The Gospel of Boxing According to Al Bernstein
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Boxing isn’t dead.
So says Hall of Fame broadcaster Al Bernstein, who is an evangelist for the sport the way first-century Christians were for Jesus. According to the Christian religion, the Romans crucified and executed Jesus on a Friday. By Sunday, Christians believe Jesus was raised back to life again.
Unlike Jesus, Bernstein believes boxing never died at all. In fact, he says the boxing is dead or dying motif prevalent in today’s sports world boils down to laziness on the part of mainstream sports media.
“The irony is that it’s because of laziness,” Bernstein told Bleacher Report. “It’s kind of a push/pull thing.”
Bernstein would know. As a boxing media member, he’s done it all. He started as a newspaperman in the 1970s. Soon, he was contributing to Boxing Illustrated and RING Magazine. From 1980 to 1998, he was analyst and host of ESPN’s Top Rank Boxing show. In fact, from 1980 to 2003, Bernstein was the primary voice of boxing for ESPN. Since 2003, Bernstein has been lead boxing analyst for Showtime. He’s also a host for the Boxing Channel.
Bernstein said the recent Floyd Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez event served as a case in point.
“The mainstream media had to write and talk about Mayweather vs. Canelo. It was a fight that had so many compelling things going for it that mainstream media anointed it. It was okay [to talk about], so there was a big herd movement. Once it started, nobody could stop it. They had to talk about it. It was there.”
Bernstein says once the mainstream sports media decides to cover something it normally ignores, it has to include why it never covers the topic during other times in the year.
“So now they have to talk about this, but in the midst of it they need some kind of cover to talk about it. And their cover, or their other way to get attention to themselves as well as what they’re doing is ‘oh, by the way the sport is dying but this is interesting for this and this and this reason. And oh by the way, when Mayweather leaves, the sport is definitely dying.’ So they make the same mistake people have made a thousand times and take the easy way out."
Bernstein says the mainstream sports media, including his former colleagues at ESPN, do the same thing with other sports, too.
“It’s the easy way out. My analogy is always to hockey. When the mainstream sports media is forced to cover hockey—and I’m not a huge hockey fan but I have some rudimentary knowledge of it—they do so but say ‘this is the only interesting time...it’s interesting now and the rest of the time it’s not...but here, playoff hockey is fun.’ It’s the same kind of deal.”
If you’re a boxing fan, you know the drill. Not only is boxing supposedly dead or dying, but it’s being systematically replaced by a similar but altogether different sport: MMA. Bernstein likens this narrative to that of lemmings or sheep.
“It’s the herd mentality. Once it started, and the mainstream sports media thought it was hip...everyone wants to be hip, every sportscaster, even the Tony Kornheisers and Michael Wilbons who claim they don’t want to be hip, want to be hip...so they decided to talk about MMA because they want to be hip... they do it for self-serving purposes.”
Bernstein says boxing’s life or death has nothing to do with MMA. In fact, he says the two sports are far from diametrically opposed institutions.
“I’m not an anti-MMA guy..but nevertheless, they all present this scenario that it is either boxing or MMA, that the two can’t coincide, etc.”
Last month, Bernstein related similar sentiments to USA Today’s Bob Velin:
I am not some crazy crusader for the sport of boxing. I am simply a person who's saying let's judge every sport with some context. You can't create a narrative that boxing is dying when the sport is producing great fight after great fight, drawing great numbers. You can't just create that narrative because you want to create it. It's lazy, stupid journalism...It's endemic now in the ESPN system to create a narrative and push it forward.
His comments drew the ire of current ESPN sportscaster Stephen A. Smith, who called out Bernstein on the air of ESPN2’s First Take (audio here).
I took issue with something he said because he was responding to an article in ESPN The Magazine and others who said that boxing was dead...and that Floyd Mayweather was the only one keeping it alive. Al Bernstein took issue with that and, to paraphrase, accused ESPN of just pushing this narrative and all of that other stuff. I thought that it was out of line and unfair on his part.
