Boxing has long been a sport riddled with an army of critics. Ban the sport! It’s savagery! Barbarism for profit! Those detractors may well have valid arguments. However, following the long-awaited Sergey Kovalev v Andre Ward rematch, are we forced to scrape at the surface of one of boxing’s deeper issues?

The truth is sadly, that racism has always been an elephant in the room. It’s been a promotional gambit, used to boost ticket sales. It’s been underhanded comments from one fighter to another. It’s been the complete lack of respect shown to world class fighters following some of their crowning achievements. 

A sport dependant on defending yourself and standing proudly in the face of an attacking opponent was always going to be guilty of certain outbursts. Emotions run high, adrenalin is Ali-shuffling through the veins of the warriors trading punches. But why, throughout history, has race always played its part? Why isn’t aggression and violence enough? 

Great White Hope-ism

Since, and probably before, Jack Johnson’s symbolic win over a returning Jim Jeffries in 1910 the phrase ‘Great White Hope’ has been used. Is it used every time men of different races come to blows? No. Has it been used as recently as the 90’s? Yes. 

The fighters involved in these bouts are generations apart. What was commonly acceptable in Jeffries’ day, was completely vilified in Tommy ‘The Duke’ Morrisons day. However, in fights made between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney for example, the race-based term was used as a way of boosting ticket sales from a target audience – white males. 

Where does this leave the black fighter? He unknowingly and probably unwillingly becomes the focus of hate from angry boxing fans hungry for their ‘White Hope’ to knock him out. Nowadays, this type of marketing is less prevalent, however there are plenty of examples of racism in modern-day boxing which we will further explore. 

Keep in mind that after Johnson knocked out Jeffries in the 15th round, black Americans were chased in the streets and reportedly murdered (a body count of 10 or 11, reports vary). The phrasing used then was of course relative to the racial climate. I completely understand that this may have been a more common way to express yourself as a promoter. But why would we see it used during Lewis v Morrison or infact generally throughout Tommy’s career a whole 80+ years down the line? Historically, surely, the connotations could be described as negative and offensive.

No respect

Cassius Clay, aged 18 and with an Olympic gold medal round his neck, was hungry. As he went to a restaurant to eat (wearing the medal), he was asked to leave on account of the colour of his skin. Clay was so upset and bemused, he launched the medal in the nearest river. Abandoned by the countrymen he was proud to represent. 

This wasn’t a result of racism in boxing. It had spilled over from the Civil Rights movement and the bubbling unrest in the USA between African-Americans and their white neighbours. What it did do, sadly, was instill a hatred of white people in Clay. He turned to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and dominated the heavyweight division. 

He was an icon. A legend. Never to be replaced. But when reading his biography or looking back at interviews from his Nation of Islam days, it’s clear to see Ali was racist. He was racist when dealing with Joe Frazier. We all know the names thrown at Frazier, the insults and the personal angles used by Ali. This was a man who stood up for black Americans, calling a fellow black American ‘a gorilla’, ‘a big ugly bear’ and an ‘Uncle Tom’. Ali was at the peak of the sport, yet he spoke of white people as being ‘the devil’ and multi-racial couples being killed if exposed. 

Ali later changed his views. He dropped the Nation of Islam and became a more loving, understanding example of his own ability. Sadly, the comments made by him were made during an unfathomably important time for American race-relations and to bring this into the sport was regrettable.

Throwaway comments

Things are said in the heat of the moment. We all do it. However when you call your friend a ‘dickhead’ for breaking an XBOX controller, the world’s media don’t have cameras and microphones glued to your chin. Bernard Hopkins frequently does. 

It’s important to remember Hopkins introduction to the sport and his time spent in prison as a young man for serious criminal activity. It’s not a free pass, sadly. Famously Hopkins said of Joe Calzaghe, “I’ll never lose a fight to a white boy!”. This in itself is unneccessary. Joe being white? Irrelevant. Place that shoe on the other foot – it’s bad for boxing.

I understand the mentality of a B-Hop, I think. He struggled, used boxing to escape crime, feels probably victimised by a system designed to watch the failings of young black males in poverty. Racism is alive and throbbing in some areas of America and Hopkins knows it only too well. It’s disgusting to see how police treat young black men and women on their streets in 2017. But boxing seems to have become a vehicle for remarks like this from fighters like Bernard. 

We don’t have to be that sport.

He also said he believed that “African-American, by that I mean black fighters from the streets” like Floyd Mayweather would beat someone like Manny Pacquiao. Was he correct? Maybe. Did he say anything disparaging about Pacquiao? Maybe not. But the constant rambling about race, colour, heritage, strong skin tone, weaker skin tone; it is just unintelligent. 

It seems fighters of all variations of ethnicity have a self-defense mechanism which can breach the politically correct in the blink of an eye, at the drop of a hat. 

Translation and culture

The above picture should give you an idea of the content in this stanza. Sergey Kovalev has repeatedly insulted Andre Ward. He has used the ‘N’ word, called him a ‘faggot’ and, unusually, a ‘hoe’. In previous brushes with racism, Kovalev has tweeted the infamous monkey picture when discussing Adonis Stevenson. In 2014, he called a beaten opponent a ‘negro’. 

Russian, Scottish, Ukrainian, Portugese… it doesn’t matter. You can’t say that shit.

Kovalev seems an emotional and impulsive man, however this is nowhere near an excuse. Repeatedly, he has chosen vocabulary which is wholely unacceptable. Kathy Duva can protest decisions all she likes, these things must be addressed. 

There does seem to be an undercurrent of racism spread evenly between American fighters and fighters of the previously Soviet states. Gennady Golovkin has had his heritage mocked in articles, discussing how everyone in Kazakhstan must be working on farms etc. This is a two-way street dating back, presumably, to the Cold War era. 

In an age of Social Media dominance and automated lingual translation online, fighters cannot be messing this stuff up. Things have been said innocently maybe once or twice. When you look at the Kovalev examples it seems the Russian has blurred the line between acceptable and unacceptable. Silence, in his case, would be golden. 

As a result of its gladitorial elements, it seems that the violence and raw aggression in boxing has continued to retain that hint of racism. The reasons are varied. Historical differences, cultural appropriateness, profitability and the building of stars and future champions.

It is a sport. It should remain just that. Racism within boxing should be dealt with seriously and stamped out. Apologies should be made with the intention of change, not in a temporary effort to cloud peoples sense of upset until we can wheel both men out to the squared circle. Only then can we claim to be a sport for the ‘purist’.

Written by Craig Scott