Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Great Filipino Hope? A Brief History of Race in the Ring

with 7 comments

by Weiner

It was not long after Filipino congressman and champion boxer Manny Pacquiao defeated Antonio Margarito in a masterful 12-round unanimous decision that somebody decided to play the race card.

In boxing, this sort of thing is inevitable. The sport has long been racially charged, perhaps most famously when Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada in 1910. Much of the American public imagined Jeffries as “The Great White Hope.”  Johnson dashed those hopes, brutally battering his opponent for 15 rounds until Jeffries’ corner called it quits and riots erupted across the country (often simply in response to blacks celebrating in the streets), killing 23 African Americans and two white people.  The story of Jack Johnson has achieved legendary status, immortalized in a 1967 play, The Great White Hope, starring a young James Earl Jones, and later in Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness.

That story, of course, extended far beyond the ring. Johnson broke many racial taboos of his time, most infamously in his very public relationships with white women. He played upon stereotypes to suit his purposes, purportedly even wrapping his penis in gauze underneath his shorts to make it appear bigger. Johnson’s effect on American conceptions of race and masculinity is best explored in Gail Bederman’s introduction to her excellent study, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917.

The story of race and boxing doesn’t stop there. As NYU historian Jeffrey Sammons chronicles in his Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society, discussion of race played a huge role in the career of Joe Louis, the first Black heavyweight champion after Johnson, and of course in the life Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous athlete who ever lived.

jack johnson1 McCain Seeks Justice For Deceased Boxer Jack Johnson (Photos)

Today, racial discourse in boxing usual surrounds the action inside the ring. We live in strange times for spectators of the “sweet science.” The demographics of fighters and fans has shifted dramatically. Boxing has always been popular among American immigrants. Every young Jewish schlemiel who aspired to some sort of masculine ideal has devoured books like The Jewish Boxer’s Hall of Fame or When Boxing was a Jewish Sport. In the beginning of the 20th century the sport was especially popular among Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, as many fighters of that era drew the colour line and refused to box against African-Americans, especially after the “Great White Hope” affair. At this time, boxing was the second most popular sport in America, after baseball, the national pastime.

With the rise of Joe Louis, African Americans began to achieve prominence in the sport in greater numbers. After WW2, Jewish participation in boxing fell off dramatically, though other white ethnics, especially Italians, continued to succeed, most famously Rocky Marciano. For this reason, the image of the Italian fighter resonated enough to make the 1975 Oscar-winning movie Rocky so successful.  By the 1960s, however, Blacks dominated most weight classes. This began to change, though, as Latinos earned championships, especially at the lighter weights. In the 1980s, though Mike Tyson ruled the heavyweight class and Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns all achieved stardom, fighters like Roberto Duran and Alexis Arguello ushered in a wave of Latino champions. In the 1990s, many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, along with Puerto Ricans and Cuban defectors, entered the ranks of boxing’s best. Boxing in the United States remained an immigrant sport, but the immigrants had changed.

Still, African Americans dominated much of boxing, like they came to dominate baseball, and to an even greater extent football, basketball and track and field. Scholars reached for scientific explanations. Books like John Hoberman’s 1997 volume Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race takes a historical and cultural perspective, while Jon Ensine’s 1999 work, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, tackles the “science” more directly, concluding that a combination of biology and culture has led to Black athletic success. While Ensine’s conclusions are controversial and questionable, his contribution to the dialogue on this “taboo” issue is extremely valuable. To this day, when we see the runners line up for the 100 meter dash in the Olympics, most of us can predict accurately that the top three sprinters will be people of African origin. Why this is deserves to be studied.

In boxing, however, things are a bit different. Today, the fight game is not nearly as popular as it once was to the broader American public, but it remains extremely popular among Hispanics. And while African Americans once dominated the heavyweight class to such an extent that it was mocked in the 1996 parody, The Great White Hype, now the sport’s glamour division is ruled by two Ukrainian giants, the brothers Vladimir and Vitali Klitschko. Great Black athletes who weigh over 200 pounds are turning to football and basketball, and to a lesser extent baseball, where there is more money, less risk, and the possibility of getting a college education through athletic scholarships. The integration and growing popularity of America’s other major sports sounded the death knell for boxing’s prominence in American life. In a sense, Jackie Robinson killed the African American heavyweight, though he died a slow, illustrious death, and lived long enough to give the United States Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson, among many other greats.

At the lower weights, however, things remain different. If you’re a great athlete, but only 5’5” and 125 pounds, your options are pretty limited if you want to make money in sports. Boxing may be your best or even only route. Indeed, this is probably true for men under 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, with some exceptions among middle infielders and point guards, and maybe the odd running back or tennis player. And so while Latinos (from the US and elsewhere) and now Asians and Europeans are an enormous presence in the ring, Black fighters in the lower weight classes still win championships, none more famously than Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Mayweather, aka “Pretty Boy Floyd,” aka Floyd “Money” Mayweather,” may be the best pound-for-pound fight in the world. The only other candidate is Pacman, Manny Pacquaio. Mayweather has already hurled ethnic slurs at Pacquaio, making fun of Manny’s Filipino heritage. Mayweather also may have beaten his ex-girlfriend. Leaving that aside (which, I recognize, is a lot to ask), many believe a fight between these two men, despite their relatively small size, could be the biggest boxing match in years. Both men stand to make millions from it. Unfortunately, they’ve had trouble agreeing on drug testing specifics before the fight. Most observers agree that Mayweather seems to be the one ducking Pacquaio, though at this point his legal troubles might derail the whole thing even if the two boxers do come to an agreement.

