Exclusive Interview With Showtime's Al Bernstein
by James Slater - Showtime boxing commentator Al Bernstein is one of the most popular and widely respected callers of the sport currently operating. A long time commentator at ESPN, former newspaper man Bernstein is also blessed with a fine singing voice. But it is as the voice of boxing he is most well known and admired.
Article posted on 26.01.2009
Very kindly affording this writer an interview earlier today, Al spoke about his career, his favourite fighters to interview, the best fights he has called, his singing career, and other things. Here are Al's answers to my questions..
James Slater: It's a great pleasure to speak with you, Al. Firstly, how would you say boxing's overall health is right now?
Al Bernstein: The way I look at it, historically - in the 1990s - boxing fell into a real abyss. It certainly did here in The States, and also worldwide. The reason was, the matches the fans wanted were not being made to happen. Also, people didn't know who the world champion was, there were way too many weight divisions, etc. So the sport had to provide a product, and it never did in the '90s. Also, the media stopped covering the sport like it used to. I was at ESPN back then, and I know of the decision to cover boxing less.
But then, in say, 2001 or 2002, boxing suddenly got much better as a product. I'm not sure why - no-one made boxing better overnight or anything, it kind of just happened. All of a sudden, the promoters, the fighters, they all did the right thing and started making better fights. And each year it's improved it's content and made the fans happy.
J.S: So boxing is in good shape now, you feel?
A.B: I'd say so. Also, in the last decade or so, boxing has really taken off in other countries - like the U.K where you're from, and Germany and countries like that. The reason is because of certain personalities, such as Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton and Mikkel Kessler. I think boxing has really found its spot.
J.S: A question experts such as yourself are often asked is - if you could change just one thing about boxing right now, what would it be?
A.B: The simplest thing in the world! I'd make less weight divisions and have just one champion per weight division. It's not likely to ever happen, but if it did I guarantee you boxing would skyrocket.
J.S: Just going back to your early days, were you at ESPN first?
A.B: Yeah, 1980. I can even remember the first fight I called. It was Jaime Olatunde against a guy called ...., oh,.... I'm pretty sure it was something Bradley. Anyway you can probably check up on box rec. (I did, and it was Olatunde Vs. Dave Bradley - May 15th, 1980. Olatunde won TKO 8) It was in Chicago, and I had written a boxing book and done various articles for boxing magazines, such as Boxing Illustrated. Anyway, I was being interviewed by ESPN and they said could I sit in? I did and I worked with Sam Rosen and Tommy Hearns. That's how I got started in broadcasting. I was originally a newspaper man, covering all sorts of news and sports. I never ever thought that boxing commentary would be what I became most identified with.
J.S: I read in the past that the best fight you've ever called was one involving Caveman Lee. Is that still the case?
A.B: Yeah, well, that's the best round of a fight I've ever called. It was Caveman Lee against John LoCicero. It was 1980 or '81 (July of 1981), and it was in the middle of summer and there was no air conditioning. Anyway, in round five LoCicero hit Lee with around twenty-five unanswered shots - I'm not exaggerating. Then, with LoCicero exhausted and punched out, Lee came back and knocked him out. It was incredible. As far as the best fight I've ever done, that would be Diego Corrales against Jose Luis Castillo, their first fight. Closely followed by Marvin Hagler against Tommy Hearns.
J.S: What would say is the toughest part of your job?
A.B: That's a good question. For me, even though I love most aspects of my job - I realise I'm very lucky to be earning a living doing this - it would be making sure I'm always objective and fair. I'm always careful not to show any favouritism one way or the other during a fight. I think that's very important. Also, obviously, preparation is vital; that's the key.
J.S: Have you ever had a fighter come up to you after a fight and confront you over something you said about him on air?
A.B: I've actually had very little of that. I think it's because my style of broadcasting isn't the kind that will engender that a lot. That's not to say I don't give opinions and give my view, but I never get critical on a personal level. I'd say maybe four or five times a fighter has approached me and said he didn't agree with what I said, but it's never been confrontational or hostile. No, it's not happened much, and I'm proud of that. Some would maybe say the opposite [and not be proud], and that it means I'm not critical enough, but I don't know if that's true. I think one of the worse things a commentator can do - and unfortunately it's happening more and more these days - is to call much more attention to themselves, as opposed to the athletes.
J.S: I think that's what the fans like about you, Al. You never do that, you never talk down to the fans and you never make it about yourself. I read a review about you that said you are like a guy talking boxing in a bar when you're on air. That's what people like, plus you have great knowledge.
