Boxing

Jim Lampley: A man with an opinion; He broke into network TV during the early 70s and is now back

“He was the voice of Boxing from March, 1988 until December 2018,” wrote Joseph Joseph Santoliquito of Ring Magazine.

The first-ever bout on-air was July 2, 1921, Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier. Over 100,000 fans elbowed their way into Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City. It was labeled an extravaganza.

Boxing dominated radio sports from the 1920s through the late 1950s. It would also help the advent of TV in the 1940s when video began to encroach. It eventually erupted into movie theaters, particularly huge fights, like Liston-Ali in 1964.

The names of early blow-by-blowers were huge, Sam Taub, Don Dunphy, Jimmy Powers and the last, Jim Lampley who still remains hale today. He’s worked the sweet-science for over three decades.

Early boxing matches drew many, many millions onto to the new intriguing medium of radio in the 1920s. TV would balloon a couple decades later. 

The back-to-back Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey bouts occurred in 1926 and 1927 and was followed word-by-word. In 1938 on the eve of the War, German Max Schmeling and America’s Joe Louis, went at it on a worldwide stage at Yankee Stadium. The fight crossed international political lanes.

Jim was kind enough to share some generous times with us to talk about his illustrious broadcast career. He’ll likely be best remembered for Boxing, yet he also did the NFL, the Olympics and more.

He left HBO in 2018, doing so after lots of meaningful time in-grade. He’s back again this very weekend.

This a Q&A with the talented Jim Lampley.

(He’s an absolute master and mesmerizing writer. His writing struck me as did the subject. What a pleasure it was to meet him this way.)

You’ve worked locally and nationally. How would you differentiate the two?

Aside from the obvious difference that national work requires more travel resourcefulness, I don’t observe or recognize any significant difference. In both cases you recognize a story or are assigned to a story, you research it (in my case most often with help), you carefully develop a point of view, and then sod your best to express the story from the point of view you have deemed to be accurate. I never did the walk any other way, whether I was working for ABC, CBS, NBC, or HBO nationally, of KCBS-TV or WFAN or WCHL locally. The audiences may approach from different perspectives; local audiences are more parochial, but that’s their business, not mine.

Starting in the network business under the aegis of ABC’s Roone Arledge, tell us what his personality was like?

I was hired out of a talent hunt by Roone Arledge in 1974. I had been listening to his exalted credit on ABC Sports telecasts for roughly fifteen years at that point, and he had majesty and he knew it and he portrayed it. I was only 25 when I went to work for him, but I actually had a meeting in his office at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics about a year and a half into the experience, and via the Olympics that year, Innsbruck and Montreal, I began to get to know him. He was reclusive and shy.

Roone was content-oriented and objective, he was great at evaluating public taste. He had built an incomparable sports television organization, and within it architected several great on-air careers (Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, many others), and he told me he would do that with me and he did. If Roone Arledge had been retained as President of ABC Sports forever I would have stayed there forever. But in 1987 new ownership at ABC removed him from the presidency of Sports, and very shortly thereafter I accepted an offer to go to KCBS-TV Los Angeles and CBS Sports, and six months later I added HBO Sports. 

Did you interact much with Al Michaels? 

Al Michaels was brought (by Roone Arledge) from NBC in the late 70s to give ABC a premier baseball announcing talent for its new Monday Night Baseball package. It was a major coup for ABC to pry away NBC’s fastest-rising star. ABC needed to assign someone to be the B-game (backup, rain delay, lesser region) game, and eventually, though I had never broadcast baseball at all, I was chosen for that.

Memory tells me I called those baseball games for two years, going to a minuscule region while Al’s game ate up the rest of the map. We had considerable interaction with each other at Olympics in 1980 and 1984, we were friendly, and like everyone else I was a fan of his play by play style. We were different. He was naturally aimed at the turf occupied by Jackson and Gifford, and those were not my targets. I was positioning to succeed McKay and Cosell, and that aim was upended when the network removed Arledge from Sports and replaced him with an executive who despised me (without knowing me). I left in late summer of 1987. Later I bumped into Al at NBC Olympics, but by then our careers had naturally diverged. Al remains a gifted and skilled play-by-play broadcaster to this day.

