“Phil Mushnick wrote a column when I was going to cover the Hagler versus Hearns fight. I was only five years into my job with ESPN and he said, ‘Your career feels to me like Marvin Hagler in the way that Hagler does his job and goes just very slightly under the radar. He stays at the same weight, does his thing, seek and destroy. You’re the right announcer to do Marvin Hagler fights.’ I didn’t understand it too well at the time, but I understand it better in retrospect. Now, I’m not comparing myself to Marvin Hagler, but I think he meant I do what I do and I get the job done in a certain way. There are people that are flashier, more bombastic, try to call attention to themselves, but that isn’t me.”
Boxing broadcaster, analyst, International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee are just a few of the titles bestowed upon one of boxing media’s most endearing characters. Born into a loving family on September 15, 1950, Al Bernstein’s passion for boxing started from a young age. “I became a boxing fan around nine years old, just as the Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson fights were starting to happen. I’d listen to the boxing on my transistor radio in bed because I wasn’t supposed to be up that late and I’d listen to those fights. That’s when I really started to get into boxing.
“We had a little house in the South Side of Chicago and I would sit halfway on the staircase out of eyeshot from my father when he was watching the Friday night fights. I wasn’t supposed to be up and although I couldn’t see the fights, I would listen to them on the stairs. I would hear Don Dunphy doing the announcement and then I’d hear the bell and get excited as the boxing started.
“Then, at one point, months and months later, I hear my mother saying to my father, ‘Oh, let him down.’ So, I came down all excited. They obviously knew I’d been there a while. My dad sat in his chair and I sat on the floor and we’d watch the boxing together.”
Ironically, a few decades later, a fictional Chicagoan character known as Clubber Lang carried the moniker ‘Southside Slugger,’ taking on the reigning champion, Rocky Balboa. Bernstein almost appeared in the movie. More about that later.
Armed with a passion for pugilism, Bernstein discussed his route into media. “I knew from when I was about twelve years old that I wanted to be in sports journalism. It took me a while to get there, though. I took jobs out of college working in community newspapers, mainly hard news and worked my way up to managing editor at Lerner Newspapers, which I did from 1974–1979. I won this award that nobody at Lerner had ever won before for this investigative piece I did. Ironically, this was right around the time of the whole Watergate thing. After the award I kept getting pushed forward in hard news when all I really wanted to do was write sports.
“So, there I was writing hard news, winning awards and I couldn’t get the sports editors at the daily newspapers to give me a job. To this day it remains the biggest mystery in history to me!”
Thankfully, for Bernstein, a fortuitous meeting in 1978 springboarded him in the right direction. “I was at a party and one guy came up to me and said, ‘We’re doing a boxing book. We know you are a writer—would you like to do it for us?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ It was called Boxing for Beginners and I got Kenny Norton to do the foreword. That kind of opened the door for me with sports. Then, after that, I started writing for Boxing Illustrated and Ring magazine.”
Although many pundits enjoy talking the talk, few have walked the walk in their respective sport. Bernstein wanted to be able to write and report with conviction. “Nobody else in my family boxed. My father was a big boxing fan and he might have put on a pair of gloves when he was in the army, but I don’t know that he did.
“In terms of myself, I was a baseball player for the most part, but I loved boxing and wanted to get a flavor of the sport. I boxed in the Chicago Park District in my teens and had about thirty bouts, which was enough of an amateur experience to understand the nature of getting in the ring.
“Tony Zale knew our coach and he came over a couple of times to the gym and would always give us pointers and talk to us, which was really cool. I was a boxer type, who wasn’t always looking to mix it up. He looked at me training once and said, ‘You have a great left hook. You should use it more often.’ I explained to him that in order for me throw the left hook I would have to get into range, in terms of where I needed to be to throw it and that meant that there was a good chance I could get hit. I told him that I’d rather jab and throw the straight right hand from the outside. Tony Zale being Tony Zale, of course, didn’t understand that logic!”
In 1980 Bernstein joined the esteemed ESPN team, totally unaware of the journey that awaited him. “Back then ESPN were in four different locations and one of them was Chicago. I lived in Chicago and knew the Chicago boxing scene and I clawed my way into ESPN. I didn’t even ask for any money and said, ‘I’d be happy to help you guys. I know about the local fighters.’
