AS HIS broadcasting partner at HBO prepared to make unlikely boxing history almost 30 years ago, Jim Lampley wondered why he couldn’t come up with a line. What he needed was his version of “Down goes Frazier!” or “Do you believe in miracles?” Not that it would be needed, of course, because 45-year-old George Foreman surely wouldn’t beat 26-year-old Michael Moorer to become the oldest heavyweight champion in history.
Yet Foreman assured Lampley that his moment would come. Probably in the late rounds when Moorer would stand in front of him just long enough for Foreman to knock him out. Just you wait, he said.
When it played out exactly that way, there was no need for a pre-packaged line.
“It was uncanny,” Lampley tells Boxing News. “And I wound up saying: ‘It happened!’ Those were the two words that came into my mind. Because those were the things that George told me would happen.”
It was the most famous call in a career full of famous calls, as Lampley – the Hall of Fame broadcaster who is widely regarded as one of the best blow-by-blow announcers to ever do it – prepares to make his own comeback and re-enter boxing’s crazy fray.
Lampley, 74, will join PPV.com as a co-host for the streaming service’s coverage of the September 30 Saul “Canelo” Alvarez-Jermell Charlo fight at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. He will provide analysis leading up to the fight for the website and social media platforms and will interact with fans during a live chat during the fight.
It will be the first time the boxing world has seen or heard the distinguished, golden-voiced North Carolina native since the night HBO Boxing officially signed off on December 8, 2018.
“I’ve missed it every day since,” Lampley said. “I will be happy to be going back to ringside, to see old friends. And I’m looking forward to the fans. Boxing fans are more personally involved than fans of most other sports and that’s something that I miss a great deal.”
After HBO cut the cord on boxing four-and-a-half years ago, Lampley began teaching at the University of North Carolina, his alma mater. With his extensive background in news and sports journalism in a stellar broadcasting career that started in 1974 – including stints at all three major networks, coverage of many Super Bowls, Indianapolis 500s, Wimbledons and Olympics and recognition as the first ever college football sideline reporter – Lampley created a specialised course: “The Evolution of Storytelling in American News Media.” It covered American communication from morse code to today’s digital age, from World War II to Watergate to the current day.
It was satisfying, but increasingly stressful.
“If you asked me in a word what that course was about, it was about truth,” Lampley said. “How people treated the truth, the current truth, and the threat to truth. Somewhere during the first semester, the Chairman of the Communications Department came up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘How does it feel to be a rookie teacher teaching the most important course on campus?’ It frightened me.”
He taught for five semesters in Chapel Hill. He figures he’ll go back to it one day. He enjoys the emeritus status, the season tickets to Tar Heels basketball games and sitting in the Chancelor’s box at football games.
But, for now, he’s glad to be going back to boxing. He didn’t think it would take this long for him to return.
He did have a deal with the Triller video-sharing social networking service in 2021 to work the Teofimo Lopez-George Kambosos fight. But the contest was often postponed and ultimately never appeared on Triller. Beyond that, he’s had a couple of vague, entry level discussions. But nothing ever materialised.
“I entered the classroom in January 2020, and I was already amazed that I had gone all through 2019 and had not received a meaningful or compelling offer to call boxing matches,” he said. “I have to admit that I’m still a little surprised to this day.”
Now, like so many fighters he’s covered, he’s back. Though the PPV.com stint won’t exactly be what we have come to expect from him. On September 30, Lampley – teaming with award-winning boxing writer Lance Pugmire – will take on more of an analyst’s role. And who would’ve thought that the esteemed quarterback of HBO World Championship Boxing would one day hope to morph into…Larry Merchant, the often-cantankerous HBO analyst known for angering the masses?
“For a long time while I was doing blow-by-blow, I thought to myself I might graduate into the role that Merchant played for a long time, and that Max Kellerman played,” he said. “You’re not blow-by-blow – you’re an editorialist. That didn’t happen. So, this is something like it. It’ll be interesting to see if I have anything to say. I certainly have something to say when I’m sitting in my living room.”
