Thomas Hauser, I’ve made no bones about saying, is the finest boxing writer in the land. He’s somewhere between the sport’s poet laureate and its Bob Woodward. If you have read any of Steve Kim’s pieces in recent months, you’ll recall Kim writing about HBO execs trying to suss out who Hauser’s sources are for his pieces in recent years about the network. At the same time, he’ll write things like this bit of wisdom from the conclusion of his column on the Ricky Hatton-Paulie Malignaggi fight, “Hatton-Malignaggi: The End Of A Dream“:
You can’t be in boxing if you’re not willing to risk having your heart broken.
No matter how badly a fighter wants it, his opponent wants it too.
As a fighter, Paulie Malignaggi has exceeded everyone’s expectations but his own.
The long-time boxing writer and author, who makes his main home at SecondsOut.com and serves as an official with the Boxing Writers Association Of America, recently published his annual compilation of his work. The Boxing Scene, released on Dec. 12 by Temple University Press, tackles monumental figures in the sport, like Floyd Mayweather, Jr.; colorful characters in boxing, like Vinny Madalone; big-picture issues, like the enforcement of boxing’s safety regulations; and more bite-sized subjects, like how promoters cater food for boxing writers (pun intended). I highly recommend it.
I interviewed him via telephone. We talked about his favorite pieces in the book and how he wrote some of the columns, as well as issues related to the health of boxing, his role at BWAA and the risks of predicting fight outcomes.
(As usual, this is a direct transcript, save the passages where there are ellipses.)
Who was your favorite profile or interview subject for this book and why?
I think probably the best article in this book is the one on Larry Merchant and HBO. It was an important article in that it caused a re-evaluation of the way people in the industry look at HBO and it also was a way of paying tribute to Larry who I believe deserves it.
Among the boxers?
John Duddy is one of my favorite fighters as a personality. That’s obviously an offbeat look at John… The piece on the enigmatic Shannon Briggs won a BWAA award for feature of the year, so I have a soft spot in my heart for that one. I felt the Jack Dempsey revisited article was particularly interesting to me. Each year I try to do one big historical article… This year was John L. Sullivan. Next year probably will be Sugar Ray Robinson. I think the Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas article was a strong one. And the one on the first fight between Jermain Taylor and Kelly Pavlik. Those are probably my favorites.
How much time do you spend with these boxers in the dressing room each time out, and do you think it’s enough time for all of them to let their guard down a little?
When I’m in the dressing room before a fight, I try to get there 15 minutes before the fighter does. I’m there until they leave for the ring. As soon as the fight’s over, I go back to the dressing room and I stay until they leave. It can be anywhere from two to two and a half hours before the fight, and from half an hour to an hour afterward.
You said B-Hop had had some issues with you over the years. What were they, and how did he come to invite you to his dressing room?
Bernard and I first got to know each other when he was fighting Felix Trinidad. I was an admirer of his both as a fighter and a person. Then he had a very bitter falling out with Lou DiBella, who was his promoter, and made allegations against Lou that were very damaging and false. Lou sued him for libel and I was a witness on his behalf — for Lou — and wrote extensively on that, and Bernard didn’t take kindly to that. Relations were icy for a few years… I considered it a privilege and an honor to go to the dressings rooms. With Bernard it was particularly meaningful. We’ve reached a point where we understand each other.
What prompted him, or was it totally out of the blue?
You’d have to ask Bernard that. We’d become friendlier as time went by. I think Bernard understood that I’m writing history. I’ve often asked what it would mean for boxing history if someone had been in Joe Louis’ dressing room before the Max Schmeling fight… That’s what I’m trying to do here as part of my writing. I don’t know that anybody has chronicled the contemporary boxing scene in quite this way.
You have quite a few off-the-beaten-path pieces here, like the one about the first fight on an undercard. Which ones were the most fun or enlightening?
