing.
“That generation wanted its own Ali,” Merchant says. “Tyson was going to be the Ali of the ’90s. He was going to represent them for the rest of their lives.”
Tyson’s failure — failures, really — turned out to be epic. But so did its consequences. The void he couldn’t fill resulted not only in the popularization of mixed martial arts but in the permanent disfigurement of boxing itself. Stardom is no longer based on the fighter’s heroic narrative arc, but on his media savvy.
Enter Floyd Mayweather, about whom Merchant said the most prescient thing I’ve heard.
“He understands modern media the way Ali understood television,” Merchant says.
There has never been a fighter like Mayweather. The fighter himself would have you believe this has to do with his undefeated record. But Ali had losses. So did Ray Robinson. And Ray Leonard. And, yes, while I’m at it, Manny Pacquiao. They took their shots. They got up off the canvas. For the great ones, losses were necessary, as it gave them something to avenge.
Floyd’s narrative, by contrast, is flat. His style is technically perfect but, just the same, a little boring.
“He’s one of the best fighters of his time,” Merchant says. “But he’s extraordinary in that a kid who wasn’t even a gate attraction until he fought (Oscar) De La Hoya five years ago had the intuition and the ability to market himself like this. He wasn’t considered an exciting fighter. He wasn’t in dramatic fights. He wasn’t a guy who got knocked down and got up. But he blew it up anyway.”
“Dancing with the Stars.” The WWE. The way Mayweather commandeered HBO’s “24/7” series and transformed it into his own personal reality show. Mayweather has a genius for exploiting the most current technologies to exploit himself. But the irony — a term I use advisedly — is that he’s now made Merchant bigger than ever.
It’s worth noting that the last person who demanded that HBO relieve Merchant of his responsibilities was ringside for Saturday’s Mayweather-Ortiz fight. That would be Mike Tyson.
At 45, Tyson has lost that upon which he most relied, the aura of menace. At first glance, he seems just another paunchy guy who suffered a youthful indiscretion with ink. In other words, he hasn’t aged as well as Merchant, who, at 80, still spends more time in the ring than Tyson or, for that matter, Mayweather.
It’s been only three days since Floyd called for Merchant’s firing but more than two decades since Tyson and his handlers took their shot. And now their example would seem instructive for both Mayweather and the network.
HBO is engaged in an endless attempt to navigate between that invisible but shifting line dividing show business and sports journalism. What’s more, its position in boxing has been weakened by the free agency of Manny Pacquiao.
In 2008, Merchant came up with the then-absurd idea for Pacquiao to fight De La Hoya. As it happened, Pacquiao TKO’d De La Hoya in the ninth, which is better than Mayweather had done, winning a lackluster, if profitable, split decision. There’s no telling how much money HBO made from Merchant’s proselytizing. But when Pacquiao went to Showtime/CBS for his last fight, HBO’s Mayweather dependency only got worse. Now I wonder whether HBO will throw Merchant overboard, as Tyson and his handlers once demanded.
Those were different times. In late 1990, HBO offered Tyson the unheard-of price of $85 million for eight fights. That wasn’t enough for Iron Mike, who, in addition to the money, wanted Merchant fired. Tyson was the biggest attraction in sport. Still, he didn’t get his way. Seth Abraham, who ran HBO Sports, and Michael Fuchs, who ran the network, had Merchant’s back. I’m not sure that’s the case today. HBO has new management. Merchant is 80.
I ask him if he’s surprised that he’s still doing this.
“No,” he says. “I’m a freak.”
“Physically, I mean. With my curiosity,” he says.
“Timothy Leary, who was a clinical psychologist at Harvard before he became the LSD guru, said, ‘If you want to study human nature, don’t watch rats in a maze; sit in the bleachers at Fenway Park.’ But where can you watch human behavior unfold better than from ringside? Consider Saturday night.”
By now, you probably know that Mayweather knocked out Victor Ortiz with what Merchant correctly calls “a legal sucker punch.” I had no problem with that. But Mayweather’s post-fight interview was a disgrace.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve never been more flattered than I was as a young columnist in New York, being compared to Merchant. His books were on the wall at the Lion’s Head, a newspaperman’s pub on Christopher Street. He was merciful toward me during my divorce. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m obliged to mention that we have the same agent. Also, he apprised me of the virtues of pinot noirs from Oregon, which makes for a great line on a date.
But none of that is reason to write this. Rather, it’s Mayweather’s lack of respect.
“You don’t know s*** about boxing,” he screamed at Merchant. “You ain’t s***.”
In that moment, Merchant exposed the media savant for what and who he really is. But still not done, the old man fired back, saying what most people could only fantasize about: “I wish I was 50 years younger. I’d kick your ass.”
Later, at the post-fight news conference, Mayweather again called for Merchant’s firing. What was your reaction to that? I ask Larry.
"My reaction is, ‘I wish I was 50 years younger and I’d kick your ass . . . Or I’d try damn hard.’"
For the record, Merchant graduated from Lafayette High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1947. In his last game as halfback on an undefeated football team, he scored a touchdown on a 62-yard run. The way he remembers, it sounds like an Irwin Shaw story. Then he went to Oklahoma, a fourth-string halfback on a championship team.
“You’re going to play a lot of football at Oklahoma,” said the coach, Bud Wilkinson.
A couple of weeks later, Merchant separated his shoulder. You can still feel the bump where the tendons were ruptured.
Some years later, writer Dan Jenkins asked a teammate of Merchant’s, Darrell Royal, what kind of player Merchant had been, this 158-pound halfback from Brooklyn.
“He’d go after you,” Royal said.
He’d go after you. Sixty-three years later, Floyd Mayweather found out the hard way.