Interview With Showtime’s Al Bernstein On His New Internet Boxing Project

I spoke last week with Al Bernstein, one of the best boxing analysts in the biz, about a new project he’s got going that’s, understandably, right up Ring Report’s alley: The intersection of boxing and the Internet. Everyone knows about Bernstein’s broadcast career, in which he did a stint with ESPN and these days can primarily be found on Showtime calling their biggest cards. He also had a good run in the print business, but now he’s turning some of his attention to the Web while maintaining his Showtime gig. It’s housed at iBN Sports Network and it’s called the Al Bernstein Boxing Channel. It opened its doors, figuratively speaking, this summer. But what is it? As it happens, there’s some difference between what it is now and what it will be. For now, it’s the home of Bernstein’s blog, as well as some edited footage of boxing weigh-ins, interviews and press conferences. But Bernstein said the site has some other ambitions, which will include, eventually, live fights. For the weekend ahead, it’s taking another big step forward: Bernstein and crew will be going live for the Antonio Tarver-Chad Dawson light heavyweight (175 lbs.) showdown on Showtime, both at points in the build-up to the fight and afterwards. That means that boxing fans will be able, through Bernstein’s site, to get the kind of thing that, say, football fans can get rather easily now; anyone who wants to see what Terrell Owens has to say after the Cowboys game can visit ESPNews and watch his press conference live. They can do the same with Tarver and Dawson this weekend at iBN. In other words, it’s a promising project for boxing fans, if it works out as hoped. Via phone, we chatted about how the project came about, what’s ahead for its future, how it’s being received, et cetera. And in between, we talked about subjects like the state of boxing, what he’s looking forward to for the rest of 2008 and his view on the historical placement of what I consider the greatest fight of all time, Jose Luis Castillo-Diego Corrales. For the purposes of the interview, I skipped the usual style of Ring Report, like making sure to list everyone’s first name, what weight class they fight in, and other details. I also condensed some of his answers, but every sentence below is a precise quote. It should be fairly readable. I, for one, appreciated the time Bernstein spent with me, his candor and his insight. Q: OK, so in your own words, what is the Al Bernstein Boxing Channel about? A: I have to confess, I didn‚Äôt name it. [A good friend] joked, “you have to have a lot of confidence or hubris to have a channel named after you. You don‚Äôt have hubris so you have to have confidence.” The folks at iBN Sports came to me with the idea of doing something. The reason I really liked the idea of it is, one, there isn‚Äôt a boxing channel. Not on cable, nowhere. Number two, boxing fans have been under-served when it comes to video coverage. You mentioned the Internet — the Internet has done an excellent job of providing information to people who weren‚Äôt able to get it on print or on television because in a lot of places those two mediums stopped covering boxing for a variety of reasons. Q:¬† Tell me how and when you got involved with iBN Sports, and why you decided to do it. A: I‚Äôd done something associated with them on an MMA thing. I‚Äôve done some MMA. I did some interviews that ended up with them for a mixed martial arts promoter. I got to know the iBN guys and that‚Äôs when this idea was hatched. It was kind of serendipitous. Once the concept was floated it made sense for both entities. They have a really good technical infrastructure and the quality of what they‚Äôre doing is really good. The next possible thing was to get in touch with someone who had a broadcast reputation and had a specific topic that would make sense to make a channel out of. In many ways boxing is the totally appropriate sport to choose. Q: What has the reception been like so far? A: Very nice. We‚Äôve been picking up numbers of people all along, and the reaction I‚Äôve gotten from fans and other people in the industry is very positive as well. For people interested in the sport, it‚Äôs one more place they can find out more and be entertained. The channel at this point is really only pieces of coverage and commentaries and I do the blog on there. The part that we are going to be getting to shortly is live fights and actual shows ‚Äì highlight shows, things with more boxing action in them. We haven‚Äôt totally fulfilled our mission statement yet, but we‚Äôre getting positive feedback. People are appreciating the coverage of the fights. At these fights, there are maybe three camera crews, four camera crews, and some of it is local. Q: What‚Äôs the model for making money with this project? People tell me all the time that boxing is dying, so do you anticipate a lot of people being interested in watching coverage of weigh-ins? A: One is advertising. We wanted to get the content up then start to attract people, which