When Trash Talk Backfires

Many times my dad repeated this old saw in my presence: “A wise man keeps his ears open and his mouth shut.” Not that I ever listened or really understood what he was trying to tell me when I was a kid. But of course now it seems like pretty obvious advice, a truth that’s impossible to deny. Generally speaking, it’s better to be silent and aware and calculating your next move, as opposed to blabbering away like Ric Flair on speed.

And yet, there’s no doubt that sometimes trash talk works to intimidate, distract or unnerve an opponent. We have seen it happen many times. One boxer does all he can to assert himself as the “top dog,” so to speak, with loud boasts and demonstrations of cockiness, and his opponent, whether he realizes it or not, is affected. Lacking the same inner confidence, he begins to doubt himself, feels threatened or defensive, starts to lose some of his focus and drive.

Conor tries to intimidate Khabib.

But it doesn’t matter how cocky you are and how good your trash talk game is when you come up against an opponent who simply will not be intimidated. This past Saturday night we saw a most graphic and dramatic example of this phenomenon when trash talk maestro Conor McGregor battled Khabib Nurmagomedov in the octagon for UFC 229. See, the mistake sometimes made on the part of talented trash talkers is the assumption that since a litany of boasts and insults is effective against some, it will be so against everyone. But with the wrong guy, it can backfire completely.

In the weeks preceding the showdown, a long-awaited match between the two best lightweights in MMA, McGregor held nothing back. He did his usual routine with lots of brash boasts and predictions of ruin for his opponent, with plenty of ethnic insults thrown in. And if you watched only the highlights from the press conferences, which for the most part showed a subdued Khabib stoically sitting there while Conor babbled away, you could be forgiven for thinking the man from Dagestan was inhibited by McGregor. Perhaps, some speculated, his confidence was being affected.

Zero respect at the weigh-in.

But nothing could have been further from the truth. Because the fact is there are some people for whom trash talking does nothing but light a slow-burning, white-hot flame of fury. At the press conferences and the weigh-in, Khabib was restrained and reserved, but this was not because he was intimidated. It was because he was saving his rage for the fight itself, a truth confirmed not just by Nurmagomedov’s largely dominant performance, but also by the fact he could be heard repeatedly taunting Conor, even while raining punches down, with the words, “Let’s talk! Let’s talk now!”

Clearly, McGregor had made a great miscalculation. After Conor tapped out and the fight was stopped, before the melee and mayhem that followed, he sat on the canvas, exhausted, an expression of contemplation on his face. And one couldn’t help imagining he was thinking to himself, “Well, I guess insulting the guy over and over again maybe wasn’t such a great idea.” Because it often isn’t. And one wonders why more trash-talking fighters don’t realize this.

In the end, McGregor’s trash talk only led to this.

In team sports, coaches discuss with their players about not giving the opposition “bulletin board material,” that is to say, anything the other team can clip out of the newspaper and put up for everyone to read in the dressing room. The goalie on the other team insulted the coach? The lead-off hitter said something bad about your pitcher? The cocky quarterback told reporters your team sucks? Great! When your adversary says something insulting, you put it up on the bulletin board and use it as motivation to get even more psyched for the big game.

Similarly, while taunts and trash talk can sometimes confuse, distract or intimidate a pugilist, it also can do the opposite. Thus, for the fighter who sees the trash talk rituals as essential to their success, the challenge is to figure out which opponents are susceptible, and which are not.

Take Bernard Hopkins as an example. One would be hard-pressed to find a better pre-fight “psych job” than the one “The Executioner” pulled on Jean Pascal before their rematch in 2011. His psychological domination led to an historic victory at the Bell Centre in Montreal, but when he tried the same kind of thing on Joe Smith Jr., it had little to no effect. Instead Smith showed zero signs of intimidation as he executed his game plan to perfection, using a fast pace and non-stop pressure to pave the way to a KO victory. Clearly, what was effective for one younger, less experienced opponent was not so effective for another.

Smith Jr. repays Hopkins for his disrespect.

We saw a similar outcome when Ricardo Mayorga lambasted Oscar De La Hoya with insults and trash talk leading up to their 2006 battle for the super welterweight title. The fighter they called “El Matador” was renowned for his cockiness and pre-fight shenanigans and he did not fail to rise to the occasion for this, perhaps the biggest fight of his career. In the weeks leading up to the match he continually insulted Oscar, even slapping him at a press conference, and insulting his wife and child. If Mayorga thought all this would work to intimidate “Golden Boy,” he definitely thought wrong. An infuriated De La Hoya fought with true venom that night, dominating and punishing Mayorga en route to a sixth round stoppage.

Oscar makes Mayorga pay for his big mouth.

It was the same kind of outcome for Adrien Broner when he took on Marcos Maidana in 2013. Months before the scheduled bout the two had happened to run into each other at an airport in Las Vegas and instead of being respectful and civilized, Broner went on a trash-talking tirade. Maidana would later confirm that from that moment on he had extra motivation to push himself in training and focus on handing “The Problem” his first defeat. Instead of unnerving the Argentinian, Broner’s insults and taunts only put fuel on the fire and the result was a first-class beatdown by Maidana as he scored two knockdowns and an upset win over the cocky kid from Cincinnati.

Maidana punishes Broner.

Speaking of cocky, boxing has seen few peacocks as exuberant and arrogant as Prince Naseem Hamed, but he should have known better than to be disrespectful towards a proud Mexican warrior like Marco Antonio Barrera. Hamed’s antics may have affected some, but everyone knew Barrera was a crazy bad-ass with a short fuse, the kind of guy who happily exchanged punches with both Kennedy McKinney and Erik Morales at press conferences when they looked at him the wrong way. Hamed’s theatrics didn’t impress him one bit, and instead motivated him to give the Briton a vicious and humiliating ass-kicking, one “The Prince” never recovered from.

A fired-up Barrera dominated Hamed.

So the bottom line is, if you’re the kind of competitor who likes to tease and taunt and get under your opponent’s skin, fine. But just keep in mind, it can backfire. Think and assess carefully before opening your mouth, as otherwise you just might be doing your adversary a big favor while ensuring nothing but trouble for yourself.

And here’s another anecdote to consider. Roberto Duran, while maybe not an elite-level trash talker, wasn’t above insults and threats to his opponents. But before his fight with Carlos Palomino in 1979 he did the opposite. Palomino, a former world champion, was prepared for Duran’s verbal onslaught at the weigh-in but “Hands Of Stone” turned the tables. Instead of taunting him, Roberto shook his hand, told him how much he respected him and wished him luck. Palomino later acknowledged that Duran’s decision to do the unexpected, and not resort to trash talk, took him completely off-guard and affected his performance in the ring.

Duran didn’t need trash talk to dominate Palomino.

So let it be a lesson learned for all the young, cocky fighters out there. Fact is, when facing an opponent who is mentally focused and strong, trash talk can backfire big time. No doubt Conor McGregor would have been better off being a gentleman to Khabib, like Duran, instead of being a loudmouth like Mayorga or Broner. Because to judge from the Russian’s performance, all Conor’s insults did was provide extra inspiration for Nurmagomedov, while guaranteeing more punishment and pain for “Mystic Mac.”               — Neil Crane 

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