Barry Tompkins' most memorable calls

Ray Leonard versus Marvin Hagler was simply the biggest event Barry Tompkins has ever covered Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Barry Tompkins' philosophy on calling fights has been simple.

"I've always looked at it as two guys sitting on a barstool watching a fight," Tompkins said. "It's a conversation, really."

Few have carried this "conversation" as professionally or engagingly as Tompkins over a television career that has spanned more than four decades.

Tompkins is best known to boxing fans as the voice of HBO World Championship Boxing during the 1980s, and later with ESPN's Top Rank Boxing series. He was behind the microphone for some of the sport's biggest fights including Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I, Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney and Marvin Hagler-Hearns, to name just a few.

And he has authored some of boxing's most memorable calls in the process.

Reached by phone from his northern California home, Tompkins' voice is tinged with the endearing charm of a favorite uncle -- a little bit of humor mixed with sound wisdom and humility. Not exactly what you would expect from a man paid to capture the every move of two gladiators in a violent theatre.

But when it comes to the sweet science, no one tells a story quite like him. Tompkins, a 2006 inductee to the World Boxing Hall of Fame, recently took the time to share the stories behind five of his greatest calls.

"If you want an editorial on this fight... let the crowd give it to you!!!" -- Hagler versus Roberto Duran, Nov. 10, 1983

The call, which came as the final bell sounded to end Hagler's unanimous decision win over Duran, was ironic because it perfectly embodies Tompkins' beliefs of an announcer's role in the big moment.

Beginning his career as a writer, Tompkins never aspired to be on camera. He believes it's the fighters' show and his job is to merely deliver the moment and get out of the way.

"I've always wondered why we as broadcasters are news to begin with," Tompkins said. "When I started, I always equated my job to a referee. If you do your job right, nobody notices you. My biggest responsibility is to let the fans live the moment. So less is more. I think you try to find one sentence, something very short that encapsulates the whole thing and then you just let the crowd take it all the way out. It's my job to take the picture and put the frame around it rather than paint the picture myself."

Hagler's victory over Duran that night was his eighth straight defense of the world middleweight title. And it spoke major volumes to an interested spectator at ringside, Sugar Ray Leonard, who served as Tompkins' broadcast partner on the HBO telecast.

"By that time Duran and Ray had kind of formed this relationship and I don't think anyone ever thought they would, but they did," Tompkins said. "At the end of that fight, even before the decision was announced, Duran came over to where we were sitting and put his head between the ropes. He said to Ray, 'You can beat this guy.' And I'm absolutely convinced to this day that is when Ray decided he was going to come back and fight."

Nearly three years later, the hope of a potential Leonard-Hagler showdown was slowly becoming a reality. The next clue for Tompkins came when he and Leonard were in Miami in 1986 to call the Hector Camacho-Cornelius Boza Edwards fight.

"Ray and I have always had this good relationship," Tompkins said. "Obviously, I was a lot younger then and he was sort of like my little brother. And that was during kind of his wayward days, too. He called me and said, 'I rented this boat and we're going to go out and launch on the inner waterway there.' So I said ok and he said to meet him at the dock.

"So I go down there and am standing there waiting for him. I'm looking for some kind of skiff and he rented this 90-foot yacht, which is so typical of him. So we are going up the inner channel and sitting on the prow of the boat and out of the blue he said, 'You know how to beat Marvin Hagler? I'm going to tell you how to beat Marvin Hagler. You gotta fight three times a round, rally for 15 seconds, throw a millions punches and get out.' And that was like eight months before the fight and that's exactly what he did. That's exactly how he won it."

"How do you like it? How DO YOU like it?!?!" -- Leonard versus Hagler, April 6, 1987

The signature call of Tompkins' career was also the signature victory for Leonard. He had fought just one time in the previous five years leading up to the fight and was making his first-ever appearance as a middleweight against the dangerous Hagler.

For Tompkins, it was simply the biggest event he has ever covered.

"In terms of the intensity and the enormity of the event, that was the biggest by far," Tompkins said. "I knew both guys so well and really liked each of them. And everything leading up to that night was huge. I remember the lead up to the ring walk was unlike anything I have been around. The way the crowd smelled and that sound; I hadn't heard anything like it before or since. The only thing that comes even remotely close is the start of the Kentucky Derby. A week-long building to a two-minute race and when the horses come out of the gate, it's just the same kind of thing."

Leonard out-boxed the champion Hagler to claim a split-decision in one of the most anticipated bouts of the modern era. It was also one of the most hotly debated decisions. The fight was as close of a pick 'em both before the fight and as it headed to the scorecards, that Tompkins can remember.