Let me go back a step. Most of the big fight reports were fairly straightforward. I’ve always thought one of the keys to writing well is to take a subject hundreds or in some cases thousands of people are writing about and take it from a different point of view. Take the Kennedy assassination. Jimmy Breslin interviewed the grave digger who dug Kennedy’s grave. I try to do that with boxing. There were a couple pieces…. The piece you mention, about the first fight on the Mayweather-De La Hoya undercard: Here you had an event that was watched by literally millions of people around the world. It was fun to track the two fighters in the undercard bout. The doors hadn’t opened, and there were something like 12 spectators. What I did was tracked them the day before the fight. Usually when I’m in a fighter’s dressing room, I stick to one fighter. That time I went to both. There’s the one where my 81-year-old mother meets Don King. If you’re in boxing sooner or later you meet Don King, and this was certainly a different perspective. There’s the one on boxing writers. They’re always ripping the heavyweights these days. So it was fun to talk to some of the most ripped heavyweights… and ask them to rate the writers.
I was surprised you got Cedric Kushner to talk about his hooker habit.
Cedric is fairly open about that. His attitude is, “I am what I am and people know what I am”…
Most if not all of what’s in the book was published online and remains free online. What’s the value in publishing it in book form?
What I do is each year, I have a book that comes out that’s all the articles I wrote the year before. The value of having them in book form is that books are special. Books are something permanent. If the server goes down, the articles disappear for ever. I Wrote for House of Boxing for a couple years. It went down, and that was it. SecondsOut maintains an archive of articles at my request. I could probably sell more books if I didn’t do that, but if you’re a writer, you want people to read what you write. But I love books. I love looking at my bookshelf and seeing books I’ve written. Every year that a book of mine comes out, I feel like another child is born.
What have you found more or less enjoyable about writing for the Internet?
What I love about writing for the Internet, and it’s specific to the gig I have with SecondsOut, — different Internet sites have different rules — I can write whatever I want to write. There are no length restrictions. When you write for a magazine or newspaper, you have to write a certain number of words, and then they cut… when you write for the Interet, there are no limitations. There’s also instant gratification. You don’t have to wait anywheres from a day if it’s a newspaper to a magazine — it could be months.
Your examinations of the folks at HBO have been especially penetrating. Do you think they’ve learned anything from it, or do you think they’re the same as or worse than they were in 2007?
My first article in 2009 is going to be an article on HBO. They haven’t learned as much as they might have.
Same question on Evander Holyfield. Looking back at what you wrote about him in 2007 and his recent loss, do you notice anything different?
I didn’t see the Holyfield-Valuev fight. Like you, the first things I read said it was a terrible decision. I talked to some of the British writers who were actually there who weren’t influenced by the TV commentary and a couple of them… actually thought Valuev won, so it might not be that bad after all.
How would you compare boxing’s 2007 to its 2008?
Off the top of my head, I would say they’re comparable. They were both unsatisfying years in that the biggest fights were on pay-per-view. I’m talking about the United States; in other parts of the world there might be a different view. A couple television broadcasts — Wednesday Night Fights, Telefutura… — shut down at the end of the year. It’s disappointing in that each were years where boxing didn’t go mainstream. Nobody really broke through to capture the imagination. Boxing remains a niche sport. That is, in the United States. Boxing is certainly alive and well in the Phillipinnes with Manny Pacquiao. It’s doing very well in England, where Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton have electrified people. Unfortunately we’re in the U.S.
If you could pick one thing for boxing to fix in 2009, what would it be?
If I was running the world, there are a couple things actually. First, it is incumbent that HBO start televising competitive fights on a regular basis. People are getting sick of t
he garbage. That’s why the ratings fell so low. Every couple months they have an all-time low rating with the HBO boxing telecast. HBO has to regain people’s trust. It is enormously important that boxing find a way to crown one weight champion in one weight division. Seventeen weight divisions, I don’t mind that. It means boxers aren’t compelled to force themselves into lighter weights or going up in weight and fighting at a disadvantage. To have three or four middleweight champions, three or four heavyweight champions, that’s idiocy. The point of every major sport is to crown a legitimate champion. Pro football fans are getting very excited now because the playoffs are coming up, heading toward the Super Bowl…. With the World Series, with golf and tennis, where you have your few major champions tours. You don’t have four gold medals in the 100-yard dash in the Olympics. To me, that’s what’s killing the sport. Even when the heavyweight champion wasn’t very good, people could tell you who he was… I suspect if you went out and asked 10 people who the heavyweight champion was, you’d get maybe two or one who could answer. More people would mention Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield. That’s boxing’s fault.
What’s your take on the Maxboxing/SecondsOut merger?
