Friday, December 6, 2013
The day Merchant met Mandela
By Dan Rafael
Nelson Mandela gave Larry Merchant the thrill of a career when he agreed to talk shop before a fight.
As a sports columnist, author and broadcaster, Larry Merchant has spent the better part of 60 years conducting interviews with a who's who of boxing luminaries, not to mention all of the other famous figures he dealt with during his newspaper days.
But of the thousands of interviews Merchant has done, there is one that stands out as his most memorable: a 2001 sitdown at the home of Nelson Mandela, the South African hero and former president who died on Thursday at age 95.
"I would say it's probably the most memorable I've done in more than half a century -- say, 60 years -- of doing this," Merchant said after hearing news of Mandela's passing.
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After all, it's not every day that Merchant has an opportunity to sit down with a world-renowned hero and receive instruction on the proper way to throw a left hook. More on that in a minute.
Merchant, then an analyst for HBO, had gone to South Africa for the network's coverage of then-heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis' first fight with Hasim Rahman, which resulted in Rahman's massive upset via fifth-round knockout.
But before the fight, as part of a pre-taped segment for the broadcast, Merchant interviewed Mandela -- a serious boxing fan and former amateur fighter -- at his home in Mozambique, where he spent a lot of time after he was no longer president.
"I had somewhere read that he had been an amateur boxer," Merchant said, "and so when we found out we were going to cover that fight in Johannesburg it triggered that pathway in my brain and we set in motion the process to get an interview with him."
It was touch-and-go as to whether the interview would take place. It got to the point that network officials thought it wouldn't happen. But the morning before the fight, Merchant got a call from a producer, waking him up and telling him the approval had come through.
"The understanding was, we weren't going to be talking politics, that we would be talking boxing," Merchant said.
They flew to Mozambique and arrived at Mandela's home a few hours later.
"He came into the room where we had set up the interview looking regal, like there was an aura about him that matched his reputation and his achievements as a powerful political figure," Merchant said. "He was the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln of South Africa. He was very friendly and gracious. He had watched many of our fights, so he knew who I was.
"He said to me when we met, 'It's an honor for me to meet you,' and I said back to him, 'It's much more of an honor for me to meet you,' and that was the opening of our meeting."
Merchant said there are three things that stand out in his memory about the interview.
"One was when I asked him about Muhammad Ali and about what he meant to him while he was in prison," Merchant said. "He talked about how important Ali was as a huge international figure throughout Africa, and particularly to him as a former boxer and boxing fan.
"The second thing was that at some point in the interview he sat there and showed me how to throw a left hook. If fireworks could go off in my head, if rainbows could go off in my head, I couldn't have been happier watching Nelson Mandela demonstrate how you throw a left hook and roll your shoulder into it, and he rolled his shoulder into it. He was talking about the correct way to box and how to throw punches."
The third memory Merchant recalled was when he asked Mandela about how he reconciled his beliefs about non-violence and his love for boxing.
"He gave as perfect an answer as was possible," Merchant said. "He said, 'Boxers do it voluntarily.' What he was saying was, he was in favor of political non-violence as a way of changing South Africa because South Africans didn't have a choice in the system of apartheid."
A couple of years later, Merchant got an unexpected message from Mandela when he ran into a South African journalist he was acquainted with at a fight they both attended.
"This journalist came to me and said that Mandela had wanted me to know that he liked this one particular interview I had done with Bernard Hopkins," Merchant said, speaking of a particularly contentious interview he had with Hopkins on HBO after the fighter had beaten Morrade Hakkar, an utterly unworthy mandatory challenger.
"The word I got back from Mandela was that he appreciated the fact that I let Hopkins answer my tough questions in his own way," Merchant said. "It suggested that he was a real boxing fan. I don't know any other significant head of state in modern times who could have been considered a serious boxing fan."
As memorable as interviewing Mandela was for Merchant, there was one disappointment.
Although he has a photo displayed in his home of them sitting across from each other during the interview, Merchant said that when it was over, he and Mandela stood close to each other in a fighting pose.
"But the photographer blew it," Merchant said. "I had in my head an image of blowing that up as big as it could possibly be blown up to put in my office, but it never happened."