September 2000 issue
Kenny Anchors the Ship: An Exclusive Interview with ESPN's Brian
|By JD Vena
In fall of 1998, ESPN re-formatted its weekly boxing
program. Ever since its inception, Friday Night Fights has not only
shown some of the most memorable fights over the past few years, it has
brought the best in televised boxing news coverage, which boxing fans crave.
It has become a vehicle for covering and uncovering the nuts & bolts of
the game. With a cast of insightful boxing personalities such as Teddy
Atlas and Max Kellerman, Friday Night Fights has delivered the kind of high
ratings and quality coverage that you've seen with Baseball Tonight.
That's probably why ESPN chose the versatile Long Island born, Brian Kenny,
the host of Baseball Tonight, as the studio host for Friday Night Fights.
One can see from his commentary that he not only possesses insight into
baseball, football and hockey but that he also possesses keen knowledge for
the sweet science.
The married, father of five Kenny has done a remarkable job
as one of the major weekly boxing voices in television. If you didn't
know already, after reading what he has to say about boxing and broadcasting,
you may have a better idea as to why Kenny anchors boxing's battleship.
JD Vena: Why don't we start off with your broadcasting background. What
did you do before you joined ESPN?
BRIAN KENNY: I was a general reporter for a small station in Long Island for a
year. Then I became a sports reporter there for another year. Then I went to a
station in upstate New York (WRNN-TV in Kingston, NY) and was there for 11
years. That's where I actually got into boxing. I use to train at the Catskill
Boxing Club. By the time I got there, Cus D'Amato had passed away, Mike Tyson
was there and Kevin Rooney was training him. Teddy Atlas was gone but Jay
Bright was there and a lot of good amateurs. It was a thriving club.
JV: Was Mike Tyson already the phenomenon he has become? How old was he
BK: He was 20 then and getting ready to fight Marvis Frazier.
JV: Having been around him, what was your impression of Tyson at that time?
BK: Well he's a dichotomy. He's got a lot of things going on. I always felt
that he was a decent guy and got along well with him. Anyone who knows him is
actually conflicted with their emotions because there are a lot of endearing
qualities about him. He's not a monster or a thug. He certainly comes off that
way to a lot of people. Recently, he doesn't mind portraying himself that way.
But at the time, when he was on his way up, there was a lot of endearing
qualities about him.
JV: What influenced you to join ESPN?
BK: I was looking to move from the market I was in to another station.
ESPN was my first choice and when this opened up I took it up.
JV: Was your previous involvement with boxing what interested you in becoming
a host for Friday Night Fights?
BK: Well I was already here as an anchor and I had a lot of interest in
covering boxing. At the time, Charlie Steiner had stepped away from his boxing
duties. He was the Sport Center host for boxing throughout the 90's. I was
writing boxing columns for ESPN.com and I was letting ESPN know that I'd be
interested in the position if there was an opening. Fortunately, it wasn't too
long thereafter where they had the idea for the new show. I didn't know what
they really had in mind at the time, but I started auditioning people so they
had a pretty good idea of what I would be able to do on the air talking about
JV: One may get the impression that ESPN is like a fraternity. Do you
enjoy working with ESPN? What's it like working with the likes of
Charlie Steiner, Stuart Scott, Robin Roberts and Chris Berman?
BK: People here are pretty close. I've run across more egos in local
television than I have here. Maybe it's because there's so many anchors that
everyone just keeps each other in check, or that we just have a camaraderie.
The working relationships here are very good between all of the anchors. There
are some things here and there but very few and far between. I could go person
to person, from Chris Berman on down. There are just good quality people here.
JV: Is ESPN the ultimate place to wind up for a sports broadcaster?
BK: This was definitely the place I wanted to be. It seemed to have all of the
ingredients that I was looking for in a broadcasting operation. They (EPSN)
take things seriously, but not too seriously. There was just a high level of
dedication that you could see and a level of excellence and that's all born
true. Everything I thought ESPN was before I came is what it turned out to be.
JV: How difficult is it to host or anchor a show with an earpiece and someone
telling you what to say? How much is communicated to you during a Friday
Night Fights broadcast? How much is improvised?
BK: Well it's all un-scripted. We have a run-down of things that we talk about
and we have to order for them. The director has to know what graphics to put
behind you, what tapes to roll, when Max is going to get a chance to talk and
when I'm bringing in Teddy and when to mix it up with all three of us. The
format is there but everything is un-scripted. They are constantly in my ear
communicating with me and that's the trick of being a host. You have to be
able to relay info and be able to speak while people are in your ear. There's
a lot of traffic but after doing the show for two years now, it's probably the
easiest part of the week. We all know each other and have great communication.
