TWO summers ago, Larry Merchant made a twenty-dollar bet with one of the fruit vendors at his local Santa Monica farmers’ market and has been getting remunerated with free fruit ever since. Collection day tends to be Wednesday, the day he scours the stalls for blueberries, and all Merchant must do is simply show his face. “Whenever I come near his stand,” he said, “he wants to give me a pound of peaches.”
Back then the bet was a no-brainer for Merchant. It was his chance to capitalise on both the growing popularity of combat sports and his own expertise as a self-proclaimed ringside kibitzer. He didn’t know it would lead to a lifetime supply of fruit, but he knew it was a bet he wouldn’t lose.
“I’ll take Conor McGregor,” said the vendor. “Twenty bucks says he wins.”
Merchant sided with Floyd Mayweather, an old sparring partner, and his twenty dollars were as safe as the fight itself. “How could I refuse?” he said.
Interestingly, six years before inadvertently helping an old man with his weekly fruit and veg shop, Floyd Mayweather accused Larry Merchant of not knowing “s**t about boxing” and called for HBO to fire him from his job as ringside analyst. Neither were to know at the time that a controversial fight against Victor Ortiz would compare favourably to what was to be served up for fight number 50, but Merchant dared question Mayweather’s ambition and Mayweather reacted the way he did to most challengers. He was quick to sting, then skirted around the issue.
“It was the eighth anniversary of the Mayweather moment yesterday,” said Merchant, now 88 years of age. “You’re the first one today who has mentioned it and I’m sure you won’t be the last.”
It being mentioned was certainly more predictable than the moment itself.
“I’m not smart enough to make that sort of thing up,” Larry added. “It was just a spontaneous and emotional response, or maybe, to put it better, a counterpunch to what he was saying to me. It sort of became my hallmark.”
Some of the fight fans at the food market Merchant frequents every Wednesday grill him on it even now, seven years after he moved away from the microphone and took with him the unflinching honesty for which he was known and respected. They remember his wide eyes during the Mayweather rant and know that if he were 50 years younger he’d kick Mayweather’s ass (his words, not ours). Others, meanwhile, the ones who know Merchant for more than just that incident, tell him he is missed and still come to him for his thoughts.
“I’m just a guy kibitzing from ringside,” he said. “I’ve never seen him (Mayweather) not in shape and he was very talented and skillful and a brilliant matchmaker for himself. I give him credit for all of that.
“We just had a moment. I said to my friends when I walked out of the ring that night, ‘That won’t be any lower than the second paragraph in my obituary.’”
And yet it should be lower, much lower, for there is more to Larry Merchant than a post-fight spat and a love-hate relationship with Floyd Mayweather. A lot more.
Born on February 11, 1931, to parents Anne and Emanuel, he has Polish blood on his father’s side and Ukrainian blood on his mother’s side, and was known as Larry Kaufman after his grandparents were, like so many immigrants who uprooted to America, advised to pick a name easier to write, pronounce and understand. They chose Kaufman. “That’s who I was as a boy,” he said.
As a boy Larry Kaufman was raised all over New York, from the Bronx to Manhattan, before eventually settling with his family in Brooklyn at the age of 10. There he spent the last eight years of his education – “a good student but not a brilliant one”– and played ball of one kind or another from sunup to sunset.
“My father, who was the son of immigrants, like many in the immigrant experience sort of adapted to a new culture’s ways by being involved in sports,” Merchant recalled. “I would say we were lower middle class. I grew up during The Great Depression and didn’t know there was a Depression, although I saw things that now I know were about The Depression. Then the war came along and I lost a favourite uncle and a cousin. My heroes were Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later (Ernest) Hemingway.”
Sport predated Merchant’s love of the written word, so DiMaggio and Louis came before Hemingway, but soon the two crisscrossed and seemed ideal allies. Baseball was, for many immigrants of that time, a familiar language, something they could all have in common, whereas boxing entered young Larry’s consciousness not only because a friend of the family boxed but because in Joe Louis he saw a star and a hero. There was no avoiding Louis in the thirties and Larry didn’t want to.
By June 1938, in fact, he was told by his father he could stay up to watch the rematch between Louis and Max Schmeling and conquered tiredness to witness Louis gain revenge inside a round at Yankee Stadium. “Joe Louis ended the fight in the first round because he didn’t want me to stay up too late,” said Merchant, who was seven at the time.
There were other nights when his father would come home from work and Larry, if still awake, would spread the day’s newspapers out on the living room rug and read them. “I never knew I had an ambition to be a newspaper man, but I knew I had an ambition not to be anything else,” he said. “It wasn’t any great talent for writing. I was just interested in what was going on around me. That could be in the world of sports or it could be in politics or it could be just reading good writing. I read a lot.”
