Dougie’s Monday mailbag (black image/marketing in boxing, Cuban boxers)
ANDRE WARD AND THE MARKETING OF BLACK FIGHTERS
The conversation on race from ESPN this past Tuesday was incredibly moving. When Andre Ward spoke about black fighters as the villain, I found myself nodding along…yet fighting off the feeling that Ward was a really bad messenger.
I think it’s superficial to suggest Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s marketability was simply white folks paying to see him get beat. There is ZERO doubt that is part of the demo he drew, but I also think the “Money” persona was simply an extension of the culture. Hip Hop is the dominant musical genre in this Century, and it is littered with artists who flash rolls of cash, fleets of cars, etc. It’s just marketing. I think Floyd became “cool” when he dropped “Pretty Boy” for “Money” and his success was more about being polarizing than being a villain. No matter what, a fan would have a visceral reaction, love or hate and that explains Floyd’s box office success, his willingness to put himself out there and hustle for every dollar.
Why I feel Ward is a bad messenger is that his analysis of Floyd and the larger industry is shaded by his belief that he’s the “good guy” done wrong. While I love Ward the TV analyst, I never much cared for him as a fighter. Just my view, but in the ring, he was the Ferrari choosing to race like NASCAR. His style was grind-it-out and get the win. Certainly admirable, but when I see a Ferrari, I’m watching to see it smoke other cars, showing off the speed, handling, etc. ..not draft lesser cars, trading paint, etc. And the personality he marketed was sort of closed off and standoffish, not to mention the “Son of God” religious aspect…I respect those with faith, but that’s where it ends.
Ward is an example of a fighter doing himself a disservice, believing all he had to do is win and by osmosis great wealth will follow. Fighters ignore needing to be entertaining/compelling in the ring and presenting some type of personality to market. It’s hard to accept that black athletes must be a villain when we see Lebron, Durant, Steph, and other “good guys” making huge money. What their success shows is the competition in the marketplace because these good guys are backed by the NBA, NFL, EPL, etc. A boxer has to try to breakthrough with his own brand. Social media is instructive simply because many fighters are less than adept at using it with any clear strategy and are criminally far behind in monetizing their brand via merchandise and Youtube. I believe folks misinterpret the lesson of Floyd: which was putting himself out there, the good, the bad, and the contrived, while TMT became a solid brand with merchandise NOT associated with Nike or Roots of Fight.
Obviously, race cannot be ignored (I think Jamel Herring is the PERFECT example of the great guy, who uses social media well, with a story, etc. He should be bigger…and that he isn’t makes me very cynical), but I wonder if you think ALL boxers, regardless of race, need to be more pro-active, that managers need to wake up to the 21st Century and see that comics, pro wrestlers, and “influencers” make small fortunes with merchandise and Youtube. Do you think if Bud Crawford hired a Hollywood publicist, a merchandise consultant, and partnered with Jake Paul to launch a Youtube channel, he would be a bigger star? I do…and while race is absolutely undeniably an issue, there’s still a lucrative market where it isn’t. – Mark
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions on a potentially loaded subject, Mark.
I don’t think Terence Crawford needs to partner up with a dude like Jake Paul or necessarily hire a “Hollywood publicist,” because I don’t think Hollywood or “It’s Everyday Bro”-teen-heartthrob YouTuber is his style. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to force a certain image or personality upon a fighter (or any athlete/entertainer) just to gain popularity.
But obviously, thanks to social media, today’s boxers have an opportunity to take control of their public image and the marketing of their own brand in ways fighters from previous eras couldn’t even conceive. And every active boxer should take advantage of this.
I think any boxer worth his or her salt should have a publicist that helps with a strategy in developing a visual public identity that includes a social media presence, logos, merchandise, etc. At some point in their career, if they continue to advance in the pro ranks, they should bring in a digital marketing firm to help them cultivate followings and social media content schedules and organize events that tie the rather long periods between their fights together, which should eventually help them capitalize on their popularity/names/brands.
World-class boxers from previous decades didn’t need to do as much of this because they fought more often and in the decades before the internet, social media and streaming/on-demand television, there was less competition for sports fans’ attention. Boxers basically marketed themselves by fighting often on a few TV networks, or by taking on big challenges in big closed circuit fights/pay-per-view events. But the big fights don’t happen as often as they once did, and there is A LOT of choices (too many, really) for sports fans’ attention these days (including non-sports content) on TV.