JV: Max Kellerman hosted the show back in April when you were out covering the
Lennox Lewis-Michael Grant heavyweight title fight. During the main
event between Dana Rosenblatt and Jimmy Crawford, an accidental cut ended the
bout during the second round leaving a lot of time to fill the show.
Fortunately, Kellerman was up to the challenge and handled it with grace.
Does an occurrence like this cause panic for a host? Or is it
challenging and enjoyable for a host?
BK: The longest time we had to go on the air without a fight was about 25
minutes and we had a great time. There's no shortage of things to say. The
hardest thing is to cram everything into the short period of time we have.
The times that we've had an immense amount of time have been great. It's
unfortunate to have to go over news that isn't on the "A List" of
stories to talk about. Our best stories, the juiciest stories are at the top
of the show. By the end of the show we move down the ladder of importance.
When suddenly you have 20 minutes to fill at the end of the show, you're not
filling it with the most interesting and topical of things. That's the
unfortunate part. But the fortunate part is that you get to explore topics in
depth that you rarely get a chance to do on television. That's the real treat.
JV: Some time ago, I had a conversation with Kellerman where he told me that
baseball, not boxing is his favorite sport. Which is your favorite sport
and if it's not boxing, why isn't it?
BK: Baseball is my favorite sport. I just grew up watching it, playing it and
loving it. I didn't box until I was 22. I have insight into boxing and I enjoy
it but I guess I just have to go with what roots me to my childhood and that's
JD: Is boxing capable of becoming your favorite sport?
BK: No. When I think of baseball, I think of playing little league baseball on
the streets or in high school with my friends. I think of my grandfather out
in the back yard listening to Skooter and Bill White with the transistor radio
or my father taking me to Yankee Stadium, all of those things.
JD: What strategies do you feel would help the boxing becoming a credible
BK: You need to come up with an entire league where there's a system with
structure. Boxing could thrive so well with some sort of structure. I don't
know where that would come from. It could come from a national boxing
commission or it could come from some sort of league. Maybe you could do
something like Vince McMahon is doing with the XFL and have your own boxing
league. Certainly, that could be done and boxing would thrive and become a big
time sport once again. It could become a big time sport if you had 12 or even
16 weight classes. They could even keep the "junior" weight
divisions as long as you have one champion per each. People would be able to
identify all of the champions and know them and get to know them. As it stands
now, people in the mainstream view boxing as a joke. It seems so corrupt and
in many ways they're right. But once you get to know the athletes, it's a
wonderful sport to follow. The athletes are the reason why we follow sports.
JV: During your coverage of the Lewis - Grant fight, you mentioned that not
only are the fans getting uptight with the sanctioning bodies, but so are the
managers and promoters. Where do think sanctioning bodies will be in
five years? Do you think they'll remain powerful?
BK: One can only hope that they're gone. We've made remarkable progress (on
the show) diminishing what the sanctioning bodies do. I never mention
sanctioning bodies unless I'm talking about them being investigated. I won't
legitimize them because of what we've seen from the IBF. I don't care what
they're convicted of or not convicted of. The evidence was presented and
brought out in the trial. We all saw it. We don't have to convict or find
someone not guilty. We know how corrupt they are and you would have to present
a good case that would prove to me that the other major sanctioning bodies
aren't as corrupt as they are. We don't mention them on the air and you're
starting to see a trend with the fans and other writers. I can see it on the
Cyber Boxing Zone and other web sites and in boxing magazines diminishing what
the sanctioning bodies stand for and not giving them legitimacy.
JV: A lot of media personalities have always said that, "there's nothing
like the pure excitement before a big fight." Compare a big fight
like Mosley-de la Hoya to other mega-events like the World Series or the
Stanley Cup Playoffs.
BK: Well, there's a little more excitement about a big fight because it's more
personal. You're talking about something more serious than winning or
losing a game. It's about, "Who is going to get beat up?" and
there's something very personal about that. You're talking about a guy
that you've followed and covered for a couple of years and you're wondering,
"Who beats whom?" There is a little more electricity
surrounding the event because of that. With Shane Mosley and Oscar de la
Hoya, you had your theories about what would happen and the probability of all
of the scenarios. But when they're finally ready to meet, you wonder,
"What is going to happen?" And you don't know and the fighters
don't know. Lewis and Grant was the same thing. Everybody now
says, "You could see that coming," but at the time not many people
could foresee it happening the way it did!
You wondered if Grant really had some sort of shot, and when it happens
it's still pretty electrifying.
