He was the voice of iconic boxing moments that shocked the world, from Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson to George Foreman upsetting Michael Moorer to regain the world heavyweight championship.
This weekend, Jim Lampley hosts a special live chat on PPV.com as the 154-pound super welterweight undisputed champion Jermell Charlo moves up two weight classes to challenge the 168-pound super middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday night.
“‘Tale of the Tape’ is a material subject because it is in some ways a weight-equation fight,” Lampley told WTOP.
“[Alvarez] is looking to reestablish himself as the No. 1 monetary commercial attraction in the sport, the No. 1 fighter dollar for dollar, he would like to get back to No. 1 pound-for-pound. … He’s taking on an opponent who might mount a significant challenge for him, Jermell Charlo, who’s coming up 14 pounds.”
It’s the latest bout in a long career that Lampley feels was his life’s calling. Born in Henderson, North Carolina in 1949, Lampley was just 5 years old when his father died, so he turned to sports for catharsis.
“In 1959, my mother took me to a neighborhood cocktail party, walked me down the hall to a guest bedroom, installed me on a chair in front of a tiny television set mounted on a TV dinner table and said, ‘Sit here, you’re going to watch a boxing match, the fighters are Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Bobo Olson,” Lampley said.
“To this day, if I do blow by blow on a fight, the voice in my head is Don Dunphy. … [Howard] Cosell is not the voice.”
After his family moved to Miami, he attended his first fight, which turned out to be an all-time upset.
“The very first live prize fight I ever attended with lawn-mowing and car-washing money … was Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay, Feb. 25, 1964, for the heavyweight championship of the world, the fight that produced what was at that moment the biggest upset in the history of boxing. … If you’re a believer in destiny, that certain scripts are written out in advance, my evolution as a boxing blow-by-blow person is one of those examples.”
While earning an English degree from the University of North Carolina in 1971, Lampley regularly covered Coach Dean Smith’s iconic basketball teams for the campus station.
He briefly started on his master’s degree but left early for a job with ABC Sports in 1974 covering professional baseball, college football, Indy 500 racing and even interviewing President Ronald Reagan with Richard Petty at the NASCAR Firecracker 400.
“ABC Sports came up with the gimmicky idea of putting a college-aged guy on the sidelines,” Lampley said.
“I was the first person, along with a guy from Stanford, Don Tollefsen, to stand on the sideline of a football game with a camera and a microphone. … I pioneered the experience of the sideline reporter. … I realized this would be the ideal vehicle for women on the telecast … for integrating the gender scene in sports commentary.'”
After covering the USFL careers of future NFL stars Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker and Reggie White, Lampley joined Al Michaels to anchor the pre and postgame of Super Bowl XIX between the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins, a.k.a. Joe Montana vs. Dan Marino and head coaches Bill Walsh vs. Don Shula.
“I had met Bill Walsh a few years before [when] he brought a Stanford team to Arizona State,” Lampley said.
“He said, ‘We are going to run the first 30 plays from scrimmage in sequence the way they’ve been scripted, regardless of down and distance.’ … When the rehearsed plays were finished, they were up 17-0. … He said, ‘Jim, the most important play in NFL football is can you sack the opposing quarterback late in the game.'”
He also covered 14 Olympics, including Barcelona in 1992 with the basketball “Dream Team” of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird; Atlanta in 1996 with the terrorist bombing and Kerri Strug’s one-legged heroics in gymnastics; and Beijing in 2008 where swimmer Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals.
His favorite was Lake Placid in 1980 when the U.S.A. hockey team upset the Soviet Union in the “Miracle On Ice.”
“I was in an edit bay on a Friday,” Lampley said. “The red phone began blinking. [ABC President Roone Arledge] said, ‘Something weird is gonna happen at the hockey arena, I can feel it. I need you to go over there and find us somebody to interview.’ … I went into the arena with the wrong credential, I got Mike Eruzione and Jimmy Craig, we stood on Main Street as 10,000 people gathered behind us. … That is my favorite Olympic memory.”
In 1988, Lampley left ABC to join HBO, forming an iconic team of boxing analysts with Larry Merchant, George Foreman and Harold Lederman, who would update the score cards by saying, “OK, Jim!” Lampley gained fame covering the rise of Mike Tyson, who ripped off an undefeated streak of vicious knockouts.
“The very first prize fight I ever called at ABC Sports was Mike Tyson vs. Jesse Ferguson,” Lampley said.
“Mike said, ‘Well, Cuss D’Amato taught me the purpose of the uppercut is to drive the opponent’s nose bone into his brain.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, look at what I’ve happened onto here, what is suddenly in my life. … He’s going to be the greatest quote machine in sports!’ Sure enough, in the next few weeks, they all came pouring out.”
