By Chris Weatherspoon @christoph_21
Boxing has long been home to moral juxtapositions.
How, one may wonder, can the sport be deemed artful when it relies upon its participants bludgeoning one another into submission? Why is it that those casting an eye over a hurt fighter often proclaim that “nobody wants to see that” when, in actual fact, those same people have just been baying for blood?
Similarly, there is reason to dispute pugilism’s claims to nobility when we consider an activity that appears to be ever more frequently undertaken: trash-talking. The act of looking to weaken an opponent mentally via use of the tongue has a history almost as long as boxing itself. John L. Sullivan, the first world heavyweight champion to wear gloves, famously declared he could “lick any son-of-a-bitch alive”.
Yet it wasn’t until the rise of Muhammad Ali (who else?) in the 1960s that insults began to take a more active role in prizefighting. The Louisville Lip announced his arrival with his mouth as much as he did his fists, and few were spared Ali’s invective. Sonny Liston, seen by many as one of the most feared individuals on the planet, was labelled a “big ugly bear” by the young upstart; the similarly terrifying George Foreman was advised that Ali was “so mean I make medicine sick”. On Buster Mathis, Ali suggested he’d “do to Buster what the Indians did to Custer”.
Ali’s barbs were undeniably clever and often very funny. Yet sometimes those tongue-lashings took a more sinister turn. Having suffered his first defeat at the hands of Joe Frazier, Ali became ever more vicious over the course of the duo’s eventual trilogy. At varying points, Frazier was labelled “a gorilla” and, more outrageously, “an Uncle Tom”.
The latter, a racial epithet utilised to try and portray Frazier as being in the pockets of rich, white men, was particularly unpleasant given that it was Ali who was more inclined to cosy up to that demographic. But the words stuck and, more importantly for Ali, they ruffled Frazier. And whereas Ali immediately forgot about his comments once the physical hostilities ended, Frazier was known to have been hurt by the words long after the event. In the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ documentary released over three decades after their final fight, Frazier remained visibly perturbed by the insults meted out to him.
And therein lies a question which few have confronted but many have wondered privately: when do boxing insults go too far?
Ali’s comments about Frazier are now widely seen as having strayed over the line of acceptability, his invocations of racial anxieties jarring with his wider image as a hero of the African-American community. That reflects changing popular attitudes towards race and, equally, the realisation that such comments were cruel when directed at Frazier, a man who, for all his undoubted toughness, did not exist on the same intellectual plane as Ali.
If such comments are now almost unheard of – though Floyd Mayweather did once refer to Manny Pacquiao as a “yellow chump”, something for which he swiftly apologised – then there remain two other realms into which trash-talkers enter at great risk.
The first is the discussion of an opponent’s family members. Mike Tyson attracted mass censure in the early 2000s for his “I want to eat his children” line, directed at Lennox Lewis. Similarly, Ricardo Mayorga’s attempts to unsettle Oscar De La Hoya during the build-up to their light middleweight world title bout saw the Nicaraguan insult De La Hoya’s wife and son, alongside numerous homophobic slurs and the accusation that De La Hoya was a “race traitor”.
Mayorga’s wholly unsavoury comments ultimately served as motivation for the Golden Boy. De La Hoya pummelled Mayorga into submission, scoring a sixth-round stoppage and confirming after that the insulting of his family had made him determined to emerge victorious. Lewis and Tyson laugh about Iron Mike’s comments now, but back in 2002 they surely helped the Brit en route to his eighth-round knockout win.
If families are out of bounds, then the other unsayable is the spectre which looms large in many a fighter’s mind: death. Suggestions that a combatant might be beaten into an early grave are perhaps highest on the list of trash-talking no goes, with boxers and commentators all too aware on the very real risks that await those who step between the ropes.
Deontay Wilder’s proclamation: “I want a body on my record” earlier this year horrified many and, despite not being directed at anyone in particular, leapt into a land which most know shouldn’t be trespassed. Tyson, unsurprisingly, was guilty of similar outbursts. That he was condemned too would suggest that, for all the bluster surrounding the sport, there is a clear line between promising a beatdown and predicting a fatality.
For the most part, boxing phraseology stays within the confines of the allowed. Tyson Fury’s comments in 2015 about homosexuality and paedophilia were abhorrent, but his shots at opponents have been more ridiculous than malicious. Most proponents of the sport are able to acknowledge how far they can go without risking rebuke. Thankfully, in a sport where agreements are few and far between, most are united over what is acceptable when it comes to a fighter’s words.