Despite the hard data of PPV sales numbers, Smith went on to regurgitate the boxing is a dead paradigm. His circular logic implied the mainstream sports media didn’t cover the sport because no one knows what’s happening in it because the mainstream sports media didn’t cover it.
But I really, really feel that way for this reason and this reason only: we need to be real and honest about the sport of boxing...it’s dissipated in the eyes of the American public even though PPV sales would dictate otherwise. Because what Al Bernstein and others refuse to recognize is that just because there are great fights every year...practically every month...in the end, how many do we know about? And how many of them do we care about?
Almost on cue, Smith couldn’t help but interject MMA into the argument.
When there is a fight that needs to be made in the UFC, Dana White makes it...boxing is devoid of that.
Bernstein believes Smith and company are simply buying into clever marketing.
“That’s where the excellent and clever marketing by UFC has done well for them, and that’s good for them. Of course, they’re one organization. They can market their sport unlike boxing, where there are many people trying to market the sport. They can do one message. They can run it like a political campaign, the UFC, they can stay on people and work the message for all it’s worth. That’s what they’ve done with the mainstream sports media.”
Still, Bernstein argues it all comes back to laziness on the part of mainstream sports media professionals. For example, Smith’s counter to Bernstein’s USA Today comments implied UFC fans have seen every fight that needs to be made.
But is that really the case?
“Part of the Dana White mythology is that he can make any fight he wants whenever he wants,” said Bleacher Report’s Lead MMA writer Jonathan Snowden. “And, thanks to the lack of any significant competitors, it's certainly easier for him than it is for most boxing promoters. But the UFC tried to make a superfight between welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and middleweight champion Anderson Silva happen for years—with little success.”
Snowden says the narrative proposed by Smith is a false one.
“They also fell on their face over and over again trying to make dream fights happen with champions from the now defunct Japanese promotion Pride Fighting Championships. Especially vexing was the elusive Fedor Emelianenko, who simply refused to step in the Octagon. It's not always easy, even for the UFC, to make every fight they imagine come to fruition. And, as the fighters start establishing more and more financial independence, it will only get harder. So why does the narrative persist? It’s the culture.”
Bernstein says the culture of the mainstream sports media is one of persistent laziness and blatant narcissism.
“You can’t know everything, but now they all want to act like experts about everything...they all want to have opinions on everything. And so what happens then is that if there’s an easy narrative that a lot of people have grabbed onto and that a bunch of other people have already put forth on boxing or whatever—whether it’s that MMA is the hippest sport or boxing is dead—they’re going to do that, and they’re going to find their three or four talking points. Because it’s simple, that’s what they’re going to do.”
If boxing apologetics was a course for media members, the way Christian apologetics is for aspiring priests and ministers, perhaps Bernstein would be the professor. He says the boxing is dead argument is weak. Moreover, he says he’s always glad to have the debate. In fact, that’s what he wants.
“That’s why I always say, if I or anyone else that covers boxing and understands it had 20 minutes to debate anybody...without being shouted down, we could win the debate every single time about whether boxing has merit these days and has good content, as well as whether it is dying.”
Bernstein says a profound lack of information is inherent in the lazy journalism of today’s mainstream sports media.
“We can win that debate every single time, because they don’t know enough about the topic to debate us.”
Even Stephen A. Smith?
“Stephen A. Smith brought up my name on the air, and we got into this whole thing. I was very blatant on Twitter and everywhere else. I’m game. Have me on. I’ll debate any of you guys on this topic.”
So when can we expect to see Al Bernstein, Defender of the Boxing Faith, go toe-to-toe with Smith and his boxing-is-dead cohorts over at ESPN in an open and on air debate?
“I didn’t get any takers,” said Bernstein.
And if what Bernstein says about them is true, it’s not really that surprising.
Kelsey McCarson is a boxing writer for Bleacher Report and TheSweetScience.com. He also contributes content to Boxing Channel. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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