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Paul Dempsey – Pulling no punches

Paul Dempsey
Action Images/Andrew Couldridge
Renowned boxing broadcaster Paul Dempsey explains to Terry Dooley what life is like behind the mic

DURING boxing’s long relationship with TV in the UK, a number of broadcasters have been handed the baton of “The face of boxing”. Des Lynam earned it during his time with the BBC, Jim Rosenthal took up the mantle when presenting The Big Fight Live for ITV, and when boxing transferred to Sky, fans took the plunge, paid their subs, and ushered in Paul Dempsey as the latest face of the sport.

Always ready with the hard questions, the London-born broadcaster has also enjoyed stints with Setanta and now BT Sport. However, he told Boxing News that the acclaim he gets from boxing fans is at once welcome and bemusing given that, like Lynam and Rosenthal before him, he also covers a lot of football.

“Working on football and boxing is quite hard and quite unusual now,” he said. “When I started, everyone did more than one sport. It is funny to me that some people seem to associate me with one sport to the exclusion of the other – as if the other hardly exists.”

A product of City of Leicester Boys’ School, Dempsey has often said that the school encouraged and developed his emerging football talent: “We had fantastic teachers in the classroom and in sport and, yes, I think standards were quite high.”

Some people move from school to university with a clear goal in mind, some drift there to simply live and learn. Dempsey read English Literature at St John’s College, Cambridge and he revealed that he had no fixed direction in mind at this point in his life.

“Good question,” he answered when asked if he had made it difficult to transition into journalism by not studying the subject. “I had no real idea what I wanted to do while I was at university and that was a mistake.”

What Dempsey did know was that he had a burning passion for football. Boxing is widely acknowledged as a cruel sport, yet football is equally as heartbreaking for those who try to break into it, only to realise it isn’t going to be. This realisation came to Dempsey after stints that included playing in the League of Ireland for University College Dublin AFC in the 1982-1983 season. “I was a decent player, but I learned my limitations, especially my lack of pace,” he said.

Once this point was reached, there was no choice other than to put the game he loved in the rear-view mirror and move forward. The aforementioned lack of focus in university meant that he had to look for entry-level jobs in sports broadcasting.

A job with Irish News led to a role with BBC Radio News and Sport as part of their Graduate Trainee programme, where he was given a crash course in journalism by some remarkable teachers before joining SBC in Bern.

“I started making tea at the BBC for some of the best radio broadcasters ever – Peter Jones, Bryon Butler and many others. Des Lynam and Jim Rosenthal had recently left when I arrived, so you can see how high the standard was.

“One would have been a fool not to learn. When I worked on the continent, however, I was given a lot more freedom to go out and find stories and was lucky to be allowed to go all over Europe. Boxing wasn’t such a big deal in countries like Italy and Germany then, but the football obviously was and it proved a great grounding.

“I knew absolutely nothing about TV for the first three years and I was now working for some of the most brilliant people in the history of television worldwide. All of the early chief executives were exceptional, yet [former BskyB chief executive] Sam Chisholm was on a different level and having [producer] David Hill as a direct boss was the greatest good fortune ever. It was a fantastic time. They were very demanding and I do believe people more talented than me just fell by the wayside because they couldn’t commit or keep going.

BT Sport

“I must also mention my time working with Jonathan Pearce at Capital Radio. We really had great fun – it was pioneering stuff. Jonathan was the leader, but we worked under Richard Park, a true legend in commercial broadcasting and I learned a lot from him.”

When Sky News came calling in 1989 the man who would eventually anchor boxing shows found himself thrown into the mix on the football side of things with people who would go on to become household names, while dealing with the pressure of helping get a new channel, and what was a unique concept to the British viewer, off the ground.

“I was again surrounded by people with the highest standards like Martin Tyler, Richard Keys and Andy Gray, a little later Alan Parry joined,” he said. “With people like that you learn you have to be on your game every day. Also, we had brilliant producers for both football and boxing. They could be very demanding, yet they made me understand it was most important to demand the best of oneself and with no excuses. I am very proud to have been part of that early period at Sky.”

Sky’s decision to add boxing to their roster in the 1990s was boosted when Chris Eubank switched from ITV to embark on his infamous world tour, a bunch of easy fights that left him completely unprepared for the greater mind games and work rate of Steve Collins. Dempsey had a soft spot for the sport and, once again, benefited from working with experts.

“I always loved boxing and had a reasonable understanding of it, of course working on the inside is completely different and it is a complex industry. As Jim Rosenthal has said, working with people like Barry McGuigan, Jim Watt and Glenn McCrory was a privilege. They all helped me so much.

“I have also worked with Ian Darke since my very first day at BBC Radio, so obviously we are close. We have had so many great times together both work-wise and after work. In one word: brilliant. Same today with Richie Woodhall. We had some great times when not working.