In 1990, Lampley called the shocking moment when James “Buster” Douglas knocked out the undefeated Tyson, who was 37-0 at the time with 33 wins coming by knockout. It was arguably the biggest upset in the history of sports, the referee waving his hands on the 10 count as Tyson fumbled for his mouthpiece.
“Great television camera shots of Tyson trying to scrape the mouthpiece across the canvas so that he could pick it up with his glove, not an easy thing to do, and get it back into his mouth,” Lampley said.
“When Douglas knocked Tyson to the canvas, the voice in my head was Jack Nicholson: ‘Don’t overact.’ Therefore, the call is: ‘Mike Tyson has been knocked out.’ Simple, prosaic, straight to the point, no attempt to embellish.”
A few weeks later, Lampley called “Thunder Meets Lightning” where Julio Cesar Chavez knocked out Meldrick Taylor with only two seconds left in the final round, though it wasn’t one of his proudest moments.
“That’s not one of my best calls,” Lampley said. “There are too many words in that call. I am overhyped and I am sort of cluttering the moment with too many words. It’s not one of my favorites.”
In 1994, Lampley called another stunning upset when George Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion by knocking out Michael Moorer, who was 19 years younger, to recapture the title that he lost to Muhammad Ali two decades earlier in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” wearing the same boxing trunks.
“George had been my expert commentator on HBO,” Lampley said.
“I didn’t believe George had a chance. Leading up to that fight … I would say to George, ‘How are you gonna beat Moorer?’ … George would look at me with a very calm stare: ‘Jim, there will come a moment late in the fight where he will stand in front of me and let me knock him out.’ … What reflexively came out of my mouth was, ‘It happened. It happened.'”
In 1996, Lampley called Riddick Bowe vs. Andrew Golota, which unceremoniously ended when Golota repeatedly delivered low blows, causing chaos at ringside from a furious crowd that felt it had been robbed.
“I wound up leaving ringside to get away from the danger and havoc and went up to an elevated camera platform to get a panoramic view of how security was failing,” Lampley said.
“Foreman stayed at ringside as a security guard. Larry Merchant stayed like a war reporter a la Edward R. Murrow dodging bombs in World War II. … The last thing I said before I signed off was, ‘I’ve got a teenage daughter in here somewhere. I have to go find her.'”
In 2001, he called another upset when Baltimore native Hasim Rahman upset Lennox Lewis in South Africa.
“Lennox made the mistake of going to Johannesburg with its 7,000-feet elevation five days before the fight so he could stay in Vegas to film ‘Ocean’s 11’ for Steven Soderbergh, getting in the ring with Wladimir Klitschko,” Lampley said.
“He took Rahman for granted. … The following day, all of us were on the same flight back to New York. … In first class, you had the HBO people, you had Lennox. … In coach, holding the belts, Hasim Rahman!”
After regaining the title from Rahman in the rematch, Lewis knocked out Tyson to end his post-prison comeback in 2002. Lampley called the fight and remembers a quiet moment with Tyson after the bout.
“They trained with each other in upstate New York when they were teenagers,” Lampley said.
“When I went into Mike’s dressing room after the fight, I had not seen him in person for years. … It was very touching because the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve missed you.’ … Sitting there in the dressing room alone, just the two of us, he looked at me and said, ‘What exactly did people expect? Lennox has always been taller.'”
Later that year, Lampley called one of his personal favorite fights: the light middleweight battle between “The Golden Boy” Oscar De La Hoya and the trash-talking Fernando Vargas in a fight dubbed “Bad Blood” in 2002.
“Another one people like and can recite,” Lampley said. “As De La Hoya is closing in, I believe in the 11th round, getting ready to knock Vargas out, I am pointing out what it means in the context of their relationship, if he can shut this kid up, if he can once and for all pay him back for all of the scathing things that Fernando has said about him. It was the right story to tell, but again it was too many words. I’m self critical.”
In 2012, Lampley was ringside for a scary moment when Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out Manny Pacquiao in their fourth fight, as co-announcer and fellow boxing great Roy Jones Jr. said, “He’s not getting up, Jim.”
“You will recall that there was an instantaneous sense that a lot of people in the arena, including my wife, their first response was, ‘He’s dead,’ that Marquez had literally killed him with the punch because Manny was so still, so totally inert after that punch,” Lampley said.
“Fortunately that wasn’t the case, but again, Manny Pacquiao was that nonstop attacker and Juan Manuel Marquez was the consummate counterpuncher.”
Alas, the ring often transcends sports to become a metaphor for life. As Lampley hosts this weekend’s live chat event on PPV.com for Alvarez vs. Charlo, he gleans lessons from his coverage of Tyson and Pacquiao.
“Boxing is real, boxing is life, and nothing is ever gonna be perfect forever,” Lampley said.