we‚Äôre doing at a pretty good rate. The other thing is the actual fights, pay-per-view fights, that people advertise on. The other thing would be video on demand. Most of the site is going to be free and simple. That‚Äôs one of the things I like, you just click and watch. We‚Äôre getting ready to announce some deals for content that people can download at a small price and that will be a revenue producer as well. The bulk of it will always remain free, though. For something special, whether it‚Äôs a great fight from the past or something along those lines, there might be some small price. We‚Äôre in talks to get content and also have live fights. Both of those things will happen on the channel within the next four to five months. Q: What‚Äôs your assessment of the state of boxing, and how could it be doing better? A: Well, boxing is — you know, there‚Äôs always this overstatement of where boxing is at, good or bad. Like most things involving a sport, somehow people miss the gray area. For most things in life, people miss the gray area. Boxing had a decade or so that I call the abyss, and that‚Äôs the 1990s. There were good fights and good fighters, but boxing had a very bad decade for the most part. They didn‚Äôt make the fights people wanted to see. Somehow, miraculously, in about 2001 the product all of sudden started getting much better. Fights that needed to get made got made, and maybe it was a collective sense of desperation. It got infinitely better. But by then coverage had really dropped off. That has started to change. I have started to feel the shift. I‚Äôm the perfect barometer, because I cover the sport and I get covered as part of the sport. Whether it‚Äôs radio interviews, or special appearances, I‚Äôm a lightning rod for people telling me about the stuff. So the actual state of the sport and quality of what it‚Äôs doing, it‚Äôs pretty good. It‚Äôs had higher points, of course. It‚Äôs still a niche sport, but then, everything other than the NFL is a niche sport. Where boxing fits in on the scheme of things is anybody‚Äôs guess. It will never be what it was in the 70s or 60s or 50s or maybe even the early 80s, but it has carved out its own niche. Q: Where do you stand on the alphabet title belts versus Ring belt debate? A: Here‚Äôs the point: There are two things that drag boxing down. A., multiple belts per division and B., the number of divisions. If boxing had eight divisions and we kind of knew who the champs were in each division, we‚Äôd be better off than we are now. Fans want some kind of order. The only sport that flourishes with confusion about who‚Äôs best is college football. They manage to get past it. Boxing really suffers from that. It all comes down to, are the matches good or not good? Because nobody knows who the WBA super middleweight champion is now. I couldn‚Äôt name every champion, and I‚Äôm supposed to be an expert. If you gave me a quiz, I might do 60%. [The Ring magazine belt] is the way to go but I don‚Äôt know if everyone would recognize it. I‚Äôm not saying this to denigrate it, but it‚Äôs owned by Oscar De La Hoya and Golden Boy. They‚Äôve said they’re not intervening and I don‚Äôt see evidence that they are, but would Top Rank or Gary Shaw or Don King be happy about that because a rival promoter owns it? How do we arbitrarily decide? That‚Äôs the problem. If all the alphabets merged into one, that‚Äôd be ideal, but that‚Äôs not going to happen. Major League Baseball, the NFL, every sport has some organization that runs it. Q: What have you found are the major differences between this and being a television broadcaster, and what‚Äôs been your handle on this whole boxing blogging business? A: It‚Äôs fascinating. First of all, it‚Äôs an interesting learning curve. When I got into it I was thinking like a television person. We crafted pieces that felt like television. Part of that is we do have a deal with the Fight Network in Canada where we‚Äôre providing them with content. We do features and ship them to them and it‚Äôs a way to get people to come back to our site. I had to kind of be educated and educate myself. If you go cover the weigh-in for Margarito-Cotto, my way of thinking was you‚Äôd do a piece on the way in and take some sound bites out of it and do a two and a half minute thing, but what I also realized was you could show 10 minutes of the weigh-in. And you have everything stacked on top of the other. They could either look at me explaining the weigh-in, and then right under click on to the actual fighter weighing in, and the press conference, and you can layer anything on the Internet. You have endless time and endless space. You can‚Äôt think like a television person. It‚Äôs a flowing river. It provides you astonishing freedom. You have to think differently, and that‚Äôs what I‚Äôm starting to do. The only reason we do the TV-like segments is we‚Äôre working on deals with a couple other broadcast entities to give them broadcast content and in return they tell people you can go to iBN Sports. Otherwise, to be honest, I don‚Äôt think I‚Äôd