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Jim Lampley: ‘If we were shilling for anybody, we were shilling for the boxing public’

Jim Lampley
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images/HBO
Legendary commentator Jim Lampley tells Thomas Gerbasi about life after boxing, the integrity that he and his old HBO colleagues held so dear and the possibility of a comeback

MOST will still refer to Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Lampley by his first name, but at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the man who was the voice of HBO Boxing for 30 years now goes by Professor Lampley.

“They’re more to be pitied than blamed, but yes, my students call me Professor Lampley,” he laughs. “My teaching assistant calls me Professor Lampley. I still go by Jim, but it is fun to teach.”

The course Lampley teaches at his alma mater is ‘COMM 490, Evolution of Storytelling in American Electronic News Media’. It began during the COVID-19 pandemic, and three semesters later, it is established as a course that will continue long after he decides to walk off into the sunset. Then again, the 73-year-old isn’t the retiring type, even if the favourite of his gigs was taken away from him in December of 2018 when HBO got rid of its boxing program after 45 years.

The loss of the premium cable heavyweight from the boxing landscape shocked those in the fight game and left a void for those involved, particularly Lampley, whose emotional farewell following the final bout on the network between Cecilia Braekhus and Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes, hit home to all who saw it.

That shouldn’t have been surprising, though, as Lampley always wore his heart on his sleeve when he called the fights, finding that rare balance of journalist and fan that garnered him a legion of fans, but also took viewers behind the curtain of a sport that will always provoke a myriad of emotions – good, bad and ugly.

“I used to say to my wife, ‘I wish I could stop crying on the air,’” said Lampley. “And she would say to me, ‘Don’t you understand, that’s you. That’s what people respect.’ So, of course, what was the last thing I did on the air? I cried. Because we were saying goodbye to something that had been so important in all of our lives. I had a lot of amazing adult friendships in my broadcasting career. But Emanuel Steward, Roy Jones, Larry Merchant, Max Kellerman? Those are the greatest friendships and the closest friendships and the ones which most conformed the depth of my life. So there was no way I was gonna be able to hold back some emotional response in that last on-camera.”

It wasn’t a sudden end, as the demise of the program had been rumored for a while, but it did feel sudden to not have Lampley calling fights. It felt worse to him, and as he told Boxing News in February with no hesitation, “I miss calling fights. But, for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. And that’s okay. Life goes on, I did very well. My 30-plus year experience at HBO was the best professional experience of my career, by far. The memories are extraordinary, and I have a whole room in my Chapel Hill apartment that basically curates my career through the greatest artistic artifacts available in sport, which are boxing match credentials. They’re not little pieces of cardboard with black ink on them, telling you that Georgia’s gonna play Alabama that day; boxing credentials are artwork, and the artistic impact mirrors the cultural impact and stays with you forever. So I have walls full of that, which provide me with spectacular and unique memories of all the things I saw and covered in boxing.”

Lampley still cares. That’s evident whenever the topic of boxing comes up. And there was some light at the end of the tunnel for a return – to calling fights, not HBO – when it was announced by Triller last June that he would be ringside and on the microphone for the Teófimo López-George Kambosos fight in Miami.

Yes, Triller. But from the start, Lampley let the controversial promoter and the world know that he wouldn’t be trading quips with Snoop Dogg or Jake Paul on fight nights.

“I made clear that I had signed that contract for the purpose of calling big-time conventional fights,” said Lampley. “López-Kambosos, under the circumstances under which they had bought the purse bid and were getting ready to do López-Kambosos, that fit the bill. That was a big-time conventional prizefight involving the young man who had been The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year the preceding year for having beaten a guy [Vasiliy Lomachenko] whose career I had covered and in whose career development I had participated in at HBO. So that was a very natural fit. And from the beginning, I said to myself, ‘Okay, why would I turn that down?’ I heard sketchy things that people want to say about the vendor, but I don’t know the vendor. I only know what the offer is, and I know that this fight is the kind of fight that I can get behind doing, so I said yes and got ready to do López-Kambosos. And it never happened.”

At least not in Miami on June 19. Triller, which had reportedly bid six-million dollars to win the rights to the lightweight title fight, was soon found to be in breach of their contractual obligations, and the fight was scrapped, with the second-place bidder, Matchroom Boxing, taking on the promotion of the bout, which finally took place in New York City on November 27, 2021.

