It is on the cusp of another ‘superfight’ that we await the circus and outcome of a potential Floyd Mayweather vs Connor MacGregor bout. The fight is most likely to be scheduled inside the ropes of boxing. It will be another payday, perhaps his easiest for Money Mayweather but for MacGregor it is guaranteed to be his biggest. And yet, he is not a boxer. Hype is an amazing thing, it builds events or people up to such levels of orgasmic peaks that often tend to lead to tremendous disappointments or in the realms beyond mere sport and entertainment, dangerous deceits.
And so the cross promotional hype of combat sports draws its latest spectacle. One that clearly millions are interested in. Yet of those millions, how many are in fact fight fans as opposed to merely being hype fans. It is with a consumer delight that many who pay for the pay per views, buy the tickets and wear the merchandise await the big fight. They will usually surpass the fights of the undercard, and gorge themselves on press conferences or the show down as both men strip down for the theatre of a weigh in, all for these ‘fight fans’.
These fans will discuss the outcome of fights between the currently hot prospects, the recently declined champs and the likes of the local bench press hero who is thinking about ‘having a go’. Yet to delve into the distant past, usually inside of a decade and to look at the combatants that fought then would be a stretch for a good many ‘fans’ memories. Those prize fighters are old fashion, several seasons out of date not the trendy cool smack talkers of now.
Many will rise up and declare that the hype brings the bigger pay days, well to some it sure does, seldom to the actual fighters. For every McGregor or Mayweather there are thousands of talented and unheralded fighters who can barely pay their bills with the money that they earn inside the cage or ring. Especially since the UFC has strangled many fighters out of the opportunity to earn via sponsors outside of Reebok or the UFC favoured payers. Smaller promotions are no different, many ‘professional’ fighters taking home less than the catering staff working the ringside tables for the night.
The promotions and hype generators will make the money, they will outlast the current big thing and build up the next one. Boxing has experienced this, it has for over a century churned out with malicious disregard thousands of fighters. Hyped up racial bouts pitting an unpopular ‘coloured’ champion against anyone white and declaring them the ‘Great White Hope’ as though this was an important aspect of a fighter’s pedigree. To be white. Boxing has paved the way for distasteful and disregarding hyper fights, nothing that we see inside the MMA realm is all that new. Merely the platform and the technological means by which to amp up the fan base. Instead of racial or national tribalism it has matured into individualistic swagger and slander. The racial arrogance of Boxing’s yesteryear is now replaced by nationalism, stylistic preferences or adoration to a superficial personality often manufactured like any actor or professional wrestler. And for some, they still simply just like how a person fights and performs.
Jack Johnson was a hated man, the first non-white fighter to cross the colour bar and win the Heavyweight championship, it spurred an age of racial pride in the ranks of boxing. Writers such as Jack London and political elites all threw their status into the mix arguing that the supremacy of the white man would overcome the ‘coloureds’ apparent natural inferiorities, thus hyping up all potential challengers. None more so than the retired James J Jeffries, who upon regaining his fighting shape faced Johnson in 1910. The coverage and wider implications of this fight seems archaic and ludicrous now but in the age of progressive era eugenics it made perfect sense to the academics and racialists alike. Johnson easily bested his opponent, ridiculing him before the stoppage. The hype and promises of a White Hope seemed lacking in the end.
After the vicious first world war that had ravaged the planet, Jack Dempsey had won the World heavyweight title from the goofy Jess Willard. It was at the beginning of the roaring twenties that Dempsey would go onto help symbolise the ‘can do’ American self-image. In 1921, Dempsey went on to face undersized French challenger, Georges Carpentier, a dashing renaissance man who had also been a decorated war hero. Dempsey had fought professionally during the war years and many considered this a mark against his character, super promoter Tex Rickard would use anything to hype up a fight and war hero vs draft dodging coward, American vs Frenchie, Pretty boy vs Mauling man all would help to sell tickets. And sell them it did. The fight would go on to become the first million-dollar gate, selling nearly two millions dollars’ worth of sales in fact, a lot of money in 1921. Dempsey made short work of the smaller Carpentier. It would not be until 1926 when Dempsey would go on to lose to another war time hero, darling of the public, light heavyweight champion, renaissance man in Gene Tunney. Dempsey was a super star and in many ways remained one despite drawing the ‘colour line’, thus not defending his title to any non-whites. The paying public did not care about that however.