For 30 years, from 1988-2018, Lampley was the voice of HBO Boxing. His experience covering Mike Tyson’s national television debut on ABC in 1986 convinced the HBO brass that Lampley was the right voice to succeed Barry Tompkins, who’d filled the blow-by-blow role for the previous decade. Since Tyson had signed a contract with HBO, the suits decided Lampley’s familiarity with the new heavyweight sensation made him the best fit for the job.
His first call for HBO was March 21, 1988, in Tokyo, when Tyson demolished Tony Tubbs in two rounds. What followed was one of the most decorated blow-by-blow careers in boxing history – a short list that includes sports broadcasting icons Don Dunphy and Howard Cosell. Lampley’s pipes provided the soundtrack to the careers of Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr, Pernell Whitaker, Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, Lennox Lewis, Foreman and Julio Cesar Chavez.
And, of course, Tyson.
He and HBO covered all facets of Tyson’s early career, from the 91-second demolition of Michael Spinks in 1988 (“And he’s down again, and in serious trouble”) to his all-time upset defeat in 1990: (“Say it now, gentleman: James ‘Buster’ Douglas, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.”)
Before, during and after Tyson’s reign, HBO developed a stellar brand that was synonymous with high-level fights, production and commentary. The tuxedoed Lampley, Merchant, Sugar Ray Leonard, unofficial judge Harold Lederman and, later, Foreman, Kellerman and Jones Jr, delivered a tight, quality product. And Lampley was the centrepiece.
HBO elevated the reputation of boxing – something that isn’t easy to do.
“From the moment I called fights at HBO, I had this inner sense that it was the most profound boxing network to ever operate in television,” Lampley said. “I felt that way the whole time. Everybody did. That last night in Carson, California, when I did the last ringside call on camera along with Max and Roy Jones Jr, saying goodbye, there was sadness, a deep sense of loss. And a lingering question: Why is this happening? Why would they not want to continue the greatest communicative institution that has ever been built in boxing? It’s a heck of a question. They just didn’t see it. They were going to do what they were going to do.”
Lampley’s fascination with boxing started long before HBO. His father, an avid sports fan, died in 1954 when Lampley was five. His mother was left a double widow – the former wife of two World War II B29 bomber pilots. She raised her two sons in Hendersonville, N.C. and was determined to give young Jim the sports education that he would have received from his father.
One day, Lampley went with his mother to a cocktail party at a neighbor’s house. He recalls: “She marched me down a hall to a spare bedroom and put me in front of a tiny television set. ‘You’re going to watch Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Bobo Olson.’ It was their second fight. She said, ‘In the next half hour, Don Dunphy is going to teach you everything you need to know about boxing.’”
He watched boxing through the 1950s and 60s, including the Rome Olympics, where he was introduced to a young, brash fighter named Cassius Clay. In 1964, he’d save his car washing money to attend the February 25 fight between Clay and heavyweight champ Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. At the time, it was one of the biggest upsets in heavyweight history, as Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) beat the 7/1 odds via sixth-round TKO.
It struck him that, 26 years later, he covered what would be an even bigger upset – Douglas’s 10th-round knockout of Tyson in Tokyo. Douglas overcame the widely reported 42/1 odds.
“At ringside, I was suddenly gripped with this extreme sense of, ‘Oh my God, the very first prizefight I attended live was the biggest upset in boxing history. And here is the fight that succeeds it as the biggest upset in boxing history – and I’m describing it.”
For the man known for covering one of the greatest comebacks of all time – Foreman’s knockout of Moorer in November 1994 – it is now Lampley in the role of Foreman: a former great looking to regain his status as the best in the business. It’s a tale that Lampley has told over and over, again and again.
Now, he’s the subject at hand.
“I don’t think I’m debilitated,” he said, with a welcome sprinkle of Ali-like brashness. “I don’t think I will have totally lost my fastball.”