It’s been more than two years since Max Kellerman’s departure from ESPN’s First Take. But Stephen A. Smith still finds himself discussing the matter.
Appearing on The Joe Budden Podcast on Thursday, Smith was asked about his split from Kellerman, who co-hosted the daily debate show from 2016-2021. And as he is wont to do, Smith didn’t hold back, making it clear that he didn’t enjoy working alongside the original Around the Horn host.
“I would take full responsibility for that,” Smith answered when asked about the perceived tension between himself and Kellerman toward the end of their run. “It was totally my fault and the reason it was my fault is because I didn’t like working with him.”
“It’s just that **** simple. I didn’t like it. I thought the show was stale. I thought that we had flatlined when it came to the public at large. I didn’t want to go from No. 1 to No. 2. when Skip [Bayless] left. I wasn’t having that. That **** wasn’t gonna happen.”
Smith continued: “I had mad respect for him from the standpoint of white dude, highly intelligent, Ivy League, educated from Columbia. Smart as a whip. Can talk his *** off. Can talk about anything. I get all that. But you weren’t an athlete, and you weren’t a journalist. And the absence of the two components left people wondering ‘why should we listen to you?'”
This isn’t the first time Smith has been blunt about his dislike of working alongside Kellerman. And it’s clear the two had different visions for the show. Whereas Smith has always embraced — and arguably pioneered — the circus and schtick that have become staples of debate television, Kellerman’s approach was often more levelheaded and evenhanded.
But although Smith would point to the post-Kellerman ratings as evidence he’s right—and he wouldn’t necessarily be wrong—it seems unfair to hit Kellerman with “why should we listen to you?” Not only is it inaccurate — Kellerman is considered one of the most prominent authorities on boxing and has been a staple of the national sports media scene for more than 20 years — but it also comes across as unnecessarily mean in light of Kellerman being one of the many on-air talents laid off by ESPN this past summer.
If nothing else, however, Smith has at least been consistent on this matter. And it’s clear that the current iteration of First Take is more in line with his vision for the show than it was with Kellerman as his co-host. As for Kellerman, he’s been radio silent since being laid off by ESPN in late June—which is perhaps the perfect illustration of why he and Smith weren’t ideal sparring partners for each other.