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Boxing Announcer Alex Wallau Faces Fight of His Life

April 15, 1988|Larry Stewart

On the morning of Sept. 27, 1987, ABC boxing commentator Alex Wallau (pronounced Wal- lew) was washing his face when he felt a lump in his neck.

A week later, he was told he had throat cancer. Because Wallau felt no discomfort, the cancer grew to Stage 4 before detection.

On Oct. 13, Wallau had surgery to determine the cancer's origin. A tumor was found at the base of his tongue.

Under normal circumstances, part of the tongue would have been removed. Anne Ramsey, the actress who plays Momma in "Throw Momma From the Train," had such surgery. It causes a speech impediment.

That's the last thing an announcer needs. Wallau chose advanced, experimental treatment--radiation injected directly into the tumor.

But first, on Jan. 6, Wallau had surgery to remove the growth from the left side of his neck. Then, on Jan. 12, the day after his 43rd birthday, 16 tubes were implanted into his neck for the radiation treatment.

The next two days, he was so radioactive he couldn't have visitors. His wife, Martha, sat in a chair outside the room and waved at him through a window in a steel door.

On Feb. 24, he was back in the hospital to have a growth removed from the right side of his neck.

On April 2, Wallau was back on the air, working with his friend, Al Michaels. They announced a 15-round fight between Rocky Lockridge and Harold Knight, and Wallau was as sharp as ever.

Said NBC's Dr. Ferdie Pacheco: "All things considered, it was one of the most remarkable performances I've ever seen on television."

Michaels this week said: "To have Alex working alongside me was one of the greatest thrills of my career. It was something I had prayed for and wished for so strongly, and then it happened.

"He is as close to me as my brother. He is very, very special.

"He is the strongest guy I've ever met in my life. The way he has handled this is beyond comprehension. There aren't words to describe it.

"His battle from day one has been unwavering. He has never allowed himself to feel bad, or to feel sorry for himself."

Michaels is all too familiar with cancer. His father died of cancer in 1983, and his mother-in-law died of the disease in 1985.

"Alex is handling this a lot better than I am," Michaels said. "He is an inspiration."

Wallau, during a telephone interview from his home in Manhattan, said there has been no deep depression or any hard crying. "I'm not dying of cancer," he said. "I am being treated for cancer.

"My life is still terrific. I have a terrific wife and terrific friends, a lot of terrific friends.

"The key for me has been my wife. She has been very strong. If either of us had collapsed, the other probably would have, too."

The Wallaus, who have no children, celebrated their 10th anniversary last week, although they knew each other for 11 years before their marriage. They are both from Greenwich, Conn., but they didn't meet until after both went to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

A few days after learning he had cancer, Wallau and his wife, as planned, visited Al and Linda Michaels at their home in Brentwood.

"They spent the weekend," Michaels said. "And not wanting to ruin the weekend, they didn't tell us until after dinner the final night."

Wallau said: "Al and Linda were the first people we told."

Since then, Al has called Alex every day. And he was there at the hospital, looking through that window in the steel door with Martha after the radiation treatment.

Wallau joined ABC in 1976, and Michaels came a year later. They became friends almost immediately.

Wallau, a former sportswriter for the Greenwich Time, worked off-camera at ABC for 10 years before becoming the boxing commentator in February, 1986. He was first a producer of on-air promotions, next an associate producer, then coordinating producer of Howard Cosell's "Sportsbeat." He later became boxing consultant and producer of boxing telecasts.

Michaels and Wallau were scheduled to be in Las Vegas last Saturday for the Evander Holyfield-Carlos DeLeon fight--televised live by Showtime, but taped by ABC for this Saturday's "Wide World of Sports."

Wallau didn't make it. Because of the radiation treatment, his susceptibility is high. A virus struck Wallau during the week, and his temperature rose to 102. He had to cancel the trip to Las Vegas. Michaels worked the fight alone.

Wallau's next ABC assignment is the USA-Cuba amateur matches April 30 at Atlantic City, N.J. He's planning to be there.

Before the cancer, Wallau and his wife, an executive with a New York real estate investment banking firm, relished fine restaurants. They don't go out anymore. Wallau can't eat solid food.

"I've had nothing but strawberry milkshakes," he said. "I can't say I've gotten tired of the taste, because I can't taste anything.

"The radiation wiped out the saliva glands. I can't swallow, so there's no way to get solid food down.

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