The marriage between boxing and hip hop music predates the urban genre’s peak of the 90’s, with fighters like Mike Tyson and Pernell Whitaker introducing new audiences to the then-emerging art form through their entrance themes. No closer are the two aggressive cultures than where they intersect with R.A. the Rugged Man, a celebrated underground hip hop artist and native of Long Island, N.Y., whose lyrics and music videos are often laden with boxing references.
R.A., who was born Richard Andrew Thorburn, released his third studio album, Legends Never Die, two weeks ago under the Nature Sounds Records label. The album contains a single titled “The People’s Champ,” which is accompanied by a boxing-themed music video shot at Heavyhitters Boxing Gym in Long Island and features trainer John Scully and many young local amateur boxers.
In 2009, Thorburn released an entire freestyle dedicated to boxing over 50 Cent’s “Hustler’s Ambition” beat where he expresses his opinions on the sport, such as how he felt Marvin Hagler deserved the decision over Sugar Ray Leonard and that Larry Holmes was a greater fighter than Muhammad Ali. The YouTube video has since passed 100,000 views.
Before that, Thorburn had used his connections to urban magazines such as Vibe, Source, King and Rides to get boxers like Bernard Hopkins, Winky Wright and Floyd Mayweather Jr. mainstream press. He also facilitated interviews with Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko at New York hip hop radio station Hot 97.
“I was dealing in the boxing world for a long time before that but I was a rapper,” said Thorburn, who has collaborated with a veritable who’s who of rappers and producers, including Notorious B.I.G. and Chuck D of Public Enemy. “A lot of times publicists would hit me up like, ‘Yo, can you get my fighter in Vibe magazine?’ because I was doing a lot of work in the urban magazines. I was already in the cut helping out boxers not because I wanted recognition, but because I like boxing and if I could get fighters more mainstream press, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Yet for all of Thorburn’s work to promote the sport, no incident made a bigger splash in the boxing world than his impromptu 2009 interview with Floyd Mayweather on the Eminem-owned Shade 45 station on SiriusXM, in which he openly criticized Mayweather’s career. Thorburn, when asked by the interviewer what he thought of Mayweather, accused Floyd of handpicking opponents and ducking top welterweight contenders like Antonio Margarito and Paul Williams.
Then Mayweather called in.
“So he called up and was like ‘Hey, what’s up fellas,'” remembers Thorburn. “So as soon as he got on the phone, we went at it.”
For 20 minutes, Thorburn and Mayweather argued back and forth, with Thorburn unleashing a relentless torrent of critique before Mayweather hung up. About 15 minutes too late.
“He has such a big ego, that rather than be a little more grown up and hang up the phone and be like ‘This guy isn’t on my team,’ he stayed on the phone for 20 mins yelling and arguing and getting pissed off,” said Thorburn. “It was good free promotion. Some people thought I called him up and set him up but we had no idea this guy was calling.”
As Mayweather enters the final stretch of his Hall of Fame-worthy career, many are looking to Adrien Broner to assume Mayweather’s spot as the central boxing figure in African-American and urban circles in America. It’s a coveted spot that had previously been occupied by the likes of Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson.
According to Thorburn, Broner shares certain qualities with Mayweather that make him an ideal candidate for succession.
“It’s a different era, where in the times of Joe Louis, it was good to be respectful and talk nicely,” said Thorburn. “Then Muhammad Ali smashed that to bits and was like ‘I’m loud and I’ll talk how I want to talk.’ Ali was also slick and clever in his word play and his disrespect. He was intelligent with it. Floyd and Adrien are more ‘I’m ignorant and proud.’ It’s not really intelligent. Anybody can do it.”
Thorburn says that Andre Ward, who like Broner and Mayweather, is an undefeated fighter and world champion, doesn’t get the same attention as the two aforementioned boxers because his personality doesn’t fit the profile of what stirs interest.
“You get a fighter like Andre Ward, who has way more wins than Broner, is a better fighter than Broner, his resume is 10 times what Broner is at this particular point,” begins Thorburn. “But Ward is a God-fearing, good man who is never disrespectful. But they always talk about Broner because they can market ignorance. Like in the rap videos, they market ignorance.”
Despite having his reservations, Thorburn believes that a win for the 23-year-old Broner in his June 22 bout with WBA welterweight titleholder Paul Malignaggi at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., would be a positive for the sport’s future.
“The sport needs a new sensation that they can market, and they need that new undefeated hype guy,” said Thorburn. “Adrien Broner is a super talent. I see a couple of people predicting the upset with Paulie because he’s a bigger guy and very skilled. I’m rooting for Paulie, I like the heart on Malignaggi.”
When asked what he thought of Broner’s rap skills, he said he hadn’t heard any of his recordings, which include collaborations with popular hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar. Thorburn says that while he’s a fan of boxing, he isn’t a fan of boxers who rap.
“Boxers can’t rap like rappers can’t box,” said Thorburn, who called Roy Jones Jr.’s recordings “terrible.” “You put the toughest rapper in the ring with a professional boxer and they’re gonna get knocked out. Just like if you put a professional boxer in the studio, they’re not gonna be good compared to the professional rhymer.
“There’s gotta be a boxer that can rap; I just haven’t seen him.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected] An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.