SAN DIEGO, Calif., April 20, 2019 – Boxing hasn’t been immune to the radical shifts in the media landscape in recent years. New technology, new initiatives, and new priorities have shuffled the lineup.
ESPN re-emerged as a key player in 2017 through its deal with Top Rank Boxing, bundling its broadcast channels with new digital streaming service ESPN+. ESPN worked with Top Rank previously from 1980 to 1996. Its first broadcast under its new deal was the ‘Battle of Brisbane’ between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn on July 2, 2017.
Broadcast personnel assignments have also shifted. In 2018, veteran broadcaster Joe Tessitore was teamed with former welterweight world champion Timothy Bradley Jr., and undefeated world light heavyweight champion Andre Ward as the lead team for ESPN’s biggest boxing cards, including ESPN’s first pay per view event featuring Terence Crawford vs. Amir Khan on Saturday from Madison Square Garden.
Ringside Seat had the opportunity to speak with Tessitore, Bradley, and Ward about their preparation, and the transition for Bradley and Ward from the ring to being ringside.
“We just got done with all our production meetings with the fighters,” said Tessitore. “We have a card worthy of a pay per view card. We feel like we are going to over-deliver to the fans on Saturday night.
“In recent years you haven’t been able to say that about the sport,” added Tessitore. “Whether it’s living in the corner of premium cable, or whether living in the world of pay per view – We feel we are going to serve the fan. That’s first and foremost.
Bradley and Ward learning a new skillset
“This is our obviously our first full year of being a broadcast team together in a three man booth,” said Tessitore. “I’m just coming off of a “Monday Night Football” season with a three man booth, which was highly scrutinized. It’s been a cottage industry going back to the days of Meredith, Gifford, and Cosell.
“In a span of one year, I’ve had this experience of a retired Hall of Famer coming to broadcasting in a three man booth in one sport, and retired Hall of Famers coming to broadcasting in a three man booth in another,” explained Tessitore, referring to Bradley and Ward.
Bradley, who has experience working for HBO Boxing and who called the Pacquiao vs. Horn inaugural broadcast, said the most difficult thing for him about making the transition from boxing to broadcasting was his obligation to the fighters in the ring.
“For me, the toughest thing was not giving away the fighters,” said Bradley. “When you break the fighters down, sometimes you can say a little too much about them, and expose them. That’s been hard for me. Just the flow, the flow alone has been really tough. Very challenging for me.”
The recently retired Ward had multiple opportunities to moonlight as a broadcaster during his active boxing career, allowing him to ease into his new full time role. “I worked for HBO for many years, Showtime back in the day. I actually started off at the World Series of Boxing. I would fly to LA, I did it for free just to get the reps in.
“But this is a whole ‘nother level in terms of the platform, in terms of how many shows I’m actually calling,” said Ward. “I would do maybe five shows a year with HBO.” Ward says the expectations from ESPN and the quality of the product causes him to raise the bar.
Ward values veteran Tessitore’s guidance
Ward says he’s relishing his role, and deeply appreciates the guidance he’s received from the veteran Tessitore. “Joe Tessitore, man I tell him all the time I’m just so grateful for the mentorship. Joe Tessitore is who he is, we all know who he is, what he’s accomplished and what he’s currently doing. He’ll be in the middle of his prep, he’ll stop typing and look over to us, and talk to us for however long we need to talk, then resume his preparation.”
Both Ward and Bradley say broadcasting provides an ideal transition from their previous roles as professional athletes, providing the opportunity to work hard at improving their skills and reaching for the highest levels of performance.
“I’ll speak for me and I’ll venture to speak for Tim, too,” said Ward. “This is good for us, coming where we come from, the competitiveness, the need to have a mark and try to meet that mark. It’s been good for me because that same competitiveness, that same — I like to call myself a recovering perfectionist (laughing).”
Ward admits he can be hypersensitive about his mistakes. “Joe will just look at me say, I got a glimpse of the fighter Andre Ward and what his trainer had to deal with.’ That’s just who I am.”
Avoiding the temptation to get back in ring
Bradley agreed his ringside role helps him avoid the temptation to return to the ring. Bradley says he continues to work on his approach. “It’s hard sometimes not to be a little bit too critical on the fighters coming up, and also the fighters in the ring. It’s hard to really find that balance for me, when I’m just a little bit too critical on what they’re not doing, or what they can improve on. I’m still trying to find that balance where I’m giving praise, and I’m also being a little bit critical on them.”