At 16, Larry studied at the University of Oklahoma, which he described as “like moving to another country” and was where he played football as a “last-string halfback”. It was around this time the lure of journalism grabbed him and usurped any harebrained plan to make a career of his athletic capabilities. His brain overtook his body and quickly became restless. Forget muscles, he now wanted his mind to grow and his horizons to expand.
“I used to hitchhike all over the country,” he explained. “I’d get out on the road and stick my finger up and go to New Orleans and Los Angeles and other places. I wanted to see the country and know what was going on out there.”
When asked if this curiosity owed to him being a child during the Second World War, thus exposed to names of places and countries he would otherwise have only encountered later on in life, Larry took a moment to answer and then said, almost as if it pained him so do so, “Yes. Yes, that could be it.”
He experienced conflict later in life, too, when spending a year in Germany during the Korean war writing for Stars and Stripes, the American military newspaper. This would see him work 10 days and then have three or four days off, which, true to form, Merchant used to travel throughout Europe and explore places he had only previously heard about or read about in books.
“Near the end of my tour I went on a trip. I didn’t know where I was going but ended up at an American airport and the first plane out of there went to London,” he remembered. “When I got to London, I didn’t know any hotels, but I wound up in some hotel around Hyde Park.
“Then, while walking the streets near Piccadilly Circus, I saw that Bob Hope, who was one of the more famous people in America, was performing somewhere. Hope was famous for entertaining American troops during the war and I used my press pass to get into the back door. I had no idea what I was going to interview Bob Hope about, but I did the interview and he entertained one troop for 15 minutes.
“I don’t think I ever wrote anything about it.”
Describing his predilection for exploring, Merchant said, quite poetically, he had the “nerve of a burglar” when it came to travel. And he had the stamps to prove it: as well as London, he visited Madrid, took a train to the French Riviera, and from there set off for Rome. Only then did he return to Germany.
“These are all places that have palpable meaning to me because I was about 10 or 11 years old when the war was on in Europe and it was about to start in America,” he said. “I was just curious about everything they were showing and telling us and what was going on.
“Away I went.”
Once he was out of the army, Larry Kaufman died.
“I changed my name to Merchant because in German a Kaufman is a merchant, a buyer,” Larry said, before mentioning ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson (Walker Smith Jnr) and Joe Louis (Joseph Louis Barrow) as examples of men who changed their birth name to something more interesting.
“There were certain incidents that led me to decide I would change it. I don’t know all the circumstances but there were some jobs I was rejected for and I wondered why. I thought I would do a good job. When I didn’t get this one job, it tipped me over.”
Months later he applied for the same job, only this time used the name Merchant rather than Kaufman, a famously Jewish name. It secured him the gig and ensured the surname stuck.
“I didn’t hold a grudge,” he said. “I just went out and did my song and dance and one thing led to another and I wound up in Philadelphia as a photo editor.”
During his time in this role, Merchant was told Bob ‘Bobcat’ Montgomery, a lightweight champion in the forties, was now selling tickets and providing security for a movie theatre in Philadelphia. The tipoff changed Merchant’s life – or at least his job title. “I went and interviewed him,” he said, “and that led to them making me sports editor a few months later.”
As eager as he was to move around and sample the delights of the country, Merchant admits he reserves a special place in his heart for Philly and its fight scene. It was in Philadelphia, after all, where his own boxing journey really got going and where he first met Joe Frazier, a future world heavyweight champion in whom he invested.
“In Philadelphia, when Joe was supported by his local people, I bought a share in him,” Merchant explained. “There were 80 shares at 250 dollars a share. That would be about 20,000 dollars and that enabled him to quit his job with the meat-packing company and devote himself full-time to his boxing career.
“That was one of the last of the great fight towns. It was so much a part of the social world there. I loved the big events and the little events and the whole fight scene was amazing. I certainly related to Bernard Hopkins over the years because he came out of that world.”
Long before he got to know Hopkins, the first big fight Merchant covered from ringside was the world middleweight title fight between ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio at Yankee Stadium. Fans that night were treated to the standout fight of 1957, yet, for a 26-year-old Merchant, it was that and so much more. “Sitting at ringside,” he said, “maybe 20 feet away, were two of my heroes: Hemingway and DiMaggio. I remember saying to myself, ‘Well, this is where I’m supposed to be.’”
As hard as it would have been for him to believe at 26, it was to only get better for Merchant. There would be more of what he loved – “the atmospherics and all the hustlers and rustlers” – and there would be more great fights and great fighters, more places to visit and stories to tell. Though he stresses there were other loves, it’s clear to see why Merchant, an aficionado of numerous sports during his time as a columnist for Philadelphia Daily News and reporter for the New York Post, fell so hard for boxing.
