ESPN’s Max Kellerman on Why He’s No Skip Bayless (Exclusive)

“You will be a villain to some anyway, no matter what you say,” new “First Take” host says

Max Kellerman

Max Kellerman had already ingratiated himself to “First Take” fans simply by replacing the much-maligned Skip Bayless — but now viewers are getting a taste of the charismatic sports-talk personality’s fluid (in a good way) opinions, strong sense of humor, and encyclopedic sports knowledge.

Soon, they’ll dig him even more.

Others, of course, will hate him — at least temporarily, depending on what side of which debate he’s taking that morning. But that’s all part of the job on ESPN2’s 10 a.m.-noon ET argue-fest.

“You will be a villain to some anyway, no matter what you say,” Kellerman told TheWrap during a Tuesday interview — his first since being named Stephen A. Smith’s new co-host. “The main thing about ‘First Take’ is you can’t worry about that. You can’t try to please everyone — in fact, it’s counter-productive on this show.”

Bayless embraced that bad-guy role — one that made him a ton of money over the years — more often than Kellerman will, or will even need to. Smith, whom Bayless actually brought aboard years ago, is polarizing enough in his own right. So where does the likable Kellerman fit in? And were there actual discussions pre-debut to purposely differentiate this version of show from the previous era?

“That doesn’t really need to be said among sophisticated TV people,” Kellerman answered the latter question. “There’s a recognition that I do my thing — it’s different than my predecessor.”

One thing that his predecessor famously did was double down on his certain stances despite contradictory evidence — something that became predictable (and even annoying — though hate-watching is great for TV ratings) to some viewers. That won’t be Kellerman’s problem — the Bronx native and Columbia alum is too self-aware and broad-minded to fall into such a pattern.

“The world is now a more interesting place because something I thought was kinda set hard and fast has changed all of a sudden,” he said, using LeBron James‘ on-court evolution as an example of a development warranting re-evaluation. “That makes me happy to be alive.”

Some people are just getting to know Kellerman now, in his early 40s — but he’s been doing this TV analysis thing for decades. From local access show “Max on Boxing” in his youth, to Fox Sports’ “I, Max,” HBO Boxing, the “Rocky” movies and even a legit hip-hop single from Columbia Records, the “Around the Horn” architect has been on all of your screens for a very long time.

You just may not recognize him without the chinstrap. Naturally, we had to talk about his changed-up facial hair for a minute.

“I grew up in New York and the connecting sideburns was the look,” he told us. “At a certain point, I got into my early 30s and, I dunno, I still think the chinstrap looks good. It’s just not as prevalent in pop culture anymore.”

“And dude, I’m turning 43. I got three kids. I think at this point it looks better like this,” Kellerman, who now sports a solid full-beard stubble, continued. “The other thing is: I’ve got a little double chin, which, ya know, on the low — I guess it’s not on the low anymore — it shaves it in a way and defines my chin.”

Check out Kellerman’s chiseled chops weekdays from 10 a.m. ET to noon on ESPN2’s “First Take.”