Ward said, “It’s good for me to have this. Just emotionally, I would say, it’s good, I would say I have some nights I’m calling a fight and I say, ‘Eh, I’m glad I’m on this side of the ropes, and I’m not inside the ring. I don’t’ want to deal with THAT anyone.’
“Other nights I’m like, ‘Damn, I wish I was the one walking out from, that curtain, I wish I was the one they were talking about.’ So It’s a process, but it’s a process that all of us guys, who are going to retire at some point, we’re going to go through this whether we’re over the hill, or retired too late, or we retired at the right time. I’m embracing it, I’m happy to be a part of it. It’s good for me to have a challenge at this point of my life.”
Tessitore says Ward and Bradley are comfortable and natural in their roles and as part of the broadcast team, sounding like they would sitting on the couch at home watching. “And it happened right away with them,” said Tessitore. “It didn’t have to evolve. It didn’t have to grow. Yes, as every week goes by there’s refinement and things are smoothed out. Their TV acumen and skill set and television IQ fully develops … They’re so comfortable that it makes my job really, really easy.”
Tessitore’s advice for Bradley and Ward: ‘Eyes up’
Tessitore called Ward and Bradley “coachable,” just as they have been for decades as professional athletes. His best advice to them? It’s the same advice he gives to all new analysts no matter the sport. “Broadcast with your eyes up. Just looking, being aware, and reacting. They reason they’re hired is they’re two of the foremost experts in the world … When they broadcast with their eyes up, and see and say and tell us the why and how and what to look for, they’re excellent which is what they’ve done.”
Tessitore says he enjoys listening to Bradley and Ward interact, and sometimes he sees his job as staying out of their way. “What you often get, I sit back and listen to these great champions just talk and observe. Then when it’s necessary, I will get in and give you the blow by blow or the next storyline,” said Tessitore.
Tessitore says he enjoys Bradley’s lighthearted approach. “Tim is one of the ultimate characters. He’s so joyful. He’s absolutely irreverent. He doesn’t care what he says or how he says it, he’s going to be his natural self.”
Tessitore says Ward plays off Bradley with a different and complimentary skill set. “Andre is so analytical, he’s so smart, he’s so cerebral, he has a boxing computer for a brain …So I couldn’t more thrilled with both of these guys.”
Grades: ‘B-pluses to A-minuses’
Asked to grade Bradley and Ward, Tessitore said, “They are B-pluses to A-minuses, with an ascent and a trajectory which will undoubtedly make them straight-A broadcasters for years to come. I truly believe that. I’m honored to work with them at this stage of my career where I can play a little bit of a role as mentor and lodestar … You’re about to see a long run of two guys who are going to be kicking ass and broadcasting boxing on television for the next 20 years.”
“The position they hold in boxing, the boxing landscape has drastically changed in the last 12 months,” said Tessitore of Ward and Bradley. “HBO World Championship Boxing is out of business; ESPN Top Rank is in business. Seats held for years and years by so many familiar faces, from Larry Merchant on through, are now held by these two men. And they’re more than worthy of it. I have a feeling that we’ll be having this conversation, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 20 years from now, as now multiple generations will go forward as fight fans with Tim and Andre being the voices and brains and face of the sport. That’s a very good thing for the sport. Because they celebrate the athlete. They’re able to be critical.. They are able to be analytical. They give you a reason to watch.”
Bradley recently drew plenty of attention during a March 24 fight broadcast, making it rain Benjamins on the broadcast set to hammer home his point.
Bradley assured me it was his own money, and he carefully counted it to be sure he got it all back. “You know I had to, you know I had to (laugh). I had to count it all, absolutely. That was the first thing my wife said when I got home – “did you get that all back?” laughed Bradley.
As Fight Night approaches, Tessitore said, “I am so sick of hearing my voice on a 30 second promo commercial on ESPN this week! I’m sure everyone else is too,” he laughed.
“But it shows an unbelievable commitment by this network to put the sport forward the way it’s always should have been in the course of the last 25 to 30 years. The role this sport now plays on the landscape of American sports is back to what it always was, very mainstream,” concluded Tessitore.
Tessitore, Bradley, and Ward call Crawford vs. Khan for ESPN Pay Per View on Saturday, April 20, at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.