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Larry Merchant on boxing

Story by Bob Hough
Photo courtesy of HBO

Larry Merchant believes that times of vulnerability create stories of greatness, despair and loss.

He has seen them unfold in Miguel Cotto’s determination, in Victor Ortiz leaving observers and perhaps himself with doubts about his commitment, in Arturo Gatti’s passing.

“People like drama,” Merchant said recently in San Jose, Calif., where he attended a fight card, met fans and sat down to discuss what he’s seen in those three men. “For better and for worse, there tends to be a great deal of drama in boxing, certainly so in just the last few weeks.”

Merchant, who joined HBO as a commentator in 1981 after writing newspaper columns and three books, is as absorbed by boxing as he was almost 30 years ago.

“It’s an endless novel,” the 78-year-old said. “I’m still wired into it.”

Able to comment wisely about tactics and strategies, Merchant is often drawn toward the human sides of the characters, their lives and complexities.

Boxing, he believes, is “a very rich place to observe human behavior.”

While the Brooklyn, N.Y., native is endlessly fascinated by what happens in and out of the ring, he remembers that fighters are unlike most of us and as human as all of us. His thoughts are of understanding boxing and of human understanding.

“It’s a harsh game and there are harsh judges; the judges who score fights, people who comment on them and the fans,” said Merchant, a recent inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. “Sometimes you get over-praised and some times you get over-blamed.”

Merchant believes that fans want to see boxers risk all to take all, reminiscent of Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler in their extraordinary 1985 fight.

There’s a balance in there somewhere, Merchant thinks, between reasonable expectations and remembering that fighters are human.

“Fans want to see a guy fight. They admire a masterful performance and they want to see what happens when a fighter has to struggle. You have every expectation that ‘You signed up for this. You signed up for being a fighter. You signed up for this fight. I expect you to give your best ’til you can’t give any more,’ but maybe the fighter thinks he gave his best and truly did, even though he quit or it looks like he did.”

With Ortiz, who appeared to have had enough in an arduous fight against Marcos Maidana, there’s a sense from Merchant of maybe too much praise before the fight, too much blame afterward.

“We’ve seen fighters come back from those scenarios,” Merchant recalled. “When Vitali Klitschko quit or resigned against Chris Byrd, I was among those who strongly criticized him. He was way ahead in the fight. All he had to do was survive a couple rounds, three rounds, and it turned out he had a shoulder injury that required surgery. Were we correct in criticizing him and wondering about him? I think so, but we found out he had a serious injury, and as we know, he came back and showed great, great heart and toughness in his fight against Lennox Lewis.”

In Merchant’s eyes, a “confluence of pressure” on Ortiz might have taken a toll.

“We saw a young fighter, twenty-two, who was under severe pressure from an opponent and from his own promoters who were trying to hype him into being a star, so I think he could have felt pressure not just to fight, but to be great on that night.”

In promoting Ortiz as the next big thing, the process may have been rushed and he may have been cast in a role he can’t fill. “You can find somebody who might be a star, but you can’t create a star,” Merchant continued.

After he was dropped in the sixth round, Ortiz startled observers when he appeared to walk away from the referee with an ‘I have-had-enough’ expression and a no-mas wave of his hand. If people were taken aback by that, seconds before the bout was officially stopped because of a cut, they were shocked by his comments.

“I’m not going to go out on my back,” Ortiz said in a televised post-fight interview. “I’m not going to lay down for nobody. I’d rather just stop when I’m ahead. That way, I can speak well when I’m older. I’m young, but I don’t think I deserve to get beat up like this. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”

To Merchant, beyond the fact that fighters have had questionable moments and have later shown vast commitment, there’s another reason to cut Ortiz some slack: Post-fight interviews are complicated moments.

“We all want to hear what fighters say right after the fights are over, whether they won or lost, and it can be fascinating because it is an emotional time,” Merchant said. “For me, those interviews can be the most interesting ones, but we have to remember the circumstances, the adrenaline and the emotion. It can be one of the best or worst moments of a person’s life.”

Merchant recognizes that Ortiz said those things in a moment of frustration and disappointment.

“It’s hard to imagine all the things going through his head,” he said. “It was a hard fight and probably a lot harder than he expected. Maybe he let his guard down or maybe he was just discouraged that he couldn’t give the fans what they were hoping to see or expecting to see, what they were led to expect.

“Do we wonder? Sure. How could we not? We can’t say he won’t go on and be great and we can’t say that he will. He had never been in that kind of a big fight or in that kind of hard fight. You add it all up and say, ‘Okay, I want to see how he deals with it in the future,’ and give him another chance.”

The choice Ortiz made generated the attention it did in part because it was unusual, Merchant thinks, while brave performances like Cotto’s effort in earning a decision against Joshua Clottey are more expected. Cotto, cut over his right eye and struggling to see, regularly stepped back to wipe away blood.

“That is what fans want to see: fighters who are tested by their opponent, by circumstances or by both of those things and they respond like Cotto did,” Merchant said. “If they are discouraged or worried or scared, they don’t show it, and it seems to strengthen them to overcome what they’re facing. It can be in adversity that there is a chance to be great. Miguel Cotto has shown us that he is someone with a great spirit and toughness.”

In those respects, someone like the late Arturo Gatti.

From Merchant’s perspective, raw-courage fighters like Gatti and the late Diego Corrales can generate an unusually close, caring reaction from people near and far.

“Nobody was ever a tougher warrior than Holyfield and, I think, Shane Mosley,” Merchant said. “Those fighters and others have received the respect they deserve, but there is a type, like Corrales, like Gatti, that seem to resonate in a different way. They’re what they endure and what they endure is uncommon.”

To a man who’s seen an incalculable number of fights and fighters, Gatti was like few others.

So often expansive in his thoughts, Merchant could only say of Gatti’s death, “It was tragic and it broke my heart.”

For Merchant, it was a cruel element in this never-ending novel. He reminds us that we don’t know if we will see fighters touch their own hearts, put themselves on the line and touch our hearts, step back from the precipice or step too far.

“I think it really does come down to the fact that we want to see drama, and in those most compelling moments, how fighters react to adversity and challenge. Fighters like Gatti provide it, at times out of the ring as well, so there’s a closer connection to fighters like that, a sense of compassion.

“Maybe they seem vulnerable.”



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