A century later, “great hopes” live on (minus the “white” part)
Many people would like to see a “Great Hope” emerge and actually give one or both of the Klitschko brothers a fight. Photo / Marianne M├╝ller
Ah, the Fourth of July. We celebrate America’s independence not by wearing 18th-century wigs or shooting muskets, but with fireworks, barbecues and balding, out-of-shape dads walking around with their shirts off. And never was there a more famous example of the latter than on the July 4th holiday exactly 100 years ago, when James J. Jeffries was lured out of a nearly six-year retirement to unsuccessfully challenge Jack Johnson for the heavyweight title.
The first (but certainly not the last) bout of the 1900s to be declared “The Fight Of The Century” was a product of overt racism, the likes of which we thankfully don’t see in boxing 100 years later. But the general theme behind why the fight took place – because the public clamored to see a dominant champion dethroned – remains a part of our game.
Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, was so hated by white America that his detractors plumbed the depths to find a white man who could beat him and were so blinded by their determination to be rid of Johnson that they believed the 35-year-old Jeffries could get the job done. Instead, the overmatched “Boilermaker” suffered the only three knockdowns and only defeat of his career.
It’s roughly the same fate that has befallen all recent challengers to the three reigning titlists who, like Johnson, have a segment of the boxing public searching for a savior to dethrone them. Wladimir Klitschko and Vitali Klitschko are collectively dominating the heavyweight division and Floyd Mayweather remains unbeaten 14 years into his pro career, facts that irk quite a few fight fans.
Race isn’t necessarily an issue with the Klitschko brothers, but nationality might be, as most American fight fans aren’t crazy about the idea of two Germany-based Ukrainians ruling a division that historically has belonged to the Yanks. But the far bigger issue is method of execution. Wladimir’s last five fights haven’t provided a single moment of intrigue or excitement, save for the last 10 seconds of his otherwise monotonous win over Eddie Chambers. Vitali has fought five times since un-retiring in 2008 and has hardly lost a round, which serves as a credit to his ability but doesn’t help him make the highlights on SportsCenter.
And as was the case when the public persuaded Jeffries to take on a near-impossible challenge, so too have we seen the likes of Chambers, Chris Arreola and Kevin Johnson rushed into opportunities against a Klitschko because they happened to be the best of a mediocre lot of American contenders.
The Klitschkos have their fans – their fights routinely fill stadiums in Europe, after all – but there are also observers who blame them for killing heavyweight boxing. And it’s no mystery why. Even if their names were Wally and Vince Klitschman and they hailed from Brooklyn, Americans’ feelings toward them wouldn’t be all that different.
“I think in the beginning, they would have been celebrated if they were American, but as they continued to fight, and people saw how boring they were as fighters, I think that would have changed,” said boxing historian Mike Silver, the author of the award-winning “The Arc Of Boxing: The Rise And Decline Of The Sweet Science.” “People would be clamoring for somebody more exciting to become champion. If they were Americans and this was playing out like it is, people in their heart of hearts would be saying, ‘Let’s get somebody in here we really want to watch.'”
Mayweather is a somewhat similar case in that he has never been a part of anything resembling a Fight of the Year contender, but adding to the desire to see him overthrown is his obnoxious “Money” persona. Half of the time when Mayweather speaks, his words are carefully chosen to rub people the wrong way. And like Johnson a hundred years before him, Mayweather flaunts his extravagant lifestyle with full awareness of how certain segments of the public will react.
“It’s not about race with Mayweather, it’s about personality,” said former Associated Press boxing writer and recent International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Ed Schuyler. “And it’s about entertainment. A lot of people want to see Manny Pacquiao beat Mayweather because Manny’s an exciting fighter and Mayweather isn’t. Mayweather fights to win. He doesn’t fight to entertain.”
In the 100 years between Johnson and Mayweather, nobody did a better job of inciting hatred with his personality than the prime, 1960s-era Muhammad Ali. We remember the Ali who upset George Foreman as almost universally beloved, but in the mid-’60s, when he revealed his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and changed his name, declaring himself “The Greatest” along the way, Ali was not exactly popular with white America. He was seen by many as a man who needed to be relieved of his title.
In November 1965, decidedly less controversial ex-champ Floyd Patterson was viewed by some as the perfect fighter for the job.
“Even before he made the comments about Vietnam, Ali was the most-hated heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson,” Silver said. “When he fought Patterson, even though Patterson was black, you could say it was divided along racial lines. Almost all white people and also some black people wanted to see Patterson defeat this guy who was breaking all conventions when it came to the heavyweight championship.”
Like Jeffries, Patterson was an ex-champ who was considered a live underdog but, in retrospect, never had a prayer. Ali dominated him, spewing venom all the way, en route to a 12th-round stoppage.
