Nelson Mandela expressed his love of boxing to Larry Merchant during 2001 HBO interview

Kevin Iole
Boxing Experts Blog

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday at 95, was a an amateur boxer who had a long-time love affair with the sport.

In 2001, he sat for a brief interview in his home in Mozambique, South Africa, with Larry Merchant, then the boxing analyst at HBO, to discuss the sport. More than 12 years later, that interview remains one of the highlights of Merchant's legendary career.

"There was a regal aura about him," Merchant told Yahoo Sports. "It was an incredible opportunity and experience."

HBO will air part of the interview on Saturday during its boxing broadcast that features Guillermo Rigondeaux against Joseph Agbeko in the main event. Top Rank will broadcast the interview on its international feed of the fight.

When Merchant walked into the room to do the interview, he was warmly greeted by a smiling Mandela. Merhant said he instantly knew that the reports he'd heard about Mandela loving boxing were true.

"It was a very beautiful room and he was extraordinarily welcoming," Merchant said. "He came over and said, 'It's my honor to meet you.' When Nelson Mandela says it's an honor to meet you, that's incredibly humbling. But at the same time, it confirmed to me that he was a serious boxing fan."

Merchant, who says he has not seen the interview since he did it, said Mandela spoke a lot about former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Merchant said that Mandela told him that while he was imprisoned, he closely followed Ali's career.

"That showed how important Ali was as a political figure and not just as a world-wide celebrity and cultural star," Merchant said. "He talked about how Ali was an inspiration both to him and to all African people."

Merchant said he remembers Mandela discussing boxing technique and said the then-82-year-old icon demonstrated the proper way to throw a left hook. When their interview concluded, Merchant said he and Mandela posed, standing in a boxing stance.

When Mandela died on Thursday, Merchant recalled the interview.

"He is one of the great figures in history and to be able to interview him is one of the highlights of my long career," Merchant said. "It was a moment I'll never forget. He clearly knew a lot about and had a great love for boxing. He went on at length about Ali and his career, but he knew a lot about the sport as a whole.

"I've been fortunate in my career, but to have had the opportunity to sit down and speak with this great man is something I have always cherished and will never forget."

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