All right, sports TV fans, admit it. The forces of greed -- otherwise known as pay television -- have scored a major victory. In one master stroke Wednesday night, the filthy rich new medium proved that it can televise a major league event in a major league way.
That's saying a lot about the pay-for-view crowd, whose idea of televising a big fight used to be to install one camera 100 yards out and hire Don King as the impartial analyst. With the Leonard-Hearns show, closed-circuit boxing grew up. We still may go broke, but we're finally getting a class act for our money from the get-rich-quick promoters.
Before you start screaming about how you couldn't hear anything at Capital Centre or how the picture looked like it was being screened through a Coke bottle at Cole Field House, let's get a few things straight. The good guys for once were the promoters. The bad guys were the arenas.
Remember all those dim-screen, nitwit-talking theater TV fights for which we paid $20 or so in the past?
Well, here was a telecast that might have received an Emmy if aired on free TV. It had almost everything: candid, up-close camera work; incisive, witty and nearly prophetic commentary, and rare between-round replays. It had the best production and announcing team in boxing -- signed, sealed and delivered, strangely enough, with the blessing of NBC.
But a cheapo act -- here is where the greed begins to grind -- was turned in by Capital Centre. The arena had a $550,000 gross -- its biggest in history -- yet it couldn't spring for extra loudspeakers around the house so folks could hear the TV commentators amid the din.
Worse, a $550,000 gross apparently wasn't enough for Capital Centre. It aired house commercials after every other round early in the fight, thus blacking out some of the very replays that set the closed-circuit telecast apart from free TV. Gross behavior, indeed. The Centre didn't treat its patrons like $30 customers.
As for the production and commentary, which too few people heard, a round of applause is in order for Shelly Finkel and Dan Duva, the greenhorn promoters. They had the foresight to stick NBC producer Mike Weisman in the truck and put Don Dunphy, Marv Albert and Ferdie Pacheco behind the mike.
Weisman, the most creative sports producer in free TV, had wanted to include a series of slap-dash-and-dazzle features on the ambiance of Las Vegas, the history of the welterweight division, celebrities at ringside and so forth. Duva reined him in, saying closed-circuit boxing fans want action with no frills attached.
So blood 'n guts was what we got during three prelims and the final. The feeling here is that, with some notable exceptions, the coverage rated A-plus.
Because network TV sells beer and shaving cream between the final bell of one round and the opening bell of the next, we never see replays except for knockdowns and kayoes. When Capital Centre wasn't hawking its wares, Wednesday's replays were able to focus on Hearns' jab, say, or Leonard's footwork. Many of them were miscued by novice director Frank Belmont, who just happens to be Dan Duva's cousin, but we can thank Weisman they made the sceeen.
It was also Weisman's idea to constantly impose the clock on the screen and to bring in Dunphy, the venerable voice of the "Friday Night Fights" a generation ago. He helped give the fight a certain presence, a kind of nostalgic air that testified to its place in sporting history. Dunphy rattled on at points, but he and Pacheco, who provided most of the between-rounds analysis, proved keen, nevertheless.
In the 13th round, for example, Dunphy noted that Hearns was ahead on points and "may get careless," as he did in Rounds 6 and 7. A seer couldn't have put it better. Then there was Pacheco, rapidly becoming the best boxing analyst around, who told us that Leonard knew his only chance was for a knockout in the last three rounds.
Pacheco's weakness at the mike is his impetuosity. He makes up for it in humor.
During the first prelim, the cameras panned to Richard Pryor and Burt Reynolds seated together at ringside. "He looks wonderful, thank God, after the surgery he went through," Ferdie said of Pryor. "And now we see Burt Reynolds, who has not had any surgery."
Later, while Marvis Frazier was opening a tomato can named Guy Casale, Pacheco mispronounced the latter's name but turned it into a precious turn of phrase: "Notice how Marvis buckles Casale. Uh oh, I almost said 'Cosell' . . . (brief pause) . . . It must have been wishful thinking."
So there you have it. A new age has begun for boxing on pay TV -- so long as Mr. Electric Hair or Bob Arum don't control the plug. For the first time, quality reigns.
It merely falls to local arenas to string some speakers in the rafters. If they don't, Weisman and his peers should provide an avalanche of graphics. For starters, why not a split-screen graphic after each round showing how Dunphy, Pacheco and Albert scored it? That's not asking much for $30 and 90-minute traffic jams.
ABC's lips are sealed by contract, but independent sources say it will run a tape of the fight at a date to be announced next month; estimated rights payment: $1.9 million . . . Several arenas around the country were unable to unscramble the TV picture out of Las Vegas, leading to great unhappiness and several calls for the police . . . Some 5,000 viewers in Tarrytown, N.Y., became upset, yelling obscenities and demanding their money back when the picture fuzzed up and then faded away altogether . . . In Reno, Nev., the Onslow Casino pirated the picture off a Canadian satellite (the signal was not scrambled north of the border) and let patrons in for free. The picture lasted four rounds until it, too, fuzzed up . . . Served Onslow right, because the neighboring Harrah's Casino charged folks $25 to see the fight off the U.S. feed. One Onslow customer suggested it hire a lawyer to sue. According to UPI, he couldn't figure out who should be liable . . . In the San Francisco-Oakland area, a foulup in the cable TV system somehow put the fight on KPIX, Channel 5, a VHF station. One woman called the station in anger, saying the fight had pre-empted her favorite movie, "All Quiet on the Western Front."