Portraying black men as villains is not new to American culture, and light-heavyweight boxer Andre Ward has learned this dynamic through experience. Ever since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title and Birth of a Nation released soon after, America has shown that black men make the most headlines when they’re painted as the bad guys, especially boxers. Muhammad Ali was the most hated boxer in the 1960s for his stance against racism, religious intolerance, and the Vietnam war, and to this day, African-American boxers are not allowed to be heroes.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the most famous boxer of his era largely because, like Ali, many fans hate him. Yet their scorn has little to do with war, religion, or civil rights. Mayweather pleaded guilty to domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend in 2011 and set the record for pay-per-view views with his match against Pacquiao because fans wanted his head. Steven Nelson, an African-American middleweight boxer blamed Mayweather’s attitude.
“Mayweather had the persona that made people want to see him lose,” Nelson, 28, from Omaha, Nebraska, said.
Before his pro debut, Nelson sparred with another boxing great, Andre Ward, who has no criminal record and debuted at light heavyweight against Sullivan Barrera March 26, but peaked at 1.152 million views on HBO. Ward hasn’t lost since he was an adolescent, and after winning the gold medal at the 2004 summer Olympics, he remains an undefeated pro in two weight classes. He deserves Mayweather-level promotion, but he doesn’t garner enough hatred for it with no domestic violence and with S.O.G. for Son of God embossed on his shorts.
“In my sport they literally tell you…to act ignorant, act like a buffoon if you want to make it,” Ward told The Guardian. “…If I’m the bad guy because I’m not the guy they want me to be, then so be it.”
Ward’s sentiment sounds very similar to Ali’s during the most controversial days of his career, and no doubt he was influenced by the greatest heavyweight of all time. In his open letter to Ali after his death, Ward admired his feats inside and outside of the ring because “It’s not just enjoying the fruits of our labor but taking the time to be a blessing to others, lending our voice, giving our time, talents and our treasure to the world.”
The Unsung Black Hero
When Johnson won the heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in 1908, he became the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and his victory spurred America’s boxing scene to find its next “great white hope” in an effort to maintain white supremacy in the boxing world. Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. Johnson defeated him, causing race riots across the country. As many as 26 black people were killed in lynch mobs. That same year, Congress passed the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport white women for the purposes of “prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
In May 1913, Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act even though he offered to plead guilty and pay a fine twice. This was after years of public relationships with white women, including Belle Schreiber, a white prostitute he met in Chicago who testified against him. Johnson’s first and second wives, Etta Duryea and Lucille Cameron, were also white. After the verdict, the federal prosecutor said:
“This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.”
The Boston Globe reported “general rejoicing all over the city” at what one can only assume was a celebration that a black man was properly punished for bucking tradition by sleeping with and marrying white women. Birth of a Nation released two years later, cementing the black savage narrative and reinforcing the notion that black men are a danger to society that must be vanquished.
Ali also defied the status quo stood up for his religious beliefs and refused to risk his life for a country that allowed him to get kicked him out of a diner because he was black, even after he just won the gold medal representing it in the Olympics. He was aware of racism. He wasn’t afraid of it. He spoke against it with confidence, intelligence and boldness unseen in the boxing world that garnered the respect of black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Thus, he was convicted of draft evasion, and though his appeals prevented him from serving time in prison, he also lost his boxing license for three years. Howard Conrad, one of Ali’s promoters told TIME Magazine that Ali “became a ni***r again” overnight over his decision.
It’s no accident that Mayweather made so much money in front of a sold-out crowd that booed him after he beat Pacquiao. That audience came to watch the undefeated savage finally lose and felt ripped off. America has no interest in black heroes. They prefer to watch them suffer in the ring and in the media, so African-American fighters are incentivized to conform to the thug narrative that justifies the punishment these fans want to see. Raquel Miller, an African-American professional fighter who fought on Ward and Alexander Brand’s undercard August 6th as the first woman under Roc Nation promotions, said a lot of black boxers now play villains to promote their fights.
“Black fighters are profiled as not marketable,” Miller, 30, from San Francisco, said. “Other races don’t have that problem.”
Adrien Broner, a fighter with a mouth like Mayweather’s who was arrested for battery after allegedly biting a security guard in 2013, raked in 2.56 million views when he fought Shawn Porter in 2015. He offered to take out Porter’s girlfriend after he lost. Before his bout against Ashley Theophane April 2, Broner attracted more media attention with a warrant for his arrest for armed robbery and his public beef with Mayweather. He also forfeited his WBA junior welterweight belt, missing weight by .4 pounds and showing no effort to lose the weight by gulping down a Gatorade. Broner beat Theophane. On July 19, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for failing to show up for trial.
