WHEN John L Sullivan boldly predicted he could “lick any sonofabitch in the house”, not even the heavyweight champion of the late 1800s could have thought he might have been setting in motion the wheels of a verbal train that has careered unevenly along for more than a century.
Of course, he was probably not the first gloved fighter to insult anybody, and maybe all but a few of the aforementioned “sons” of “bitches” would likely have taken offence.
For Sullivan’s boast was real. He could not only “lick” anyone in the house, but between 1882 and 1892 it was thought he could probably “lick” anybody in the world.
In fact, some trace trash-talk further back to the bareknuckle days. International Boxing Hall of Fame journalist Nigel Collins, former editor of The Ring, has covered some of the more outspoken characters of the last four decades.
But his knowledge goes back far further and he believes Sullivan merely carried on from where others left off.
“I think insulting your opponent has been around as long as boxing, probably a holdover from the days of dueling, which was often about seeking satisfaction for a perceived insult,” Collins explained. “In their first fight, bareknuckle champ Bendigo’s insults enraged arch-rival Ben Caunt to such an extent that he was disqualified for hitting Bendigo while he sat on his second’s knee between rounds.”
As the twentieth century spun around, racism was – for many – a port of call that was used for fighters to offend one another.
Former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries was happy to talk down to an upcoming Jack Johnson years before they fought saying, “I won’t meet you in the ring because you’ve got no name and we won’t draw flies. But I’ll go downstairs to the cellar with you and lock the door from the inside. And the one who comes out with the key will be the champ.”
Yet when Jeffries called it quits, he came out of retirement to fight Johnson and pledged, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
Jeffries, though, was past his best and Johnson bossed the old champion, talking to him mid-fight. “Come on now, Mr Jeff,” Johnson smiled. “Do something, man. This is for the championship.”
And just like that, what today is called smack talk was becoming more commonplace.
Whether it was before, during or after a fight, one-upmanship was jostled for with words.
Race remained at the forefront of much bad blood, with white champions drawing the ‘colour line’, failing to defend their titles against black contenders. That Jack Dempsey had fought black fighters before, and that he had even signed to face Harry Wills, ultimately did not matter. Whether it was a nation’s insult or a personal affront from Dempsey, Wills never got his shot. Some say it was Dempsey’s promoter, Tex Rickard, who steered his man away from Wills.
It was the heavyweight division that went on to spawn many of the more remembered insults.
But was Tony Galento the first to tastelessly, yet somewhat comically, threaten to kill an opponent when he said of Joe Louis, “I’ll moider the bum?”
The only person who was only going to get hurt was Galento. Louis finished him in four rounds.
The use of death to hype a contest is the most distasteful of insults given that fighters – in order to win – must inflict physical damage and, tragically, that has resulted in fatal bouts.
It is too near the knuckle to talk of hospital, morgues, coffins and ambulances.
This is the noble art, where athletes meet in the ring, not a street corner where brawlers war over territory from which they can sell smack rather than just talk it.
It was very different when Benny Paret rattled middleweight rival Emile Griffith ahead of their third fight some 23 years later.
Paret, infamously, called Griiffith a ‘maricon’, crudely translated as ‘fagot’ in a swipe at Griffith’s sexuality. Griffith was gay, but lived in a time when it was not widely accepted, fighting in a sport in which it was unheard of.
Paret’s lit a fire within the usually timid Virgin Islander who, in turn, said he would kill his Cuban rival. Paret was taken to hospital after being mercilessly knocked out in round 12 of a scheduled 15 and died several days later.
Author Donald McRae, whose outstanding book on Griffith, A Man’s World, thoroughly chronicles their rivalry, believes Paret’s slur could well be the most venomous in all of boxing history.
“I would say that insult stands out as the most personal and the most grotesque because, of course, it resulted in his death,” McRae said. “Beyond leading to his own death it also placed Emile in danger because, at that time, homosexuality was illegal in the US. So if found to be true it could have led to Emile being under police suspicion, and let’s not forget that gay men were jailed even in liberal cities like New York in the early 1960s.”
It was at a time when smack talk was not used to sell fights, not often anyway. So why did he say it?
“The first and most obvious reason is that Benny’s machismo culture as a Cuban meant he couldn’t accept gay men, especially gay boxers,” McRae continued. “Secondly, before their previous fight [number two in the trilogy] Benny insulted Emile at the weigh-in. It was a milder insult but showed the growing animosity. Thirdly, he decided to ramp things up because his manager, Manuel Alfaro, told him that it would unsettle Griffith [giving Benny an advantage in the ring] if Paret mocked his sexuality. The tragedy was that Alfaro was right. Emile was unhinged but such was his anger and desire for vengeance that the punishment he doled out that night cost Benny Paret his life.”
It was around that time when, fresh from the 1960 Olympics, a young heavyweight contender started to talk the talk. Of course, Cassius Clay – later Muhammad Ali – would go on to walk the walk but he allowed his mouth to run away from him early on his pro career.