ever do another. Blogging is fascinating. I‚Äôd never even read a blog. Curt Schilling, whoever. I never read one until I wrote one. To study, I looked at a bunch of people‚Äôs blogs. It’s a fascinating thing. It‚Äôs not really a column. It‚Äôs really not a news story, it‚Äôs not a feature story, it‚Äôs some kind of amorphous thing in between all of that. So once again, like most things on the Internet, the bloggers are making up the rules as they go. As you know, it provides you with this enormous freedom. There‚Äôs no editor to speak of. You can decide to write whatever you want, like an interview that you‚Äôre doing now, or you can do a comedy piece if you like, or you can just sit there and ramble on about the movie you saw yesterday or whatever else. You have to police yourself in blogging and figure out what people would like. It‚Äôs interactive. You hear immediately what people are thinking about what you wrote and what you did. It‚Äôs very different and unique. I‚Äôve always been somebody — most TV sportscasters don‚Äôt do too many interactive things. Many of my fellow sportscasters look at me with abject horror. “Aren‚Äôt you afraid people will say something to you that‚Äôs bad?” TV gives you that distance. Especially now, sportscasters, which to my way of thinking are so strident and overly opinionated right now because they have that distance between themselves and that audience. They‚Äôre almost never criticized or asked about what they say. Q: How quickly are segments put together and posted? A: Things like coverage of Tarver-Dawson will be live. We‚Äôll be live weigh-in and live post-fight. We‚Äôll have a guest on [a Showtime official], do the weigh-in and we‚Äôll hope to interview Tarver and Dawson, and I expect we would get those interviews. That‚Äôll all be live. Post-fight, as soon as I get off the air on Showtime, I will go over to the press area and do live coverage. That‚Äôs the first time that‚Äôs happened in years. The only people who would have done it was ESPN. Nobody‚Äôs covered a fight in terms of live coverage in four, five years‚Ķ Normally in the future, if we have pieces we‚Äôre doing, we‚Äôll have pieces up within about three hours, in fact I would say less than that, maybe more like an hour. The reason we feel comfortable about all that is there‚Äôs nobody else doing it. Even if people click on it an hour and a half later, it‚Äôll be like ESPNews, where you can see the show four times in a row. Once we get everything up there, they‚Äôve got five things to choose from whether it‚Äôs 1 in morn or 2 in morning or the next afternoon. I‚Äôve heard from boxing fans consistently that‚Äôs something they want to see. They want to see Shane Mosley afterwards in the press conference to see what he has to say. We certainly hope fans want it. Q: You‚Äôre doing something with all of the rest of 2008‚Äôs biggest bouts. Of the fights on the fall/winter ledger, which are you most looking forward to and why? A: We‚Äôre already set to be at Pavlik and Hopkins and we‚Äôll be at the Showtime show with Mijares and Darchinyan, and Malignaggi and Hatton. The only one I don‚Äôt know if we‚Äôll have a presence at is Jones-Calzaghe. We are going to try to hit all the major fights. This one this coming weekend is going to be a lot of fun. Obviously, De La Hoya-Pacquiao, not because of the fight itself, but because everything surrounding it. The fascination of Pacquiao moving up so high in weight, that‚Äôs a fairly remarkable thing. From just a competitive standpoint Tarver-Dawson is the one I‚Äôm really looking forward to. Pavlik-Hopkins, that‚Äôs interesting. For the first half of the year there were four or five fantastic competitive fights… With what‚Äôs ahead, can I promise you every one will be a great, competitive, fantastic fight? I don‚Äôt know, but everybody has a bunch of stories associated with it. Can Hopkins still do it at 43? All those fights have interesting questions surrounding them. I think a certain percentage will be competitive and fun, but I‚Äôm not sure they all will be. Q: I practically have your call for Castillo-Corrales memorized. Where does that rank, for you, among the all-time great fights? A: It‚Äôs the best fight I‚Äôve ever called, from that standpoint. I did Hagler-Hearns. The last Marquez-Vaquez fight was pretty close. I‚Äôve never seen over a course of a fight that kind of sustained action. That‚Äôs what separates it. Hagler-Hearns was a great three rounds of boxing, but it wasn‚Äôt 10. I‚Äôve seen [Castillo-Corrales] several times, and when I watch it, I‚Äôm consistently astonished at what I‚Äôm looking at. There are some great great fights, Pacquiao-Morales. You‚Äôve got one of the best trilogies of all time, Barrera-Morales. A couple of those were pretty darn good too. Those would be kind of close. There were probably some from back in day I‚Äôm not thinking of… Riddick Bowe and Holyfield number one was staggering‚Ķ Corrales and Castillo to me was one of the best ever, there‚Äôs no way to discount that.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.