Bleacher Report Boxing had the privilege of having a 1-0n-1 interview with a man who is inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame, and has covered the sport for over 30 years. Showtime’s Championship Boxing ringside commentator, Al Bernstein. We spoke to Al about his newly published book 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths about Boxing, Sports and TV.
BRB: In 1985, and 1986, you made a few errors in announcing a Marvin Hagler fight. Did you ever speak with Marvin about those two slip ups?
AB: You know it’s funny, I didn’t think we ever directly addressed it. It’s almost as if he never really took note of it. Which I find interesting because I think fighters have gotten a bit more sensitive. If I did that now due to twitter and social media I would be demonized. He never really brought it up.
BRB: Speaking of Marvin, what made him special to you? Where does he rank among the great middleweights?
AB: What I love about Marvin, what was special about him was, he came ready to fight every time he fought. He was with one manager and promoter his whole career. He went out and did his job. He made a lot of money, and saved his money and did everything right. He has to be a top 5 middleweight. Along with Carlos Monzon and Sugar Ray Robinson. Marvin Hagler was just great you know?
BRB: How about Bernard Hopkins as well?
AB: Bernard Hopkins, yeah, I suppose so. I just have him a bit further down the list, but he is a great middleweight.
BRB: In Massachusetts, you were heckled after only being on the job for a year and a half. How did you maintain your composure, and what did you learn from it?
AB: Well it was funny because the people started taunting me and my partner and I was in shock! It was some kind of organic thing that just started happening. It did teach me and confirmed that I had the ability to block things out and concentrate on the work I was doing. Because there was tons of people screaming at us, and I came away with it saying wow I can keep my focus. One of the best way to get out of trouble with television is humor.
BRB: How can you tell the difference between a truly boxing-savvy crowd on hand, versus the casual fan?
AB: Oh that’s interesting. Well, some of it is location. the one places where it isn’t always such a savvy crowd, is a showroom or casino. I think it’s a matter of how they are reacting to the fight. Also if they go against a bad decision. The reaction is really the way you can tell.
BRB: Will we have another great heavyweight champion from the United States?
AB: Well probably at some point, but not in the near future I think though. There just aren’t many terrific heavyweight fighters coming from the U.S. They are trying, like Seth Mitchell coming from different sports. The search will intensify, and because of that at some point I think someone will be found. However, I see nobody on the horizon who fits the bill.
AB: He would have been as proud as can be, he would have been so happy to se me do that. It would have been a wonderful moment. To see me up there as a peer of Don Dunphy. My dad would just burst with pride. The sad thing is my dad never got to see me do what I do.
BRB: Don Dunphy’s son, Bob, said you can’t be too creative during a telecasts because you may essentially romanticize a dull fight, and not give a great fight it’s just due in your commentating. Could you elaborate a bit more on Bob’s sentiments, and do you agree with him?
AB: When you direct a boxing match the main thing is to make sure people have the story. Bob’s one of the best at directing boxing. while being creative, you don’t want do a detriment. You can’t do that in sports. What Bob is trying to say is you can’t get ahead of yourself. It applies to commentary as well. What happens in the ring is of most importance, you don’t want to obscure it.
BRB: You have a 12 year old son, Wes, whose passion as stated by yourself is in music and acting. Could Wes Bernstein be the next Al Pacino or Chuck Berry?
AB: Well he’s doing very well right now, he’s been in a few plays, one in Los Angeles. He’s recorded some music, he’s involved with a musical group and doing well. I think the best thing is he’ll make his living in the arts. Music, Theater, Film, and TV. Like any parent I hope for the best. I’d love for me to be known as Wes Bernstein’s dad.
BRB: What do you believe has led to certain commentators, writers, and such to now slander an athlete rather than give respectful criticism?
AB: We’ve lost some of the standards we had. I think it’s people encouraging them like the ESPN movement in the early 90s and now it’s spread everywhere. I think discord and disagreement took over for information. When that happens, people do it to be noticed. That’s the main reason. I’m gonna say when I was coming up in the 80s, that there is nothing wrong with being noticed or making a mark. I’ve done things like musical performances and such because it’s a business part of what we are doing. I like to do other things, but never at the expense of the sporting event I’m doing. Bob Uecker was a great example he’d do variety shows and such, and he covered the Brewers baseball games. When doing those telecasts, there are very little hints of Bob the comedian. He will never take away from the game he is doing. When people decide they are going to get noticed by hijacking a sporting event….. like I said it’s almost encouraged and a bit depressing to me.
BRB: You brought up Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss. He was a fighter labeled as an opponent. Yet you still joyfully appreciated him. Who are some fighters similar to Bruce that come to mind?
AB: Tim Tomashek was another one. He was a latter day version of the mouse. There are still opponents out there that you can appreciate what they do. I think part of it is accepting the fact that they were characters, and the other part is that they aren’t super stars. That they still get better and grow in their craft. Those fighters we tend to, if they aren’t gonna be world champs, we give less coverage to them. I disagree that we shouldn’t cover them.
BRB: How about Emanuel Augustus?
AB: Emanuel Augustus is a perfect example.
BRB: Through the years of being in boxing I assume you have made some good personal relationships with some of the fighters. You are never biased, but did you ever particularly wish you weren’t calling a fight where a fighter you were fond of outside of the ring was taking punishment?
