Love him or hate him, Stephen A. Smith has become one of the most important figures in sports journalism, especially in regards to NBA basketball. The reasons people love him are ironically the same reasons why people hate him; his big, unapologetic personality. Many people recall him and Skip Bayless engaging in journalistic warfare for years before the latter moved on. It was there where many people were introduced to him and his memorable catch phrases such as “Blasphemous.”
Stephen A., as he is commonly known as, is so much of a pop culture icon, he even got the Saturday Night Live Treatment, courtesy of Jay Pharoah. It’s an honor not many celebrities have received, let alone sports journalists.
And even though all these things are true, I and many others have a major issue with Stephen A. It is an offense that he has been found guilty of for two years now, at least. Stephen A. is a highly intelligent and capable reporter, which makes his recent behavior all the more problematic. To summarize, Stephen A. Smith does not respect fighters he is not a fan of and/or familiar with. His rhetoric over the past two years at least has said all that needs to be said. Before I address his highly disappointing comments on Andy Ruiz and his history creating performance, let’s back up a bit.
Boxing was first made aware of Stephen A’s ineptness and irresponsibility in regards to the sport after the Manny Pacquiao vs. Jeff Horn fight on July 2, 2017. Horn received a questionable unanimous decision win, and Stephen A. let it rip. He admitted he had no clue who Jeff Horn was and hadn’t bothered to do his “homework” on him either. This didn’t deter Smith, as he filled the airwaves with his uninformed and disrespectful opinions. Legendary boxing analyst Al Bernstein was fed up and had seen enough. The normally reserved Bernstein felt compelled enough to speak up and had this to say about Stephen A. :
“I'm not saying Horn has faced super tough competition, but don't sit there with your co-host and laugh and mock their names after you have admitted you didn't even do any homework on one of the fighters who is in the main event, let alone his opponents,” Bernstein wrote. “When I have covered other sports beyond boxing I make it my business to NOT overreach and make statements based on no knowledge. Instead I actually prepare, so that I can stay in my lane, be factual, and do the job I'm being paid for. When I covered major league baseball or the NBA on SportsCenter when I was at ESPN, I didn't offer unfounded opinions on players who I did not cover on a regular basis…. Boxers deserve respect and accuracy when they are reported on.”
Bernstein wasn’t done. He would reload and keep firing:
“I doubt if he would pick an aging NBA player who isn't a superstar and call him a no name even though casual NBA fans might not know who that 2nd string power forward might be. When asked "what do you have on Jeff Horn?" Smith said, "gotta admit I don't have much on this dude." Really? How could you admit that on National TV when you are being paid to cover this "dude." Then he denigrated Horn's opponents without knowing anything about THEM.”
View the full statement here.
After being reprimanded by Bernstein, it seemed as if Smith had realized his error and appeared remorseful in a FIGHTHYPE street interview. To his credit he didn’t give any excuses. He simply manned up, accepted it, and vowed to be better; all you can really ask of any human being.
Ben Thompson from FIGHTHYPE caught up with Stephen A. and conducted said interview. The transcription is as follows:
Ben: Sometimes a lot of the die-hard boxing fans, they’re critical about you being a commentator for the sport of boxing. I actually think you’re great because you represent the casual fan. I mean some of the things you say, that’s what casual fans think. Is there any response you have for that?
Stephen A: Well my response is a couple of things. Number one, I’m never satisfied. I always think there’s room for growth. I put on my big boy pants everyday and I understand that criticism comes along with the job so I’m not gonna be ultra sensitive to that. But having said that it is important to recognize this; The fans who may be critical are novices themselves, and they talk, so why can’t I? I just happen to be on national television getting paid for it. That’s because I do other things well. But, the professionals in the business like Al Bernstein for SHOWTIME, was critical of me, I cannot emphasize this enough. I have profound respect for Al Bernstein. He’s been a treasure to the sport of boxing for many, many years, and I’m a person that respects my elders and respects the pioneers that have paved the way for all of us in whatever line of work we may choose to do. I have ventured into the boxing world since I was three years old and I absolutely love the sport. Do I watch it the way Al Bernstein and Max Kellerman and others do where you see every little fighter on the come up? No. But those championship fighters and championship contenders that we have access to through pay-per-view and cable television, I watch them every chance that I get. I’m certainly not the aficionado that those guys are. If anybody has the right to be critical of my work in that regard, it’s an Al Bernstein. I think that a lot of people were taken aback because he came at me and they expected some kind of fight, some back and forth verbal sparring. No sir.”
This is basically the entire exchange between Stephen A. and the reporter.
You can view the full interview here.
This particular statement by Stephen A. bothered me a bit:
“The fans who may be critical are novices themselves, and they talk, so why can’t I? I just happen to be on national television getting paid for it.”