The mountain of a man known as the Ambling Alp, Primo Carnera who was spoon fed easy foes and guided through fixed matches so that he could have gain his title shot was managed by the more nefarious elements of professional boxing. Carnera’s journey lead to a brutal defeat before the deadly hands of Max Baer and then against the likes of Joe Louis. Carnera became the emblem of Fascist Italy during the 1930s, and just like the American public’s bipolar love-hate sentiments for that regime would reflect their feelings towards him. He too would suffer the inconsistencies of both adulation and fondness to despising resentment a darling and then a heel all rolled into one. He was no longer merely a man with gloves but the fistic embodiment of Mussolini’s Italy. It would be with sadistic glee that many experienced when Carnera would be bashed by Louis, many in the media likening the outcome as a moral play depicting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Carnera being the Italian black shirt and Joe Louis, he would play the noble Ethiopian warrior.
Perhaps the culmination of such national hype came about during the 1938 rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmelling. Louis’s skin colour was ignored by many in the American media and publics minds the day he fought the Nazi. Schmelling had suddenly become a symbol of Aryan perfection for the German regime, touted and adored. The fight was short, the broadcast back to Germany shorter when the Nazi officials cut it off before the brutal end could be relayed. Joe Louis was the hero of the USA and the ‘free world’ it seemed. It was not simply a boxing match for many, again it was a morality metaphor for jingoistic public and their leaders.
Schmelling would become a paratrooper and jump into battle during the War fighting for the German military. Joe Louis would raise money for US government war bonds while making propaganda films and boxing exhibition bouts. The money he raised in his bouts just before and during the American entry in World War Two were donated to charities, notably US military relief funds. After the war, Schmelling became the head of Coca Cola in Germany, living a full and wealthy life. Joe Louis after the same war was forced out of retirement, he had to pay back the IRS, back taxes on money owed to the US Government for money he had donated to help support the US Governments war effort.
While the ‘evil’ Schmelling went on to push American products inside partitioned Europe, enjoying the fruits of his fame and effort. Joe Louis had a series of bad fights into his later years, played golf, pro wrestled, commentated fights, refereed, became a casino host, appeared on TV all so that he could pay back the US Government. He remained poor and afflicted by addictions and poor health. It was not until his very end that he was pardoned by a US president of any remaining taxes owed, just before his death. The hype and heraldry, the symbiology and iconic nature of these men was a curse and meant nothing more to them. They simply fought one another. The public, officials, experts and media salivated and romanced the show down and sought a wider narrative but beyond the exchange of trained fists the fight was nothing more than that, a fight. Joe Louis died tragic, poor and broken. The fans had been satisfied regardless.
Television took boxing out of the stadiums and clubs and placed it firmly inside the living room. Though many families enjoyed listening to the bigger bouts getting called by familiar voices so that they would boom through crackles and hisses into their radio sets, the prospect of moving images inside one’s house gave a new lease of life to sports. Advertising money and the importance of a positive image helped to make and break some fighters. Those grim and gloomy fighters that had a troubled past and looked menacing had little appeal to many in the public and those paying for the event with their advertising money. A brooding Sonny Liston with his limited vocabulary was not the proper negro that should be on the suburban American’s television set. Especially after the charming hard working Rocky Marciano had charmed the public with his brutal though hard working style.
Youthful and kind natured Floyd Patterson, he however was the very image of a good-natured boy that boxing wanted, despite his undersized middle weight frame could best most of the big men of boxing with his blinding speed. Except Floyd, as talented as he was had a keen manager that steered him clear of mob linked fighters and the dangerous fists of a Liston. Patterson, despite the safety of fighting amateurs like Pete Rademacher or sharing the ring three times with Ingo from Sweden desired to face the dangerous Liston.
This was unwise for all, except proper fight fans and Liston. So with the plot of Rocky III in mind the small heavyweight champion of good family values faced the real life Clubber Lang. And just like Balboa, Patterson was stopped quickly. Unlike in Stallone’s film, Patterson lost the rematch, lasting mere seconds longer. Patterson would go on to fight for another decade coming so very close to winning the title for a third time.
