Al Albert remembers when it all started. "I was the resident play-by-play man at USA Network, doing hockey, NBA basketball and the Big East when they decided to get into boxing. I think it started out as a fun thing, maybe a 10-week series, but now it's a staple in our sports stable."
And how. In case you haven't checked it out lately, be assured that USA's "Tuesday Night Fights" is probably as good a boxing series as has ever been on television. Sorry about that, Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.
There are a couple of reasons why, after 10 years, the series
keeps getting better: Albert and his analyzing buddy, Sean "The Champ" O'Grady, and the fact it is treated as a show, not simply a boxing match.
"We were on tape the first year [fall 1982] and a lot of our main events wouldn't even be on the cards we do now," said Albert. "We were very low budget and a fill sport. But even so, the early results were enough to warrant our continuing, obviously."
Albert's first partner was trainer Angelo Dundee, followed by Randy Gordon, now chairman of the New York State Boxing Commission. They were capable, but the real find showed up when O'Grady hung 'em up.
"Sean was never really that raw when he started five years ago," said Albert. "He had a pretty good feel right off. Most jocks coming into the booth see TV work as a plateau after they're done playing. Sean didn't see it that way; he knew a bit about the medium right from the start. And once he got going, he's terrific."
Three nights ago, while covering the Reggie Johnson-Lamar Parks WBA middleweight title bout, O'Grady got off his usual assortment of interesting and informative lines. "The problem with fighting left-handers," he said, describing Parks' predicament, "is you have a tendency to pose; you think too much about your punches instead of throwing them. Lefties are used to fighting right-handers; they just go about their business."
And then there was the reminder, "a fighter has to rely on his corner to tell him the mistakes an opponent is making. He cannot see them when he's fighting."
Albert said, "That's what makes Sean so good, he brings things out that the others don't. He gets on the inside, tells you what's going on and what a fighter's thinking, all in a relaxed, easy-to-listen-to manner."
One of the reasons for this is the tongue-in-cheek approach Albert brings to the telecast -- "after all, it's only boxing" -- plus the playful digs the partners toss around liberally. Aiding the listener substantially are the features producer Rob Beiner and Albert have developed. "Sean's Blackboard," for instance, gives strong insight into the match about to be contested, not the customary what Joe Blow has to do to win: Knock the other guy out, naturally. "Rob is the type guy who likes to try things and, if they don't work, he'll shelve it and try something else.
"We've created a niche for the series, which will run 45 weeks next year and, I think, is the second-rated series on USA in prime time, because we've treated it as a two-hour show. We're always looking to improve the features," said Albert.
The gang has Tuesday off for election day but will be back Nov. 10 with two hours devoted exclusively to the Nov. 13 Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe fight. Albert interviewed Holyfield the other night and dragged some good stuff out of him.
* Even with the World Series an un-memorable memory due to its 12:51 a.m. conclusion Sunday morning, college football won't corner the viewer-interest market this weekend as tomorrow (1:30-6 p.m.) the Breeders' Cup dominates NBC, HBO has the Razor Ruddock vs. Lennox Lewis bout at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday (10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.), the New York City Marathon shows up on ABC.
The Breeders' Cup has turned into an Us vs. Them deal with 19 European horses on hand to take a run at the $10 million prize money spread over seven races. Unfortunately, Arazi, the horse that never runs, is among them, so expect an overemphasis in that direction.
Meanwhile, ABC is sticking with its time-honored theme of the marathon being far more than an athletic competition with its "there are a million stories in the Naked City" approach and, considering the quality of the field, it's probably right.
The importance of the Ruddock-Lewis fight is the victor is in line to get a shot at the Holyfield-Bowe winner. But so what, they all figure to face each other sooner or later?
The top football matchups have Georgia vs. Florida (ABC, 3:30 p.m.) and Colorado vs. Nebraska (ESPN, 4 p.m.).
* "Monday Night Football" probably reached its low point in 23 seasons during the Bills-Jets game the other night when NBC talk show host David Letterman showed up in the booth to kibitz. Good ol' Dave was embarrassingly unfunny, but it didn't matter since the appearance only served to hint that he'll probably end up on ABC one of these days.
* Bud Greenspan, writer-producer-director-grip-best boy for all the great Olympic material on over the last 30 years, wins the Graham McNamee Award of the American Sportscasters Association this year. The award goes to a guy who started out as a sportscaster, then went on to bigger and supposedly better things. Previous winners include Bryant Gumbel, Larry King, Walter Cronkite and a guy who did reconstructed Cubs games in Des Moines, Iowa, back in the 1930s, Dutch Reagan.
* Three cheers for Virginia, refusing to move tomorrow night's 7:30 game against Florida State to the middle of the afternoon to accommodate ABC. While the added revenue ($800,000 for the ACC) would have been nice, it would have thrown Parents' Weekend all out of whack and the folks in Charlottesville have too much class for that. They actually take their role as educators seriously, although coach George Welsh says, "I thought we should have changed it. . . . for the exposure for our kids." Nothing about recruiting purposes.
* Take that, Mr. Microphone: The Florida Marlins have taken on Gary Carter to do commentary on their baseball telecasts next season, leaving Jim Palmer to work on his soon-to-be-syndicated daytime gabfest.
* Boxing's range war is heating up. An HBO card featuring James Toney and Iran Barkley in non-title bouts Dec. 5 knocked out Don King's pay-per-view tripleheader comprised of title fights by Julio Cesar Chavez, Terry Norris and Michael Nunn.
* After losing about $30 million a year on its current NFL contract, NBC is saying it will drop pro football if it can't get a deal that guarantees a profit. This is called saber-rattling, of course, and you are cautioned that seeing is believing.