JV: What has been some of your favorite moments and fights while broadcasting
Friday Night Fights?
BK: When you have a great venue, the fights seem to have more significance.
I think the biggest and best venue we've had was at the Molson Center where
Davey Hilton and Stephane Oullet first fought. In their first fight,
Hilton was trailing on all of the three judges' cards. I believe I had
it nine rounds to two in favor of Oullet. If you may recall, Hilton
knocked Oullet out in the 12th and final round and that made the event that
more special. Other than that, we've had a lot of great fights.
These past few weeks, every fight we've had were wars. The first fight
we had a week ago on the (Jose Luis) Castillo - (Stevie) Johnston card was
sensational. The fight between Antonio Ramirez and Terrance Churchwell
was a war and even the fight after between Juan Valenzuela and Adan Casillas.
Both were great fights. Some people look at those fights and say, "These
are just 6 round fights." But to the fighters, it means everything.
Occasionally, I try to bring up their names and say, "Hey, remember these
fighter's names and what they put on in front of you tonight." They're
not big stars and some will never be. They'll never make Sports Center
but you'll have great athletic drama in a 4 or 6 round fight between two guys
with more than moderate skills. It's not world class or elite skills,
but still fascinating. During the Valenzuela-Casillas fight, Max turned
to me and said, "Man, what a tough way to make a living," and I
said, "What a tough way to live." These guys were just hurting
each other. It was a skilled fight, it wasn't a brawl but everything
those guys threw had bad intentions written all over it. It was just one
of those fights where you didn't mean to pay attention to but after a while
you say, "Wow! I should watch this." And we've been
fortunate to have a lot of that.
JV: Besides hosting Friday Night Fights, you host Baseball Tonight, College
Football Gameday and you're a regular anchor on Sports Center. Are all
of these responsibilities burdensome for you? How do you possibly have
any spare time?
BK: (Laughs) I have very little time on my hands. My schedule is always
busy and crazy with having a family. But this is the job where by I feel
self-actualized. Everything you put into this job comes out. I
read everything I can get my hands on with college football and baseball and
when I go out and do a show, I use all of that knowledge. So it's very
rewarding and it's a fun job. Let's face it, it's a fun company to come
to but you have to do the work, the reading, the preparation and you have to
put in the hours.
JV: Having the only weekly boxing show, do you feel that you, Max, Teddy and
Bob Papa have a duty for not only ESPN, but also boxing itself? Some
people watch Friday Night Fights to hear what you guys have to say about what's
happening in the boxing world.
BK: I would hope so. We all try to be opinionated and proactive and not
just sit there and react to what's happening. We try to push things in a
direction. I feel this way and Max, Teddy and Bob feel this way as well.
Boxing is a good sport. We're not just there to say, "That's boxing
for you." That's taking the easy way out. What we try to do
is talk about the good and expose the corruption and the low-lives and we've
done that many times on the show. We'll look at who is rated where and
why. We examine it. We're not doing an investigative report.
We're TV, but we can still do an awful lot to enlighten people as to what';s
going on and who is manipulating what.
JV: Though ESPN has aired some attractive match-ups, obviously you're not
going to be broadcasting an Evander Holyfield or Oscar de la Hoya match.
With who is out there, what are some fights you'd love to see aired on Friday
BK: On our air? I wouldn't put a limit on the possibilities. I do
Baseball Tonight and I lead right into the Indians and the Red Sox. When
I host College Football, we host Tennessee and Notre Dame. I look at the
fights we've shown and would hope that the quality would always improve.
There's no reason why we would have to take a backseat. What HBO has
done with Boxing After Dark should really pave the way. There are
certain fights that you can do on a pay-per-view basis, but there are a lot
good fights you could make for a reasonable amount of money, especially with
all of the weight classes out there.
JV: What's it like working with Max Kellerman? What's your relationship
BK: Max and I get along very well. It's one of the highlights of my week
when he comes to work. We talk baseball and boxing. We have good
ethical arguments all of the time -- so much that we try not to have them off
the air so that we can use them for the show. A lot of times, we'll have
these arguments during the meetings and our meetings will last two hours
because we';ll be going at it so much. We'll stop and say, "We
should save this for the show." Generally, when we have a
difference of opinion we try to save it for the show.
JV: If you were a boxer, whose style would you prefer to have? Would you
rather have Roy Jones's style and not get as much recognition or money as
compared to someone like de la Hoya, who makes millions in the double digits
but absorbs a lot of punches?
BK: I'd rather take my lumps, make a CD, and have the girls screeching my
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