Not missing a beat, Triller put together a September bout between Oscar De La Hoya and former UFC champion Vitor Belfort. De La Hoya then contracted the coronavirus and in stepped 58-year-old Evander Holyfield. Joining the broadcast team on a separate feed would be Donald Trump and his son, Don Jnr.

Jim Lampley would not be there.

“Obviously, Holyfield against an MMA fighter with a separate feed being called by people who weren’t sports commentators, that wasn’t what I was in for,” he said. “So that was a pretty easy choice, and Triller, very graciously and agreeably, understood that. They didn’t push back when we told them, uh-uh, not gonna do that.”

So, Lampley’s return has been on hold, but it’s not out of the question that he will one day be on the Triller airwaves should they present a fight that piques his interest.

“I’ve had a few very friendly, very warm conversations with Triller people, all of whom have said, ‘Okay, look, the details of the contract remain in place, we still want you to call our conventional live boxing matches. If you still want to do that, we want to go forward.’ And I have said, sure, I absolutely would like to do that. Put together another fight like López-Kambosos that fills all of those categories in the right way, and yes, absolutely I’d love to work with you.”

That’s disappointing, but, at the same time, it’s encouraging to know that there isn’t a price tag on Lampley’s integrity. And it’s a reminder that when the HBO crew was firing on all cylinders, they weren’t a team that was shilling for the network or the product; they were given free rein to be journalists and analysts and call the fights for what they were, much to the chagrin of some fighters and promoters, and even the executives of their own network. That was the beauty of premium cable, even if that landscape ultimately changed, not for the better, but for the worse.

Jim Lampley on HBO
HBO Boxing

“If you look at what happened, in my view, it’s fairly clear,” said Lampley. “HBO, when owned and managed by Tom Werner, was a particular kind of artistic culture. It was about exclusivity, it was about curated choice, it was about quality over quantity. One of the things I always loved about premium pay cable television – somebody would ask me, what’s the best part of working for HBO, and I would say, ‘Well, I haven’t led to a commercial in 30 years.’ You have to be sort of in it and feel that along the culture to realise what freedom that created in terms of content. You say that we didn’t sound like we were shilling for HBO. If we were shilling for anybody, I want to believe, and I hope, that we were shilling for the boxing public. We were shilling for the fans; we were shilling for people who wanted to see great fighters in great fights because that’s what satisfies the audience and that’s what satisfies the competitors. And that’s what Max [Kellerman] and I, in particular, and Larry [Merchant] and I, before Max and I, were always attempting to support.”

In 2018, though, HBO merged with AT&T, and the writing was on the wall for the network’s boxing program. By the end of that year, it was gone. “A company run, in effect, by artists for a long time, was purchased by phone salesmen,” said Lampley, not mincing words. “And it was inevitable that the culture was going to change once that took place. And they had no interest whatsoever in perpetuating the boxing franchise because they come from a world, as most of the people in electronic communications do, where the value is greater abundance and a larger audience. And previously, the value was in selective abundance and the right audience. And I think what Larry and Max and I, in particular, did, but also George [Foreman] and Roy and Emanuel, they all understood it. This was about telling the truth and providing memorable cultural context for the fights and why boxing is important. And we were always trying for that. Along came new owners, who, in my view, probably mostly focused on numbers and said to themselves, ‘Why do we have to keep doing this? Those aren’t giant audiences, that’s not like a Beyoncé concert.’ Not that they know anything about how to elevate a Beyoncé concert, either. But that was the change, and I knew from the moment the merger was finalised that most likely our franchise was not gonna survive.”

Professor Lampley is a survivor, though. You don’t put in nearly 50 years in one of the most cutthroat businesses in the world without being one. And you get the distinct impression that as much as he enjoys teaching, he would put it all to the side to be calling fights at ringside again. “Every time I walked away from a big fight, I would say to myself, secretly, privately, just in my heart, I’m sure as hell glad they pay me for this because they wouldn’t have to,” he said. “If they simply said to me, ‘Here’s the microphone, here’s where you sit, sit down and call the fights, no, we’re not gonna pay you,’ I’d have done it for the thrill and the privilege of being there.”

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