Then And Now: Boxing and Television

By Tom Donelson
Updated: August 8, 2006

NEW YORK — Jack Hirsch challenged a little bit of conventional wisdom, namely that the golden age of boxing was in the distant past.

How often do we hear, “the golden era of boxing on television was in the 50’s, 60’s or even the 70’s and early 80’s.” Mr. Hirsch believes that we are living in the golden age of boxing and television.

In the printed version of, Hirsch wrote, “Today, I can view any big fight I want. In the good old days I could view hardly any. To get a detailed account of the action, I had to wait about a month until Ring Magazine and Boxing Illustrated came out. By that time, the news was old news.”

While many remembered, “boxing being on free network television”, the reality was the network television restricted the number of bouts actually shown. Even many of Muhammad Ali’s fight were not shown live or not available to the general public.

Ali-Frazier I was a PPV event but there was no HBO to broadcast it either live or on a repeat basis. There was no television and if you did not see the event through PPV at a specific location outside of the home, you did not see it.

The only way you could get any information on the fight, you had to find a radio station that would bring a delayed description from the local AP reporter at ringside.

Hirsch added, “If you wanted to catch a major heavyweight title fight, then you had to listen to it on the radio. That’s what I had to do the Ali’s unification match with Ernie Terrell. Fights like that were rarely held on weekends. Weekdays went the rule. It was a take or leave it proposition.”

About television today, Hirsch observed, “Today fans are in control. They can pick and choose from a large menu. Get a load of this: there are the 48 dates that ESPN secured for 2006. Then there are the constant stream of fights exhibited by cable giants HBO and Showtime.”

But that’s not all.

Outdoor Living Network has added a live boxing package and Fox Sports network along with Comstat have added delayed tape broadcasts, which allows boxing fans to follow many fighters. More fights are being broadcast today.

There is much gnashing of teeth about the lack of free television but as I have mentioned in the past, television has changed. There is no real free television since even network televisions are part of cable and satellite packages.

Network television is part of a larger market and the final results are that sports fans have more choices.

The emergence of the Mixed Martial arts or the X-games is possible only because of the abundance of cable channels. If we lived in the good old days, sports such as the mixed martial arts would have no chance to develop an audience except in the underground away from the view of the television lens.

Even Pay for View is part of the new television democracy as big events can be easily broadcast into the privacy of one’s home. This was not the case in the early days of PPV, when you had to find a local outlet that was broadcasting.

And the PPV cost only represents what the market is willing to tolerate. Fans control the remote control.

Most boxing pundits are simply living in a glorious past that never existed. Jack Hirsch is right, there was no “golden age” of televised boxing.

Not only that but the technical quality is superior today when compared to the old days. While many have complained about present boxing commenter, they are equally superior to those of the past.

Recently, I listened to the original broadcast of Muhammad Ali and Oscar Bonavena. The broadcast team consisted of Howard Cosell and Yancy Durham, Joe Frazier trainer.

Lets put it this way, Durham was not Emmanuel Stewart and Cosell proved himself inferior to Jim Lampley or Steve Albert today when it came to describing the blow-by-blow action.

I will take Lampley, Albert, Larry Merchant or Al Bernstein over Howard Cosell anytime and the only blow-by-blow by who would compared to the present generation was Don Dumphrey.

Hell, many fights featured celebrities who knew nothing of the sport as part of the team. Frazier-Ali I had Burt Lancaster and the Rumble in the Jungle featured football star Jim Brown, who added nothing to the broadcast.

Professionalism was not part of many broadcasts and many of the second men in the booth were not present because of what boxing knowledge they had.

Boxing broadcasts today are actually better than what was done in the past both in technical skills and in the broadcast. As Jack Hirsch writes, we are living in boxing’s “golden age” of boxing television.