Renowned boxing commentator Al Bernstein, a Showtime monolith for many years, will be on the broadcast team on May 2 in Las Vegas, covering the megafight between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao.
You could argue that the second biggest pairing in the building is just outside the ropes, where you’ll hear Bernstein and Jim Lampley call a fight together for the first time, an adjunct of the historic partnership between Showtime and HBO.
Bernstein chatted with CBS Local Sports about boxing, Mayweather, Pacquiao and his his 35 years dissecting the sweet science.
JK: How did you fall in love with boxing?
Bernstein: I was a young kid listening to the first fight between Floyd Patterson and Ingemar Johansson, at night, with my transistor radio, blanket over my head.
JK: Did you box as a young man?
Bernstein: I did. I boxed with the park district in Chicago for 30 or 40 fights. I played other sports and eventually people frowned upon me for boxing. So I got out of it. And I kept up the training and sparred a little bit as an adult.
JK: Who were your favorite fighters?
Bernstein: Floyd Patterson. I listened to the fights with Liston, as well. Boxing was so vibrant. And Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali was huge. I remember going to theaters to watch Ali vs Frazier in 1971.
Ray Robinson was another favorite. I saw him fight Gene Fullmer. And I was crushed when he didn’t win. Many thought he won. I loved Emile Griffith. Archie Moore was another.
JK: Who were your favorite commentators?
Bernstein: My big idol was Don Dunphy. I interviewed him in 1985. He was also a mentor, and he told me the most important thing is when you’re on the air, it’s not about you. Especially in a live event. It’s about the people you’re covering.
Remember, Dunphy also called fights alone, unlike today. Cosell did it alone for awhile, as well. In the 1970s and ’80s they added a color commentator and even a third person.
JK: What was the first fight you called?
Bernstein: I started in 1980 with ESPN. In Chicago at the amphitheater. Sam Rosen and Tommy Hearns were doing the show. And they asked me to jump in. That’s how it started.
JK: What’s the best/favorite fight you’ve called?
Bernstein: The bout between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo was the best fight I ever covered… their first fight. Then Hagler-Hearns. But Corrales vs Castillo was Hagler-Hearns times three.
JK: If you could have worked one fight in history, which would it be?
Bernstein: The first Ali-Frazier fight.
JK: Have you ever feared for your safety after a fight?
Bernstein: Oh yeah. A number of times at the Olympic auditorium, and the wrong guy got the decision. You’re tied there, when you’re a TV guy being pelted with coins. I’ve never been hit with anything until I was in Puerto Rico, covering the fight between Juan Manuel Lopez and Orlando Salido. I got hit with a full bottle of water, right above the right eye.
JK: Who are the most interesting boxers you’ve ever interviewed?
Bernstein: Archie Moore was a really intriguing man… self-educated. Marvelous Marvin Hagler was a really fascinating guy to talk to. Bernard Hopkins. He’s like one of the great comics, and he goes from A to B to C and gets you back to your original point. One of the great misnomers is that boxers are not interesting.
JK: Favorite partner calling a fight?
Bernstein: I’ve written a book and counted all the partners I’ve had, Way over 60 or 70 people. I had an eight-year partnership with Barry Tompkins that was very special. I loved Sal Marchiano. He was very kind and gracious to me. Sam Rosen was a very treasured broadcast partner. Steve Albert, whom I worked with here at Showtime and have had a great collaboration with. Perhaps my greatest thrill was working with Gil Clancy on the Roberto Duran-Iran Barkley fight.
I’ve also been the play-by-play guy, and I loved working with Steve Farhood and Dave Bontempo.
JK: Do you allow yourself to befriend a boxer, or is neutrality too important?
Bernstein: I don’t want to be pals with fighters. I’m friendly with them without being friends with them. I wouldn’t be human if I said I wasn’t closer to some than others. But I don’t court that. I’ve found that in general it’s better to have a little distance.
JK: What goes into preparation for a fight?
Bernstein: It’s twofold. We get so much material, between punch numbers from Compubox and the research people. Plus what you ferret out yourself. You have all this data. Information is vital. Then you look at video. In my case, I do the ‘Keys to Victory’ piece. Then the final key to the puzzle is talking to the fighters. So, yeah, it’s a lot of preparation.
JK: What’s on your mind entering fight night.
Bernstein: Before any broadcast, you hope you have the right amount of energy inside you and understand the moment. In terms of calling a match, this fight will be no different for me than any main event I’ve done all these years. The moment is different, so the things I say will be different. But the actual calling the fight will be no different. You wanna do the things you do well, in any profession or event.
JK: How is the booth constructed?
Bernstein: I will be with Jim Lampley, and Roy Jones Jr. I chatted with Jim, and we’ll do a little rehearsal. We’ve never worked together. Jim and I joke about it, but it’s a good thing. It adds spice to the event, part of what makes this event unique and history-making. We’re all pros. I’m looking forward to working with Jim.
JK: Thoughts on the fight?
Bernstein: For Pacquiao, he needs to be a volume puncher, throwing at least 800 punches, to overwhelm Floyd Mayweather Jr with volume. He has to come in angles, never a straight line. And avoid walking into the right hand.
Mayweather has to stay off the ropes. Prevent it from being the first Maidana fight. Control the pace. Floyd is like the old Dean Smith North Carolina teams. Next thing you know they are up 15 or 20 points, and you can’t come back because they’re in the four corners. Floyd makes volume punchers non-volume punchers.
JK: The idea that this fight is six years too late?
Bernstein: They are still very effective fighters. Pacquiao has only lost one fight really. And the Marquez fight was a great fight. You could make a case he lost the third fight with Marquez, and in the fourth fight got overzealous but was winning. They are both performing at a high level. They are slightly diminished but they actually make it more interesting, maybe more dangerous, like we saw with Ali and Frazier in Manila.