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A QUESTIONABLE VICTORY?

 

 

By Theresa Runstedtler and David J. Leonard | With thanks to NewBlackMan 

 

Friday, October 14, 2011.

 

The on-going efforts to control, manage, and demonize black athletes, especially black boxers, once again came to a head a few weeks ago when Floyd Mayweather, Jr. beat Victor Ortiz with a “controversial” knockout punch to win the world welterweight title.

 

The fight promised to be a battle of two diametrical opposites. The self-assured 34-year-old black tactician with a defensive strategy was set to take on an earnest, up-and-coming 24-year-old Latino with an iron chin and aggressive style. Mayweather’s scenes in the pre-fight HBO production of 24/7 – talking into a stack of money as if it were a phone, buying a new luxury car on a whim, and fighting with his father in front of a crowd of fans – were wildly colorful, sometimes surreal, sometimes stomach-turning, and entirely bombastic. But all the while, Mayweather kept training; he kept honing his craft and conditioning his body, even pulling his entourage out of bed (and out of the club) for 2:00 am workout sessions.

 

In the meantime, 24/7 fashioned Ortiz into a paragon of ascetic virtue. His scenes revolved around a triumphant and righteous tale of social uplift – the quintessential good immigrant story. He came from nothing. His parents abandoned him and he still managed to pull himself up by his own bootstraps to become a successful, but humble fighter. Unlike Mayweather with his large entourage and celebrity friends, Ortiz mostly kept to himself with his truck-driving trainer and loyal brother.

 

The first few rounds were tight with Mayweather grabbing the early lead. In the fourth round, in what was probably Ortiz’s most effective moments in the fight, the wheels came off his attempt to defeat Mayweather. Launching at Mayweather, Ortiz landed a vicious head butt, leading Referee Joe Cortez to step in to penalize Ortiz.  After several apologies from Ortiz, a few hugs, a kiss or two, and the tapping of the gloves, the fight resumed; although it appears that Ortiz didn’t get the memo leaving him vulnerable to a classic Mayweather combo that ended as many have before: with his opponent on the ground.  Replays clearly illustrate that Ortiz was not paying attention and not following the creed “to protect oneself at all time,” ending the fight in what was both one of the more climatic and anti-climatic moments in boxing history.

 

Before the fighters even exited the ring, commentators had already denied Mayweather the victory.  Described as a “questionable” win, a “marginally legal” knockout, and as one that resulted from a “cheap shot” and a “sucker punch” the victory was not simply hallow but purportedly a window into Mayweather’s dubious character.  “Like the Tyson ear biting incident of yesteryear, Floyd Mayweather proved to be dirty fighter this evening who hit a man when the action had not officially commenced by the referee,” noted Jet Fan on The Bleacher Report. “To a chorus of boos, Mayweather then imploded in a post-fight interview with HBO's Larry Merchant as he questioned Merchant's boxing resume and then proceeded to terminate the dialogue in a profanity laced tirade. To Merchant's credit, he stood toe-to-toe with an obvious bully who seems to relish in antagonizing men twice his age, including his own father!” A commentary on The Statesmen encapsulates the demonization directed at Mayweather that used the fight to lament Floyd’s character, pathologies and otherwise undesirable traits:

 

Congratulations, Floyd Mayweather. You are now the most despised athlete on the planet, non-O.J. division.  Mayweather is sullying his legacy as one of the greatest fighters of our generation. His latest classless missteps came last Saturday night with a one-two punch. First, he cold-cocked Victor Ortiz in the closing seconds of the fourth round of their welterweight championship fight while Ortiz was apologizing for an intentional head butt. Yes, what Ortiz did was idiotic — first the head butt and then letting his guard down while referee Joe Cortez had his back turned toward the fighters. But what Mayweather did — perfectly legit under strict interpretation of the rules — was a punk move. But he was just getting started.  Mayweather then went after HBO analyst Larry Merchant in a post-fight interview, spewing profanities before Merchant grew tired of it and yelled, "I wish I was 50 years younger and I would kick your (butt).

Apparent from the media response was both a lack of respect and a dismissal of the specifics of what happened in the ring. Rather than simply comment on the fight, the media reasserted “common sense” understandings of black athletes, reiterating the narrative of Mayweather as an immature, greedy, and petulant child who represents everything that is wrong with modern professional sports culture.  The media response in this regard reflects the longstanding project of constructing black athletes as “bad boys,” which in the end “works to reinforce efforts to tame their ‘out of control’ nature" (Ferber 2007, p. 20). 

 

Whether depicting the fight as indicative of a lack of sportsmanship or a win-at-all costs mentality; whether representing Mayweather as so violent and despicable that he would attack an old man like Larry Merchant; or whether focusing on his trash-talking, extravagance, bravado, and material flash, the demonization of Mayweather illustrates how his body (and his body of work) functions as a contested sight about the social significance of black athletes in the twenty-first century. The post-fight criticisms are not simply about Mayweather but rather they evoke the contested history of black athletes and their place in white-run sporting industries geared at largely white consumers. As noted by Imani Perry, in Prophets of the Hood, popular culture (including sports) exists not only as a site for the construction and dissemination of stereotypical representations, but also as a space where “the isolation of black bodies as the culprits for widespread multiracial social ills” becomes commonplace (Perry 2005, p 27). 

