I’ve never talked about boxing. And I don’t know why.
In reviewing my interest in the sport, and then rewinding my career experience in boxing, I was floored recalling how much it has been more than just a small part of the fabric of my professional life.
I’m talking about broadcasting a championship fight, being involved with bouts in Cuba, South Africa, Puerto Rico, and the usual haunts of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
How I learned to do the blow-by-blow at ringside.
How about calling the first boxing match of Ed “Too Tall” Jones? Yes, the same guy who was a fearsome defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys.
Ed “Too Tall” Jones
And did I mention my close association with the incomparable Muhammad Ali?
Muhammad Ali and me
So, where do I begin?
I guess it started as a youngster watching the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports presentation of the Friday night fights.
They featured the finest welterweight and middleweights of the day, including my favorite, Carmen Basilio from Canastota, NY, only 20 miles from Syracuse. Describing those great battles was arguably the preeminent boxing announcer of all-time, Don Dunphy.
I loved listening to the blow-by-blow on the radio for many heavyweight championship fights involving Rocky Marciano, known as the “Brockton Blockbuster”, who had the first Boston accent I ever heard, and retired with a record of 49-0.
Later on, I heard the up and down fortunes (mostly up), of Floyd Patterson, who twice reigned as the world heavyweight champion.
When Patterson was knocked from his throne in 1959 by Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson, I was stunned by the upset.
Johansson knocked Patterson down seven times before the fight was stopped in the third round.
I saw the highlights of that rout five times at a movie theater watching the newsreel before the featured film which I never stayed to see.
Patterson then regained the title with a fifth round knockout in their rematch, and in their third fight, Patterson KO’d the Swede in the sixth round, making Ingemar Johansson a legitimate one-hit wonder.
During my senior year at Syracuse, a few friends and I drove down to Ithaca to view the closed-circuit coverage of the legendary heavyweight championship fight between the big, mean champ Sonny Liston and the brash, colorful, non-stop talking poet, Cassius Clay.
We all know now how Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, befuddled Liston with his amazing quickness, and stinging blows, shocking the sports world with a decisive triumph which launched Ali on his storied career.
Little did I know, I would get to know him as well as I did.
It was during my time at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh that I met the man.
In 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army and was quickly stripped of his heavyweight crown.
Now a Muslim, Ali cited religious reasons for his decision to forgo military service.
He was convicted of draft evasion, avoided prison as his case was appealed, but was banned from boxing for three years.
As a U.S. Army reservist who staunchly believes in serving the country, as so many have done and died while on active duty defending what America is all about, I was appalled.
At the same time, there is such a thing as “due process” according to the Constitution.
And Muhammad Ali did not receive “due process” when his title was taken away, and that was wrong.
Renowned commentator Howard Cosell was the first to defend Ali for that reason, and he did it nationally.
I felt the same and made my feelings known in Pittsburgh.
One of Ali’s attorneys was David Litman, who I had befriended early in my days at the TV station.
He heard my commentaries, and introduced me to the fighter on one of his trips to the city.
Ali agreed to appear live on my sports segment during the 6pm newscast and I interviewed him several times.
I was able to parlay that association with interviews for CBS Sports, visiting Ali at his Los Angeles home.
Later on, the Supreme Court voted 9-0 in favor of Muhammad Ali and he returned to the ring in March, 1971.
I was on hand to report his third-round knockout of Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, for the Group W radio stations.
Ali was a joy to know. And a wonderful sense of humor.
He never failed to say to me.”Dick, you’re not as dumb as you look”!
I hope he was joking.
My opportunity to broadcast boxing arrived in 1979, during my time as host of the CBS Sports Spectacular.
Boxing had become a prime attraction on weekends for the television networks.
The 1976 Olympics in Montreal opened up a lush feeding ground for CBS as well as for ABC which dominated coverage of the sport. The U.S. won seven medals, including five gold, sparked by the greatest group of fighters ever to compete in the Olympics, most of whom later became world champions in their respective divisions.
They included the brother combo of Leon and Michael Spinks and John Tate.
The two networks mentioned, quickly signed up two fighters who would be featured constantly. The audiences responded in kind.
CBS signed Howard Davis, Jr. a lightweight who did not win a medal but beat out everybody else to win the Val Barker Trophy presented to the Olympian who embodied the most style and potential during the competition.
ABC signed another fighter. His name was Sugar Ray Leonard, who became a superstar and five-time World Champion.
CBS began to televise fights on both Saturdays and Sundays. That’s how hot a commodity the sport was at the time.
Tim Ryan was CBS’ main commentator. He was outstanding, solid and consistent. His partner was Gil Clancy, a Hall of Fame trainer who worked with the likes of Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Ryan and Clancy made an outstanding team.
I would work the Sunday shows with Angelo Dundee. How fortune I was, as a novice to the business of broadcasting boxing to be alongside this legend.
Dundee worked with Muhammad Ali for 21 years and with 15 other world champions, including Sugar Ray Leonard, and early in his career with Carmen Basilio.
Boxing is not an easy sport to call. There are subtleties, and a knowledge that’s necessary to be aware of what is meaningful and what is not, during a three-minute round.
