January 2, 2002

An Interview with the Late Dick Schaap and Son, Jeremy - By Barry Lindenman

The following interview appeared on another web site and is a tribute to the late great sports journalist, Dick Schaap.

Dick and Jeremy Schaap Spend a Few Minutes Talking About the Sweet Science
with Barry Lindenman

When it comes to sports journalism, the name Schaap is synonymous with style, class and professionalism. Both Dick and his son Jeremy, exemplify the way sports should be reported in the media. The elder Schaap’s long and distinguished career as a sports journalist has seen him venture into virtually all phases of the media: print, radio and television, not to mention his current role as theater critic for ABC’s World News Now. From 1959-1963, he worked for Newsweek magazine and in 1973, he became the editor for SPORT magazine. Schaap left SPORT magazine in 1977 and joined ABC’s World News Tonight in 1980. Currently, he is serves as the host for ESPN television’s The Sports Reporters as well as The Sporting Life for ESPN radio. Along the way, Schaap has won a total of six Emmy Awards as well as one Cable Ace Award. Schaap is also the author of over thirty books, including his latest. After helping numerous athletes such as Hank Aaron, Joe Montana and Bo Jackson pen their autobiographies, Schaap has finally turned the tables on himself. His just released autobiography, Flashing Before My Eyes, chronicles his fifty years in the business of journalism and features two of his personal favorites, Muhammad Ali and Billy Crystal on the cover.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Jeremy Schaap has quickly made a name for himself in the world of sports journalism. Also a member of the ESPN sports staff, the younger Schaap has himself won four Emmy Awards, three for his work on the network’s Outside The Lines series, and one as a feature producer for ESPN’s SportsCenter. He has covered every major sport during his tenure at ESPN including the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball as well as professional golf, horse racing and college football and basketball.

BL: Tell me about your introduction to boxing and who were some of the fighters that you’ve come to know.

DS: I first really started covering boxing with the Sugar Ray Robinson fights and the Floyd Patterson fights in the late fifties. I got to know Sugar Ray but I certainly would not say we were good friends. Sugar Ray Robinson was at the top of the boxing world during the 1950’s when it seemed that he would either win or lose the championship about every three or four months. I can remember going to his office in Harlem and seeing these two wonderful huge photographs of his fights against Randy Turpin that had been enlarged. The first one had a caption on it that said, “Paradise Lost,” and the other one with a caption saying, “Paradise Regained.” Sugar Ray and talked about doing some articles together or writing a book together but dealing with Sugar Ray was a lot like fighting him. He would fake you in and then he’d drop you. I remember attending a press conference of Sugar Ray’s once at which he said that he felt like Alexander the Great because he had no more worlds to conquer. John Lardner, who was a fellow columnist of mine at Newsweek at the time quickly reminded Sugar Ray that Alexander the Great died in his 30’s. Ray didn’t exactly like that. Floyd was a friend and has been a friend for a long time. He was probably the first athlete that I met who was younger than I. He won the heavyweight championship not long after I got out of college. We became friends from the beginning in an era when you could get much closer to fighters and all athletes for that matter. The day of the third Johansson fight in Miami Beach, I spent virtually the whole day with Floyd from the morning right up until fight time. In fact I was in his dressing room with him playing Tonk, a five-card rummy game that very few white people know how to play. In the middle of the card game, about an hour before fight time, Floyd fell asleep. He was the first athlete I’d ever seen that reacted to nervousness by falling asleep. Floyd was always completely open and honest. When I see Floyd today, it reinforces my feelings about the sport of boxing. I’m a fan of boxers but not of boxing. As much as it did for Floyd, I hate to see what it’s done to Floyd. I don’t see him much anymore but I still think of him
as a friend.

JS: When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I became sort of a sports freak. I wasn’t a football fan. I wasn’t a hockey fan. I wasn’t a basketball fan. But I did love baseball, boxing and horse racing. I remember having a book that was an encyclopedia of world boxing champions. I can remember studying the book as a kid. Probably the athlete my father most admired was Muhammad Ali. As a kid, I got to spend some time around Ali at his training camps. In particular, I remember spending a lot of time with him before one of the Norton fights. I became an enthusiast after that.

BL: Of all the fighters you’ve covered, who would you say was the most misunderstood by the public?