 

Indeed, what gets left out of the discussion is the calculated nature of Mayweather’s public persona. He knows his audience and given the financial structure of the match, he had a lot to gain from stirring up publicity for the fight. Whether you call him “Pretty Boy” or “Money,” Mayweather is arguably following in the footsteps of a long tradition of black fighters that the public (especially the white public) has loved to hate. Like other black boxers who came before him, he has used his infamy as a clever marketing tool. At the post-fight press conference, Mayweather admitted to reporters that he and his team worked from the premise that boxing was about more than just money; above all, it was about entertaining the crowd.

The line between performance and sport has always been blurred in the pugilistic realm. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century many boxers (both white and black) made far more money off of their theatrical exhibitions than they did from their actual prizefights. They were also self-conscious style hounds and brash trash-talkers who realized that how they “staged” their masculine bravado outside the ring often influenced their financial rewards from the ring. Instead of trying to get white fans to love them (which would have been a feat given the racial politics of the time), some black fighters positioned themselves as men that spectators could love to hate.

 

Take for instance, John Perry, “The Black Sailor.” The son of a white mother and a black British father in Nova Scotia, Perry won Australia’s heavyweight title in 1849 where his opulent clothing and confident demeanor unnerved many of the local white sportswriters.

By the late 1900s, being a more “respectable” and deferential black fighter did not guarantee that one could skirt boxing’s increasingly rigid color line. The black Australian pugilist Peter Jackson, who came to be known as a gentleman and an honorary white man, still never managed to coax the white American champion John L. Sullivan into the ring for a world heavyweight championship match.

 

Other fighters simply chose to flout “proper” racial and class etiquette, such as Frank Craig, “The Harlem Coffee Cooler,” a black American expatriate prizefighter in turn-of-the-century Britain and France. In addition to winning boxing matches, Craig became a smash hit in British music halls, helping to popularize the cakewalk. With the money earned from his fights and exhibitions, he bought several London taverns. He even enjoyed flaunting his wealth and was known to drive around with his white wife in an open carriage, wearing expensive clothes and diamond jewelry.

 

With the rise of sports pages and specialty boxing magazines, which closely followed fighters’ exploits in and out of the ring, the performative aspects of the sport helped to expand the boxing industry’s profitability. Yet, as much as money was a key consideration for black boxers as they fashioned their public personas, many chose to be deliberately unruly and pompous as a kind of personal political statement. For them, it was about speaking back to prevailing stereotypes of doltish, hapless, weak, subservient, and backward black men.

 

Perhaps the most infamous ring dandy of all was Jack Johnson. With his defeat of Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia,  in 1908, Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Like Perry and Craig, Johnson embodied a bold vision of black masculinity that spoke directly to the hopes and dreams of a black working class desperate for a break in the racial oppression and back-breaking labor that characterized their lives. In the ring he beat up white men physically and verbally, while outside the ring he flaunted his conspicuous consumption, his love of fast cars, his quick wit, and his affairs with white women. He was also known for performing elaborate grooming rituals, usually with the help of white servants, and for openly exhibiting his physique in front of sportswriters. Through these performances Johnson not only contested longstanding tenets of black inferiority but he also challenged conventional narratives of restraint as the route to racial uplift forwarded by the black middle class. (Sound familiar?)

 

Let’s not forget that prize-fighting emerged from the underground world of vice. Early pugilists were hardly considered epitomes of respectability, and many black boxers like Johnson simply refused to relinquish their connection to the motley collection of gangsters, pimps, prostitutes, and vagabonds who inhabited the sporting world.

 

Still, by the early twentieth century social reformers were trying to pry the sport loose from its moorings in the underworld. They hoped to make boxing an amateur sport untainted by pecuniary motives, and therefore more legitimate in the eyes of mainstream society. They sought to turn fighters into silent technicians in the ring and middle-class role models beyond the ring. Yet boxing has never lost its edge or fully moved away from its underground roots. Just as with Johnson and later Muhammad Ali, Mayweather has chosen to embrace the persona of the racial villain, even as sportswriters have imagined him as a threat to society’s (and boxing’s) morals and values.

 

Although we certainly acknowledge the ways in which Mayweather challenges the expected and sanctioned identities available to the modern black athlete, his efforts are not inherently transgressive. While Mayweather is undoubtedly building on a tradition that comes out of a longer history of racial and class oppression, his various efforts to construct his public image do not necessarily bespeak a progressive, anti-racist politics. After all, his use of homophobic rhetoric and his embrace of material opulence do not challenge the heterosexist and capitalist power structure. Even though Mayweather challenges the accepted roles and identities of young black men as set out by white sports fans, in other respects he perpetuates a brand of black masculinity that does little to inspire a more inclusive and transformative vision of black politics.

 

Moving beyond simple questions of likability and respectability, there is much more at stake with the recent demonization of Mayweather given the larger history and racial landscape. We should not just criticize folks like Mayweather who are simply trying to negotiate their way in the boxing world. Rather we need to interrogate the increasingly central role of narratives of the humble, obedient, and ascetic black athlete in today’s sports industrial complex. After all this multi-billion-dollar, transnational industry relies not only on colonial narratives of race, but also on a large pool of docile and disposable black bodies to drive its phenomenal profitability.

 

***

Theresa Runstedtler is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University at Buffalo and, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Humanities Forum for the 2011-2012 academic year.  Her book, tentatively titled, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (University of California Press) drops in Spring 2012.

 

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs @ No Tsuris.

 

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