You were part of the first ever all-sports radio station, WFAN, which launched in 1987. Do you have specific recollections.

I was the first day-part talk show host to put WFAN on the air July 2, 1987. That was the same day, as it turned out, that I went to ABC and agreed to walk away from my contract there. Within a few weeks I was doing a daily local New York radio show from a tiny studio on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. That went on for about a year. I have many glorious memories from WFAN and am still friendly with the radio entrepreneur who brainstormed 24-hour sports talk radio, Jeff Smulyan of Emmis Broadcasting. 

You’ve been a big part of Boxing coverage in America on HBO and elsewhere. What were the illuminating highlights?

I was assigned to boxing in 1987 by the ABC Sports President whose goal was to embarrass me and get rid of me. The last thing he anticipated was that I would be seen to excel in that role and become a Hall of Fame blow by-blow man. My first several on-air fights were the first several live exposures in Mike Tyson’s career, so by the time I was extricated from ABC and ensconced at CBS, HBO wanted me to call Tyson exposures there.

Amazing good fortune which led to 40-plus years of calling fights and an indelible identity in that sport. Illuminating highlights?? Buster Douglas over Tyson, George Foreman over Michael Moorer both stand out because they were irrational upsets, largely incomprehensible, in heavyweight championship fights. Illuminating indeed.

The Olympics have been an understating part of your career. I believe you did 14, mostly on ABC and NBC, Which one was most special one?

Fourteen Olympics is correct. Most special to me would be Los Angeles 1984 because I had two very high profile assignments, co-anchor of the late night studio and stroke-by-stroke at swimming. I was targeting a studio advancement and Sarajevo had been the first such assignment, so L-A with a larger audience and more airtime was significant to me. 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta with NBC were both special, partially because my eldest daughter Brooke was in her early teens and spent every hour at my side no matter where I was. It was an unforgettable parenting experience.

I recall your NFL years on NBC. How did you excel at it?

I did call NFL regionals for a few years in the ’90s, and if I excelled at it that is good to know. It was challenging because I seemed to have a different expert commentator partner every year (Todd Christensen, Bob Golic, Kenny Stabler, others), and I was simultaneously calling fights on HBO also quite frequently I would miss all the on-site pre game preparation and fight travel hassles to show up on the day of the game, which was hard on me and on everyone I worked with. But it went on for a few years, because of the fantastic help I got. Viewers don’t realize football play-by-play is largely a personnel management enterprise. You are only as good as your spotter and your statistician, and I had been schooled in that part of it by Keith Jackson at ABC, so I had great people who kept me afloat. Show me any great football play-by- play person and I’ll point out to you his devoted and loyal spotter and statistician.

Many folks were embedded with the name Sam Taub.  He’d cover anything, all classes. How did it feel to be given the annual award that bears his name?

Every award is exciting and satisfying. But they are subjective, and longevity is rewarded. I hung around a long time in boxing, didn’t seek or cultivate enemies, and was eventually given various awards that fit with that identity. I honor Sam Taub and many others of his ilk. A great actor taught me “longevity is lovability Lamp. You hang around long enough, they’ve got no choice other than to love you.” That great actor was right.

You worked locally and nationally, Los Angeles, New York, NBC, ABC and HBO. Differentiate please on how heated Boxing fans respond geographically.

Boxing fans are the same all over the globe. They are ardent, they are faithful, they proudly and tenaciously display their loyalties. I don’t recognize any difference in local or regional response, other than that some cultures (see Mexico, Puerto Rico) pay more passionate attention than others. But fans are basically the same wherever you go.

*****

Jim Lampley will once again be joining PPV.COM (PPV.COM does not require a subscription), to exclusively co-host, with Lance Pugmire and Dan Canobbio, the service’s Tim Tszyu vs. Sebastian Fundora unified 154-pound world title event live viewer chat that complements its live stream of the four-bout fight card to fight fans in the U.S. and Canada, this Saturday, March 30, beginning at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m PT. Jim will also provide commentary and reports, from Las Vegas, throughout fight week, generating original video content for PPV.COM’s website and social media platforms.  The Tszyu-Fundora world championship event will emanate live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.  Priced at $69.99, it can be ordered by clicking here:  PPV.COM | Tszyu vs. Fundora

 

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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