Jim Lampley: The Great Storyteller Meets New Audiences In New Ways

The deft linguistics, incisive blow-by-blow commentary and unbridled passion all made Jim Lampley the voice of boxing for decades, both in reality and on the silver screen. So when he co-hosted the viewer chat for the Saul “Canelo” AlvarezJermell Charlo fight on PPV.com last year, it was almost as if all was well with the boxing world.

At least for one night.

“I was working with [Boxing Scene reporter] Lance Pugmire – he’s an old friend of mine – and I enjoyed talking boxing with him,” Lampley said. “And doing the thing that we were doing was a slightly more public version of having a conversation about boxing. I liked the idea of not being heard, but rather making comments in print for people to read. It’s a slightly different thought process and context. It was something new for me, and it was fun.”

So fun that Lampley, 74, returned for David BenavidezDemetrius Andrade, and was kept on board through 2024 – meaning that on Friday, Lampley will be on duty (this time with Kevin Iole) for Anthony JoshuaFrancis Ngannou. For the former University of North Carolina professor, who taught a course entitled “Evolution of Storytelling in American Electronic News Media,” it’s a live-without-a-net way to show his students what he was trying to teach them.

“The irony is that, in my course… one of the things that I kept pointing out to my students was how storytelling forms evolve according to a lot of different organizational constructs,” Lampley said. “But the thing that has most dramatically affected them in the last 40, 50 years is electronic change. Every time there’s a significant electronic change, along comes an adjustment in media or a new medium of communication to take advantage of that. And the PPV.com live chat is exactly that.

“It’s a new form of media discourse brought about by text and the ability of people to instantaneously communicate with each other in print via text. Then I became an example of everything that I’ve talked to my students about in terms of seeing how electronic evolution drives storytelling evolution and creates new storytelling forms more or less on the fly.”

Being a part of that evolution is a good thing – not just for Lampley, but for fans new and old. Old, because Lampley called the fights of our boxing childhood on HBO. New, because a generation of fans who came along after HBO Boxing went off the air in 2018 will finally get to see what all the fuss was about. No one disputes that Lampley, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, should have received a full-time gig calling fights the second the lights went down on his most notable gig.

Unfortunately, that’s boxing, and if things made sense all the time, we’d be following the wrong sport. But back to the newer fans who never got to appreciate in the moment what Lampley brought to the table. A lot of those fans grew up watching another combat sport – mixed martial arts. Ironically, Lampley’s next gig features a former UFC champion in Ngannou, and considering that Lampley wasn’t exactly the biggest MMA fan during his time with HBO, it’s an interesting development leading up to Friday’s bout. Or is it?

“Well, I’m not an MMA fan more because I don’t know anything about it than because I have any particular resistance to any kind of fighting,” Lampley said. “I mean, if you’re covering fighting in some form or fashion, you can’t really be much of a moralist about it. There’s no good way to fight as opposed to a bad way to fight.”

It makes sense, especially since Lampley’s formative years were filled with icons of boxing. He recalls watching his first fight at six years old: Sugar Ray RobinsonBobo Olson. Lampley’s childhood hero was a young man named Cassius Clay, who later became a hero to millions as Muhammad Ali.

“A lot of my perceptions and ardent affections for sports are based in boxing,” said Lampley, who actually got his first boxing gig because an executive at ABC wanted to get rid of him. What better way to do that than to put him on the boxing beat?

“Somehow, I managed to survive that process,” Lampley said with a laugh. “And although I did wind up leaving ABC Sports, that executive had opened up an entirely new tributary and backdrop for my career by assigning me to a sport that he thought was going to bury me. So I’m open to ongoing changes in combat sports, just as I was open to ongoing changes in storytelling and the teaching of Comm 490 here at Carolina.”

Having Iole, one of the top of all combat sports journalists, alongside him this week will aid in the transition. But as Lampley put it, a fight is a fight, and few know that better than him.

So was he shocked when Ngannou dropped Tyson Fury and nearly beat him before ending up on the wrong side of a split decision last October?

“I never had any experience professionally covering MMA and calling MMA events, so I don’t know as much about it,” he said. “But if you watched Ngannou in his nearly successful effort against Fury, you can see that he has aptitude; that he understands some of what it is he most needs to do to succeed in a boxing ring. And these kinds of events get attention, draw an audience and make money because people are interested in the comparison value. How did the MMA guy do against the boxer? How did the boxer do against the MMA guy? It’s fuel for discussion, and fuel for discussion is the bread and butter on which we live.”

Will lightning strike twice, though? Can Joshua, who has been erratic in his performances ever since he was upset by Andy Ruiz Jr. in 2019, get back to being the “AJ” who halted Wladimir Klitschko in 2017 or, at 34, are his best days behind him? And from the Ngannou side, did he come close to beating the worst version of Fury, or did he actually show up with the right game plan, attitude and skills to nearly beat the Brit?

“That’s the heart of the question, isn’t it?” Lampley said. “That’s the fundamental question on which everything in Ngannou’s life is now centered going forward. Was that bad Fury or was that good Ngannou? We don’t know that answer yet. And Joshua is going to help show us that answer.

“Obviously, Joshua’s a different kind of fighter than Fury, but logic tells you Fury didn’t lose twice to [Oleksandr] Usyk – Joshua did. So if there’s an opportunity here for groundbreaking achievement and expansion of his career, that opportunity belongs to Ngannou. If Joshua wins, he was supposed to; if Ngannou wins, he wasn’t supposed to. And here we go toward continued new groundbreaking developments in the ongoing narrative of boxing versus MMA.”

But are we going to get “It Happened!” 2.0, I ask, referring to Lampley’s iconic call of George Foreman’s improbable knockout of Michael Moorer in 1994.

He laughs.

“That phrase is now bottled in bond and licensed for use in the writing of my autobiography for a New York publisher, a process that’s ongoing right now,” Lampley said. “So never again will I be saying ‘it happened’ on the air. That has to stay protected now.”