Meanwhile, WBO super lightweight champion Terence Crawford is an undefeated African-American boxer who had less drama than Broner before his fight with Hank Lundy in January. Crawford brought in only 982,000 views for that bout, and even Broner said it was because he was African-American and a white person or Mexican of his stature would be the “god of boxing.”
During a press conference promoting his November 19 bout against Sergey Kovalev on, Ward spoke against the black thug narrative that now financially benefits fighters like Broner and Mayweather.
“I don’t have to throw chairs,” Ward said. “I don’t have to cuss. I don’t have to act crazy to sell this fight. This fight is selling itself, and I know that what I possess and what I have is in me. It’s not on me.”
The Double Standard
In 2015, Mayweather gave FightHype.com a list of underrated black and Latino fighters, including Ward, Crawford, and Errol Spence Jr. He also pointed to UFC featherweight (and now lightweight) champion Conor McGregor as an example of the racial double standard that gives white fighters a pass for their bad behavior while eviscerating black fighters for it.
“They say [McGregor] talk a lot of trash and people praise him for it,” Mayweather said. “But when I did it, they say I’m cocky and arrogant. So biased!”
McGregor took Mayweather’s social commentary as a personal attack and blasted him on Instagram:
“Floyd Mayweather, don’t ever bring race into my success again. I am an Irishman. My people have been oppressed our entire existence. And still very much are. I understand the feeling of prejudice. It is a feeling that is deep in my blood.”
With world champion-level hypocrisy, McGregor brought race into his success by using it to promote his fight. He called Nate Diaz “a cholo gangster from the hood” during a press conference and posted an Instragram photo of their face-off that read “I see a fajita” before UFC 196. McGregor only has a problem with race when it doesn’t benefit him, but nobody pointed out his contradiction before he lost to Diaz. Yet this ability to use race whenever he wants without being held accountable for it is evidence of the very double standard Mayweather was talking about. Brazilian-American flyweight boxer Melissa McMorrow said McGregor’s race allows him to do this.
“It’s easy for white people to say, ‘Don’t bring race into it’ when they don’t live with race being a part of their lives every day,” McMorrow, 35, from San Francisco, said.
After saying he would have Pacquiao “make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice,” in 2010, Mayweather is hardly an example of racial sensitivity, and he received lots of deserved backlash for his comments. Yet almost no media outlet criticized McGregor for stereotyping Diaz. Neither did UFC president Dana White, but when McGregor refused to attend a press conference, White released him from the UFC 200 fight card. White showed that he would rather McGregor show up and use racist language than not show up at all. McGregor continued using his racist language leading up to his rematch against Diaz in UFC 202. After arriving late to a press conference, he referred to Diaz’s camp as “crackhead eses” before both camps threw water bottles at each other. McGregor received no reprimand for his racist language, but both parties will likely be fined for the altercation by the Nevada Athletic Commission.
Kovalev is another white fighter known for racist and language. Before their January bout, Haitian boxer Jean Pascal called Kovalev racist and cited Kovalev’s 2015 tweet likening black fighter Adonis Stevenson to an ape. After Kovalev brutalized Pascal, Foxsports.com headlined its story, “Undefeated champ Kovalev punishes Pascal for calling him a racist” as if black outspokenness deserved a thrashing more than the racist tweet. Kovalev also said during an interview with Radio Rahim that women shouldn’t box, including two-time gold medalist, and black woman boxer, Claressa Shields. This opposes what Ward told Boxing Ego.com leading up to his victory against Brand:
“With Raquel and other female fighters, they’re doing what we do,” Ward said. “They’re training. They’re grinding, but they’re just not always noticed. I don’t believe when people say there’s no market for women’s boxing. Let’s create a market.”
Black pugilists like Ward lose promotion by remaining positive role models, but white fighters like McGregor and Kovalev don’t lose any support when they make white supremacist and misogynistic statements. That is modus operandi for racism. If McGregor understands the feeling of prejudice “deep in his blood” like he says, he should stop conducting himself like the Donald Trump of the UFC. But as long as his white privilege gives him a pass, he’ll never have to change, and neither will Kovalev. Why become racially conscious when acting like a bigot helps pay the bills? Obviously, it worked for Trump. He’s now the president elect.
African-American suffering is still more marketable than black pride and intelligence, but if Ward beats Kovalev, fans may recognize that a black male fighter can dominate the headlines with a positive image. Ward may not be a conscientious objector to war like Ali, but he has protested for years his own way by objecting to the black savage narrative in boxing and American culture. That takes courage too, and it makes him the heir to Ali’s legacy, not as a fighter, but as a counter-cultural black hero to the boxing world.
Tune in for the fight, my friends.