“At one point they were doing a show and I was there, and they had interviewed me about my book. They had Tommy Hearns and I think Sam Rosen covering the fight and Tommy was struggling a little bit. They turned to me and said, ‘Let’s have you jump in on this. Let’s have a third voice.’ I jumped in, they liked what I did and from that moment on I did everything on the West Coast. They had Randy Gordon doing everything on the East Coast of the United States, then, when Randy left ESPN, I did everything. That’s how I got my break.”
Thomas Hearns was part of one of the most illustrious boxing quartets in history and Bernstein was fortunate enough to report on all four of the legends. In fact, his first pay-per-view contest he announced in 1983 was between Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler. But who was his favorite? “I love old movies and I love music. It’s like trying to decide if people like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly better. It’s almost an impossible thing to determine because all of the four kings brought something extraordinary with them. They were unique. They were different in their styles and how they approached life. I lived through that era with them and inevitably, a lot of it is down to your own personal experiences and how you crisscross with them.
“Back in those days, people traveled in packs. There was a club in Las Vegas called Botany’s and you would see Ray Leonard on one side with his group, Tommy Hearns on another side and Marvin Hagler on the other side. So, if there was a fighter during that whole era that I ended up being most associated with and was around the most, that was Hagler because I announced most of his fights. Second, in line would be Tommy Hearns. Having said that, I liked Roberto Duran and loved Sugar Ray Leonard. They are cool guys. It’s a tough one to choose.”
As Bernstein was making his mark in sporting media circles, Mike Tyson broke onto the heavyweight boxing scene. Bernstein recalled. “When Tyson starting boxing professionally, I announced his initial fights on ESPN. He did a number of fights and we looked at him and said, ‘Wow. He could be really special.’ But you really didn’t know because heavyweights always look great in their first-step fights. There was no reason to be sure that Mike Tyson was going to be a force like he was. I told a story in my book (30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths About Boxing, Sports, and TV,) about one time being in New York and I went into a little restaurant and there was Mike Tyson sitting there.
“He was young at the time, an emerging talent and he used to call me ‘Mr Bernstein’ back then. We had a ten-minute conversation which he rhapsodised about Joe Louis and all the great old fighters he used to watch on video and it was a delightful conversation. The Mike Tyson of that time was an interesting guy. He was making his way into boxing, he was still struck with the history of the sport, and probably a little less jaded than he would become later.
“However, the calling me ‘Mr Bernstein’ didn’t last forever, because there were a few contentious moments. Not so much with me, but because of the way ESPN had covered his trial. I was the voice of boxing for ESPN, but I didn’t cover that; however, he wasn’t happy with the way they covered it. When he came back to fight McNeeley in 1995, trying to figure a way to speak with him was like the Paris peace talks. I was supposed to talk to him right after the fight and he wasn’t having any of it.”
Reporting on emerging talent is something Bernstein relished and, when armed with the task of covering the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, he did so with gusto. “Those two Olympics were very different from my experience. In 1992 boxing was still a big part of what NBC was doing and covering Oscar De La Hoya’s coronation at the Barcelona Olympics which it ended up to be, as he became known as the Golden Boy, was really interesting.
“You’re watching this young man coming out to the world. It was all about his relationship with his mother who had passed away and we would later end up knowing his relationship with his dad was a little more difficult. You got the sense that he fought in those Olympics for his mother, he thought about her every second and, when he won the medal, it was all about her. From his boxing ability though, you could tell he was going to be ticketed for boxing greatness. The rest of the United States team also had some success, but he was the major name everyone was talking about.
“Then in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, you could tell Wladimir Klitschko was going to be a force to be reckoned with. As far as the U.S. boxing team goes, it was an interesting situation. By then, boxing in the Olympics in the United States was being pushed to the back of the bus, mostly by NBC, because they were covering the likes of gymnastics and similar sports which had broader appeal and were generating more coverage. Boxing had a more limited, specific appeal and consequently NBC showed very little boxing. A great deal of boxing we covered didn’t make it to the air, which is a shame because that U.S. team won six bronze medals, which is a monstrously great performance. There were fighters who were just coming into their own and if the Olympics had been held eight months later, the U.S. team would have won a bunch of gold medals. Floyd Mayweather Jr was one of the bronze medalists who lost a questionable decision, as did Antonio Tarver.”
