Al Bernstein talks about Froch-Dirrell, Abraham-Taylor and more
Exclusive Interview with Al Bernstein by Geoffrey Ciani - With the start of the Super Six super middleweight tournament just around the corner, I was recently afforded the opportunity to have a nice chat with Showtimeís boxing analyst Al Bernstein. Here is what he had to say:
Q: Al, what are your thoughts on the format of the Super Six super middleweight tournament?
A: You know, I think itís pretty cool. Itís kind of modeled after the World Cup a little bit. Itís in three stages, initially, and then the four fighters that emerge from those three stages with the most pointsówith two points for a win, one extra point for a stoppage, and one point for a draw, and of course no points if you loseówhoever emerges, the four fighters with the most points will then fight in the semi-finals single elimination and then weíll have the championship match. I think itís a pretty good format. Itís never been done in boxing that way before and itís rare that you get to participate in something thatís never been done in sports, and thatís got me kind of excited.
Nothing in this world is perfect, and Iím sure somewhere somebody probably is looking at this and saying, ďOh, Iíd do it differentlyĒ, and I get that, but I think is a pretty good format and I think it will serve everybody well, and theyíve done a lot of things to try and ensure as much as they can that nobody has an advantage. And of course, the key element to that is the five promoters and six fighters are all agreeing to whatís happening, so to me that speaks volumes..
Q: So you donít think that maybe this was set up a little too ambitious for its own good where, it seems to me that, one or two injuries suffered along the way might have a negative impact on this event?
A: Well, it could, but I think the wayóIím guessing, and Iím not the person that set it up, obviously Ken Hershman did for Showtime and all the other executives there and plus all the promoters and their people. They had to all give a meeting of the minds to this. I think part of the key to this is everybody wanted something that was ongoing enough to make it worth everyoneís while both financially and in terms of having a series of fights that were secured, that were there, that were going to be meaningful fights, and thatís why I think itís done over an eighteen month period.
Of course, there is the possibility of injury, there is the possibility of a number of things. I think with those incidences, theyíre hoping that common sense always prevails. If somebody gets cut, you can always postpone the second stage for that fighter a little bit. Or if itís an Ďinjuryí injury, that is just impossible, that wonít heal for a year or two years, then clearly, probably theyíll have to think about replacing that fighter. I know they all understand thatís a possibility, but you hope that that wonít happen. Another point is, they have to get through the first three stages, but once you get to that, you got the single elimination semi-finals. So yes, like with anything, there are potential pitfalls, but I think they needed to make it where enough people fought enough people to create a body of work that would make this seem like it makes sense.
Q: Would it be fair to say that you think that the format that they are using, that they were able to get this done which is a good thing for boxing fans, it might have been more difficult maybe to do, letís say, an eight man single elimination tournament?
A: My guess is yes. I wasnít involved in any of the negotiations, and Iím speculating, but I suspect maybe yes. The charm of this and the part that I think is fun for boxing fans is, the super middleweight is probably the deepest division in boxing or one of the two or three, and we have six fighters who if you tossed their names in a hat, any of the match-ups are really interesting and each would be a big main fight if you just decided to make it. So I think that thatís the charm of this, that weíre going to see these people in different configurations, and a single elimination would not have done that and I think thatís part of it. Iím suspecting that that was part of the allure for the boxers and their promoters and certainly for the network, and I think ultimately will be for the fans.
Q: Now speaking of the fighters, the six participants in the tournament, in your view are these the best six super middleweights in the world or do you think that other guys like maybe (Lucian) Bute and some others may have deserved inclusion?
A: I think itís just like the NCAA tournament. You know, they keep expanding that tournament, pretty soon it will be 183 teams. No matter what, thereís always somebody that feels they can be in. Listen, you mentioned two people. Bute is a champion, Allan Green is very talented, so I am sure that they feel like they could be included in this, and there are many considerations Iím sure in making these matches. For instance, people could look at Andre Dirrell and say well heís not as battle-tested as some of these other people who could have been included in the tournament, but heís undefeated, heís an Olympian, and he has cache to be in the tournament. Jermain Taylor, while heís jumping up from middleweight has some losses, but he just had a fight in which he was eighteen seconds away from beating one of the super middleweight champions.
