Bernstein looks back on 30 years

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – When you've announced more than 2,700 boxing matches over 30 years and accumulated nearly 1.8 million frequent flier miles while doing it, nothing that occurs in the ring should surprise you.

But nearly all the time, said Showtime's outstanding boxing analyst, Al Bernstein, something does stun or shock him.

Being there for the unexpected is one of the joys of a life spent as one of boxing's most familiar voices.

Bernstein, who will be in his usual ringside position as the fight analyst on Saturday for a Showtime doubleheader from Monterrey, Mexico, is beginning his 30th year of calling fights.

He's been there for some of boxing's most historic bouts, including the epic first match between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo in 2005, which he calls "Hagler-Hearns times three."

Still, it's hard to know what to say when a fight is about to begin and the boxer begins to remove his robe before realizing he forgot to put his trunks on, as happened on a small show he was calling in Indianapolis in the early 1980s.

"Nutty things always happen, but in those days, traveling to all those small cities we did, you never knew what could happen, but you always expected something might," Bernstein said. "But I have to be honest, I don't think I ever expected or imagined anyone would forget to put their trunks on."

Bill Cardille, a legendary professional wrestling announcer for the old WIIC-TV in Pittsburgh, used to say of the station's "Studio Wrestling" program, "Anything can happen, usually does and probably will."

And that's what it's been like in 30 years on the road for Bernstein. He began his career modestly, on the then-fledgling all-sports network ESPN, sitting in the booth as the third man to make things easier on the night's analyst, boxer Thomas Hearns.

He quickly became one of the game's most in-demand broadcasters, because his smooth voice and sunny personality made listening to him like a friendly chat with a long lost friend.

Not long after that 1980 debut, he was hired to be ESPN's boxing analyst on West Coast shows. ESPN was still very conscious of every cent it spent in those days and hired Randy Gordon to do the color commentary on shows East of the Mississippi River and Bernstein to do those West of the Mississippi.

Less than a year later, he was promoted to full-time analyst. Bernstein was 30, single and living a dream.

"If I'd been married with a child then, it would have been a lot more difficult," he said. "But I was single and it was a great time to be in television."

ESPN literally crisscrossed the country, broadcasting the "Top Rank Boxing" shows in cities only slightly larger than Hooterville or Petticoat Junction.

Bernstein was ringside for the rise of young stars such as Mike Tyson, but never has been able to forget one of the bravest men he ever covered.

A featherweight who wasn't a world-class boxer but who had a heart as big as Montana quickly captured Bernstein's notice. And even today, 30 years later, Freddie Roach is one of boxing's most notable personalities.

"I have such a warm place in my heart for Freddie, who was one of the quintessential ESPN fighters of that era," said Bernstein, who has been Showtime's lead boxing announcer since 2003. "He was a good fighter, but he wasn't super powerful and he never won a world title. His lack of power was his downfall, ultimately, because he had this aggressive style and it would lead him into wars. His fights with guys like Tommy Cordova and Louie Burke, people still talk about them today.

"He was with [the late Hall of Fame trainer] Eddie Futch and Thell Torrance in those days. And even though Freddie was a young guy and he was trying to make it as a fighter, you could just get the sense that he would make it in that side of the business, as a trainer."

He is known as an analyst, and will earn a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame some day for the work he does in that role. But he's also done plenty of play-by-play, as well.

That began because he hoped to do other sports on ESPN and he thought the ability to do play-by-play would help him reach that goal. Eventually, it did, but just not the way he had envisioned.

"I think it was 12 or 13 years later, I did a basketball game," he said, chuckling. "Shows what I knew."

He's done work in most of the major team sports in the U.S., but he's a boxing guy. And while boxing is no longer the staple of American sports that it was in the 1950s, when it, baseball and horse racing were the country's three top sports, it is on a resurgence, he insists.

"Boxing was huge in the 1980s, but the 1990s were an abyss for boxing," he said. "Live fights on free TV on the weekends went away in the 1990s. They made the cardinal sin of not making the fights people wanted to see, and you had a situation that resulted where in a lot of cases, the big-name fights more often than not were in mismatches. They didn't give the fans the product they wanted regularly enough and by the end of the decade, the media had pretty much quit covering the sport.

"But it began to kind of go the other direction around 2002. People started to realize they had to make the right fights, and with some notable exceptions, they have. … Boxing is more of a niche sport now, but it's delivering the best product it has since the 1980s and it has a lot more international stars and that's helping the popularity of the sport. Do I think boxing will reach the status it had in the 1950s, the '60s or even the '70s or '80s? Probably not, but it's made a nice little resurgence and it's gained a lot more relevance and it's fun to be along to see it."

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