He is seventysomething, but looks younger. An athletic regimen that includes ample time on the ski slopes probably has a lot to do with it, but flexibility in negotiating the moguls of life has to factor in as well.
Larry Merchant could be forgiven if he were to deliver a flowery eulogy to Willie Pep, the Will ‘o the Wisp, who died at age 84 on Thursday. Pep was known for his mastery of ring generalship and defense, and fought his 242 pro fights from 1940-1966 with defense as a focal point of his strategy. But Pep, really, wasn’t Merchant’s favorite brand of fighter. Or, I should say, isn’t. The HBO analyst has adjusted his criteria over his decades covering the savage science, for newspapers and for television, and is today likely to judge and critique a boxer more favorably if they fight in a fan-friendly, non-risk-averse style. In other words, Larry likes it when boxers mix it up, and if you ask him to delve into that preference, he’ll cite a viewpoint that Cus D’Amato used to spout.
The object of prizefighting, the old codger would say, is to make money. And you make money by putting fannies in seats. And what puts fannies in seats? Defensive wizardry? No way, shape, or form. A ‘hit and don’t be hit’ philosophy that puts a premium on quickness of feet, and speed in disengaging, wouldn’t have put you atop Cus’, or atop Merchant’s, pound-for-pound list.
So, I’m curious, just who is atop Larry’s list of the best active pugilist currently plying their trade? Who’s the best and brightest in our shady sport?
“Manny Pacquiao,” answers Merchant.
“When you’re talking about the best fighter, you have to consider who will put it all out there, someone who’s willing to take risks.”
Chat rooms were active after Pacquiao finished off Mexi-legend Erik Morales on Nov. 18.
Shouldn’t the Filipino, that scarily-active man who reduced Morales to a shell who could no longer be called El Terrible, be regarded as the top pound-for-pounder in the game today? Shouldn’t the boxer who imposed himself on the Mexi-icon, until he sat on the canvas and his face became a complicated mask of contemplation and resignation, be regarded as the top pound-for-pounder in boxing?
Yes, he should be, Merchant argues.
But what about Floyd, I asked? What about his technical excellence? That hand speed? That fluidity? That hand/eye? Those flurries? That record?
Merchant explained his criteria in evaluating fighters, and said that his checklist in crafting a pound-for-pound list has changed with the times. His P4P champ is completely suited for this age of reduced attention span, endless options for diversion, our greedy thirst for spectacles louder, bloodier, thinner, sexier.
“The emotion and passion in that building when Pacquaio fought,” he says, “is included in my criteria, and I think it should be [in everyone’s]. I’m not a purist, I don’t want to see Willie Pep win a round not throwing a punch.”
“As the game has evolved, I favor the a guy who is willing to go out and take risks and close the show and not talk about hit and not be hit.”
Ouch, PBF. That one had to hurt. Or maybe it didn’t, because you are all about positivity these days, and aren’t interested in getting into it with crusty Larry again.
Remember PBF vs. Larry after the Baldy fight, how Floyd tossed a few flurries at Merch?
“Well you know, you always give me a hard time,” PBF told Merchant after he dispatched Baldy with PBF-ian ease. “You don’t never give me the credit that I really deserve. You good at commentating so stick to commentating, let me do the fighting! I am the best at what I do. That’s why I am with HBO, HBO is my family, HBO is my home. Like I said before, you can learn boxing from my camp and from ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. You just a commentator, stick to commentating.”
“That’s exactly what I am doing, I am asking you a question,” Merchant answered.
“It’s more like this, don’t always be a critic and be so negative. Let’s be positive. I got the victory tonight under any circumstances. So all you can do is respect me for that. Every time a fighter comes out I know you keep your fingers crossed… You hoping and wishing that a fighter can beat me. I am the king of the throne and Floyd Mayweather is here to stay! I can win under ANY circumstances! You always talk; let me do the talking. That’s what you always do!”
True enough, he is an analyst, if he stopped doing that he’d be where almost every one of his contemporaries are, out of the field.
I’m an unabashed fan, completely journalistically compromised, by the old standards of the discipline. So all apologies to PBF, but right now, I’ll let Merchant finish his explanation for why Manny deserves the top P4P spot over you.
“Entertainment is part of it,” he said. “As a middleweight, for example, Roy Jones was tremendous but when he went to light heavyweight and he had those fights where he coasted the last six rounds, I said, ‘Screw this.’’’
You can certainly call him crusty, but I’m all for it. In this age, when our voices become more timid as we seek to avoid controversies manufactured by PC special interests, and instead we displace our passion into piles of food, porn and retail therapy sessions, I treasure the outspoken voices all the more. I’m not talking about partisan hacks like Rush Limbaugh, or others of that gaseous ilk, whose arguments are typically bereft of all reason and civility.
But Larry Merchant won’t always be on the scene, I hate to break it to you. Don’t miss him when he’s gone, treasure him while he’s here.