A.B: I don't ever want to pontificate. You know, no-one died and said I was the last word on boxing (laughs). But I am more fortunate than the guys watching at home, because, number one, I have a mountain of information in front of me about the fight I'm calling. Number two, I've talked to both guys in the ring and number three, I've spent around three weeks watching and studying fight tapes of the two guys. So I should be able to perhaps know more than the folks watching on TV. I'm in a position to be able to do so. And I should do, it's my job.
J.S: You've interviewed a large number of fighters over the years. Who are some of the most enjoyable to interview fighters you have spoken with?
A.B: Bernard Hopkins is a great interview period. He's always interesting and you never know what view he will give on the fight. I understand he's going to be doing a lot of commentary for ESPN now. I love Bernard, he's a delight. I also always enjoyed - and this might sound a little nutty - interviewing Marvin Hagler. He was never known as the most talkative guy in the world, but he always gave good interviews. He looked you right in the eye and he answered every question. He was very articulate, and he was really a professor of boxing. He knew so much about the sport.
Also, I have to say, one of the most interesting boxers I've ever met, and there really isn't a close second - is Archie Moore. I only met him towards the end of his life, but he was absolutely a fascinating person. He could recite famous great works of poetry, he was eccentric, and he had so many stories, good and bad, about boxing history. One of my real regrets in life is never having had the chance to do a distinctive on air interview with him. I don't think there's ever been a distinctive interview done with Archie Moore.
J.S: I know you are also a singer. Do you still perform?
A.B: I used to do a lot more. That [singing] actually came about back when I was at ESPN. I wanted to cover more sports other than boxing, and I said if you're not going to let me do that, I'll do entertainment so as to diversify my life. My first performance was at Caesars Palace, in the lounge. Over the years it morphed into a show, called Al Bernstein's Boxing Party. We showed clips and did songs in casinos, it was a lot of fun. I did two CD's - Let the games begin and My favourite songs, they're albums of specialist material. My wife had a thirty year career in show business, with her sister, they were known as The Rocco Sisters. So, I have an advisor in the field (laughs).
J.S: I remember back when I was first getting into boxing, you called the George Foreman-Dwight Qawi fight with Gil Clancy, which I watched. Foreman gave you a compliment post-fight about your singing. You were giving him something of a tough time, I recall, and he complimented you on being a fine singer when he was just a boxer.
A.B: I remember that fight well. Yeah, that's George! He's always funny. I have a good relationship with George, though I haven't seen him in a while. What he went on to do in boxing - and no-one gave him much of a chance of doing it - was truly extraordinary. I'm glad you brought up Gil Clancy, too. There are two men that were really my role models, even though my style of commentating is not like theirs. Number one is Gil Clancy - he was always very kind to me and a joy to work with. Gil's a special person. Number two is Don Dunphy. Don's son Bob is actually the director of the Showtime show now, which is interesting. Don and I were good friends, and one of my greatest honours was when Ring magazine gave out their greatest commentator of all-time award, I gave Don the award, Even more special is the fact that Don asked them to get me to present him with it.
J.S: Can I ask you for your picks on some upcoming fights? Firstly, tonight's Margarito Vs. Mosley.
A.B: Actually, can I just mention my new boxing channel first?
J.S: Of course, my pleasure to hear about it.
A.B: It's called IBNSports.com, the Al Bernstein boxing show, and I'm very proud of it. We've been working hard on it and we show all kinds of material. We're looking at doing more boxing, but we also have interviews and tonight's fight - with Margarito and Mosley - we'll be covering that. It's really worth checking out. Now, for my pick for tonight. I have to go with Margarito, but I was at the weight-in and I was a little surprised when he weighed-in at just 145. That seems odd to me. But I think his body work will get to Shane in the fight. Let's face it, Mosley didn't look good in winning against Mayorga last time out. Is that a sign that his skills have faded? I do think Margarito will win, but that the fight will be a lot more competitive than some people think. I go for Margarito on points.
J.S: Darchinyan against Arce?
A.B: The only reason I won't give a prediction on that is because I will be calling that fight. It's kind of a rule I have.
J.S: This fight's not set in stone yet, but David Haye Vs. Wladimir Klitschko?
A.B: I like David Haye. We covered his fight against Enzo Maccarinelli for Showtime. I think style-wise he's in a very tough fight - even though I think Haye is definitely fighting the right brother. If he'd been in with Vitali I think he would have lost every round and then got knocked out. But against Wladimir, Haye will be going up against a much bigger guy with a great jab. Haye was very good as a cruiserweight - cruiserweight is my favourite division in boxing - but even though Wladimir has had issues with regards to being hit Haye has a very tough fight in store.
J.S: Well, it's been an absolute pleasure talking boxing with you, Al. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
A.B: Not at all, my pleasure.
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