Boxing Hall of Fame Broadcaster: Reports of the Sport's Death Are "Absurd"

Showtime boxing broadcaster Al Bernstein discusses the state of the sport ahead of Saturday's anticipated pay-per-view heavyweight title fight.
Showtime Sports
Al Bernstein

Al Bernstein doesn’t see an expiration date anytime soon on what could be called the "rocky" road of televised boxing over the past few decades. The 68-year-old International Boxing Hall of Fame broadcaster, however, does have an investment in its shelf life.

Bernstein is part of Showtime’s pay-per-view broadcast Saturday for a rarified super-sized heavyweight unification bout that leverages 6-foot-7 American Deontay Wilder against 6-foot-9 Brit Tyson Fury. Having it at Staples Center in Los Angeles also stands to have its share of Hollywood elite among the red carpet attendees.

But having spent more than half his life in the boxing business, and even performing a couple of cameos as himself in films such as Rocky V and Play It to the Bone, Bernstein’s perspective on where the sport has been and where it’s going puts him in his own heavyweight class.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the broadcaster about the state of the sport, HBO's decision to stop doing live boxing events and the continued reverence for movies about fighters.

With declarations of boxing’s demise a regular theme, how do you compartmentalize that as the increased exposure of the sport continues to spread on new media platforms?

It’s absurd. I understand it’s more a niche sport now in America, but you can make the argument that almost every sport outside of the NFL is that way. A sport can’t possibly be dying when internationally it’s so huge and is so accessible. I think it’s had a renaissance for the last four or five years. The mainstream U.S. media, from the late '90s to maybe 2010, barely covered boxing, but two things have happened since then: The product it has put out there has been exceptionally good, and it has had more exposure. Over-the-air networks like NBC and Fox have it [with occasional Premier Boxing Champions specials], it’s still on ESPN for cable coverage, there are premium channels. And now we’re turning to the next intriguing chapter, because we’ve always wondered when a sport will turn to the internet as its main streaming platform, and now DAZN is trying that next bold step and we will find out in real time who will pay for it.

Even with boxing positioned on all possible ways of distribution, it’s also a viable pay-per-view product, if you price it correctly and don’t do 10 to 12 events a year. We will see how it all shakes out in the next couple of years.

HBO was part of AT&T's mega-purchase of Time Warner in June, and a couple months later, in October, it said it was getting out of the live boxing event business. Is that a body blow to the sport?

It was jarring to many because its brand is so associated with the sport. But in reality — and I want to be objective, knowing I work for Showtime — I don’t know if that really changes the dynamic. We can all get nostalgic about it. But there were people leaving that company to go elsewhere. They were going to have to reinvent anyway.

Showtime remains invested. Why is that?

Showtime has gone in a few directions since I started in 2003, with different people at the helm, but I can honestly say in the last several years, boxing on Showtime has been at its peak. There’s a commitment [Showtime Sports president] Stephen Espinoza has made with resources. In my 37 years, on every level — back to ESPN shows where they spent $4.95 on the production — I don’t think I’ve ever been on a show that put as many resources into boxing as this network has.

One of Showtime’s last major pay-per-view events was a year ago — the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor, boxer-vs.-MMA-star bout. It was controversial to some with the circus around it, and the $89.99 price tag for viewers. But it almost broke the all-time pay-per-view record with 4.3 million buys. Did that ultimately help or hurt boxing’s credibility?

Whatever you want to say about it, I thought it would be a zero-net sum for both MMA and boxing, and I think it was. Just a one-off event people wanted to see that grew organically, not by some promoter, with a very quick gestation period. Without putting a value judgment on it, I think it was a microcosm of where we are today. I am not sure where the boundaries are for what’s artistic or competitive or what isn’t. That was like most pay-per-view events: They take on their own personality, and you never quite know how it will turn out — good, bad or indifferent — until right up to it.

Boxing films have had an inherent impact in the sport’s cultural acceptance and even TV popularity. Right at boxing’s high point was when Academy Awards were going to Rocky and Raging Bull. In the early 2000s, there was Will Smith in Ali; Million Dollar Baby with Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in 2004; Cinderella Man with Russell Crowe in 2005; and The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg in 2010. Today, Creed II continues to show staying power. Is there a parallel to Hollywood’s box office and boxing’s relevance?

I’m a big Western movie fan. I compare them to boxing movies. It seems there are always a couple a year because it’s a genre people want to revisit on some level. Movies remind people that the sport exists out there. When Rocky came along in 1976, right when the Olympics were a big deal, the movie helped propel boxing, for sure. You can trace boxing’s theater success to the sport, no question, because it’s such a part of our pop culture. Sylvester Stallone is not oblivious to what’s happening in the sport — we expect him to be there Saturday for this fight. This has a big impact being in L.A., too. Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James are expected to be there … sports and boxing are always intersecting. Las Vegas is always a good setting for boxing, but it’s nice to have it here and add another element. This is a great landing spot for all this attention.