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So What Do You Do, Jim Lampley, Host of HBO World Championship Boxing?

On boxing, blogging, and Olympics in the age of Twitter

By Marcus Vanderberg - May 2, 2012

Photo Credit: Monte Isom

You might not know the name, but even the casual sports fan has heard the voice of Jim Lampley during his iconic 38-year career. Whether covering one of his record 14 Olympic broadcasts or some of the biggest boxing matches in the world on HBO, the four-time Sports Emmy Award winner has replaced the late Howard Cosell as the voice of the sweet science.

The 63-year-old, who's calling the May 5 HBO pay-per-view fight between Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto, stumbled into the sport after his former boss at ABC attempted to force him out of the network, something Lampley now calls "a tremendous piece of good fortune."

"By way of trying to force my exile and get me to leave, he assigned me to sports which he thought I wouldn't be interested in," Lampley told us. "One of the things that he did was assign me to boxing. I think it was purely for the purpose of making me uncomfortable and trying to get me to leave. He wasn't aware that boxing was my favorite sport."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Name: Jim Lampley
Position: Boxing commentator, HBO Sports
Resume: Hired in 1974 by ABC as the first college football sideline reporter and also covered boxing, the Super Bowl and five Olympic games in 13 years. Hired by KCBS in Los Angeles in 1987 as a news anchor and by HBO as host of the network's boxing and Wimbledon coverage. Left KCBS for NBC in 1992 where he covered an additional nine Olympic games. Soon to be host of The Fight Game with Jim Lampley on HBO and the undisputed voice of boxing.
Birthday: April 8, 1949
Hometown: Hendersonville, North Carolina
Education: B.A., English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Marital status: Engaged
Media idol: Mike Wallace
Favorite TV show: Breaking Bad
Guilty pleasure: "Breaking Bad. It's not on HBO."
Last book read: Boxing's Best Short Stories, edited by Paul D. Staudohar
Twitter handle: None

You've worked with several former boxers who made the transition to broadcasting. What makes a good sports analyst in your eyes?
Point one would be self-confidence. In order to be a critic, you must feel invulnerable to criticism. You have to feel the security of being willing to critique your peers and it's not all that easy for them to do. Whatever translates to candor, the ability to speak the truth and not worry about the political consequences, that's the most important element.

You were the executive producer of HBO's On Freddie Roach and also own a production company. How does broadcasting compare to working behind the camera?
It's all the same thing. In 37 years of working on one side of the camera, I don't think I've ever been out of touch with what goes on on the other side. I've certainly learned a lot from every producer whom I've ever worked with -- some of the greatest producers in the history of television, starting with my first boss at ABC Sports, Roone Arledge, and going straight on through. And so it just stands to reason that I get a chance to perform as a producer. I'm channeling all the things I learned from all the great producers who have been in my ear and told me what to do.

"The one [call] that people most remember is Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas."

Why do you think it took so long for the sport of boxing to get a studio show like Fight Game, which debuts May 12 on HBO?
I think it required a moment in time when the most integral and committed boxing telecast network specifically saw a good reason to do that. If it was going to happen somewhere, it was going to happen at HBO. Within the past year, it's abundantly clear that HBO has renewed and refurbished and reenergized its overall commitment to boxing. That's manifested in a dozen different ways -- you've already mentioned On Freddie Roach -- and, within the overall broad based new commitment to boxing that this network is constantly attempting to portray, the idea of doing a boxing studio-based show was something that evolved from the top. It came from Richard Plepler and Mike Lombardo, the two guys who together are in charge of programming. It was their specific suggestion that we do this, so it's an honor to be able to do it.

Which sports call during your illustrious career stands out above the rest?
The one that people most remember is that I called Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas, which is still, to this day, the most significant upset in the history of boxing. To have been privileged to call that would be point one. And point two, George Foreman winning the heavyweight championship for a second time at age 45 when he was our regular ringside expert commentator. To call an accomplishment that historic of someone who was legitimately a colleague and a friend, I still get chills thinking about it to this day.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Josh Elliott, Good Morning America Newsreader?

ABC hired you fresh out of college, and you were the very first college football sideline reporter. Nearly 40 years later, how much has the role changed since you defined the position?
I would say the circumstances of college football and commercial television defined the position more than I personally did, but, because of the circumstances of commercial television in college football, it's pretty much the same today. Iíve never felt as though it was an extremely vital role except in instances here and there. It's more a piece of the presentation, a colorful element and a personality element. I'll leave the debate about its value to other people but, by and large, I did injury reports and stayed out of the way from the middle of the first season on. That is what I still think they are doing to this day.

What role will social media play in the 2012 Summer Olympics? Do you think the emergence of Twitter ultimately forced NBC to change the way they broadcast the games?
It should. I was recently at a seminar on the campus of the University of Southern California to discuss the Olympics and television. One of the biggest points I tried to make was this is the first post-Twitter Summer Olympics, and there will be a huge effect because we've already seen the degree that it facilitates person-to-person contact, particularly between athletes. The energy of the [Olympic] village is now going to be changed from day to day by the waves of Twitter. It's the most influential social medium, because of the spontaneity and the immediate wildfire effect it can create. A great lesson to us was watching the ratings for On Freddie Roach, and we discovered that over a six-week period that we could correlate increases in On Freddie Roach ratings to Twitter trending.

The blogosphere was all over your 2007 arrest following a domestic abuse incident with Candice Sanders. Do you think sports blogs act as a check and balance with traditional sports journalism outlets?
Well, certainly in theory. I'm a big believer in the Jeffersonian market of ideas and I don't have a problem with the fact that the Web creates access and exposure for people with no background in what we would use to think of as journalistic skills and journalistic discipline. I was in my own personal instance disappointed in the number of stories or commentaries that I saw which bore zero relationship to the facts. But that I think is inevitable in this environment, and you have to hope that, at the end of the day, somehow or other, the truth balances it out.

"I was not as well versed and deeply based as a political commentator as I am a sports commentator."

By and large, over the long haul, I think the truth does emerge. It's just frustrating to watch the process. What was it that President Obama said? "You don't want to watch sausages being made, and you don't want to watch legislation being constructed." At the end of the day, you don't want to watch the agonizing process through which a public figure has to try and clear his name in the wake of whatever it is that has put me in front of the public on the Web. It's never going to be completely satisfying. It is what it is, and you have to try to make the best of those situations.

In 2005, you used an incorrect source when blogging about the Iraq war for Huffington Post, and many readers called you out for it. How did that situation affect you?
I didn't think of it as rebounding. At the end of the day, if people want to disagree with what I say, that's certainly part of the process and their privilege. I read my political commentaries and, over time, I decided that I was not as well versed and deeply based as a political commentator as I am a sports commentator. I had been persuaded to do it by someone very high up in political media who has specific purpose in mind for me, and at the end of the day I decided I wasn't interested in that purpose. That was the beginning and end of that.

Do you think media personalities should be vocal about their personal views or politics and take a stand when necessary, or just stick to more objective reporting?
Given that I've been outspoken, I guess it would be a little hypocritical of me to say they shouldn't. I used to always prefix any political or social comments I made on the radio by saying "I'm about to give you my personal opinion. I happen to be a commentator by trade, not an editorialist... so you take it as you see fit." And then from time to time I would speak out. Ultimately I wound up substituting for Ed Schultz on his radio show and doing other things that amounted to political talk radio. It was only for a brief period of time; it didn't last very long.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Josh Elliott, Good Morning America Newsreader?

Marcus Vanderberg is co-editor of FishbowlLA.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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