When Home Box Office's cameras caught the dreadful cross-eyed stare of Milton McCrory after his near-execution at the hands of Donald Curry last Friday night, viewers had to ask themselves two questions: 1) should TV be showing this brutality in the first place, and 2) should HBO be zooming in for chilling closeups of McCrory in his extremity? The answer is yes on each count. As long as boxing is legal in America, TV has a right, even a documentary duty, to be there. And once there, TV ought to show boxing for what it is, blood, blue language and all. There aren't any virgins in the ring, nor should there be any in boxing's living rooms.
HBO (a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Inc., which is the publisher of SI) is the best and starkest purveyor of boxing. It's there, up close, for most of the big ones. Nobody covers the sport more comprehensively and, yes, more graphically than the unofficial Marvin Hagler Network, which now may have a new affiliate in Curry. The word for executive producer Ross Greenburg is "compelling"—whether he's doing a sensitive feature or going for the jugular live. You want McCrory's crossed eyes? Zap, the camera seems six inches away as he's lying on the canvas. A frightful remark? How about McCrory, live on camera, asking the doctor the round in which Curry had just demolished him?
Much of HBO's excellence derives from its noncommercial format. Between rounds the networks hawk tires and beer; HBO, a pay-cable service (it reaches 14.5 million homes) without commercials, stays in the corner. It's a big plus. After the seventh round of the Ray Mancini-Livingstone Bramble fight last February, HBO listeners heard Mancini tell his corner he could no longer see. Last week they heard McCrory's trainer, Emanuel Steward, say after Round 1 that Curry "is gonna burn himself out; he's fighting too intensely." Some burnout! Blow-by-blow announcer Barry Tompkins and analyst Sugar Ray Leonard jumped all over Steward's remark—and were rewarded a moment later by Curry's KO.
But everything is not pluperfect behind the HBO microphones. Tompkins, who guides the telecasts, comes across as a cliché monger, shouter and hype artist. Remember the carnival barker in the old movies? That's Barry T. "This one's for the whole ball of wax!" Tompkins gushed before the Curry bout, referring to the unification of the welterweight title. Then, when we were breathless with anticipation, he allowed how "there are a lot of people who feel this could conceivably be the best fight of 1985." Best fight? In the year of Hagler-Hearns?
Leonard, who last month was cashiered from his reported $25,000-a-fight commentator's job in a budget squeeze at CBS, is fast becoming an institution at HBO, which pays him between $100,000 and $150,000 a year. He is far and away the most telegenic and charismatic ex-jock on camera, his luminous presence filling up the screen. But—and this is a major but—he still is better at being a celebrity than a commentator. After seven years behind the mike, he ought to be more spontaneous, and he still needs a ton of work on his diction. Too often he parrots remarks by Tompkins or fellow commentator Larry Merchant. Said Merchant after Curry's KO, "He has the makings of being a truly great, great fighter!" To which Ray added: "Great, great fight! Donald Curry proved that he has the makings of a great champion!"
Great, great, great, great, zzzzzzzz!
Only one of HBO's announcers, Merchant, a former sports columnist in Philadelphia and New York, comes off especially well, and even he has a pixieish quality that must drive some viewers to distraction. But Merchant is boxing's voice of reason, an intelligent soul (when he's not saying "great!") who can slow things down, state an opinion coherently and allow an interview to take him where the answers happen to go. There are too many empty smoothies in TV. Merchant is "untelevision."
After Curry dispatched McCrory for the welterweight championship, Merchant stood in the ring, smiled out of the corner of his mouth and mused, "Are you waiting for him, Marvin?" He might have added, "Please say yes." A 1987 Hagler-Curry bout for the middleweight title would be a well-earned dream match for HBO, whose signature has become prime-time quality boxing with no blood, sweat, tears, spit, expletives or weak announcing deleted.
Leonard, Tompkins (center) and Merchant: They have charisma, hype and wry appraisal.