“Then, of course, we had the Ali years and I was one of those dogs barking at his parade, following him around the world and so on,” he said. “It was because of all the social winds that were blowing at the time. Occasionally they blew through ball parks and arenas and had their impact in that way. It was a great time to be covering the changes we were going through.”
If asked to name the greatest fight he ever covered, Merchant will offer the first encounter between Ali and Frazier in 1971. Moreover, he will make a point of calling it the greatest event he ever covered, implying it was more than just a fight and that it topped the countless Super Bowls, World Series, US Opens and Wimbledon Finals he covered. It’s high praise, of course, yet he names it quickly, without hesitation, like it’s obvious.
Coming from Merchant, you can be sure it’s honest.
“I think honesty is as important as when you have a choice you try to do the right thing,” he said. “For a journalist that means trying to get the story and put it in context and remember that it’s all about fun and games. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment, it’s passion and if you’re not getting a smile out of it, you’re missing the point.”
In 1978, Merchant joined HBO Sports as an analyst, a role with which he was synonymous until 2013. Cue more fun and games.
“I’ve been lucky and I’ve been good and I’ve been crazy and I’ve been sane,” he said. “As a newspaper and television man, everybody was paying me to travel all over the world. That wasn’t bad.
“I’ve worked as a columnist in New York and Philadelphia for 20 years and have been a sports editor in Philadelphia. Those were very happy days for me and so too was the evolution into television.”
The sport’s evolution continues in the absence of Merchant and HBO Boxing. Still a microcosm of life, it has now multiplied, in terms of platforms and ways of consuming it, and simplified, in terms of depth and quality. It also today places greater emphasis on fantasy over reality and boasts fewer truth-tellers than ever.
Merchant, one such truth-teller, still enjoys it, though. He enjoys it the same way he enjoys life in general. It’s new and different, sure. Some of it’s not for him. But rather than resent the way things are going, he sees only what he wants to see and always has an antidote nearby.
“My answer is to read three newspapers a day,” he said. “I sort of regard that (social media) world as the amateur world of letters or notes. I’m not a complete Luddite but I never had any ambition to exploit it.”
Merchant reads the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and highlights of the Washington Post, and also belongs to a book club. When he’s not reading, you might find him peddling his bike to the beach.
“I try to smell the roses occasionally,” he said, laughing. “When I’m asked if I would rather be retired or working, I tell people I’d rather do both.
“I worked upwards of sixty years. I’d be happy to go on and keep doing it, but I didn’t have to anymore. Been there, done that. Let me follow what interests me as a fan instead of as a journalist.”
He says he still follows the fights and that he enjoyed being at the Staples Center for the WBC heavyweight title fight between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury last December. He also likes to host dinner parties at his home whenever a big fight is on so he can resume the “kibitzing” of old.
“I always felt like a kid playing in the sandbox letting the adults do the adult work,” he said. “I was just having fun and poking fun.”
To finish: if the Mayweather moment is indeed no lower than the second paragraph of Larry Merchant’s obituary, let the following story be positioned above it.
“I was working in Wilmington, North Carolina as a one-man sports department,” Merchant began, “and one day I put into the sports page of the paper a promotion I received in the mail about a young black woman who was an outstanding athlete – a ball player.
“When I saw the paper later that afternoon, however, where I had put that photo was a blank space.
“When I went into the office the next day, the editor, who was a nice guy, said to me, ‘If Jackie Robinson hits five home runs in a game, you can use this photo. Otherwise we don’t use photos of n******.’
“They literally cut it out of the paper. There was a hole in the paper, a white space, where I had put that photo.”
For context, the year Merchant was a senior in high school was the year the iconic Jackie Robinson broke the baseball colour line and heralded great change in America. Larry wasn’t a Brooklyn Dodgers fan but was a baseball fan and, furthermore, both a huge Jackie Robinson fan and a human being.
Years later, with a white space in place of a photo, Merchant thought about Jackie Robinson, but thought more about being human and doing the right thing. He then found a jar and began filling it with the coins in his pocket and all the other coins he would collect in the subsequent days and weeks. “After about a month or so,” he said, “I had enough money in that jar to buy three tanks of gas and leave town.”
Which is what he did.
Larry Merchant, not for the first or last time, made a stand. He saw what was going on around him, didn’t like it, and decided to make a stand in a fight he knew he would never win. A little while later, he got the job in New York. “Things tend to work out like that,” he said. “It’s like when you lose something. When I lose something, I never worry. It will always show up if it’s supposed to show up. I’ve always had that positive attitude that things will work out. In one way or another they do.”