OK, now that the marketing/branding talk is out of the way, let’s address the big, ugly elephant in the room: Race and racism.
As you’re probably aware, I’m not a huge fan of Andre Ward or Floyd Mayweather Jr. Their boxing styles and their approach to the sport was not my cup of tea. Having said that, I always liked (and respected) the way Ward presented himself in public (also
being “mixed,” with a black mother and white father like Dre, I can identify with some of his experiences), and not so much with how Mayweather usually portrayed himself. But the way black fighters present themselves in public and to the media has never really had an impact on the racism in the sport. After all the racial strife that followed and marred Jack Johnson’s heavyweight championship reign during the early 1900s, most standout African-American boxers from the 1920s through the ’50s presented the exact opposite of the brash and flamboyant Johnson when in public or in front of the media (regardless of their actual personalities and lifestyles). But the sport, and general U.S. society, was still racist AF. It was good when Sugar Ray Robinson began to leverage his popularity and drawing power in tough (even ruthless) business negotiations by the late ’50s/early ’60s, and it was very important for young Cassius Clay to make the decision to be himself (religious name change, political views, and all) in the mid-‘60s and basically say to white America: “This is who I am, I’m going to speak my mind and live my life, and f__k you if you don’t like it.” The boxing world and the power structures at that time said “f__k you” right back to him and made his career and life very difficult, even after his return to the sport in 1970, but American society did advance enough celebrate him by the time he regained the title. He was a beloved celebrity/athlete by the time I became aware of him as a kid (even though racism was alive and well in American society).
I say all of this to drive home one key point, which is that, since the 1970s, African-American boxers have been able to choose how they would portray themselves in public and in the eyes of the media if they were so savvy (or had savvy people around them). They weren’t instantly “vilified” by the media if they didn’t present a smiling “Golden Boy” persona like Sugar Ray Leonard out of the ’76 Olympic Games. I think the sports media evolved quite a bit from those who used to patronize black champions by using the word “boy” during Joe Louis’ long tenure, or those who would denounce Sonny Liston because of his past or his sketchy managerial connections during the late ’50s/early ’60s.
By the 1980s, a black boxer could be bit surly (like Marvin Hagler) or a bit introverted (like Thomas Hearns) or have a street edge to him (like Aaron Pryor, or, later in the decade, Mike Tyson) and still get positive ink and develop strong fan bases regionally or nationwide.
Ward doesn’t like the “Money” persona, and I get that. Personally, I thought it was corny, but others – including a lot of black fans – were into it. Bottom line, it was Mayweather’s choice to drop the “Pretty Boy” moniker, which was given to him by Top Rank (which had high hopes of Floyd emulating Ray Leonard’s image). It was polarizing, but it helped him net the big fish and it helped him sell record-breaking PPV events.
Was it any different from Hector Camacho, who was once a real-deal boxing phenom in the early ’80s, going “heel” with the “Macho Man” persona by the end of the decade and basically selling out with his name and act for big pay days as a marketable PPV B-side during the 1990s? At times, the great Roberto Duran was the “villain,” a role he often relished.
I could never tell if Tyson relished being the “Bad Guy” post-prison stint and post-“Bite Fight.” He was clearly in a lot of emotional pain at times during the mid-to-late ’90s, and I think he was sometimes vilified in the media, but he was also often out of control. It’s hard to say how much of Tyson’s behavior was denounced because he was black. Would a white boxer who did the same crazy stuff that Tyson did have been ripped as hard by the sports media? That’s the question.
As a kid and teenager, I used to watch some tennis, and occasionally I’d wonder if Arthur Ashe (probably the epitome of the high-minded and respectable athlete/pundit that Ward strives to be) would have been as celebrated as much as the brash and sometimes rude Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe if he had their fiery personalities. I concluded that Ashe probably would have been slammed more than Connors and McEnroe were by the white sports media (and some white tennis fans), but I also surmised that he would have had more black fans.
Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Tyson had a lot of white fans during the ’80s. And no matter how far off the rails Tyson went during the ’90s, he had black fan and black media support. Mayweather first tapped into the younger African-American market with his 2006 PPV fight with Zab Judah. He reinvented himself as “Money” during the buildup to the 2007 Oscar De La Hoya PPV event and never looked back.
A question for Ward which could lead to an interesting discussion is why aren’t more black fans supporting black boxers that don’t fall into the “villain” image that he described on ESPN recently.
I think it’s superficial to suggest Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s marketability was simply white folks paying to see him get beat. I agree. There was more to it than that, and there were a lot of black fans (and fans of other ethnic and national backgrounds) that gladly shelled out their hard-earned money to watch Mayweather win.
There is ZERO doubt that is part of the demo he drew, but I also think the “Money” persona was simply an extension of the culture. Um, yeah, and he was/is part of that culture. It was him! It IS him, or at least part of his personality. It wasn’t all an act. He really does love money and all that comes with it, the status and the expensive, shiny things that he enjoys flaunting on camera and social media.
Hip Hop is the dominant musical genre in this Century, and it is littered with artists who flash rolls of cash, fleets of cars, etc. It’s just marketing. Sure. And Hip-Hop cuts across race, class and gender, so an elite-level athlete with Floyd’s network platforms that adopts it is going to raise his profile beyond boxing fans. It sucks that much of it (or the style that Floyd identified with) was so shallow and vapid in terms of lyrics and musical arrangement, but a lot of people like that s__t.
I think Floyd became “cool” when he dropped “Pretty Boy” for “Money” and his success was more about being polarizing than being a villain. Agreed.
No matter what, a fan would have a visceral reaction, love or hate and that explains Floyd’s box office success, his willingness to put himself out there and hustle for every dollar. Yep, and by comparison, Ward is extremely private and guarded, which is his right and I respect his choice, but most fans need or want pro athletes or celebrities to share parts of their genuine personalities in order to form an attachment. That athlete/entertainer-fan connection always goes beyond the game or performance.
Why I feel Ward is a bad messenger is that his analysis of Floyd and the larger industry is shaded by his belief that he’s the “good guy” done wrong. Ah, you can see that chip on his shoulder, eh? Some don’t see it.
While I love Ward the TV analyst, I never much cared for him as a fighter. You’re part of a big club.
Just my view, but in the ring, he was the Ferrari choosing to race like NASCAR. His style was grind-it-out and get the win. Certainly admirable, but when I see a Ferrari, I’m watching to see it smoke other cars, showing off the speed, handling, etc. ..not draft lesser cars, trading paint, etc. That might be the best analysis of his boxing style I’ve ever read. Well done.
And the personality he marketed was sort of closed off and standoffish, not to mention the “Son of God” religious aspect…I respect those with faith, but that’s where it ends. I feel you, but are you sure that’s the “personality he marketed”? Maybe that’s just Dre being Dre, and if he’s just being himself, I totally respect that.
Ward is an example of a fighter doing himself a disservice, believing all he had to do is win and by osmosis great wealth will follow. Are you sure that was Ward’s ultimate goal: “great wealth”? I don’t believe that’s the case. I think he wanted a lot more from his career, including a lasting legacy without suffering serious or permanent physical/neurological damage, and I think achieved his goals.
Fighters ignore needing to be entertaining/compelling in the ring and presenting some type of personality to market. I think many boxers rely too much on their promoters to market them when the truth is that most promotional companies have their hands full just making fights and putting on shows. It might be a pain in the ass to be concerned with developing public images and marketing brands on top of training, learning their craft and fighting, but it can also be quite empowering (just ask Ryan Garcia).
It’s hard to accept that black athletes must be a villain when we see Lebron, Durant, Steph, and other “good guys” making huge money. I’ll bring this up once more time: the NBA players you mentioned all have huge black fan bases. Most black NBA players do, regardless of their personalities or image. The NBA is more popular among black Americans than boxing is.
What their success shows is the competition in the marketplace because these good guys are backed by the NBA, NFL, EPL, etc. True, but that doesn’t mean any one them can’t be “vilified” by their league or by the mainstream media if they step out of the corporate/political line enough, say like a Colin Kaepernick or to a lesser extent Allen Iverson.
