By: Rudy Mondragon
Does boxing need new boxing rivalries for its revival? Personally, boxing does not need to be revived. It is not dead, but the content provided to fans is malnourished and underfed.
This article stems from three things: The recent Nate Diaz versus Conor McGregor rematch that was fueled by a theatrical script of mutual animosity, Robert Garcia’s thoughts on this UFC rivalry and how boxing needs one like it, and reflections from a conversation I had with my colleague and best friend, Edgar Villeda.
The Diaz/McGregor rematch was so intriguing for fans because of the pre-fight hype both men provided. Bottles were thrown at a press-conference, middle fingers were pointed, and each fighter’s camp almost participated in an improvised, yet very real, rumble. These are the elements that casual fans buy into, leaving actual talks about the competitiveness of the fight to UFC freaks and some experts.
Robert Garcia weighed in on this rivalry. He said this kind of rivalry is what boxing needs. Boxing these days is missing the entertaining villain roles that Ricardo Mayorga and Fernando Vargas developed so well. For Garcia, “boxing becoming a business” (PPV matches mainly) is what is hurting the sport, leaving little room for exciting boxing narratives to be developed.
I mostly agree with Garcia, but I will say that boxing did not just become a business, it has always been that. What is hurting the sport today is the underdevelopment of characters and trash talking that lacks creativity. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for WWE theatrics. I am saying that fighters using stereotypes to trash talk is not prolific but more so unambitious. McGregor calling Diaz a “crackhead ese” is nothing special. It is simply a racially charged trope used by a white dude to get fan and media reactions.
During my worthwhile conversation with my colleague and best friend, we discussed the great boxing rivalries of our time. Edgar and I were left thinking, “when was the last real boxing rivalry ?” We briefly looked to Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. However, this was the type of fight that Robert Garcia was speaking of. A big money event that fans had demanded for years. Knowing that, there was no need for Floyd or Manny to engage in any pre-fight hype to get fans interested. It was already sold.
We talked about the Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto rivalry. However, this event was fueled by the already established legacies of the Mexico versus Puerto Rico rivalry. The anticipation of the fight itself was all fans needed to get hyped. It was competitive and both men fought at the height of their respective careers. Great rivalry, but the pre-fight theatrics and spectacle were missing.
Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr was an entertaining rivalry full of pre-fight trash talking. But lets be real, fans knew Martinez was the superior athlete and boxer who was only vulnerable to the power of the under-disciplined silver spoon. Fun rivalry, but four years later, does anyone really reminisce on the excitement this rivalry produced?
If I had to pick, I would say the most exciting boxing rivalry in recent time has to be between Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya. In 2007, Floyd was looking to establish himself as an independent man in boxing. This fight was his opportunity to graduate from being “Pretty Boy” to “Money May.” Floyd did not hold back throughout the promotional tour. From imitating the “Golden Boy” to bringing a chicken with a gold medal to the stage.
Floyd presented himself as a confident black man who honestly accepted the challenge to assume the role of the new infamous modern day boxing villain. It was a well developed role that he made his own. Sure, most of his trash talking consisted of emasculating Oscar and challenging his manhood. As problematic as that is, I focus on the new and creative ways that Floyd presented his trash talking. It was an art that flipped the script on the culture of trash talking in sports. As a result, the boxing world stood still and watched. Floyd became public enemy number one in the eyes of Mexican boxing fans. Mexican fans who typically questioned Oscar’s career, were now in solidarity with the East LA native.
Before this fight was the 2002 match between Fernando Vargas and De La Hoya. I would say Floyd studied this rivalry well because Vargas performed a classic villain role. Rooted in his attempt to escape from the shadows of De La Hoya, Vargas’s dislike of De La Hoya was motivated by Vargas’s desire to uplift his own identity. His own humanity.
This fight took place a year after the 9/11 attacks and Vargas had no plans in promoting US Nationalism and Patriotism. Instead, he presented himself as a proud Mexican fighter who embraced his Aztec past and was proud to enter the ring to live music by Vicente Fernandez. He questioned De La Hoya’s manhood and racial, ethnic, and cultural integrity. Again, we can have a conversation about this and how problematic that is, but Vargas did these things having full confidence of himself. That is pretty American if you ask me.
The modern day boxing rivalry is missing what Fernando and Floyd once brought to the table. Organic creativity that stems from each man’s identities. These two men fueled two of the most classic boxing rivalries of the past 2 decades. How did they do this? Both men knew they would assume the B-Side politic of villain in relation to the “Good Mexican,” De La Hoya. They embraced this role, but on their terms. Through creativity, honesty, and vulnerability, both men forced the public to consume them as they were.
Today’s boxing rivalries need just that. Boxers who stay true to themselves and commit to their own theatrical scripts to put on exciting pre-fight events. We don’t want puppets, we want honest fighters who put themselves and their politics on the line.
Knowing that the social structures of the boxing industry continue to be ultra-traditional and neoliberal, we have a long way to go before we can expect boxers to step away from racially charged, homophobic, and emasculating trash talking. To step away from these structures, boxers being true to themselves and taking on the challenge to find creative approaches to building up fights is a start to reviving modern day boxing rivalries.
**Special thanks to David Martinez for sharing his archives with me. You can find his work at http://dmboxing.com/**