“I was very happy at Sky and really had no plans to leave. In fact, people still ask me: ‘Why did you leave Sky?’ But I had worked there for 18 years, and the decision to go to live in Dublin [after moving to Ireland] and work for Setanta was mainly because it would give me more family time while our kids were small.”

Most boxers are as accessible as they are excessive. If you spend a few years in the sport you will come across every personality type imaginable. Dempsey has worked with the biggest characters, getting to know many of them in the process, so the names dropped smoothly when he was asked to recall some of the boxers he has encountered.

“I loved Lennox [Lewis] and was with him from the start. He could be quite diffident, but always a nice person and as a fighter he was different class. Naseem [Hamed] was the best puncher ever and a very intelligent human being – then showbiz took over for a while. We all forget just how big a star he was in the late 1990s.

BT Sport

“I was very fond of Steve Collins and I knew his brother through football. I still believe he never got the credit he deserved, especially in Ireland. Eubank was obviously a dream to work with – I loved interviewing him. I think I had the best personal relationship with Nigel Benn. We just hit it off from the start.

“Joe Calzaghe as a fighter was a league above on his best nights and an absolutely terrific person who to me has never changed one bit. Ricky Hatton was a revelation from day one and could to my mind have become an all-time great. Again, I am immensely fond of him.”

Speaking of Hatton, Dempsey has been nicknamed “The Dominator” on Check Hook Boxing’s online British forum. There is an entire thread dedicated to his tenacious interviewing technique, which was especially evident when he kept pressing an emotional Hatton following his sickening body shot-induced ninth-round comeback loss to Vyacheslav Senchenko in 2012. However, they are good friends, so there was no need for “The Hitman” and Dempsey to make peace after it.

Still, some felt that Dempsey took it too far. For me, it was reminiscent of the conversation between Jim Gray and Evander Holyfield when he lost to James Toney. Evander admitted he was done, then talked himself into carrying on. Both were compulsive moments of television.

“I learned from American broadcasters a long time ago that you have to ask tough questions and for professional athletes it goes with the territory,” declared Dempsey. “With Ricky it was obviously difficult. I’d been with him since his pro debut and I honestly felt like I was having a talk to my own brother. I cared. It is never easy when you know people like that – you do have to separate the personal and the professional.

“I actually don’t enjoy testy exchanges. Perhaps people don’t sometimes appreciate it can be difficult to hear every word because of the noise levels in the arena or stadium. Also, there are lawyers watching. Sometimes, however, you have to draw the line and try to pin someone down.

“In terms of respect, it is easy to lose it as well as gain it. I am grateful people think I have done a good job. My advice for others is to watch and listen as much as you can. Never be afraid to ask for help and remember this at all times: you have never cracked it. Also, have a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like you.”

Back in December, the 59-year-old was part of what he believes was one of boxing’s biggest nights when Tyson Fury rolled back almost three years of bad living, drug abuse and depression to almost take the WBC title away from Deontay Wilder.

One of the highlights of the draw was the pre-fight shenanigans between the two fighters, yet despite enjoying the theatrics, Dempsey was quick to point out that there is always the potential of someone paying the price. “With Fury and Wilder a lot of it is pantomime, but there can be flashpoints,” he warned.

“We always overlook that if one of them got injured in all the pushing and shoving then the fight would be off. I cannot deny that it adds to the noise and interest level – dull press conferences don’t do much to sell fights.

“It turned into one of the best heavyweight title fights I have worked on. Fury produced a miracle to get off the deck [in round 12] – that was one of the most amazing things I have seen. He performed brilliantly on his biggest night so far. I believe Wilder deserves a bit more credit for how coolly he stalked his man and waited for his chance. He is a phenomenal puncher even if technically not correct.”

That one was hidden behind a paywall, though. PPV is part and parcel of boxing, much to the annoyance of the fans. Dempsey understands their indignation, while arguing that it means we get far more coverage than we have ever had before.

“Obviously regulation of piracy is a big issue for TV companies right now. Yes, I understand that there are frustrations and people do live on a budget. It is up to people to exercise their right not to purchase an event. But remember the promoters and TV companies are taking a financial risk and without pay TV top fighters would not make anything like the same money.

“What really annoys me is that people hark back to some half-forgotten never-never land, when in reality there was never anything like the same breadth of coverage. And please can we stop this nonsense about ‘free-to-air television’. It’s only ‘free’ once you’ve paid your compulsory licence fee.”

Naturally, some fans will baulk at the statement above, but did you really expect an interview with even a beloved cult figure like Dempsey to be plain sailing? On and off the mic, you know what to expect when “The Dominator” is in town.

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