So you can make arguments back and forth about it.I think this six, whether you can make a case for somebody else being better than one of them, these six represent very interesting contrasting dynamics among fighters both in and out of the ring. Three Americans, a couple of Olympic champions, three international champions who each bring with them a certain fan base, and all six of these men bring with them different kinds of fighting styles.
Q: I would like to get your opinions on some of the individual match-ups coming, particularly in this first round. Since I recently had the chance to speak with Carl Froch on the On the Ropes Boxing Radio Program, Iíd like to start with the bout between him and Andre Dirrell.
A: Yeah, you know, this is an intriguing match-up. Andre Dirrell is, I think he would even admit even though heís a confident young man and I see where he just predicted that he and Mikkel Kessler will be in the finals of this tournament, although everyone thinks they can win this tournament. They really do. He might be one of the most athletically gifted fighters among the six, maybe the most. Heís also the most untested, and I think even he would admit that. At this juncture, we just donít know how heís going to perform against top level competition. Carl Froch who gets a home game in this first one, and everyone will fight on their home turf so ultimately everyone will get that benefit, but he is also supremely confident and as tough as they come. He has a tremendous chin, all kinds of defensive liabilities, but they get negated by his power and his chin and his aggressiveness.
This will be Andre Dirrellís coming out party as a pro fighter. Weíre going to find out volumes about Dirrelll. Can he box effectively over twelve rounds, which I think is what heís going to need to do. Heís never done that yet. Weíve never seen him in a fight where he has boxed effectively over the entire fight. Heís been in with competition where he can afford to languish on the inside, try to throw power punches with them, he switches back and forth pretty effectively, but has often done that switching right in front of fighters. Thatís the kind of stuff he cannot get away with against Carl Froch, but he has all the speed and he has deceptive power, so itís his physical gifts against the experience and the power of Froch.
Q: Next up, we have also this weekend the fight I am actually most interested in seeing in these first round match-ups is Jermain Taylor versus Arthur Abraham. Your thoughts?
A: Itís an intriguing fight and they set up almost exactly like the Taylor-Froch fight did. Arthur Abraham does not get off to blazing starts for the most part. He has that shell-like defense that is almost impossible to penetrate. He will often give away rounds early in the fight before he comes out of that shell to throw very quick and powerful combinations. We know Jermain Taylor wins early rounds, shows power, but once we get to round eight, itís the same old story with Jermain. He has difficulties. Now heís been down in Houston, Texas, training hard, changing some of his training regiment and his diet and trying very hard to solve the problem that is his stamina. Arthur Abraham Iím sure believes that he will own this fight after round six, seven, or eight, and Iím sure thatís a big part of what heís going for. Arthur Abraham is either almost unbeatable or he is a fighter that a really good boxer can completely control if they donít get hit with those big bursts of counterpunching that he comes out with.
Q: The final first round match up happens next month and that one is between Mikkel Kessler and Andre Ward. Your thoughts on that one?
A: You can look at it a couple of different ways. Andre Ward might have gotten the toughest draw in the first round, because I think most people believe that Mikkel Kessleróeven though thereís really no way to tell whoís going to win this tournament because so many things can happen over an eighteen month periodóbut heís probably going in the favorite and is probably universally considered the best super middleweight at this point, but by how much of a margin is obviously up for debate. So Andre Ward, the 2004 Olympic Champion drew a tough guy in his first match. Now he gets him at home, fighting in front of his home fans in Oakland and some would argue that itís better to start out with the toughest opponent and heís doing it on his home turf. Heís doing at a time, Andre Ward, when he is peaking as a fighter. People believe that his career has been a slow steady build over four years and he is now fighting the best heís ever fought. Kessler, at age 30, has had nagging injuries but got in a very good performance as a tune-up just a month or so ago against Gusmyr Perdomo and looked very good. This fight, I think, pits the two fighters who are the most solid in terms of their technique in the boxing ring. They are both very sound fundamentally and I think itís going to be a very good match.
Q: Youíve given your thoughts on the first round match-ups. Iím curious, which first round match-up do you think will be the most entertaining for the fans?