AB: Many times, many times. There where many times I didn’t wanna be there. Ray Mancini, who was a friend of mine. When he was losing I had a hard time to separating personal feelings, and broadcasting the fight. It was difficult when he came back and lost to Greg Haugen. There has been a couple times. If I was home, I would have turned the TV off. When your there you can’t. There has been a few times I’ve felt like that. But you also have to make sure your doing it fairly, and make sure you give the just due to the winner and that makes it more difficult.
BRB: During your time at ESPN, they made many of the employees submit to having no facial hair. However, your facial hair remained. Do you have any guesses as to why you were the exception?
AB: Part of it is, I wasn’t around there all the time. A lot of the people like Chris Berman were in Bristol, Connecticut, all the time. So they would be reminded they had facial hair constantly. They’d see me less, like on a Friday or Thursday. So they saw me less. People running networks see boxing as a oddity. They put up with things from sportscasters that they would never put up with. I think that idea is: oh well he’s doing boxing, at the end of the day what the heck will live with it. I would always shift topics. At a certain point it became less of an issue for ESPN. If you look at the 1990s it became less of a crusade.
BRB: We have many fighters today like Manny Pacquiao and Sergio Martinez who fight in very unique styles that most conventional trainers would sway their fighters away from. Who are some of the most memorable fighters that had an unorthodox style?
AB: Well lets see……Lonnie Smith. He would walk away from a fighter, then come forward and have wild punches. A junior welterweight who serves as a good example as a guy with a different style that made it very effective for himself.
BRB: Why do you believe certain sports networks have taken the approach of disagreement and argument above all else?
AB: I think they think they are giving people what they want. That is what sports radio is, or what that is now. It is so much easier to get immediate information so what happens is on broadcast, giving information has become so secondary that now opinion is required in every case. Opinion and analysis are different sometimes they are only giving opinions and that is not analysis.
BRB: You stated that Angelo Dundee was the best at match making his fighters. Today, we have many fans who feel as though fighters are over protected. What do you think is a good median?
AB: The trick is to have them in against people that are gonna be good against them. That they can learn from that style. Now the problem is though, you have to get somebody. It became so important for someone to be undefeated. with all due respect, Adrien Broner was being spoken of as the next great thing. Until he fought Antonio Demarco. Who is good but a b plus level fighter. So we haven’t seen him in with a A fighter. I believe the MMA influence has made boxing make more competitive match ups though. The match ups are improving. Outside of Mayweather-Pacquiao were getting them. With all the promoters having their issues it’s not easy to do.
BRB: Has there even been anything similar to Marvin Hagler’s going through the gauntlet of east coast middleweights such as Bennie Briscoe before reaching the championship of the division?
AB: Oh that’s interesting. Probably not before the championship. Maybe in the past, not so much now. but that group he went through…..phew to say he came up the hard way is an understatement. There maybe something like it but i can’t think of anything that would rival it.
BRB: What other fighters, such as Tommy Hearns, played a terrific second fiddle in their career’s defining moments?
AB: Joe Frazier, even though Joe beat Ali the first time, because he lost 2 of the 3 you can make a case for him. Hearns and Frazier are 2 of my favorite fighters that deserve to be looked upon as icons in the sport.
BRB: In boxing’s history there have been tremendous national and ethnic rivalries. Such as Mexico against Puerto Rico. Is there a rivalry building on the horizon that will become a significant one?
AB: To me now, the chief ethnic rivalry is Mexico and Puerto Rico. It will always be there. As well as with Mexican American and Puerto Rican American fans. That’s the one that will stay forever. We don’t function so much that way. Boxing is the only sport that utilizes race without seeming racist.
BRB: Throughout the book, you mentioned you love humor and even call yourself a goofball. How do you make the transition into as you put it a “Urbane silver-haired guy in a tuxedo.”
AB: It’s funny, I think the job at hand is the job at hand. Like mentioned before Bob Uecker was again a great example. We all do many roles in life, we have different roles, different things are required of us at various times. When people meet me outside of what I do, they are surprised to see I have a different personality. I think that’s true with a lot of people. Especially with actors. Although with sportscasters you see a hint of their personality. I don’t mind a personality, I just don’t like a manufactured personality. You have to do the job at hand, so i just transform myself. When I’m on radio, that’s where I am more likely to let my personality come out with humor and other things.
BRB: Would you ever consider doing a night club act in Las Vas Vegas or anywhere else again?
AB: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I would consider it. The problem is, it’s time consuming. I would do it for all the different reasons I did it for before. Or maybe not because it’d be fun. It’s hard to create it and such…and organization I just don’t know. But I would like to do it once or twice before I check out. I would like to revise the boxing party show. I still do the boxing party show, just without music and such. I’ll keep doing that hopefully someday I can incorporate other things.
BRB: What are some of the great stories that have come out of The Caring Place, your wife’s non-profit organization?
AB: Well that place has been open since 2008, everyday it does change people’s lives. That is not an exaggeration. We had a woman named Alex. She came in 08 and was a wonderful cook. She had many issues physically, and she didn’t have family in Las Vegas, and The Caring Place became a 2nd home. Guided her through all her procedures, with the tumors and such hurting her. The support groups became big for her. The last 4 years wouldn’t have been as comfortable and as reasonable if she couldn’t share it with The Caring Place. She would come up to my wife and hug her for creating The Caring Place. You can’t attach any kind of price or value to that.
BRB: Al, Thank you so much for your time, it’s been an honor.
AB: No Problem, my pleasure.