Here’s a bit of info about me: I’ve never been a big MMA fan.
Oh, I don’t mind the sport. Truth be told, I even admire it. Those MMA guys are true athletes, make no mistake. Even the most diehard boxing fan should admit as much if there’s an ounce of fairness involved. Yet, while I have appreciated the craftsmanship of these fighters, I haven’t coughed up money to see an MMA event since Chuck Liddell bested Tito Ortiz in their rematch and that was almost a decade ago. However, this is about to change.
Yup, I’m going to watch Nate Diaz throw down with Conor McGregor, live on pay-per-view in their highly anticipated rematch next month. Is this because I’ve suddenly turned my back on boxing? Because I’m an expert on the craft of mixed martial arts? Because I have nothing better to do that evening? No, no, and no.
I’m going to watch Diaz vs McGregor II, because the two men fighting are unique personalities, interesting people, odd characters really. And odd characters are intriguing. McGregor is about as obnoxious, grandiose, and mouthy as they come. Same for Diaz, save for the grandiose part. He replaces that with a menacing sullenness when the situation calls for it. Suffice to say: they are both compelling, unique and fun to watch.
Personality is the key here, not fighting strategies or techniques. And for that reason alone, I’ll be putting down my hard-earned cash to watch them do battle. I won’t really know what’s going on, save for the striking, but I’ll be watching. And while I’m watching, I’ll probably be asking myself: where are the same kind of genuinely intriguing personalities in boxing these days? Because, let’s face it, boxing is more popular when it has colorful characters at its forefront. To gauge the accuracy of this statement, all you have to do is think back to the sport’s biggest names:
John L Sullivan, the world’s first celebrity fighter, was father to all things Conor McGregor, a mouthy Irishman who could generally back up his talk with a huge set of balls and one hell of a wallop.
Jack Johnson was more than the first black heavyweight champion of the world. He was also about as audacious and obnoxious as they came. There’s a story he once paid a cop extra money after he got pulled over for speeding since he was sure he’d speed through the same town again.
Jack Dempsey went from hanging out with hobos and prostitutes to hanging in Hollywood and having his dirty laundry aired in divorce court.
Muhammad Ali brought bombast to professional sports in a way that had never been seen before. Or, frankly, hasn’t been seen since.
Mike Tyson was, simply put, an uncaged tiger. He did time, he bit off part of an ear, he said completely deranged things. And that was all after his prime. Previously, he was the very picture of menace, intimidation personified.
Floyd Mayweather brought hip hop culture to the sports world in a way that not even the most outlandish star had previously (and that goes for stars both in and out of the ring). One look at him throwing untold dollars around a strip club, or shouting at Larry Merchant on live television, told you all you needed to know and made sure that, love him or hate him, you’d watch again.
We may not like all these guys, and sure enough, there’s much that’s unlikable about some of these characters. But at the same time you can’t say we aren’t interested in such people, especially when there’s a wink and a smile aspect to all the craziness and public posturing. And while it’s true there are many boxing stars who haven’t been over the top, over the top clearly brings attention, numbers and cash.
Among active boxers right now, only Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder and Adrien Broner fit the bill for me as true characters, genuine oddballs whose interviews you don’t want to miss and whose fights are of interest no matter the opposition. You may think these are less than pleasant human beings, but there’s little doubt people take notice when they walk in a room. Boxing may not need more genuine jerks, but it certainly could use a few more animated personalities.
Remember boxers like Jorge Paez? Vinny Pazienza? Hector Camacho? Lew Jenkins? Tony Galento? Randall “Tex” Cobb? Prince Naseem? Like it or not, these guys brought more eyeballs to the TV screens and more bums to the seats. People loved to watch them, win or lose. And while some may accuse Guillermo Rigondeaux of being boring, Canelo Alvarez and Wladimir Klitschko ain’t exactly drawing casual sports fans in droves, either. Boxing is primarily a sport and entertainment value may be secondary, but curiosity is key if the sport is to truly thrive.
Needless to say, it’s been a long time since anyone who doesn’t already like boxing brought up a fighter’s name and asked me “What’s with that guy?” It simply doesn’t happen anymore. Maybe it should start happening again, though. Boxing’s the greatest sport in the world, in my humble opinion, the most challenging endeavour an athlete can take on. The sport, frankly, deserves to be in the spotlight.
In order for that to happen, though, someone actually has to stand atop the stage and give us some larger than life personality and entertainment. Any takers? — Sean Crose