Bernard Hopkins - View the Professional Career RecordIf they were to fight, however, who would win? Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, aka B-Hop, the Philadelphia fighter and former middleweight champion, clearly favours Floyd. Why? Because of his race.

“Floyd Mayweather would beat Manny Pacquiao because the styles that African-American fighters — and I mean, black fighters from the streets or the inner cities — would be successful,” said Hopkins, according to “I think Floyd Mayweather would pot-shot Pacquiao and bust him up in between the four-to-five punches that Pacquiao throws and then set him up later on down the line.”

Interestingly, Hopkins does not attribute Mayweather’s advantage to any biological or genetic superiority. Essentially, his strength is one of culture. For as the article notes:

Pacquiao fought and defeated Joshua Clottey of Ghana earlier this year, but Hopkins discounted that win, saying “Clottey is ‘black,’ but not a ‘black boxer’ from the states with a slick style.”

Hopkins also said this:

“Maybe I’m biased because I’m black, but I think that this is what is said at people’s homes and around the dinner table among black boxing fans and fighters. Most of them won’t say it [in public] because they’re not being real and they don’t have the balls to say it,” said Hopkins, a 45-year-old future Hall of Famer and a multi-division champion. “Listen, this ain’t a racial thing, but then again, maybe it is,” said Hopkins. “But the style that is embedded in most of us black fighters, that style could be a problem to any other style of fighting.”

So Joshua Clottey, from Ghana, doesn’t have it, though it’s “embedded” in most Black fighters. This a new, and interesting form of racial essentialism. It’s the same kind of rationale behind the argument that China will never produce a great point guard, because Chinese basketball players don’t develop the toughness that African American guards practicing on inner city playgrounds do. Is there any truth to this? Who knows? I do agree with the ESPN commentators that it is strange and surprising that Pacquiao has never faced an African American opponent. But I also agree that this has nothing to do with race.

In any case, I’m not sure if these race and sports questions can be answered. But I do want to see Pacquiao and Mayweather fight. Lord knows I’ll be rooting for Pacman, and not because of his race, but because he’s a class act and Mayweather’s a criminal and a dick. Also, I think Pacquiao should be the underdog, and I always root for the underdog.

Who do I think would/will win? I think Mayweather will be much harder to hit than Margarito was. Mayweather is a defense master and he hates getting hit. Pacquiao has incredibly fast hands, but they used to say that about Oscar de la Hoya until he came up against Shayne Mosley and Mayweather, both of whom were faster. I think Mayweather might have faster hands than Manny as well. I also think Floyd’s punching power is underrated. Though he’s not a brawler, he can punch.

At the same time, Pacquiao hits very hard, and he will eventually hit Mayweather. I don’t think the strategy he used against the bigger Margarito, in-and-out, pot-shot from different angles, will work against Floyd. He’ll have to crowd him, stay busy, stay on him, go to the body. I still think Floyd probably wins by decision or late stoppage. But then again, Manny has surprised fans over and over again. He started his career at flyweight, and now has won a junior middleweight belt, beating a guy who weighed over 165 pounds on fight night. Manny was able to hurt Margarito, so he will definitely be able to hurt Floyd. I don’t see Manny winning a decision, but just maybe he knocks Mayweather out. If he does that, he may be the greatest fighter of all time.


Written by David Weinfeld

November 21, 2010 at 11:24

7 Responses

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  1. In America when race and sports intersect you can expect to find a like of ‘negrophobia’ analysis…In a nation with a tortured racist legacy as America political correctness becomes a part of the sport being played especially if the athletes are Black and dominating the sport…

    Greg Thrasher

    November 23, 2010 at 15:24

  2. Why was it revelant to note that Mayweather was a criminal and a dick??? The cultural dna of white supremacy has a long shelf life as I noted earlier ‘negrophobia’ has now returned with a hot intensity in many venues and layers of interaction and discourse in America…

    Greg Thrasher

    November 23, 2010 at 15:31

  3. “Boxing may be your best or even only route. Indeed, this is probably true for men under 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, with some exceptions among middle infielders and point guards, and maybe the odd running back or tennis player.”

    You forgot association football, which is a rather large thing to overlook, when discussing the economic opportunities for gifted athletes. Messi, Pelé, Maradona, and on and on.


    November 29, 2010 at 15:24

    • Good point, though I think soccer remains less prominent in the United States. It is growing though.


      November 29, 2010 at 17:19

  4. […] again reminds me of an earlier post here, where boxer Bernard Hopkins denied that fellow fighter Joshua Clottey is really a Black fighter, […]

  5. […] former middleweight championship boxer Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins played the race card in the Manny Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. debate, the same Hopkins has brought his politically incorrect opinions into the limelight […]

  6. […] yet another candid interview, complete with new musings on race. We’ve been here before, even on this blog. This interview, however, was a bit different. Here’s a sample: You’re a very candid […]

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