It would be with the loud mouth and exciting motions of Cassius Clay that boxing would again have a hero and villain not seen since Jack Johnson dared to be a black champion. In Clay the world had a pop culture icon who was a champion of the pre-hippie youth, the non-establishment and eventually those inside the anti-war movement. And most of all radical blacks. In the decades after the prime years for Clay or as he soon changed his name to, Muhammad Ali it is easy to be a fan of both his character and sporting brilliance. Many have emulated his smack talk, poetic predictions and antics yet few have been able to deliver as Ali managed through his tremendous career.
It is almost a given that modern day prize fighters especially will adopt the bad boy image of controversial smack talking, the jive mouthed upstart that threatens and insults as the promoters and fans drool in excitement. How much of it is fake, how much is put on and how much leads to an individual’s self-delusion is rarely known until well after the stars decline in sports. What Ali did was give many modern pop stars a template by which to imitate. Many have done so poorly. Unlike Ali who at times seemed angry, indignant and found cause and allegiance with his Nation of Islam brothers, his subsequent imitators only hear the sizzle while forsaken the very steak of his angst. The fans and promoters it seems however find sustenance enough in the sizzle.
Into the 1980s with the emergence of Larry Holmes and the other confusing alphabet champions boxing did not have a hype star quite the way that they had in Ali. The Vegas four lead by the super talented and in ways Ali like Ray Leonard was filled with immense rivalries and tremendous build ups yet they never quite managed to really transcend boxing in the way that Ali had. It would not be perhaps until Oscar De La Hoya when the sport had a truly glamorous non heavyweight to seduce the non-pugilistic public.
It would be with the thudding menace of a man who was then still in many ways a boy that fans witnessed the George Foreman and Sonny Liston like scowl with a promise of sure violence above a soft-spoken demeanour. Mike Tyson. Kid Dynamite as he was at first known soon became a super star, and it did not take long before his appetite for club fighters and journeymen was replaced with contenders and former champions. Mike Tyson delivered. He was not an Ali imitation, perhaps in the mould of Floyd Patterson who was also a student of his late mentor, with some Joe Frazier, Jack Dempsey thrown into the mix. But he was all Iron Mike, the perfect mega star of the 1980s.
Despite a life that would cascade with chaos and scandal, Mike Tyson would make many millions and draw in the crowds well up to his retirement. Even well after his fighting years he is still a product. One that has been reinvented and repackaged so many times that it makes it hard for those old enough to remember his genesis of fame to really figure out who Mike Tyson really is or even was. Unlike George Foreman who in his second career embraced humour and heavy hitting advertiser friendly self-comedy, Tyson has gone from being a well-studied protégé, a frightening champion, a mental case, rapist, inmate, Nation of Islam warrior, violent enigma, controversially angry, ear biting and mentally disfigured, sad, bereaved and now funny and like big George he found self-effacing in his humorous atonement.
How much of this is a personal arc, how much is externally advised and how much is it a man aware of the need to adapt in order to pay the bills, allomone and make money. The sport and fame in general is an unkind mistress to those who are no longer relevant. They may remember the hey day when they were making hits whereas their audience and those who are unfamiliar simply do not care. Just as an Adam Sandler has a second life on Netflix, his sorrowful eyes and drawn features only serve to remind all that Happy Gilmore and the Paulie Shore 1990s were far too long ago. But unlike many of his peers Mike Tyson, despite the odds, has flourished and embraced the new hyper media age.
Full Contact, Kick Boxing, scores of post Bruce Lee martial arts films and then an interview inside of playboy magazine would help to culminate into what was then an infomercial, the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 started what would become known as the Reality Fighting craze. Where No Holds Barred was popular and on the rise, though variations of it had existed in Japan and Brazil for years it would be with the need to promote the supremacy of Gracie Jiu Jitsu that the sport and an industry would commence. The brain child of mostly Rorion Gracie and his partner Art Davie it helped to sell the UFC and BJJ to the wider world.
