Max Kellerman's Ever-Growing Canvas

HBO boxing expert has come a long way from local-access TV

Many successful sportscasters have one thing in common: When they were teenagers, they used to turn down the sound on the TV during a game and practice by pretending they were the play-by-play announcer.

Max Kellerman wasn't that patient.

Growing up a big boxing fan in New York's Greenwich Village, he used to watch a public-access boxing show called Boykin on Boxing. Barely old enough to drive, Kellerman asked his dad why he couldn't do one of those shows.

So Kellerman applied for a slot and by the time he was 16, he was hosting the program, which was renamed Max on Boxing. Now a mainstay on HBO and already an alum of both ESPN and Fox Sports Net, Kellerman is long past the days of public access. But the biggest challenge for the bombastic sports enthusiast is that he is a rising star in a particular sport, boxing, that itself needs to be picked up off the canvas.

After Kellerman graduated from Columbia University in 1998, ESPN was starting up a new boxing show called Friday Night Fights. Kellerman landed an audition and then got the job.

He worked as both a ringside analyst and a studio host, and developed into a rising star of ESPN's boxing coverage. The words “dream job” came to mind.

“Remember when Norm got the job tasting beer on Cheers?” Kellerman laughs. “That's what it was like.”

As his boxing prowess landed him appearances on SportsCenter and then a stint guest-hosting Pardon the Interruption, ESPN execs began to consider him for other roles. His brash delivery made him ESPN's choice to be the first host of Around the Horn, a new (and loud) format featuring a panel of sportswriters that was a companion piece to PTI.

But that show taped in Washington, D.C., so Kellerman's pace was frantic. He'd do the weekday show in D.C., then fly to Connecticut Friday afternoons to do the boxing studio show. He'd grab four hours of sleep, then do an ESPN Radio show Saturday morning before heading back to New York for an afternoon nap. That left him with Saturday night and Sunday with his fiancée, Erin, and other friends and family.

“It just wasn't a sustainable situation,” he now concludes.

As his deal was coming up, ESPN was backing off boxing and Kellerman wanted to be back in New York. And that's when Fox came calling. The network offered him his own sports conversation show in New York, as well as the ability to retain his rights to do boxing or radio elsewhere. “It was a no-brainer,” he says of his move in 2004.

Fox Sports Net gave the show, called I, Max, a huge promotional push. And it was all about Kellerman and his outspoken persona. “They really wanted me to be a Bill O'Reilly for sports,” he says. But the show never really caught on and was off the air by early 2005.

Kellerman eventually jumped out of sports television to MSNBC, where in 2005 he became a contributor on The Situation With Tucker Carlson. But boxing never left Kellerman's blood, and a dinner at Osteria al Doge in New York with HBO Sports chief Ross Greenburg would put him back in the heart of the business.

It was an emotional time. He was about to join HBO Sports, for decades probably the biggest name in boxing. But Kellerman had just lost one of his brothers. “It was very emotional. I remember him tearing up at the meeting,” Greenburg recalls.

Kellerman joined HBO and worked his way up the food chain of boxing coverage, eventually being groomed to replace HBO's longtime ringside guru, Larry Merchant.

However, Kellerman's ascension comes as the sport of boxing is taking a few punches of its own. The heavyweight division, often the pulse of the sport, is devoid of stars and big-money draws.

He disputes the fact the sport is down for the count, despite a growing concern that mixed martial arts is passing it by. Boxing's problem, he says, is not a lack of talent, but rather a lack of organization.

The sport is splintered into multiple organizations, each with its own interests. And some of the best fighters never step into the ring with each other because their promoters can't get on the same page.

“Too much of the mainstream sports public doesn't know the characters in boxing,” he laments. “That's because there is no one commissioner, and without one league perceived by the public as legitimate, that will continue to be a problem.”

But whether Kellerman is talking boxing on HBO or sports in general on his ESPN Radio show in New York, he has never had a problem with speaking his mind. After a recent fight on HBO, Kellerman said the scoring by one judge was so bad it “makes you question whether there was a corrupting influence.”

Like the pugilists he covers, Kellerman is never afraid to mix it up. “There will be times I say something and people will hate it, and that's OK,” he says. “The most important thing for me is to be honest.”

And while sports commentators (not to mention political pundits) as a whole these days are often criticized for opting for volume over substance, he considers it inherent to the topics. “As much as people complain about the volume, walk into a bar and talk about sports with someone,” he says. “You are passionate, you aren't quiet. But yes, a lot of people these days are just yelling at each other.”

For the first time ever, Max Kellerman is now going to have to tone down his act. At home, anyway. His wife, Erin, is expecting the couple's first child in a matter of weeks, so he is preparing to watch his word choice around the house.

Kellerman remembers what he and his brothers did when they were little and their youngest brother started repeating things. “We taught him every curse word we could think of, and five minutes later were getting spanked,” he recalls with a laugh.

So can Kellerman resist history repeating itself, or at least keep things clean at home? In a rarity, Kellerman goes quiet for a moment. “I have no idea,” he finally says. “We'll see.” 

To see a gallery of Fifth Estater caricatures, click here.