Merchant on the ‘theater of the unexpected’ and the heavyweights

158405737.0 - Merchant on the ‘theater of the unexpected’ and the heavyweights

The longtime HBO analyst gives his thoughts on Ruiz over Joshua, and coming up with “the theater of the unexpected” back in 1981.

The phrase came to him back in Oct. 1981. He was watching Marvin Hagler take on Mustafa Hamsho at the Rosemont Horizon near Chicago.

Now, the specifics were not being summoned as I chatted with HBO analyst emeritus Larry Merchant on the phone to get his take on that wondrous and majestic shocker of a stoppage by the Snickers-scarfing California-based boxer Andy Ruiz Jr on Saturday evening.

“It was many, many years ago,” Merchant shared. “A Marvin Hagler fight. It was a phrase that came to my head somehow. Suburb of Chicago.”

Maybe it came in an undercard scrap? Nah. Maybe the opponent was having some moments and was threatening to hand a shocker loss, Larry said.

Right. Hamsho was a Brooklyn-based Syrian southpaw coming in off back to back split decision wins over Curtis Parker and Alan Minter.

“My lungs hurt me the whole time,” said Hamsho after the Parker effort, and that wouldn’t have been inspiring to people thinking Hagler would get derailed.

“No pretensions to boxing skill,” assessed the Times’ Red Smith in a Hamsho write-up.

Were expectations a tad low for the challenger? Perhaps, Larry puzzled aloud.

“Hamsho did score with lunging hooks of his own and his right-hand jab occasionally snapped Hagler’s head back,” an account in the Times relayed.

And a phrase for the ages was born, though Hagler did the expected and got his 53rd win, stopping the Syrian in round 11.

Ah but on Saturday, it was the whole nine — an occasion for a sport so often tantalizing and then disappointing, which sticks forever in the mind of those onsite, who all came to the building thinking they’d see one thing, but were instead presented with a whole ‘nother deal.

Fate threw one of those spitballs, and Anthony Joshua swung and missed, and Andy Ruiz Jr became an overnight sensation, adding 500,000 Instagram followers in the days after, 10 years after his pro debut.

“A lot of people said coming in that Joshua was a majestic-looking heavyweight, a super heavyweight with an appealing personality, that he might have what it takes to become an international star,” Merchant said.

And then Ruiz spoke, and declared that his vision of the script was different.

“I think now how interesting the division is — Wilder and Fury, and I think Ruiz is an addition to that, and this makes it more interesting,” Merchant said. “And the Mexicans and he’s an American kid, a pudgy kid. He’s really strong, knows how to fight, and you’ll see matches with these other guys, and you see the rematch becomes unexpectedly intriguing.”

We talked about how the Ruiz win is sparking conversations about race and ethnicity and cultural identity, and how that is a good thing.

“He’s an American kid of Mexican heritage, and so he adds something. You have Fury, of Irish Traveller background, Joshua has some African background, you have Wilder, from the South, where some pretty legendary heavyweights have come from,” the ace analyst stated.

Yes, the pot is fuller than it was, melting together in a fashion mostly unforeseen, but promising tasty appeal.

We pondered about chins. Do they get better? Was AJ maybe not permanently mis-wired, perhaps?

“I think he was disoriented by a shot over the ear that he never really recovered from, but he performed well in the fourth and fifth. I’m not sure if he recovered, though,” Merchant said. “He recovered from a shot from Wladimir Klitschko and won by KO. I don’t know if he was taking Ruiz seriously enough. But that’s the job of a champion, to take everyone seriously. Maybe he wanted to duplicate Deontay Wilder’s last fight.

“The rematch will tell us everything. Unfortunately, Buster Douglas never had a rematch with Mike Tyson. But you had Ali and Liston, and Ali stopped him. And the Louis versus Schmeling rematch, and Louis stopped him. So on a rematch, I’m as curious as everyone else is to see what both guys are made of. The rematch will knock Brexit off the Brit pages!

“Truthfully, it was looking Saturday like the fat kid had the edge over the sculpted kid! So, what happens when he fights the other guys? But I’m just happy the division is alive and well!”

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