A boxer has to try to breakthrough with his own brand. I believe folks misinterpret the lesson of Floyd: which was putting himself out there, the good, the bad, and the contrived, while TMT became a solid brand with merchandise NOT associated with Nike or Roots of Fight. You can count on one hand the number of boxers – active or retired – that control their own branded merchandise of any value (apart from Floyd, there’s Canelo, Golovkin, Joshua and maybe Fury). Is Mayweather the only African-American boxer with a valuable brand?
BOXING LIFE STORIES
I just finished listening to your podcast with Tris Dixon after following you on the mail bag for so long (you may remember I’ve written in a few times usually British super middle weight related) it felt like listening to an old friend and god you can talk:) It was nice to have all the blanks filed in on your career and where you’ve come from as a fight journalist, etc. Be nice to see you on a Sky broadcast team one day.
Anyway, it was just to say hi and look forward to meeting you in person one day when you’re over. Best regards. – Steffan Perkins, UK
I won’t be a stranger the next time I’m on your side of the pond, Steffan. Thank you for the kind words about Tris Dixon’s interview. For those of you interested in listening to it (be warned: it’s almost three hours long), follow this link (and be sure to subscribe to Dixon’s Boxing Life Stories podcast).
I hope you’re well. First, I’d like to start with a quick note of thanks, your recent conversation on The Boxing Life Stories Podcast with Tris Dixon was excellent. You imparted your experiences and knowledge in an interesting and entertaining manner. You could hear the passion in both yours and Tris Dixon’s voices – great work.
During lockdown I’ve gone down a bit of a Cuban boxing hole, I’ve read Hard Leather and reread In The Red Corner, as a fellow boxing history fan do you have any recommendations on the subject of Cuban Boxing and its famous fighters?
As talented as Cuban fighters are; since Castro outlawed professional boxing, the problems faced by defectors make repeating previous successes in the amateurs is not always a given. No established fan base, newfound freedom and a lack of business knowledge make professional boxing a perilous place – as a result, top quality fighters often under perform. A prime example would be Gamboa, under different circumstances his talent should have seen him emerge as Lomachenko’s main rival. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this?
I’ll sign off with my post lockdown top 7 fights I’d like to see (7 is my favourite number). Let’s hope when the newfound system is established and running smoothly the promotional outfits follow up on their promises of more evenly matched fights and stacked fight cards.
Berchelt-Leo Santa Cruz
Roman Gonzalez-Estrada 2
Ps – I’d also like to see an Adam Lopez-Oscar Valdez rematch after his highly entertaining fight last week. He certainly deserves one.
Thank you for your continued awesome work. – Jaime
Thank you for your kind words, Jaime, and thanks for listening to my very long interview on Tris Dixon’s Boxing Life Stories podcast.
If you listened to the entire podcast in one setting, I apologize for taking up three hours of your day.
While I’m sure Lopez would agree to a rematch with Valdez if it were offered to him later this year or early next year, I don’t think that fight is in the best interest of his professional development. We already know the young man his talent and grit. He admitted that he needs to work on his craft immediately following the tough 10 rounds he went with Luis Coria. It will be hard for him to put in to practice all of the things that Buddy McGirt is teaching him in the gym if all of his fights are grueling struggles. Lopez is battle-tested with just 16 fights. I think he’s earned a few moderate-threat-level opponents and even a showcase or two before he goes for a world title or a world-class operator like Valdez again. I’d like to see him run his record from 14-2 to 20-2 before he really cuts loose on the 126-pound division.
That’s a good group of fights you listed in your post-lockdown top 7. I think Stevenson is already too big for Navarrete (even though the 122-pound beltholder is big for his division). I scoffed at the Rigo-Donaire rematch on first glance, but the more I think about it, the more I think the veterans would mesh for a shootout or barnburner at this stage of their careers. Bring it on!
During lockdown I’ve gone down a bit of a Cuban boxing hole, I’ve read Hard Leather and reread In The Red Corner, as a fellow boxing history fan do you have any recommendations on the subject of Cuban Boxing and its famous fighters? Try “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion” by Brin-Jonathan Butler.