Hype certainly helped to sell most of the early events, many were marketed on the premise that they were banned elsewhere. A taboo act lurked beyond the pay per view subscription the perversity of human cock fighting, a pornographic orgy of masculine savagery could be found if only one paid the $50. And many did for a time and many were let down. While the flying tooth of Teila Tuli or the bloodied face of Fred Ettish were graphic realisations of what many had hoped to see, the sight of a circling Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn in their rematch was also the reality. It was a growing sport that had it all, and that included both deplorable mismatches and boring hug-a-thons.
Eventually MMA would produce its own super stars from Royce Gracie to Ken Shamrock, Tank Abbott to Don Frye all had a persona and though the sport relied on martial art magazines and brief advertising on cable it was with word of mouth and the condemnation from the martial arts community that tended to help to self it. As scores of McDojos rallied to criticise that dangers and misrepresentation of traditional martial arts inside of these events, the sport grew on. Fights were discussed on the email lists and primitive forums of the early internet, despite the wider media blanketing the sport with negative stigmas. The sport like boxing would have its share of toe to toe battles and blow outs and just as boxing would have jab and grab matches, so too would MMA have its lay and pray bouts. The great ‘what ifs’ were discussed ad nauseum on key boards, trolls lurked and hard core fans sustained the sport with dedicated appreciation. Those that helped to make it famous and wealthy for some however wanted blood most often. Not cunning and skill.
The sport and hype around it grew to such a point that popular celebrity icons began to attend, no longer were they enjoying the sport in secret but instead they would sit proudly ringside to watch Tito Ortiz come out as Korn played live. In a matter of years the sport hand evolved to wider acceptance, to the point that the very same McDojo’s that sought to disavow themselves from MMA as it was now known. They incorporated it into their curriculum, suddenly every gym whether fitness or self-defence was also an MMA one. With the Zuffa take over the sport would look to Budweiser and Carmen Electra to help push the brand, none of which really helped to boost the UFC beyond its then present position of curiosity and bricked fight fandom.
The sport had been repackaged and no longer was it sold as barbaric and dangerous but with the presence of revenue hungry governing bodies it was moulded into another income earner for athletic commissions and state governments. The Ultimate Fighter TV show eventually helped to boost the sport and mostly name marque of the UFC helping to introduce the public and fight fans to grinding talents like Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Rashad Evans and Stephan Bonar among others who would go on to at some stage hold prominence for the brand. Timed perfectly with the ‘reality TV’ craze it was to blend violent sports with human drama, tears and punches. It sold well.
The UFC would become the home of the over hyped spectacle introducing boxer James Toney to the arena with no warm up or gift match, instead he was thrown in against multiple champion Randy Couture. The outcome as inevitable if Couture had of fought Toney inside the boxing ring. Though no one would have wanted to watch that, yet for some reason the reverse was true. Brock Lesnar of WWF-WWE fame managed to cross over into MMA surprisingly well, besting some talents of the sport while also returning to his realm of ‘sports entertainment’ where the outcomes were assured. For every Brock Lesnar however there seems to be a CM Punk who looked terribly underwhelming in both training and not surprisingly inside the arena, and yet fans seemed to want to pay enough to assure that Punk got a solid pay day. Meanwhile scores of far more talented fighters are never granted such an opportunity, only to languish in obscurity or to be fed as short notice fodder to other names.
Boxer Ray Mercer, always tough and courageous failed in his K1 performances along with fellow boxers Shannon Briggs and Vince Phillips yet managed to knock out Tim Sylvia only to himself suffer a lacklustre loss to the internet sensation ‘Kimbo Slice’. Kimbo was a bare-knuckle menace born in the YouTube generation, he would have been perfect in the early days of the UFC fitting alongside Tank Abbott and Kimo Leopoldo, instead he was the next generation hard hitting obsession. As much as he was marketed and despite the efforts of such coaches as Bas Rutten and being inside the Ultimate Fighter house, Kimbo was never to become anything more than an occasional winner. Even as he boxed he bought the crowds, none were there to see his opponents.