And although it wasn't his intention as to the meaning of the call, Tompkins' line of "How do you like it?" would have been a poignant question aimed at the three judges scoring at ringside. Did they prefer the impact Leonard's short flurries to end each round or Hagler's power-punching and ring generalship?

"I think Ray stole the fight and I still think that he won it," Tompkins said. "That's kind of the nice thing about that fight, too. There's a lot of little by-products to it and people still talk about it for that reason. Everybody is really polarized over whether they thought Hagler had won the fight or whether they thought Leonard had won. And still in fight circles people talk about it. I get asked about it all of the time."

Tompkins also gets asked about his call, coming at the bell to end the 12th and final round, which has endured as one of the sport's most memorable in history.

"That's the one call that I do hear about all the time," Tompkins said. "The one thing I can tell you is that I didn't plan it. You can't plan them. My recollection, and I haven't looked a tape of the fight since, but I think going into that final round we probably made some reference to the fact that this fight could be decided in the final round. And that's probably what prompted that line."

"Arguello slips... to the canvas! What a victory for Aaron Pryor!" -- Pryor versus Alexis Arugello I, Nov. 12, 1982

Known for his understated style and straight delivery, Tompkins came out of his shell with an emotional call to end this all-time brutal slugfest in Miami.

"There are some fights that stand out and Arguello-Pryor in the Orange Bowl really stood out for me," Tompkins said. "And I don't know that it had anything to do with me. It was more about the atmosphere and the fight itself. That whole scene, it's almost indescribable. There were so many people in the Orange Bowl. It was at the time of the Civil War in Nicaragua and Arguello had supported (the Sandinista political party) so there was all of that going on in South Florida. And then Pryor, of course, was a completely different type of guy."

Pryor's TKO of Arguello in Round 14 is one of a small handful of tapes Tompkins has saved through the years of his broadcasts.

"It was really volatile, everything about that night," Tompkins said. "Including the fight itself. So I don't really remember any part of my call in that fight, but I just remember walking out of there being drained emotionally. "

"It's over. That's all. And we have a new era in boxing." -- Mike Tyson versus Trevor Berbick, Nov. 12, 1986

Tyson's second round TKO of Berbick made him the youngest heavyweight champion in history at just 20. Tompkins' call was prophetic of the times as an explosive Tyson had ripped through the competition in a career that, at this point, was not even 21 months old. Little did anyone know that Tyson's invincible reign would end so quickly.

"At that time, I really didn't believe he would lose a fight for 10 years," Tompkins said. "I really didn't. He was completely unique. Some fighters you can almost tell just by the way their punches sound if they are heavy-handed fighters or if they just slap. Tyson's punches sounded different than any fighter that I have been around in my entire life. It sounded like somebody dropping a watermelon off a building. It had that almost kind of 'splat' sound to it when they hit. It was scary."

Tompkins has always been a fan of Tyson the man, despite the often misunderstood fighter's much-publicized troubles outside of the ring.

"I was pretty close to Tyson at that time," Tompkins remembered. "I started doing his fights at a time when he still trusted people. We had many, many, many long heart-to-hearts and I still have a soft spot for him. There is a side of him that really is soft and fuzzy. And I think he is doing a pretty good job of kind of reinventing himself right now, if he can stay with that. He is a real interesting guy, very complex. A lot of things he does, there is no apologies for. Yet, I have a real soft spot for him."

"And suddenly Moscow is pro Rocky!" -- Rocky Balboa versus Ivan Drago, from the movie Rocky IV, 1985

Credited as playing the role of "American Commentator No. 1", Tompkins had the play-by-play call in the epic climax to the movie, Rocky's improbable victory over the Russian giant Drago.

Tompkins had a few weeks off and got a call from his agent saying that Sylvester Stallone was looking for someone to do a boxing scene in his next movie. Little did he know this would become a role he would get recognized for in public almost as often as the movie is re-run on cable TV.

"I could do several chapters on that experience," Tompkins said. "I had never really been around the movie industry or actors, but I thought it might be kind of a goof. So I go up to Vancouver and it took two weeks to shoot this 18-minute scene of which my part, the audio part of it, was really scheduled for only one day. But because we had to be in every shot and we were in the front row, you not only had to be there, but you couldn't read and you couldn't do anything. You had to just sit there. And I found it to be the most boring thing that I have ever been around in my life. I come from a background of live television and I couldn't believe it."

Brian Campbell is a contributor to ESPN Mobile.