As talented as Cuban fighters are; since Castro outlawed professional boxing, the problems faced by defectors make repeating previous successes in the amateurs not always a given. No established fan base, newfound freedom and a lack of business knowledge make professional boxing a perilous place – as a result, top quality fighters often under perform. One of the problems I see with Cuban standouts that pre-Castro-rea fighters from the island didn’t have is getting locked into the amateur style. The Cuban greats of past generations, such as Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilian, Jose Napoles and Luis Rodriguez (and those who fell short of greatness or didn’t even win world titles but were still popular pros, such as Florentino Fernandez) had brief amateur backgrounds, turned pro at relatively young ages, and developed complete professional skillsets along with a flair for showmanship which made them a hit with fans in America. Post-Castro, the Cuban boxing tradition was relegated to the amateur system and the best Cuban talent basically became “professional amateurs” during their athletic primes. Those who broke away to start a professional career in America or Europe usually did so at an advanced age and usually carried their amateur style into the pro ranks, which was often effective but not always entertaining. Cuban boxers like Napoles and Sugar Ramos settled in Mexico where they further developed their styles, adding Mexican techniques and tactics to their game, which made them popular in Mexico and, later on, in greater Los Angeles area. Anyway, as talented and skilled as Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara are, their styles are not for everyone. Gamboa was different. He was aggressive and explosive, but he relied too much on his talent and athleticism. He never developed proper fundamentals. Joel Casamayor is arguably the most successful former Cuban amateur star in the pro ranks. Early in his pro career, he partnered up with Joe Goossen, who made sure to settle him down and get him to adopt a more-professional style, which still wasn’t appreciated by all, but made the southpaw a titleholder and top contender from 130-140 pounds.
A prime example would be Gamboa, under different circumstances his talent should have seen him emerge as Lomachenko’s main rival. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this? There’s a lot of “ifs” to this scenario, but IF Gamboa had the discipline to work on his fundamentals (mainly balance and defense) and partnered up with a veteran pro coach who could add wrinkles to his dynamic style, I think there could have been a window (maybe between 2015-2017) when the boxing world would have wanted to see Gamboa vs. Loma at 126 or 130 pounds, and it could have been a good scrap. However, keep in mind that Gamby is older than Loma and has more pro wear and tear. The Cuban turned pro in April 2007, six and half years (and 23 bouts) before Loma made his pro debut. I’d have to give Loma the edge in that dream matchup.
1970S/EARLY ’80S LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTS
Who would you say is the best (in a pound-for-pound sense) between Dwight Muhammad Qwai, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Yaqui Lopez?
What about the greatest in terms of their career accomplishments, etc.?
Finally, how does Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles fare against them?
Love the mailbag! Thank you, and I hope you and your family are well. – Brandon from ATL
We’re doing fine, Brandon, thanks for asking and thanks for the mailbag love.
Who would you say is the best (in a pound-for-pound sense) between Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Yaqui Lopez? They were all sensational in their own way but I’m going to go with Qawi. He got a late start to boxing (introduced to the sport in prison) and yet he won the WBC title in his 18th pro bout (stopping Saad Muhammad, who was probably a bit shopworn by the point, but still a handful for any 175 pounder). He also won a major cruiserweight title and engaged in arguably the greatest fight that division ever hosted when he dropped a split decision to future heavyweight great Evander Holyfield after 15 epic rounds in 1986.
What about the greatest in terms of their career accomplishments, etc.? I think Matthew Saad Muhammad, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame along with his nemesis Qawi, edges the others in this category. He beat Marvin Johnson twice (in tremendous fights, of course), with the WBC title on the line in their rematch. Saad Muhammad made eight defenses of the green belt, which included victories over Britain’s talented John Conteh (twice), the equally rugged and determined Yaqui Lopez (their rematch, which was the 1980 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year) and dangerous Zambian contender Lottie Mwale.
Finally, how does Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles fare against them? They probably beat the lot – by stoppage – but their victories would not come easy. They’d know they’d been in a real fight once their hands were raised.
Email Fischer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter and IG at @dougiefischer and join him, Tom Loeffler, Coach Schwartz and friends on Periscope every Sunday from UCLA’s Drake Stadium track. This week’s guest was boxer-turned-trainer Johnathon Banks.