Stephen Anthony Smith. YOU KNOW BETTER! I won't go into deep detail about this statement because we all have been a prisoner of the moment at one time or another. I believe that was the case in the instance. I do not believe for one second that you truly believe you and fans have the same level of responsibility in regards to sports analysis.
Moving on, it appeared that Stephen A. would do his due diligence on fighters he wasn’t familiar with, or at least keep all his ignorant opinions on fighters to himself.
His next act of flagrant disrespect came after Andy Ruiz achieved his dream of becoming the first Heavyweight Champion of Mexican heritage.
Stephen A. Smith was not impressed. Instead of being congratulatory like a person paid to cover sports would be, Stephen A. instead tweeted this:
(click to enlarge)
He was predictably met with intense criticism from journalists, fellow fighters, and general boxing fans alike:
Even with criticism from people who have literally been involved with combat sports their whole lives, Stephen A. was unrelenting. Not even input from boxing legend Lennox Lewis and future Hall of Famer Canelo Alvarez could dissuade Stephen A. :
Stephen A. would respond with a strange rant to qualify his boxing knowledge, followed by a forced interview with boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. The main point of the rant was how he had seen so many fighters from the 70s and 80s, and therefore, he was qualified to speak deeply on the subject.
One interesting YouTube comment on the above mentioned rant gave some perspective in a simplistic, but effective way with the following comment:
Luis Looey is right. Stephen A. is confusing proximation with dedication; you don't gain insight or knowledge on a particular subject in life by simply being close to it. You have to dedicate yourself to it. You have to study it. Meditate on it. Put it into practice. Something Stephen A. has admitted he has not done on numerous occasions.
When called out and pressured by the internet, Stephen A. responded that the crux of his disappointment in the Joshua vs. Ruiz fight was the fact that fans had been potentially robbed of the Wilder vs. Joshua "Mega Fight."
If I'm being 100% honest, I too was disappointed at the fact that Wilder vs. Joshua fight was in real danger of being axed. It was arguably the most anticipated fight in boxing since Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. However, I wasn't disappointed enough to publicly disrespect and disregard Andy Ruiz's life changing night. And while his statement is valid to a degree, boxing is doing just fine without "Mega Fights."
ESPN re-upped with Top Rank boxing in August of 2018 with a deal that will provide boxing on the network through 2025.
In the same year, Fox and Premiere Boxing Champions announced a four year deal. Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote about the deal:
"The four-year, multi-platform agreement, expected to begin in December, will feature 10 "marquee fight nights" annually in prime time on the Fox broadcast network with 12 more cards slated to air on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes each year. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Ring magazine reported that Fox would pay out more than $60 million annually under the agreement."
No matter how much the word mega-fight is tossed around, in reality, it has no real lasting effects on the sport of boxing. Most of the outrage directed at the Joshua vs. Ruiz result were people who were simply prisoners of the moment. Boxing fans are treated with GREAT non mega-fights more times than they realize. For example, we got one of the best fights (and biggest upsets) of the past few years just two weeks before Joshua vs. Ruiz, when Julian Williams surprisingly (to some) dominated then unified light middle weight Champion, Jarrett Hurd. Williams outfought Hurd in what was a very good performance that was just as quality as any pay-per-view that I've seen.
One last point. The year was 2009. The Los Angeles Lakers faced off against the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Although the Magic vs. Lakers was a more than respectable championship match up, (the Magic had certainly earned the right to be there,) what the basketball world was really craving was the match up of the highly skilled Kobe Bean Bryant vs. the powerful young Lebron Raymone James. At the time, they were both largely seen as clearly the two best players in the National Basketball Association. A finals match up between the two could be viewed as, you guessed it, a "Mega Fight." The basketball world was so heavily anticipating a Lebron vs. Kobe Finals matchup, Nike created a series of commercials that depicted them as puppets who were roommates, getting ready for the playoffs. Here is one of the more memorable commercials. The Lebron led Cleveland Cavaliers would fall to the Magic in the Conference Finals, losing in six games. The Lakers would eventually beat the Magic in the finals in five games. It is imperative to note Stephen A. Smith's reaction; when the Magic beat the Cavaliers, there was no berating of the Magic or Lakers by Stephen A. of any kind. He did not refer to the Magic advancing to the Finals as "a damn disgrace" as he did Ruiz's victory. Make no mistake about it; the basketball world missing out on a James vs. Bryant Finals showdown was a MASSIVE let down. To miss out on two of the best players the game has ever seen squaring off is a big deal. However, it will NEVER, EVER be a big enough deal to be as disrespectful and dismissive as Stephen A. has been.
Combat athletes are away from their families months at a time, toiling away to prepare to assault another human being, and to be assaulted. They miss many life events that many (myself included) take for granted such as birthdays, graduations, funerals, and many more precious moments. The least we can do as fans is be respectful of these warriors. Even more so if we are paid to cover these warriors.
Do better, Stephen A. Smith. They deserve it.