Dropping the ball

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – For the last month, there has been a mini-hysteria in the boxing community regarding Larry Merchant's future as the analyst on HBO's boxing telecasts.

It turns out that the hysteria is about 14 months late.

That's because it was approximately 15 months ago that HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg contractually agreed to give Merchant's job to Max Kellerman.

A source close to Kellerman confirmed that Kellerman agreed to a deal in March 2006 that would make him the lead analyst on all HBO World Championship Boxing and HBO Pay-Per-View telecasts as of June 1, 2007. The contract called for Kellerman, 33, to serve as the analyst on HBO's Boxing After Dark telecasts prior to that, which he has done.

Merchant's contract with HBO expired on May 31, but he agreed to return to his old job for Saturday's WBA welterweight title fight at Madison Square Garden between unbeaten champion Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah.

But Merchant has now agreed to a two-year contract extension with a two-year mutual option to appear in the same role on half of all HBO World Championship Boxing and HBO Pay-Per-View telecasts.

"In general, my attitude has been that I've been a leading man forever and that I was willing to take a step back in some transitional sort of role," Merchant, 76, said. "That's been my attitude from the start. Let's just say that it's been a long, long negotiation."

As it turns out, Merchant had been negotiating for a job that didn't exist because HBO had given it to Kellerman more than a year earlier. How that will impact the crowded HBO booth is unclear, but it appears that Kellerman and Merchant will share the World Championship Boxing telecasts and divvy up the pay-per-view shows on a fight-by-fight basis. Kellerman has a "pay or play" clause in his contract, meaning as long a HBO pays him the full value of the contract, it can use him on air or not as it sees fit.

Greenburg could have cleared the mess up months ago by informing Merchant of his plans and creating a natural on-air transition from Merchant to Kellerman, but he bungled it by staying mum.

And even now, as the news is becoming public, Greenburg is avoiding it. HBO spokesman Raymond Stallone said Greenburg is unreachable until Saturday.

Stallone said it is "premature" to discuss Merchant and Kellerman because "we have not announced anything."

By not announcing anything, though, Greenburg put Kellerman in an almost untenable position. Merchant has held his job for 29 years and is revered for his candor and his willingness to take on anyone or any issue.

HBO's negotiations with Merchant over the last month have become public and have created the perception that Kellerman was scheming to get Merchant's job. Kellerman has been excoriated by many boxing writers and sports television critics.

Merchant said "at the end of the day, it's irrelevant whether I knew or not. It wouldn't have changed anything the way it came down.

"I don't know how these things work on a corporate level, because even though I've been doing this a long time, I've never had these issues before. All I know is, negotiations are like making sausage. They can be messy and you don't want to know how it's done. You only want to know the end product."

Bob Raissman, the New York Daily News' sports media critic, wrote on April 29 that replacing Merchant with Kellerman "would be like replacing Picasso with the guy who sells the Velvet Elvises outside of Graceland." Raissman later wrote that the move would "signal a lowering of journalistic standards."

But in an extraordinary move to help keep Merchant as part of the HBO broadcast team, Kellerman phoned Greenburg twice earlier this year to plead Merchant's case.

Kellerman declined to comment, but multiple sources confirmed that he made the calls because he idolizes Merchant and wanted to do whatever it took to keep Merchant on the air.

Part of the discussions were to put Merchant into what one person familiar with the talks described as "a Jack Whitaker role." Late in his career at ABC, Whitaker became popular as an essayist. It's a role in which Merchant would excel, but it doesn't appear that that's going to occur.

What also didn't occur was any attempt by HBO to make a transition. Kellerman had been repeatedly assured that HBO would handle the transition and those close to Kellerman said he had assumed HBO had informed Merchant about his contract.

Kellerman only discovered that Merchant didn't know from media reports about Merchant's ongoing negotiations.

Greenburg completely mishandled the situation. He insisted his intent was to keep Merchant and, indeed, he's agreed to a contract extension, albeit one that puts Merchant in a reduced role.

But Greenburg never publicly would concede that Kellerman was going to move into Merchant's chair, and continually left the impression he was desperately trying to keep the status quo.

On May 3, Greenburg told Yahoo! Sports, "Larry is still throwing the 95 miles per hour fastball and hitting the corners. He's the soul of HBO boxing and he has been for 28 years, since the day I hired him.

"He's a fixture on this network and I'm his biggest champion. He's the closest thing that exists to Howard Cosell in sports television today."

Though his departure from boxing will be less abrupt than Cosell's – Cosell never did another fight after getting angry on-air during a one-sided match on ABC between heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and Tex Cobb – boxing fans are going to see less of Merchant.

They also won't see Kellerman on Boxing After Dark any longer, as he will no longer appear on that show. HBO hasn't hired anyone to replace Kellerman, but the leading candidate appears to be Wally Matthews, a columnist for Newsday who has been working as a color analyst on Versus.

What to Read Next