The Great White Hope – Fulfilled?

14.08.06 - By W. Gregory Guedel: The title of "Heavyweight Champion of the World" is an honor that stands on a singularly lofty plateau in the world of boxing. Long considered the greatest title in sport, it still holds a mystique all its own even in today's crowded landscape of big-time professional athletics. Since Rocky Marciano's retirement on April 27, 1956, the Heavyweight boxing title has passed through the hands of many legendary fighters. The names Liston, Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis read like a roll call of Hall of Fame boxers. Aside from talent, skill, and determination, another factor has been common to those who have reached the pinnacle of the sport since Rocky's retirement – almost all of the hands that have grasped the title belt have been black..

A certain segment of the followers of boxing has been dissatisfied with this state of affairs. Racism is nothing new to sport in general, especially to boxing. Considering that for over 100 years of pugilistic history non-white fighters were institutionally barred from even competing for world championships, it is to be expected from a sociological perspective that some residual resentment of black success in the prize ring would remain. Throughout the 1960s and 70s – decades that for America were fraught with racial tension on many fronts – a call could be heard from dark corners of the boxing world for the emergence of a Caucasian fighter who could wrest the Heavyweight title from the lineage of African-American champions. This era produced its share of both highly competitive white Heavyweights such as Jerry Quarry, and over-hyped disappointments such as Dwayne Bobick. The 1980s brought Gerry Cooney, the 1990s offered Tommy Morrison. Regardless of their relative ability level, these fighters always seemed to come up short in significant title matches, prolonging the curious quest of some for the next "Great White Hope."

It is difficult to gauge how much of the "White Hope" phenomenon has been the result of genuine desire on the part of boxing fans to see a change in the racial background of the Heavyweight champion. What is certain is that unscrupulous boxing promoters and managers have pushed this agenda relentlessly when it suited their purposes. Promoters – a ruthless lot by nature – held no qualms about creating racial heat in order to generate increased revenues for their bouts. The Cooney-Holmes match in 1982 embodied the worst of this tradition, with both Don King and Cooney's managers riding a wave of thinly-veiled racism all the way to record-breaking gate receipts.

While American boxing fans debated the issue of the "Great White Hope", developments were occurring on the other side of the world that would have a profound influence on the future of the sport. Beginning in the late 1950s, fighters from Soviet-bloc countries began performing well in international amateur boxing competitions such as the Olympics. Communist dogma prevented these athletes from competing professionally, but many of these fighters posted amateur wins over Western fighters who later became professional champions. This led to much pondering among boxing aficionados as to how Eastern European fighters would fare if allowed to enter the pro ranks. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Iron Curtain was essentially flung open and these fighters began migrating to the West in search of recognition and fortune. As professionals, many ex-Soviet boxers have demonstrated physical talent, well-honed fundamentals, and a strong work ethic. As it happens, these fighters are also white.

In the Heavyweight division, the success of these fighters has been dramatic. As of this writing, the Heavyweight titles of the four major sanctioning bodies (WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF) are all held by fighters born in Eastern Europe. While none of these four title holders can claim to be the undisputed Heavyweight champion, they are all indisputably Caucasian. Therefore, for the first time since Marciano's retirement, the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World is held exclusively in white hands. Regardless of one's point of view of the relevance or efficacy of this transition, it is a landmark development in the history of the sport.

Perhaps surprisingly, there appears to be little celebratory fanfare for this evolution. If anything, American boxing fans seem disappointed by the apparent dearth of home-grown heavyweight talent of any color, and view the European conquest of the division with the same disaffection that accompanies news of American jobs being "outsourced" overseas. The national origin of the current crop of Heavyweight champions may be a limiting factor in their acceptance by American boxing fans. They are from countries which, under a former political regime but well within recent memory, were the sworn enemies of the U.S.. It is possible that those inclined to prioritize a fighter's racial background may feel "national loyalty" is of greater importance. One can imagine that even hard-core racists must be asking themselves: Is a boxer really "white" if he is not also American?

The lines between race, nationality, and loyalty become further blurred in the contemporary era of globalization. The rapid transfer of people across borders the world over has undermined the traditional analysis of issues that were once considered "black and white" both literally and figuratively. A case in point is the August 12, 2006 fight between Hasim Rahman and Oleg Maskaev. Rahman's bout against Maskaev was billed by promoters as "America's Last Line of Defense", implying that Rahman was the last "American" Heavyweight champion on the scene, seeking to defend the title for the U.S. against usurpers from Eastern Europe. The cringe-inducing irony of this billing is that Maskaev is himself an American citizen, having become naturalized two years ago. Arguably Maskaev had to work harder to earn his American citizenship through tests and background checks than Rahman did just by being born in the U.S., but Maskaev received scant credit from the promoters for his efforts. In any event, his 12th round knockout of Rachman completed the sweep of the Heavyweight division by European-born fighters, and placed the WBC belt into hands that are both American and white.

Does race really matter in boxing? Has the success of European fighters exploded the myth of the superiority of black athletes? Perhaps the emergence of Eastern European champions has less to do with race than with socio-economic circumstances. While the standard of living and economic opportunities for the majority of African Americans has improved significantly since the 1960s, fighters born in Kazakhstan or Belarus still today face hardships that essentially disappeared from America decades ago. Does facing deprivation in childhood create better fighters? For those who follow boxing, today's Heavyweight landscape provides fertile ground for analyzing the cause-and-effect paradigms for success in the ring.

Article posted on 15.08.2006

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