Bernstein’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed and his long list of well-deserved accolades continued to amass from the moment he became a journalist in the 1970s. In 1988, ESPN’s voice of boxing was awarded the Sam Taub Award by the Boxing Writers Association for excellence in boxing broadcasting journalism. The ultimate honor given to him came in 2012, however, when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Bernstein fondly recalled the moment. “When I was that kid listening to the transistor radio in 1959, would I have ever imagined this could have happened? No. You can’t even really fathom the possibility of that. Part of it is that boxing is very gracious to all the people who are associated with the sport. I think I was either the sixth or seventh broadcaster to be honoured at that point with being inducted into the hall of fame. It was a little bit overwhelming because I’m like this slow and steady guy, who’s always been about getting the job done and I don’t maybe stand out as much as other people because I’m not flamboyant or controversial. I think, if you ever do something with the intention of trying to gain in some form, you are not serving yourself well. I never worked in boxing constantly thinking this was going to get me into the hall of fame. Far from it. It’s all about doing your job to the best of your capabilities and being true to yourself. So, when I was inducted, that was a bit overwhelming.
“In my speech there were three people hanging over me positively as ghosts. One was my mother who raised me from twelve years old as a single mom after my father passed away. She was incredible. Then there was my dad. He wanted to go to college, but his family didn’t have the money, so he had to work to help them. He did a bunch of office jobs, then he got a job which he kept until the day he died. He was representing companies when they had issues with unemployment and payouts. He wasn’t a lawyer, but he would help them with certain unemployment payments they didn’t need to make. That was the best job he ever had, but he unfortunately passed away about five or six years after the job. When my dad passed away in 1962, my mom carried on the job my father had. She went on from that to work in a personnel department in a candy factory in Chicago. My dad was a huge boxing fan and both my parents would have been over the moon if they had been able to see the induction.
“The third person was Don Dunphy, the great broadcaster. I first met Don in 1985 when I was five years into doing the ESPN series and we were going to move the fights to a Friday. Someone from ESPN came up with an idea, ‘Why don’t we interview Don Dunphy, because he’s well known for the Friday night fights. Al could interview him.’ My reaction was, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to interview Don Dunphy.’ The guy that I used to sit on the stairwell and listen to.
“Don Dunphy arrives and I’m all nervous. He reaches out his hand and says, ‘Hi Al. It’s so nice to meet you.’ He was such a warming man. We did the interview, which was very long for TV standards, something like seven minutes, then we exchanged phone numbers and from that moment on he was a mentor to me. We would talk frequently and he would always give me good advice and ask my opinion on things also.”
Covering boxing over five decades, Bernstein reflected on the shifts within the sport. “In my time in boxing, one of the biggest changes, and this may not apply internationally, this may be a little bit American-centric, but for me it’s been the media’s reduction in the coverage of boxing. Maybe to some degree that’s happened in other parts of the world also, but by 2000 the sport was not being covered in the U.S. by mainstream sports media. That was a big change because it affected the popularity of the sport.
“One of the biggest changes in the actual sport itself is that boxers fight less, which is both good and bad. It’s good because boxers who were big stars in the sport would fight ten or twelve times a year and they were clearly putting themselves in harm’s way and potentially causing themselves problems when they left the sport. But over the years it went down to four or five times a year, then three, now it’s down to two if you are lucky. While it does help in terms of boxing safety, fighting somewhere around the four or five mark is probably where the sport needs to be. How can you truly keep your fan base happy if you are only fighting once or twice a year?
“The third thing is the number of sanctioning bodies continues to grow and we continue to have more champions for every weight division, which waters down the idea of a championship fight. The casual boxing fan doesn’t know who to call the champion in any weight division. Also, the other thing is the addition of weight divisions. They are way more than there used to be.”
Armed with a magic wand, Bernstein gave his thoughts on where he would ideally like the sport to be. “First, since we have so many sanctioned champions, I would like to see more unification matches. Even if titles don’t stay unified, at least it’s a good gesture to boxing fans demonstrating that the powers that be are trying to pit the best against the best. Teofimo Lopez against Lomachenko—these are the kind of fights that we need more of. If we can get more of these, it will give fans a better feeling for the sport.
“Second, we need good matchmaking. You need to look at the fight and think, ‘Is this really going to be an interesting and compelling fight, or is it not?’ Boxing needs to do a better job of making these matches. That’s not saying there are not any good matches anymore. No. There are many good ones, however, a lot of fights go unmade or are made too late. Like the Mayweather, Pacquiao fight. It was like a festering boil in boxing that was hanging over the sport. Now it’s Crawford, Spence. That’s the fight that the mainstream sports media and fans know about. The longer that doesn’t happen, the longer they say, ‘See. Boxing isn’t making the fights we want to see.’ Moving forward—let’s get that necessary matchmaking done and let’s unify those titles.”