A: Boy, thatís an interesting question. You could make the case for Abraham-Taylor for a couple of different reasons. Jermain Taylorís been involved in very exciting fights in recent time and you get the feeling that in that fight they will be engaging each other. Jermain Taylorís a good boxer-puncher but heís not the kind of guy that moves around the ring and runs around the ring so they will definitely engage. Now, Ward-Kessler you can make the case, and by the way all the rings will be 20x20 in this tournament which I think is a wonderful feature because it means everybodyís going to have the same size ring. So if youíre a boxer and you want to move, or if youíre a slugger then you want to get to the guy, itís all the same, itís kind of right in the middle of sizes of ring that we would have. So I think Kessler and Ward are also two fighters who, while we may see more movement potentially from Ward, I think those fighters are going to engage as well, so that one would be the second one. Then Froch and Dirrell I think will be a very interesting fight. The only thing that could make that third on the list is if Andre Dirrell is forced to turn it into the Andre Dirrell international track meet. If heís forced to do that, and itís the only way for him to win and survive, maybe heíll do it. Other than that, that could also be a wildly exciting fight.
Q: Do you think itís likely that the winner of this tournament will survive throughout without suffering a loss on his record?
A: Thatís a really good question. I got to be honest with you I havenít thought much about that. Could somebody win five matches, straight? Iím thinking no. I think that would be a monumental feat and if it happens, and itís interesting you bringing this up, if somebody was to go through and win five matches in this competition I think it would be one of the more remarkable achievements in boxing maybe ever. That would be a staggering achievement. It would be hard for me to imagine somebody doing it, but if they could, that would be miraculous.
Q: Who do you think is the man to beat that would make the biggest statement in this tournament?
A: Well, you can look at it two different ways. The man to beat, I think, is Mikkel Kessler. I really believe that only because he has fought at the highest level of competition, he has every skill, he is both a boxer and a puncher, and heís of an age where heís not shopworn so I think you probably have to say heís the man to beat. As far as who would make the biggest statement, the biggest statement to win this would be made, probably, by Andre Dirrell, because heís coming in as the most untested. And if Andre Dirrell were to win this tournament, he and Andre Ward would probably be making the biggest statement because they are the youngest. But then you can make the case for Jermain Taylor, too, because a lot of people donít expect him to win and heís probably the biggest underdog in this tournament. I think you can pick amongst the Americans as to who would make the biggest statement, only because I think itís fair to say they are probably not considered the favorites in this.
Q: Now changing things up a little bit here Al, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in boxing?
A: Oh boy! When I was young, I just thought it was a fascinating sport and I used to sit, when I was eight or nine years old and we had transistor radiosówhich is dating myselfóI would lay in bed without my parents knowing and have the transistor radio on and listen to the radio call of the Ingemar Johansson-Floyd Patterson fights. And I became a huge Floyd Patterson fan. I read his book and that lured me to boxing, and I would sit with my dad then and watch the Friday night fights that were announced by Don Dunphy, and the biggest thrillóthe biggest thrill that Iíve had as a boxing announcerówas when Don Dunphy asked for me to be the one to present him with the award that Ring Magazine gave out at their seventy-fifth anniversary when he was selected as the greatest boxing announcer of all time. Don and I, after I interviewed him, in 1985 on the Top Rank boxing series he became a mentor to me. So that was a brilliant, a big thrill. I got involved then, and that was a time in boxing where there were so many larger than life personalities and so many great matches and I fell in love with Floyd Patterson, and then my favorite boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson and so it was just a time when I became enthralled with the sport.
Q: Now as I understand it, you have recently been inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame, and if Iím not mistaken, you received more votes than any non-boxing inductee. How does it make you feel to be awarded with such an honor?
A: That was wonderful. The induction is October 24 out in Los Angeles, and that was very pleasing to me that vote total because it kind of demonstrated to me that, for the most part, all those people were happy to have me in felt like it was appropriate. That was very, very gratifying. Iím really thrilled about it. Next year will be my thirtieth year as a broadcaster of boxing, which is amazing to me. It just seems like itís flown by. Iím really honored by this and itís great. You hope that people in any industry that youíre in, and I consider myself a broadcaster first and then a boxing person second, and Iíve done other sports as well, of course, but boxing is the sport that has put me on the map and itís the one that Iím most closely identified with. For a boxing body like the Hall of Fame to recognize my contribution is just great.
Q: Now you mentioned Sugar Ray Robinson before as one of your favorite fighters and if Iím not mistaken, you were also awarded with another honoróThe Sugar Ray Robinson Award. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
A: Yeah, they havenít given this award, I guess, since they gave it to Ray Robinsonís widow many years ago. So that blew me away because Sugar Ray Robinson is boxing to me. Heís the greatest boxer that ever lived. If you could construct a boxer from the ground up, heís exactly the person youíd end up with. His style and finesse were amazing and so for any award with his name on it to be given to me, is just, itís going to be a great weekend and Iím so excited about it. Iím just at the point where when youíve been in this for a long time and you reach a certain point at a certain age, you can kind or appreciate these things a little bit better and put them in perspective. Itís just very, very nice.