DS: I think most fighters are misunderstood by the general public in the fact that they’re all looked upon as viscous and cruel. While certainly there are some who live up to that, Mike Tyson for example, there are so many who outside the ring who are not like that. For example, Lou Savarese has been a friend of mine almost since he got started in boxing. I love Lou. He’s just such a nice, sweet guy. Floyd Patterson is the same way. Lennox Lewis, who I only know slightly seems to be the same way. In fifty years of covering the sport, of course Muhammad Ali is by far the dominant figure.

JS: I think Lennox Lewis. I think he’s misunderstood by most of the American boxing press corp. I think he’s treated unfairly. I don’t think he’s given any respect mostly because of his accent. This is a guy who for years Riddick Bowe ducked. Now, Mike Tyson has been ducking him. Yet when he fights guys like Holyfield, or Michael Grant or David Tua, most of the American writers write him off. They suggest that he has no heart and because he’s not a crowd pleaser, he’s not a real fighter. That upsets me because I think Lennox deserves better than he’s gotten, especially from the American media.

BL: Although all sports have their fair share of “characters,” boxing for whatever reason, seems to have more than its fair share in terms of its participants, managers, promoters, etc. Who would you say is your favorite all time “character” in the sport of boxing?

DS: I worked with Rocky Graziano and Rocky was certainly a character. We wrote an article together in the late fifties for SPORT magazine called, “For $50,000 I’d Fight Any One of These Bums,” referring to the current middleweights at that time, long after Rocky had retired. Rocky used to tell me that he still worked out at the Gotham Health Club with people like Paul Newman, Ben Gazarra, and Tony Franciosa. This was a time when Marlon Brando was the number one actor in the world and the Actor’s Studio was really at its peak. Rocky said that he used to go over to the Actor’s Studio and that he went there one day and saw four guys standing in a corner learning how to be actors. He said they were all trying to learn how to talk like him! I loved Rocky. He was a lot of fun. I think that boxing and horse racing are the sports that probably produce the greatest characters. Part of the reason is that in both sports, no matter where you turn, the scent of larceny is in the air. That’s a very sweet odor that lends itself to characters and funny situations.

JS: Of the people that I’ve been aro und, in terms of characters, I found the promoter Don Elbaum certainly a character. I’m still not sure whether he conned me on the first boxing story I did as a reporter or not. He tried to sell us on a story about a fighter named Kenneth Kidd who was fighting what was supposed to be his last fight against Meldrick Taylor in 1996. I asked him why this was his last fight and he said that he had to donate his kidney to his brother after the fight and he wouldn’t be able to fight with one kidney. To this day, I really don’t think Kenneth Kidd ever had to give up his kidney. That taught me a lesson about boxing and about promoters and fighters. I knew Riddick Bowe in the early ‘90’s and I liked him a lot. I liked his personality and as a young guy coming out, he was so full of life that I found him very charming. Obviously, he’s had a lot of problems since then and I don’t know exactly what happened and how he got to where he is today.

BL: Despite the pervasive violence that inflicts our country and the world for that matter, the popularity of boxing has decreased over the years. What factors do you attribute to its waning popularity of the sport?

DS: It’s kind of ironic that the two sports with the greatest characters, boxing and horse racing, have both been on the decline. In both cases it’s for the lack of a suitable hero. Some people who love boxing might love Mike Tyson, but people outside of the sport are generally repulsed by him and therefore, repulsed by the sport. There is never going to be another Ali. Sugar Ray Leonard was as close as anyone came after Ali to being Ali, but he wasn’t Ali. You need heroes like that for a sport to surge the way basketball did with Michael Jordan. Now he’s gone and that sport is having problems.

JS: There’s so many theories about why boxing isn’t what it was forty years ago. I think it has a lot to do with the ascendancy of other sports, in particular pro football and pro basketball. I think a lot of that really has to do with television. In the early days of television when there were only three or four networks, boxing was on constantly. One of theories is that as boxing moved on to television, people got used to seeing it on TV rather than going to the arenas and eventually the small fight clubs started to die. So you had fewer boxers and fewer people who were interested in it. I also think that the corruption and “alphabet soup” of the sanctioning bodies certainly has contributed to the confusion on the part of the public. Also the fact that you can’t see any of the big fights on free TV like you can see the Super Bowl or the World Series has certainly reduced its reach to the viewing public. Today, even huge sports fans can’t name more than two or three heavyweights. All of these factors have hurt boxing.