So I had to do a great deal of homework.
I learned from the best.
Jimmy Jacobs was considered one of the greatest handball players in history. He dominated his sport. But Jacobs also had another passion. Boxing.
He was a fight manager, who was a close friend of the brilliant boxing teacher, Cus D’Amato.
D’Amato taught Floyd Patterson and other greats. He also discovered Heavyweight Mike Tyson and became his legal guardian.
Jacobs became Tyson’s manager and the two had a brilliant association.
Jacobs business partner was Bill Cayton, and the two operated a company named, Big Fights, starting in 1960.
They owned films and tapes of more than 17,000 fights dating back to the 1890’s.
For weeks, Jim Jacobs would welcome me to his office and we would view countless matches, including those of fighters I would be seeing in an upcoming bout.
He taught me how to watch both men in the ring, not focus on one, and how those “little” jabs that got through would be the punches that scored, not so much more flamboyant shots that would be deflected.
Also, like everything in television, less is more.
Fewer words are needed. A description of every move is not necessary.
The drama is always heightened with the natural sounds of the event, not the constant chatter of the announcers.
But, as always, the analysis by the expert is critical.
The other man who was a life-saver was Mort Sharnik, who was the boxing consultant for CBS, selecting which fights to televise, and an advisor to many in the game, including former world welterweight champion Marlon Starling.
Sharnik had also been a writer for Sports Illustrated, and his ability to put into words what the sport represented was an education in itself.
Mort counseled me on appreciating the art of boxing, and urged me to read a book by A.J. Liebling, called “The Sweet Science”. It is regarded not only as the finest book on boxing, but the best sports book ever written.
There aren’t many dissenters who have read it.
My journey as a boxing announcer found me at ringside in Las Vegas or in Atlantic City, covering the likes of light-heavyweight Michael Spinks, heavyweight Gerry Cooney, and others who were looking for a victory to catapult them closer to a shot at a title.
In 1980, I had the chance to broadcast my first, and only championship fight.
Tommy Hearns was, as welterweight ready to explode on the big stage. In his hometown of Detroit, at Joe Louis Arena, Hearns, known as the “Hit Man”, demolished Jose “Pipino” Cuevas, who had been the WBA defending champion for the previous four years, and had never been knocked down.
In the first round Hearns staggered Cuevas with his trademark thunderous right hook. He continued the onslaught in the second round, when, after Cuevas hit the canvas, his manager stepped in and stopped the fight.
Tommy Hearns was the new champ, and he was on his way.
A year before, I served as the host, and post-fight interviewer for a heavyweight fight between John Tate, the 1976 Olympic
bronze medalist, and South African Kallie Knoetze, a former policeman, in a strange setting with overriding social significance.
The fight was held in a 40,000 seat soccer stadium in Mmabatho, in a small territory known as Bophuthatswana, a two hour drive from Johannesburg, in South Africa.
It was a “homeland” for African blacks who were ignored and given little respect in that part of the country.
There were unquestioned racial overtones involved, with South African blacks openly rooting for Tate.
They were rewarded when John Tate, in a one-sided exhibition, scored a TKO over Knoetze, a brawler, who lost to a boxer.
The entire scenario was surreal, especially the site, which consisted of a stadium resembling an erector-set, one hotel dominated by a casino, and a landing strip where private planes landed en masse prior to the bout.
Another international venture was a treat. The scene was Havana, where Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson put on a magnificent display, showing the form he showed in capturing the gold medal in the heavyweight division of the 1980 Olympics.
Remember, that was the Olympics held without American representation. President Jimmy Carter refused to send a U.S. team to the Summer Games in the Soviet Union in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afganistan.
There was a lighter note to my boxing experience on the air.
In 1979, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, a three-time All-Pro defensive end for the perennial powerful Dallas Cowboys shocked the sports world when he announced his retirement after five seasons to switch to boxing.
After months of grueling training, Jones made his pro debut on the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, before 14,400 curious onlookers, including our crew from the CBS Sports Spectacular.
His opponent was a Mexican Abraham “Yaqui” Meneses, who was set up as a sacrificial lamb.
No one really knew what his record was going in, but it appeared he had won 5 and lost 6 according to the legitimate records.
It was a six-round fight, and as the commentator, I had to treat it in serious fashion, especially with all the pre-fight hoopla.
For the first four rounds, all seemed normal with Jones looking in control.
Then, in the fifth, Meneses came out of his corner wildly.
He taunted Jones by dropping his hands and jutting out his chin.
In the final round, Meneses staged a rally and dazed the football star with an attack that was missing earlier.
Jones won the fight, as the referee called it a draw, and the two judges giving the nod to Too Tall.
The crowd didn’t approve.
Five fights later, still unbeaten,Jones hung up his gloves and returned to football stardom. He said boxing was harder.
I know, it wasn’t easy calling that first one.
That day bore little resemblance to the “Sweet Science”.
Being involved in boxing was a fascinating time for this reporter. The drama of the sport, mano a mano, can be special.
Until I thought about all of my memories, beginning with the Friday Night Fights, it slipped through the cracks.
It shouldn’t have.
It was a rich experience.