Listen, Iíll be the first to say, the style of broadcasting I adopted which was the right style for me and serves me and my audience the best. And they way I comported myself on the air and what Iíve been about, itís not always the most attention way of going about it. I donít want it to be the most attention getting way. I donít want to blend in and have no one ever remember I was on a broadcast, thatís for sure, but I never, ever, ever want to be bigger than the broadcast Iím on, and if itís not a broadcast of an event I donít ever want to have people think that I dominated the subject so much that they didnít get information or get anything else out of it. My style of doing it, especially when you juxtapose it to the style of broadcasting thatís become in vogue in the last fifteen to twenty years is a little different. I came at this as a newspaper man from the beginning, so because of all that, Iím not always the guy gets the awards first or gets the attention first, so I appreciate it when these things happen.
Q: Now Iím just curious, who are some of the other commentators past or present that have had a profound influence on you or that you have the greatest respect for?
A: Well, you know, Iíve been one of those people that has done both analysis and play-by-play, so for me, everybodyís in play. I started out as an analyst, but in the mid-80s at ESPN I also started to do play-by-play Iíve alternated back, Iíve done both, mostly analysis, but Iíve done hundreds and hundreds of shows as a host, so Iíve learned from both sides. In the play-by-play department the early men I worked with, Sal Marchiano and Sam Rosen at ESPN were tremendous influences on me and if you listen to my style as a play-by-play man, it is kind of an amalgam of what those two men did. And the third influence on me, for the most part, was Barry Tompkins who was my partner for many years at ESPN. Those three men, I just gravitated to the different things that they did and theyíre big influences on me. Iíve worked with other great play-by-play men like Bob Papa who has great technical skills and Steve Albert, who I worked with for the beginning part here at Showtime who is just wonderful, and my current partner Gus Johnson who I think brings several dimensions to the sport that people are going to really appreciate as he continues to do it. But those first three men I probably took my style a little bit more from them.
In terms of analysis, I donít know that I emulated anybody because I think when I got into it there wasnít a person who was coming at it, even though I boxed some as an amateur, thatís clearly not the reason I was on the air. I was on the air because of covering the sport and so I had to mix in being half journalist and half analyst and try and make that style work for everybody where I was certainly doing analysis of the strategy but was also throwing in anecdotal material that was important, and I believe thatís the way to do it, anyway. But the analysts that Iíve admired and Iíve loved were Gil Clancy who was a great mentor of mine, loved his work. He and Angelo Dundee were a wonderful team along with Tim Ryan.
The current analysts that I enjoy the most, to be perfectly candid, are Steve Farhood whoís on our network as well and Dave Bontempo and I think part of the reason is they approach this a lot of the way I do. And the name I left out, God help me, was Don Dunphy even though I talked about him before. His pristine way of doing boxing, and he often easily did it alone in the early days. And his brevity and his punctuation of action was just remarkable. So those were the men that I think that in a lot of ways, and I probably left a few names out and Iíll hate myself in the morning, but those are the names that I think of.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say to all the fans out at East Side Boxing?
A: Well, Iíll tell you, as a general comment you mentioned the fans. I really appreciate the way Iíve been treated by just about everybody. Iíve done a lot of things over the years, a lot of appearances, a lot of speeches, even some musical performing and Iíve been out there with boxing fans I think much more than most of the television announcers who, for the most part, just stay to their TVs. Iíve done many, many, many things in public and Iíve been out there with boxing fans and the treatment Iíve received from them has been really, really excellent. And this gives me the chance to just thank them. And your site, which does a great service for boxing like so many of the other sites that helps promote the sport, and now the sport is talked about mostly on the internet. And the other final comment Iíd make is, itís all about respect for the boxer. Iíve guided my career and everything Iíve done in boxing based upon always give the boxer as much respect as you can. You may be forced to say that something heís doing isnít working in the ring or even comment negatively about somebodyís behavior if you absolutely have to, but the bottom line is you never want to disrespect a boxer because itís the toughest job in the world and they as athletes are people to be admired.