BL: Many great fighters still continue to fight well into their forties and some even into their fifties. What do you think it is about boxing that makes it particularly hard for athletes to leave behind even after their skills have diminished?

DS: Today, it’s money. There’s no question about that. Unless you endorse a grill that cooks hamburgers and steaks, where else can you make the kind of money that you can make in the ring if you’re good? Of course there are some guys who keep boxing that are terrible. In most of those cases I would think it’s because it’s the only way they know how to make a living.

JS: I think more so than other sports, there’s no other way to approximate it. If you’re a basketball player and you quit, you can still go out and play five on five at the YMCA. If you’re a football player, you can still throw the ball around with your kid. There’s no way to approximate fighting except to fight. It is, from what I understand without ever having fought myself, quite an adrenaline rush. It appears to be more of a narcotic than other sports. So to go cold turkey must be very, very difficult.

BL: Most people would agree that boxing wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for Don King. That being said, do you think Don King has been good or bad for boxing?

DS: I think on balance, Don King has been bad for boxing. I think he’s done some very good things and I think he did a heck of a job of promoting Ali but I think I could have promoted Ali. He’s in it for Don King and that’s understandable because that’s why people go into business. He’s just kind of slippery about it.

JS: I think Don has been bad for boxing too. He has one great contribution to the history of the sport and that is the fight in Zaire. That fight doesn’t happen without Don King and he deserves credit for making that fight. You have to give him credit for his intelligence and his powers of persuasion. On the other hand, if anybody has helped make the sport a farce, it also been Don King. Look at the way he has treated his fighters. It’s unconscionable making people sign blank contracts and manipulating the rankings. Certainly there was nothing pristine about the sport before Don King but he’s dragged the sport through the mud with him. I think the best thing that can happen to the sport is what Senator John McCain has suggested about a national boxing commission to handle rankings and make matches. I would trust that much more than I would trust Don King or Bob Arum.

BL: What’s your opinion about the current popularity of women’s boxing? Do you think they should be given a legitimate chance or do you think it’s just a sideshow attraction to try and sell tickets?

DS: I once went to a party given by Sylvester Stallone to watch a Tyson fight. It was commemorating the 20th anniversary of “Rocky.” There were several heavyweight fighters there including Muhammad who was there with his wife Lonnie. Christy Martin was fighting on the undercard and I remember turning to Lonnie Ali and asking her, “does Muhammad like that?”
And she said, “only if they’re fighting over him!” I guess that’s sort of the way I feel about women’s boxing.

JS: I’ve seen a few women’s fights on the undercard of some championship fights I’ve covered and I don’t really like it. I don’t think that it’s something that the American public is clamoring for. I think it is kind of a sideshow. I think the fact that many of the women fighters who are receiving attention are the daughters of Ali and Frazier and Foreman just tells you that this is not a real sport yet. Maybe it will be one day.

BL: Boxing is increasingly becoming more and more “Hollywood” and more like professional wrestling with all the lights and laser shows during the fighter’s long, grandiose entrances into the ring. Do you think this trend is serving to help or hurt the sport?

DS: I don’t think it has any effect upon the sport. It’s effect is on the production. To me it’s hokey. I find it very difficult to go to sporting events any more because you can’t hear yourself talk. Between rounds or between periods, I’d like to be able to talk to the person next to me. It’s awfully difficult these days with all the entertainment that’s going on at sporting events.

JS: I was at the Roy Jones fight at Radio City Music Hall. It was one of those things where he had his rap introduction with all the lights, etc. I don’t like that. I don’t know if it helps or not. I don’t think boxing needs to give people the impression anymore than it already does that it’s somehow staged or fixed. I think boxing unlike wrestling is about what happens inside the ring. I think it should remain so and anything that distracts from that hurts it.

BL: Because of the action, unusual characters and easy target for cliché, Hollywood often uses boxing as a backdrop for its movies. Do you have a favorite boxing movie?

DS: There have been some good ones. “Champion” was a great movie. Of course “Raging Bull” was a terrific movie except it was too nice to Jake LaMotta. At his worst, he was worse. I just watched “Somebody Up There Likes Me” the other day. It’s not really a very good movie but it was nice to see a young Paul Newman. It’s a formula “rags-to-riches” story but it’s reasonably well done.

JS: “The Harder They Fall” is a great movie and so is “Golden Boy” but I’d have to say “Rocky” is the best boxing movie ever made. I love that movie.

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