I think it’ll work out well. Nobody’s quite sure what will happen in the long run. Right now, Robert Waterman [CEO of SecondsOut]… he plans to keep them as separate sites that have some cross-fertilization… [Some] of my articles have run on Maxboxing. Steve Kim, at least one of his articles has appeared on SecondsOut. We’re very strong on international coverage, but not very strong on U.S. coverage, particularly West Coast coverage. That’s where Maxboxing is at its best. They’re weakest in their international coverage. That’s where we’re the strongest. The one thing both sites really need is some kind of… [mechanism where readers can] very quickly see the fight results, who’s done what that day, who’s switched promoters, in terms of the daily bump, bump, bump. It doesn’t have to be a full article. I think we’ll get there sometime in 2009 to compliment the in-depth coverage we already provide.
There were a few Ring columnists giving you hell a few months back about you wanting them to demonstrate their body of work prior to being accepted into the BWAA.
…Jeff Ryan bitched about that. It was a very simple issue. Let me go back a step. A couple years ago Steve Farhood called me up and said he’d been chairman of the membership committee and said it was a lot of work and asked me to take it over for a while. I asked who else was on the committee, and he said, “You’re it.” I didn’t think it was fair to make a unilateral decision about who should be a member. So I put together a committee… between the six of us, we know pretty much everybody in boxing, and we represent different points of views. Every time somebody inquires about memberships, they are sent a series of questions and asked to send that response back to me as well as a half-dozen articles [he or she] is proud of having written. I then prepare a package and send it to the members and we vote. Almost always there’s a clear consensus. We’ve had several hundred applications. I don’t think there have been more than three or four ties. This was an incident where a correspondent thought he was sufficiently important or self-important to not have to go through the process and instead wrote an angry column. I still think we did the right thing. It’s not appropriate for me to say I know that person and it’s OK if he gets in. It’s egalitarian… I am concerned about the way this year’s election for officers for 2009 is being conducted. I don’t think it’s being conducted in an appropriate manner. Even though I expect to be re-elected as a vice president I’m not sure I will take office because it’s possible… that some members have been disenfranchised in an inappropriate way. If I find that’s the case I would have second thoughts.
That was vague. Want to explain?
I think I’ll wait and see how that plays out. You are right to press me on it, but it was deliberately vague.
It’s not the biggest issue I wanted to address or anything. Turning to a recent column: You’d been adamant about Pacquiao-De La Hoya being something of a scary proposition for Pacquiao. Lord knows I’ve made some bad calls over the last year. Where do you think you went wrong on that one?
Like a lot of people, I thought Oscar was going to be just too big for Manny. I was wrong. I think it’s good for boxing that Manny won. Oscar went into that fight with next to nothing at all. I was wrong. I thought he would be too big for Manny. Part of that was based on my respect for Oscar as a fighter. I don’t consider Oscar De La Hoya a great fighter. Certainly, he’s a very good one. Let’s not forget that Manny fought 24 rounds with Juan Manuel Marquez and after 24 rounds they were separated by a single point. If somebody has suggested Marquez fighting Oscar… Manny at 147 pounds, I don’t think he’d do particularly well against Paul Williams at 147 or Antonio Margarito. Manny fought very well and Oscar didn’t. I don’t have a 100 percent record. You’re much better off, much more likely — If you’re programming, what you want to do is make 10 fights that look good on paper, and you’re better off if you start off with those fights.
One of the best parts of that column was that you delved into Internet piracy. And when I liveblogged the fight, it turned into a locale where people could find pirated feeds. They talked about the fight, too, but a bunch of people said, “I can’t pay $50 for a fight that doesn’t have a good undercard.”
Somehow I think if they give us better undercards, there will still be piracy. With David Haye and Monte Barrett, the fight was simply unavailable. I went to Justin.tv and saw it live. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. I didn’t buy a black box. I couldn’t have paid $24.95. There’s a mindset with the Internet, people have the sense that something is available that’s free, then they should take advantage of it. If someone called you and said, “There’s a rogue TV station that’s showing De La Hoya-Pacquiao for free, turn to channel 91,” you’d turn to channel 91.
(Disclosure: Well before I had the idea to do this interview, I’d had
discussions with Mr. Hauser about writing a freelance piece for
SecondsOut. My praise of his work, and this interview, have nothing to
do with that.)