Reusse: Boxing lifer Bernstein finds Minneapolis Armory to be ‘a revelation’

·5 min read

Lerner Newspapers was a chain of weeklies and semi-weeklies around the Chicago area. Lerner was in business from 1926 to 2005, with 54 publications at its peak.

Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist, got his start there. So did Ted Allen, one of the five original cast members for Bravo's ground-breaking, mega-hit "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Al Bernstein, TV's trusted boxing man since the early days of cable, also learned the media business at Lerner.

"I loved sports; I wanted to be a sportswriter at one of the Chicago dailies," Bernstein said this week. "I played for the Sun-Times softball team, made some contacts, but I couldn't get one of those jobs.

"I covered everything at Lerner, and worked my way up to managing editor."

Bernstein was raised on the South Side. Chicago's park district had a boxing program for kids and Bernstein participated. He did "OK" in a handful of bouts.

"I was a big boxing fan by age 9 or 10," he said. "I remember listening to the Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson fight. The first fighter that I loved was Patterson, and that was exciting."

It had to be the second fight in 1960, when Floyd flattened Ingo in the fifth round with a left hook so vicious it was described as "coming from the floor'' by ringside reporters.

Bernstein turned his boxing passion into the book "Boxing for Beginners" in 1978. He was also writing for Boxing Illustrated and The Ring, two major boxing publications.

ESPN had been launched in 1979. "ESPN wasn't Broadway then — it was more like community theater," Bernstein said. "They were launching cable, something that most of country didn't have. You could only show so much Australian Rules football. Boxing was a sport ESPN tried to hang its hat on, and then college basketball."

Basically, ESPN was putting anything and anyone on the air that it could get. "Somebody there knew that I had written about boxing," Bernstein said. "They had Thomas Hearns as the analyst on an early fight. Thomas was a naturally quiet guy, which isn't the best for fight analysis.

"So, in 1980, ESPN said, 'Could you sit there next to Thomas and jump in when it's needed?' "

And 42 years later, Al's still there, ready to jump in, although since 2003 that has generally been on Showtime. He will be on the telecast on Saturday night from the Minneapolis Armory, when 122-pounders Stephen Fulton and Daniel Roman fight for two title belts, after 168-pounders David Morrell Jr. and Kalvin Henderson fight for Morrell's title.

"When this started, nobody knew who I was," Bernstein said. "I couldn't just sit there and evaluate the fight, like a real fighter. I approached it then, and still do, as a journalist … to offer information and blend that into what's happening in the fight."

ESPN's and Bernstein's start with boxing came through the tie-in between the network and Bob Arum's Top Rank boxing. It was an excellent romance for a time.

Top Rank and ESPN split in 1997. Bernstein stayed at ESPN until 2003, when he switched to Showtime. Two decades later, rival HBO has bowed out of boxing and Showtime — even with the challenges faced by premium networks — has done well with its Championship Boxing series.

"Stephen Espinoza, our president for Showtime Sports, stuck with it and we have had a couple of amazing years with outstanding fights," Bernstein said. "One of those was last Saturday, when Gervonta Davis knocked out Rolando Romero on pay-per-view.

"There was a record sellout crowd in Barclays Center, and Davis gave them a show."

A boxing manager in attendance told me this week the crowd in Brooklyn was the "roughest" he had seen in U.S. boxing, including the two louts that had to be forcefully removed from the seats assigned to Madonna and a companion.

We should be a bit more fun-loving at the Armory on Saturday night. Bernstein was here for Showtime on March 26, when Australian Tim Tszyu made an impressive U.S. debut.

"The Armory was a revelation for me," Bernstein said. "It's a perfect-sized venue and a regular schedule of fights certainly seems to have awakened the boxing crowd in Minnesota."

That said, we've yet to get the whole Bernstein experience here. He has lived in Las Vegas since 1989, and has done "boxing parties" that feature his singing: blues, a little country, standards, and some original ditties with a boxing theme.

"The first show I did was at the Olympic Lounge in Caesar's for three nights before the Hagler-Leonard fight in 1987," Bernstein said. "I still do some little shows at the Tuscany Hotel in Vegas. All for fun."

Do we have a lounge in downtown Minneapolis? Somebody has to book Al next time Showtime is here for boxing at the Armory.

About the fights

Saturday's full Premier Boxing Champions card starts at 5 p.m. The Showtime telecast begins at 8 p.m., but it will start with a replay of Gervonta Davis' 6th round TKO of Rolando Romero on pay-per-view last Saturday. The Morrell-Henderson fight probably won't get in the ring until 9 p.m., followed by Fulton-Roman. According to promoters, there will be a live fight in the Armory while Davis-Romero replay is airing on Showtime. Tickets are available through the Armory box office at 612-315-3965 and online.