The boxing writers gathered to celebrate themselves and the sport on June 8, and being cursed with a unquenchable desire to document such occasions, I brought my notebook along and scribbled in between bites of sirloin. Here's Part 2 of the Boxing Writers Dinner awards report.
The Quiet Man, John Ruiz, went against type, and set the table for the Kohn Good Guy Award.
Lee Samuels and Ricardo Jiminez, the Top Rank tandem who make our jobs easier, shared the Kohn.
Samuels told us that hearing the Ali/Jones fight on radio in March of 1963 infected him with the boxing bug. He learned his trade, he said, from matchmaker Teddy Brenner and Irving Rudd—who preferred the term “press agent” to “PR man, which explains why he is polite, helpful and effective. Well, credit for the politeness part should probably be given to his parents.
Lou DiBella got up and set the stage for Larry Merchant, the recipient of the Walker Award for long and meritorious service. During a break in the action, my wife and I sidled over to Merchant's table, and we congratulated him on the honor. “My husband always makes a point, and then I hear you say the same thing, so I know my husband's not an idiot,” my wife told Merchant.
Merchant, the around-seventy-ish former newspaperman turned TV talker, addressed the crowd, and introduced himself, with a wide grin, as the “former, and new, boxing commentator for HBO.”
A hearty burst of applause met the Brooklyn native who worked at the Philly Daily News (as sports editor and columnist), and the NY Post (as a columnist) before he gravitated over to the TV side in the mid 70s. Merchant hopped aboard Home Box Office in 1978, and has been a part of the boxing crew since. Merchant rooters were concerned that he'd be ushered out for the Gen X version of himself, Max Kellerman. But we, and I count myself proudly amongst them, were relieved to have the fight analyst poet laureate around to lift up subpar offerings with no-holds-barred commentary.
“My first heroes were boxing writers,” Merchant told the fight writers, fighters, suits and better halves in attendance. “Through the writers I got to know the boxers, and they introduced me to the colorful netherworld of boxing.”
Merchant gave a shoutout to the HBO crew, and then his “beautiful wife Patricia.” That gesture of course melted my wife's heart. And he also mentioned his “dumb dog Jack,” and informed us that 10 ducklings had just hatched in his vacation place backyard. (That sent me drifting into a Tony Soprano daydream…'member the mob boss's fixation on the mallards in his pool?)
The gracious Merchant cited some fight writers he admired (Stan Issacs, Vig Ziegel, Stan Hochman, Jack McKinney). He also lamented the fact that a pile of letters written by Archie Moore, left in his office desk, many 6-10 pages in length, were tossed out when he left Philly.
Merchant touched on something many us know in our hearts, but may be hesitant to admit, that we are often more entranced by the juicy backstories of the principals in the sport than the back-and-forth action in-ring.
The commentarian dialed back the way back machine, and recalled his first live bout, at MSG. Bobby Ruffin took on Johnny Greco, he recalled, and that was either in 1944 or 1945, according to boxrec, as the two duked it out three times total.
The tix, bought by his uncle, cost $3.30 apiece. A marvelous bit of wordsmithing in the paper the next day left little Larry agape with admiration. One of the fighters had “given up his fish dinner between rounds,” the youngster read, and was surprised that the act of barfing could be rendered more artful with some nifty wordplay.
I guess, mini Merch said to himself, I best find a way to get closer to the ring.
“I guess I did,” he said.
The wave of applause was loud and sustained, and the emotion seeped out without shame as Kery Davis and Jim Lampley grabbed Merchant in bear hugs.
Steve Farhood then explained that the writing awards, the so-called “Barneys,” would be dispensed. Michael Hirsley, we found out, would be retiring at the end of the month, so he drew a sharp burst of clapping in appreciation.
Fred Sternburg, on the short list of best of breed in PR, relayed that Pat Putnam had told him that the worst thing a writer could say in a piece was nothing.
Kevin Iole, ex of the Las Vegas Review Journal, now writing for Yahoo, earned the Fleischer for excellence and he took to the stage. He thanked Marc Ratner, the old Nevada Commission boss, now with UFC, for showing up.
Kenny told us we should buy the next presenter's next PPV, out of respect, so Bernard Hopkins took the floor. He called out the Fight of the Year, a scrap between Thai Somsak Sithchatchawal and Iranian Mahyar Monshipour. Not a soul in attendance saw that fight live, apart from the Iranian, who came onstage on gave thanks for the Markson Award.
But YouTube bolstered Rafael's case for deeming this one the big 'un for '06–it's a brave new world out there, and here's one concrete situation where the digitalization and rapid delivery of content clearly impacted a process.
Finally, boxing's versions of the Oscar was bestowed. For 2006, the BWAA determined that Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino dervish of destruction, would be awarded the Edward J. Neil trophy as Fighter of the Year. Two wins over Morales (a TKO10 in January, a KO3 in November) sandwiched a UD12 win over Larios in July.
Manny earned another sliver of my wife's heart when he thanked his “beautiful wife and family.”
“Without you guys, I'm not here, there's no Manny Pacquiao,” Manny continued.
“I'm very happy tonight. I promise I'll do my best to be in exciting fights. I apologize for my English, I'm still studying, I'm getting better. I want to make good speak English soon.”
Already done, Pac Man, already done.
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