Not everyone was high on the loudmouth. In truth, a nation was yet to warm to him in spite of an Olympic gold medal. One who would never take to him was Sonny Liston, who Ali twice defeated. Ahead of their initial encounter, surly as ever, Liston remarked: “Clay needs a lesson in manners. Maybe I can help him by beating his brains out.”
Many agreed. They thought the kid who might be able to talk was no match for the big old champion, but they were wrong.
While Liston dished out his fair share of verbals, he had no answer to Ali in the ring. Yet Ali’s great rival Joe Frazier could and did match Ali inside the ropes. He defeated him in their first fight in 1971. However, outside the ring he could not match Ali, who over several years bullied Frazier, badly upsetting him by calling him, initially, an “Uncle Tom”, and then a “gorilla”.
Frazier was deeply insulted by both for different reasons. It made their grudge truly personal and many felt Frazier carried the vendetta to his grave.
Boxing historian George Zeleny reckons Ali was the spearhead that brought insulting an opponent into the modern age, making it big business.
“I well remember watching Fight of the Week from America in 1961,” he recalled. “David Coleman announced that the scheduled fight had been postponed so they were showing Cassius Clay against Alex Miteff instead. He said that although we might not have heard of Clay he was a really interesting, outspoken character who predicted which round he would beat his opponent in – and he always got it right. He was laughing as he told us. And Clay did stop Miteff in the predicted sixth round.”
Some fell in love with Ali, even though he was one of the world’s most divisive figures in the 1960s.
Zeleny reckons Ali talked trash, but did so with a twinkle in his eye.
“The point about Ali was that he usually used humour – although [Ernie] Terrell and Frazier would dispute that – to drum up publicity. Since then smack talking has been part of the game. Before Ali, with few exceptions, fighters behaved with dignity and respect towards each other.”
Because of the dangers involved, one of boxing’s saving graces has always been the admiration shared between fighters – before, during and after fights.
Sometimes, though, boxers just say the wrong things. Larry Holmes made one of the most frowned upon insults when he just missed out on Rocky Marciano’s legendary 49-0 mark as the heavyweight champion of the world.
“If you really want to get technical about the whole thing, Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap,” charged Holmes after being defeated at 48-0 by Michael Spinks.
It was a line that immortalised Holmes’s reign more, arguably, than any of his 19 defences. It offended people outside the sport as well as from within.
That was nothing new.
In 1980, Alan Minter had declared he would not lose his world middleweight title “to a black man” ahead of his bout with Marvin Hagler.
That set a poisonous tone that caused a fan eruption after Minter was bludgeoned into a third-round loss.
On a similar theme, more than a couple of decades later, middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins said he would not lose to a white man in the lead up to his narrow points loss to Joe Calzaghe.
What happened between Minter and Hopkins saw a cultural revolution that did not just affect boxing. It became trendy to be the bad guy. And if they did not like the big mouths, then people paid good money to see the big talkers beaten.
Mike Tyson perhaps led the way, in some respects, breaking new ground in poor taste.
Perhaps most infamously, securing the Lennox Lewis fight, he ranted, “I’m gonna rip his heart out. I’m the most brutal and vicious, the most ruthless champion there has ever been… I want his heart. I want to eat his children.”
Bad blood and grudges sell.
But fighters have and do cross the line. David Haye incurred the wrath of women’s groups and the media while predicting his fight with Audley Harrison would be “as one-sided as gang rape.”
And Haye repeatedly said he would hospitalise Tony Bellew before their contest last year.
The threat to harm an opponent was taken to the extreme on social media by middleweight contender Curtis Stevens. Before his challenge of 160lbs kingpin Gennady Golovkin, the American tweeted a picture of a casket with ‘GGG’ engraved upon the lid. Stevens had hoped to take the coffin to the pre-fight press conference, but was instructed to leave it behind.
“It’s just the fight build-up,” Stevens said when asked to explain his actions. “I’m just having fun, building the fight up, making his fans hate me.”
It has not become uncommon for leading fighters to talk ill of their opponents.
Floyd Mayweather and Adrien Broner built their respective brands pushing the boundaries.
In the years when Mayweather was not fighting Manny Pacquiao, the American uploaded a social media video saying, “Once I stomp the midget, I’m gonna make that motherf***** make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice.”
Yet it was Mayweather who was on the receiving end ahead of his final fight, when Irishman Conor McGregor asked why Mayweather was on the stage of a press tour assembly with a “school bag” because, McGregor shouted repeating claims from over the years, “you can’t even read.”
Social media is now a quick way for fighters to start trading words while thousands of would-be onlookers gather to gawp at the exchanges.
“I don’t think insulting your opponents ever went out of style, but the insults have become more graphic,” Collins concluded. “I don’t think TV overtly encourages boxers to exchange insults but doesn’t discourage it either.
It does seem some fighters think they have to insult their adversaries, almost as if it’s part of their job and I think some fans like it while others find it tedious.”
We have come along way from John L boasting he could “lick any sonofabitch”, more cruder and uncensored.
Some fighting talk is still frowned upon and rightly so but, ultimately, if it cannot be backed up then – just as was the case more than 100 years ago – it doesn’t mean much.