The king of the three rounders Eric Esch, or ‘Butterbean’ had predated the internet sensation Kimbo with his punching spectacles though the hype surrounding him on cable and VHS was immense, it was not YouTube viral immense. Just like ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, Butterbean managed to entertain non-fight fans in a peculiar way, blending showmanship with a unique display of power and brutality. While Butterbean was appealing to the trailer park and truck stop crowds, Hamed found his place in the clubby and ecstasy popping urbanites. Both men were perhaps a decade premature of true hyper celebrity, where the VHS highlight tape could be out done by broadband downloads and streaming content. While Hamed dissipated into relative obscurity after losing to solid prize fighters, Butterbean found a place alongside Akenbono and Bob Sapp as fodder in Japanese MMA shows. Whereas Bob Sapp had early success in both K1 kickboxing and MMA, he soon become a farcical of a professional jobber. A name that guaranteed a win, much as Dan Severn had in his later career. And yet the hyped-up crowds wanted to watch no matter how ugly the assured outcome always was.
It seems like in another life time that the racial divide surrounding Larry Holmes vs Gerry Cooney was so real and assured the promoters and fighters grand paydays. Cooney, was touted as being a real life Rocky Balboa, except Irish, sort of and well nothing really like Rocky other than he was white. Larry Holmes was a great champion, except he was not Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson for that matter, he was just black. And it seems that this was enough to charge the crowds and media. Holmes had faced other white challengers though none of them had the marketing charm or promise of victory like Cooney did. It is hard to imagine many advertising Randal Cobb or Scott Ledoux as the great American (white) hope. Holmes would go on to win and Cooney would never recover his career. The feeling of letting down so many and succumbing to defeat before a legendary champion threw him into depression and a broken post 1982 career. Such is boxing, those loving fans and interested media or even the presidential phone call were not there to follow up on his career after the loss, when he most likely actually needed the support.
In an age when the Klitschko brothers have dominated the heavyweight scene near convincingly once Lennox Lewis had abdicated his thrones, a need for a white champion seems odd. Archaic. While Russian and Eastern European champions battle their way through the ranks and defeat their opponents it seems that boxing simply needs an American or even an English-speaking hope, regardless of colour. Floyd Mayweather had secured his mantle as being the man of boxing for some time, surpassing the greatness in popular culture above many of his peers. Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Junior and Ray Leonard were perhaps the other prior non-heavyweight greats who could command heavyweight pay days and pay per views while also appealing to those who were above the ‘barbarity’ of boxing. It was Pretty Boy Floyd who seemed to truly find his mark.
In his controversially arrogant persona, his consistently dominant ring presence and his ability to make a lot of money for his brand, Money Mayweather is both the envy and template for many athletes in the modern era. Perhaps non-other than to the Notorious Connor MacGregor. Unlike McGregor, Mayweather has not lost a fight. Though the dynamics of boxing and MMA are far different despite an incessant need to constantly compare the two, McGregor has lost only recently convincingly to what would be termed in boxing as a journeyman contender in Nate Diaz. After having been submitted by Diaz, McGregor was unable to stamp any finality in his revenge, instead he edged a close and for many controversial win via decision. While the boxing public would demand a trilogy if that were to happen to one of their stars, MMA fans seem to hold the memory of a gold fish and believe that McGregor is the second coming of himself.
No other fighter in recent time, other than perhaps Ronda Rousey has received such a biased exceptionalism when it came to their performances. While Rousey was a dominant force on the judo mat and in the MMA arena, her over hyped fight-marketing team sought to push her brand beyond the realms of simply a fighter. She posed as a model, made movies and advertised everything, appeared on talk shows and in a world where misogyny is forever being touted as an obstacle for women. She became the sports top paid mega star after having faced only a handful of opponents ascending above every male fighter even those that had been facing scores of dangerous challengers for years. Upon losing to Holly Holm it was not a celebration of her opponent’s excellent performance but a mourning over the misery of the former champion Rousey must face now that she had suffered a loss that seemed to take the media and many fans attention.
No longer did some super fighters climb back inside the arena to avenge themselves, instead they sat on the couch of talk shows discussing depression and how losing a sporting event was the worst thing to suffer in life. Meanwhile wars wage in unread headlines and children starve but athletes cry before a mourning and adoring public. Holm however was a marginalised victor, never able to celebrate her win because the fanbase and UFC craved Rousey. And when she did return, over a year later the fight was a one-sided retirement. For the woman who could apparently beat bigger male champions, bash professional boxers inside the ropes and was supposedly the next Mike Tyson, Rousey unfortunately fell victim to her own hype and forgot that thou art mortal.