For very different reasons and to very different degrees, both the man who preceded Ali as champion and the man who ultimately followed him fit the description of fighters the public wanted to see ousted.
Sonny Liston was partially a victim of the times, an ex-con who was considered a cancer on the sport even without establishing a long and dominating title tenure.
“Some of these other athletes today make Sonny Liston look tame, but back then, everybody was in an uproar worrying about how he would affect young people who need to have somebody to look up to,” Silver said. “That was a time when it was considered important that athletes have a good image. Nobody wanted to read about Mickey Mantle being involved in a brawl at a bar. He was an icon to young people. And the heavyweight championship was the most-important prize in sports at that time. So Liston was somebody that most people, especially African-Americans, didn’t want to see up there representing them in a negative way.”
Larry Holmes, the man who replaced Ali as lineal heavyweight champ in 1980, wasn’t hated like Liston, but he wasn’t exactly beloved either. And as his reign stretched on and on – whereas Liston made just one successful defense, Holmes made 20 – people grew antsy for someone a little more exciting to come along.
“I don’t think that people disliked Larry Holmes,” said Schuyler, who covered much of Holmes’ career from ringside. “I think that Holmes followed an impossible act to top. Ali’s legion of fans weren’t going to like Holmes, especially after the Holmes-Ali fight. You know, when he said, ‘Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap’ and everybody got bent out of shape, if Ali would have said that, everybody would have fallen down laughing. Ali said outrageous things, and we all thought it was funny. Holmes said the same thing and it wasn’t funny. You couldn’t follow Ali as a heavyweight without getting a great deal of criticism. It was a no-win situation.”
Holmes’ fight with Gerry Cooney was a highlight of his title reign but it was also a low point, in the sense that it was probably the most racially charged heavyweight title fight since the days of Johnson. In Cooney, a white fighter with a good story and a tremendous punch, Holmes found the perfect foil for a handsome payday. And ultimately, he scored a defining victory because the public forced upon him a challenger who wasn’t quite prepared to make that leap yet.
For one night in 1982, parts of the boxing world were searching for a “Great White Hope” again. But in the nearly 30 years since then, skin color has rarely been relevant. Boxing isn’t really looking for a “Great White Hope” anymore.
Instead, boxing fans look at times for a great American hope or a great likable hope or a great entertaining hope.
If you’re a dominant champion and you give the public any reason at all to find your act tiresome, then the search is on for someone to beat you. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that retirees with physiques suited for working the July 4 backyard barbecue are not the answer.
ÔÇó I need my Showtime subscription to do my job properly. And I’m as swept up in the fun of the Super Six as anyone. But I warn you, Showtime, if you give Stephen A. Smith a late-night show, I will cancel my subscription.
ÔÇó I got an interesting e-mail last week from reader Juan Alvarado in response to my Super Six math breakdown. Juan asked whether Andre Ward, who has clinched a spot in the semifinals already, might throw his fight with Andre Dirrell in order to allow his friend and former Olympic teammate to advance. It’s an interesting topic, but ultimately, an absurd notion. Ward has an undefeated record to protect. He has the ambition of one day topping the pound-for-pound lists. He might not have anything riding on the Dirrell fight in terms of his advancement in this particular tournament, but this is a real fight, not an exhibition, so it has enormous meaning to Ward. I expect him to be every bit as motivated to win as Dirrell will be.
ÔÇó A quick round of thank yous related to the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-John Duddy fight: Thank you to Duddy for displaying endless heart and determination and a wonderful lack of defense; thank you to Chavez Jr. for getting in shape and fighting damned well and for not improving on defense yet under Freddie Roach’s tutelage; thank you to Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. for bringing the tuxedo-with-headband fashion statement to life; thank you to Juergen Langos for scoring every round for Chavez, even the one in which Duddy clearly had him hurt (the sixth), thus teaching us all the important lesson that once a judge enters Texas, he becomes a Texas judge, even if he came all the way from Germany; and lastly, thank you to Bob Arum for providing a good belly laugh by insisting Chavez can now fight “anybody, anywhere,” as if it actually proved something for Chavez to beat an opponent who once lost to Billy Lyell.
ÔÇó Ending on a sad note, farewell to the Ballroom Boxing Report on ESPN 1300 AM in Baltimore. Of all the radio shows on which I’ve appeared as a guest, I had the most fun on this one, bantering with Scott Wagner and Scott Crouse, who signed off last week after a lengthy run. Hopefully it’ll be on to something bigger and better for “Scott and Scotty,” but if not, thanks for the entertainment and for serving the Sweet Science well, fellas. Let the bodies hit the floor ÔÇª