The Bernstein approach to boxing: 30 years later, it’s still working, and it may even lure you into watching this Mayweather mayhem

International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Al Bernstein looks out to the crowd during the induction ceremony in Canastota, N.Y., in June, 2010 (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

Amidst the mayhem that’s often counterproductive to the counter punches taken regularly by the sport of boxing, Al Bernstein “can always be counted upon to calmly and coolly assess the situation,” writes Jeremy Schaap in the afterward of the recently released autobiography by the longtime boxing analyst entitled “Al Bernstein: 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths About Boxing, Sports and TV” (Diversion Books, $15.95, 176 pages).

“A big man with a big voice, he has never needed to shout – the hallmark of a true pro.”

Funny story, though.

Bernstein, before heading out the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for Saturday’s Showtime pay-per-view telecast of Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s title defense against Robert Guerrero, found himself yelling at a dry cleaning owner on Wednesday.

All the tuxedos his wife dropped off to be neatly pressed for the telecast had disappeared. After three trips to the back to look, they finally find the order – it was listed under his wife’s first name.

“I admit, I’m usually easy going, but I was being difficult,” Bernstein said. “I was really annoyed they couldn’t find the order.”

As Bernstein left the place finally with his wardrobe in tow, a woman stopped him on the street to make it known: “They (the owners) are very nice people, and you are a jerk.”

That part didn’t make it into the book, because as far as we know, it’s not an accurate statement.

Boxing often jerks viewers around when it comes to hyping performers under the auspices of building an audience of paying customers. Which is why we tracked down Bernstein to see why in the world we should care about a 36-year-old who just got out of jail for spousal abuse getting into the ring and asking customers for as much as $69.95 to watch at home if they really needed the high-definition feed of this so-called defining moment:

Floyd Mayweather Jr., right, talks to Boxing Channel’s Al Bernstein prior to his 2011 fight against Victor Ortiz. (Photo by Gene Blevins/Hogan Photos)

QUESTION: Seriously, why is Floyd Mayweather Jr. still relevant today, with all the baggage he carries and the way he kept avoiding facing Manny Pacquiao?

ANSWER: Just think about it – he’s never lost (43-0).  The fact that he’s considered the best fighter, still, pound-for-pound defies logic after such a long layoff – it’s been a year. As sharp as he was when he stopped fighting, and how he’s back doing it again, it’s an interesting process. How is he going to come back off a layoff at age 36? It’s very intriguing. The deal he signed with Showtime to do two fights a year is absolutely essential if he wants to continue.

Q: The Showtime deal – six fights, paying him $200 million – was that smart for him to do this rather than stay with HBO?

A: He’d know better than me because strangely enough I was not involved in the negotiations (laughing).  It boils down when you’re doing a pay-per-view fight these days, you need cross promotion. ESPN wrote the playbook on cross marketing. HBO does a wonderful job in finding other outlets for their pay-per-view fights, but with CBS helping to promote a fight on all kinds of platforms – the network, CBS Sports Network, CBS Radio, Showtime — you’re getting so much as your disposal. We’ve had a very successful run at Showtime over the last five years, and this is probably the natural progression going upward. This is the next step that seemed warranted, and the buzz has been huge for this fight because of it. Mayweather has always got between 1.2 million and 1.5 million buys, and common sense says he’ll land in there somewhere again for this one.

Q: What’s the main difference a viewer will find in how Showtime approaches a fight versus what they do on HBO?

A: Both definitely know how to do boxing, they have plenty of experience. I’m thrilled with being part of this production since 2003 with terrific broadcast partners and having David Dinkins Jr. as the producer, he’s the best I’ve worked with in 30 years. But honestly, we do take a slightly different approach. We’re probably more ‘event-centered.’ The commentary and editorial approach is to present the material as it happens. I’m not saying one way is wrong or right, but we’re more ‘in the moment’ with our information. We’ll also look at the bigger picture, but maybe not in the same way. I think HBO has more in-fight discussion. Ours’ isn’t so much. Fans of our shows are probably used to hearing something different. Many casual fans can drop into a telecast. We’re thrilled to have them sample us.

Q: Another interesting place people can sample your work these days is the new website Boxing Channel (www.boxingchannel.tv). Click over there now and there’s five minutes of Al talking about the matchup. How has that platform become relevant lately?

A: I think it’s another opportunity to be in the pioneer mode again. I was with ESPN in its early days, and this is the same thing with how to deliver a network with content that shapes how boxing fans get news. And it’s there for a simple reason – the mainstream press doesn’t cover boxing like it used to. Fans of all ages – and we’re seeing it skew to those older – are on the Internet.
The response has been different for me. Many years ago as a newspaper editor, I’d joke that most people are either senators or governors. If you’re a senator, you’re a lone wolf. A governor is a caretaker of something much bigger. As an editor, I felt as if I was a governor. In TV, you’re a total senator, like a gunslinger flying around doing different shows. Now I’m doing both here, helping to mold this (as the executive editor of content as well as an on-camera reporter). I like the idea of having no gatekeeper on the Internet. It allows you more creativity and you’re making split decisions without consulting with 58 other people or a cable system saying yes or no.  But to me it’s a large responsibility. No one’s looking over my shoulder to make sure we’re being fair and accurate. I have to make sure of that, or if someone does something inappropriate to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I haven’t had that situation. We’ve laid out a format where my mantra is: We report, we can give opinions, but mostly we want to hear from the participants. If they’re provocative, great. We’re not just trying to be provocative ourselves. I juggle doing that with the full-time work on Showtime and it’s been very fun.

Q: How has your book been received?

A: It’s not so much a book about me, but of some of the situations I’ve been in and covered. People I think enjoy it more because it’s not a strict boxing book. We reached out more and have a lot of laughs. It’s probably two-thirds humor book and one-third about the experiences. I’ll bet a lot of people didn’t realize in the early days of ESPN you had to shave your mustache. A lot of people today don’t even realize how much ESPN came along on a wing and a prayer. I was in the middle of all that. ESPN was as instrumental as any cable network in making no differentiation in what was an ‘over-the-air’ channel and what wasn’t. I didn’t think we’d ever get to that point.

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