SI Vault
William Johnson
September 16, 1968
The question is not so much what promotion maestro Murry Woroner started when he turned computerized boxers into the best-selling radio show in years, but rather: where is it all going to end?
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September 16, 1968

'and In This Corner...ncr 315'

The question is not so much what promotion maestro Murry Woroner started when he turned computerized boxers into the best-selling radio show in years, but rather: where is it all going to end?

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The temptation to manipulate the fights to produce the best possible promotional advantages—such as being certain that the finalists were both living fighters—would seem overwhelming, but Woroner categorically denies that he ever considered such shenanigans. "We took it just as it came from the computer, and we did everything humanly possible—everything logic, statistics and raw research could do—to make those fights authentic and accurate," he says. "We know a computer can't program heart or courage. But experts can judge guys they saw fight on those grounds. We never pretended we could program in the whole human condition, like a guy's frame of mind or something. What we did was use the computer as an impartial arbiter on the probabilities of the way certain boxers would fight in their prime. I don't mind the criticism and jokes about us in the press. But when the writers imply that we did this thing superficially—that makes me mad."

Equipped with that monumental collection of statistics and facts, Henry Meyer II worked for months to design a program that his computer could digest. He was at it 100 hours a week: either holed up in a Miami motel room, or flying to Dayton for conferences with National Cash Register computer experts or conferring far into the night with Hank Kaplan on the intricacies of boxing. "My Gospel," says Meyer, "it's surprising we've done as well as we have when you consider that our scientific base was as nebulous as it was. I mean, how do you analyze the 45-round fights of John L. Sullivan? Or how do you feed in data about a 'leg cut' caused by an oldtimer who was wearing hobnailed boots in the ring? Oh, it was a challenge for us."

When Meyer tries to explain precisely what "we" did to make a mechanical analysis of courage, stamina, killer instinct and various knockout patterns, a communications gap develops. Patiently and at enormous length he talks about "random number generators" and "step regressions" and "statistical reductions." He sketches fine-line diagrams and probability formulae and occult symbols all over restaurant placemats and napkins, and when he is finished he takes a bite of his sandwich, surveys what he has wrought and says, "My Gospel, there must be a simpler way to explain it than that."

Still, it is a delight to listen to Henry Meyer II talk of the project, for he uses a splendid, contradictory mixture of vocabularies that combines the antiseptic terminology of computers with the gymnasium jargon of fighters. The result is newspeak bafflegab that epitomizes both the complexities and the ludicrousness of electronic boxing:

"Of course, we dynamically programmed the bouts so that after every punch there was less go in the fighter than before. That was our deterioration factor. We had to program data on his ability to take a solid right to the head, whether he had a glass chin, how well he could rally. We had to feed in killer-instinct data. Based on reasonability, we'd weight some factors differently depending on the man's opponent. Speed, for example, would be modified depending on the speed factor of the other fighter. Courage was the No. 1 factor in importance, as it turned out. We figured that courage, killer instinct and ability to rally would remain constant no matter who a man was in the ring against. Of course, we just didn't have enough raw data to absolutely program every move or every blow. So we used the random-number generator to give us a sound application of the percentages. Actually, it was a quasi-simulation program."

Meyer tested, retested and re-retested his programming, running hundreds of fights through the computer. What eventually came out of his machine were yards of paper filled with columns of figures and letters that spelled out in round-by-round detail the electronic fate of some of history's finest fighters.

Although these readout sheets seem fairly complete, they leave enormous room for interpretations and imagination. For one thing, the computer's list of punches is not in sequence, so Woroner and Announcer LeBow have unlimited poetic license to rearrange them as they like. They can also toss in clinches, missed punches and various dance steps around the ring to fit their own sense of drama. But the key to the semblance of authenticity is, as Murry describes it, "the nostalgic sound" of the crowd—the surges and shouts, the boos and the thunder that occasionally all but drown out LeBow's frantic monologue. The sounds are tapes of real fight crowds at Miami Beach Municipal Auditorium during matches there. They include the thump of the timekeeper's hand hitting the canvas during the count, the thud of fighters' footsteps and even some ughs and grunts when fighters are bit. Boos were needed, too, but Woroner found the Miami boxing crowd did not boo much, so a wrestling match was recorded for sounds of disapproval.

The actual taping of the finished broadcasts is done in shadowed secrecy. Woroner has been adamant about taking extreme security precautions to conceal the results of his computer fights. For example, the tapes are shipped direct to bank vaults or Western Union security safes and they are not delivered to broadcasting stations until an hour or two before air time. Woroner insists that no more than half a dozen people (not including Hank Kaplan, Nat Fleischer or the Dundees) know the fight results before they are broadcast. Only he and LeBow are involved in writing the immensely detailed blow-by-blow script. There has been no big-book betting on the fights—although LeBow swears that he was offered $50,000 by certain mysterious sources to reveal the outcome of the heavyweight tournament—so Woroner's deep anxiety about security is simply based on his desire for maximum theatrical impact. "Who'd listen to these things if they knew how they were going to end?" he says.

The airtight secrecy reaches a point of suffocation when LeBow and Woroner do the actual broadcasts. It happens at night in Woroner's tiny studio, long after eavesdropping secretaries or curious bank employees have departed. Woroner, LeBow and Frank Linale, the master recordist who manipulates the controls and sound effects, do not exactly come to the office wearing false beards. But there is an air of skulduggery about it all. Before the taping begins, Murry checks the area for intruders, then locks the studio doors for the night's big fight. Woroner and LeBow are seated at microphones in a closet-sized room lined with shelves containing old tapes of such things as porpoise and cicada sounds. Frank Linale is ready at the control board. He switches on his recording equipment, and the low babbling sound of an enthusiastic auditorium crowd fills the room.

The fight on this particular night is the Harry Greb- Tony Zale affair, the eighth of the initial pairings in the middleweight tournament. The voice of Murry Woroner bursts into the microphone: "Through the incredible speed and scientific advance of modern computer technology, it's the All-Time Middleweight Tournament, presented in part by Ford...."

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