It is perhaps a guarantor of wealth and fame such supreme arrogance. The smack talking, smarmy attitude of success. For MMA, it was never fully realised until Chael Sonnen made even stone giggle with his rhetorical beats. Before he learned to talk as he became famous for he was simply another grinding, hardworking wrestler-fighter. Not many recalled his fights before destroying Okami or Marquadt. His performances were superb in domination but it was his press conferences and interviews that began to assure his fan base. Culminating in his fights with Anderson Silva. The smack talking and manufactured rivalry helped to invigorate the middleweight division which had grown stale as far as hyped up value went. Sheer dominance by Anderson Silva in fights where he seemed almost bored caused the fans and bosses of the UFC to put him on notice. Sonnen gave both Anderson and the Middleweight division a respite and assured that people would buy the pay per views just to watch him talk before and after.
While Tito Ortiz managed to rustle feathers in his time, the sport had yet to really appreciate such antics during his prime. It would be Sonnen and his motivational insights mixed with Steve Austin like rants that charmed the fans and media alike. Even after his losses, for a while, Chael managed to berate his way into big pay days. Realistically his fight versus Jon Jones should never have had happened, and yet it did. Now as much as he tries Chael can never recapture that lustre and spark, his progeny McGregor has taken the flame from his torch.
It is with the fiery torch of assured ticket sales, PPV buys and downloads that Connor McGregor looks towards Mayweather. Floyd happily retired, into his forties and with a legacy of supremacy in boxing does not need to fight. The money allegedly offered is paltry to those in boxing’s mega fame. For the UFC, a promotion notorious for under paying its talent, the money offered is impressive. It sets a dangerous precedent for the MMA world, they would have to pay one of their cash cows some ‘boxing’ money and for the likes of Mayweather it would simply mean a pay cut. A cut so that he may risk his legacy, come out of retirement, take on a boxing no body in a spectacle that would most likely prove that he is the better boxer against a man who is not even undefeated inside of his own sport. Simply to satisfy what? Hype? To give McGregor and those around him a big pay day. Hyped up spectacles tend to have pay offs for both parties. Thus far, it’s pretty one sided.
The jittery muted motion of Muhammad Ali in his final decades, the slurring speech of Joe Frazier before his death, lost mind of Floyd Patterson before he passed away, the controversial mystery of Sonny Liston’s overdose, the lonely walk into the desert by Evan Tanner, the frail image of Mark Coleman, a sputtering fragility of boxing legend Meldrick Taylor, the scarred face of Vanderlai Silva and the sudden death of Kimbo Slice are all notable stand outs of the outcome of a high stakes realm that holds such high demands on its athletes. Many of which are paid a relative little in the end. The choice is theirs alone to take such a path, yet the fans, those fickle and adoring in the glory days are absent and dismissive in the cold dark of pain and dementia. The promotional and marketing wizards, the athletic commissions and governing bodies all of which make a famous and splendid living simply by being around talent, cultivating it, drawing from it, taxing it, regulating it and hyping It all move on, live on with their faculties and health with no risk or pain. Those who made them, that fed them they die miserably or simply fade away. The profession of parasites always finds other hosts.
Beyond that hype and sensation millions of fighters, many of them beyond the North American land mass ply their dangerous craft for nothing, those professionals do so while working other jobs. The risks are often greater, the victory seldom satisfying but the losses are always painful. Virginal experts posting from behind screen names on Sherdog and Boxrec will troll about the supremacy of their sport and its heroes, missing the point. Social media, 4chan, tumblr, reddit and the good ole bar stool with thrive with banter as to who is the best. And should the outcome become realised, one thing for certain is that the hype will be tremendous and will as always, let the paying fans along with the freebie cheerleaders down. And in the end, they are to blame because hype always needs them, they fuel it, they generate it, they conjure it. They are the hype machine. What the fans crave more than anything is just more bullshit hype.
Kym Robinson (twitter@KymRobinson80), May 2017