Can We Please Stop With The Boxing-Related Country/Race Conspiracy Theories Please?

I would say at least once a week — usually when I mention one of the Klitschko brothers or Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather, Jr. — someone takes a critical remark I’ve made, or that someone else has made in this space, and responds thusly:

“You just hate boxer A because you’re racist/hate country A.”

It doesn’t matter if I’ve been on the record of stating how much I like boxer A, or have praised boxer A in the very same entry in which I was critical of some behavior of his. Any critical comment — even a prediction that boxer A will lose a fight, which isn’t critical at all, seeing as how almost everyone loses a fight at some point in their lives, and it’s just a prediction — is automatically the sign of my deep xenophobia or discrimination. Nor is this phenomenon unique to this site. On every boxing website or bulletin board on the planet, there are people looking to slap the Scarlet Letter of R or X on anyone who dares think that their favorite boxer isn’t the living embodiment of boxing and personal perfection.

So let’s just examine this whole question for a second. (Even though you probably aren’t the most open-minded chap or lady if you’re the kind of person to lob accusations of racism or xenophobia at someone you don’t know who hasn’t used a racial epithet. But just because I probably won’t convince you doesn’t mean I won’t try.)

More than just about any other sport, race and nationality — even town — play a huge role in boxing fandom. It’s true. If you like Wladimir Klitschko, for instance, contemplate whether one of the reasons you like him is because he’s from where you’re from, or he fights regularly where you live. Mexican fighters (and, frequently, American fighters of Mexican descent) tend to be very popular with Mexican fans and American fans of Mexican descent. If you like Pacquiao and are Filipino, aren’t the odds good that at least some small measure of your appreciation of him that he, like you, is Asian, and it gives you pride to see him emerging as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Asian fighter(s) of all time?

And, indeed, there are racists in the world of sports, just like there are racists everywhere. I’m sure you’ve run into some of them. Just the other day, someone left a comment on my site calling Pacquiao a “gook,” a nasty epithet that was ignorant three ways to Sunday. Still: Just because someone you’ve run into dislikes a fighter for racist reasons doesn’t mean that everyone who dislikes that fighter is a racist. That’s a fallacy that would get you kicked out of any basic logic class. Leaping to that conclusion is foolish.

Furthermore, many fighters fight in a style common to their ethnicity or country, and that can affect how they are perceived. There is nothing racist or xenophobic or noting this, just as there is nothing racist or xenophobic about making references to the unique cuisine of a country. It is not a racist stereotype, necessarily, if there is evidence to back it up. Nor is there a hard and fast rule on this; sometimes, a fighter from a country with a heritage of boxers who fight in a certain style will break from that style. I’ll give you two examples: 1. Mexican fighters tend to be boxer-punchers who come forward relentlessly, focusing a lot of their blows on the body. They fight that way in part because that is a style that has proven popular with Mexican fans, who historically have applauded macho, grinding wars. When Juan Manuel Marquez early in his career tended to fight backing up, counter-punching and taking fewer risks than the average Mexican fighter, he was successful but not as popular as his peers with Mexican fans. 2. By contrast, fighters who are popular in Germany, such as the Klitschkos, don’t usually take such risks; the emphasis is on winning in whatever style works best, on displays of ring intelligence, and German fans are by and large quite content to watch Felix Sturm or the Klitschko brothers use their jabs as their primary path to victory.

All of these things factor into how boxers from X country or of Y descent are viewed by boxing fans. When people from Youngstown, Ohio booed Marco Antonio Rubio earlier this year, they didn’t boo him primarily because he was Mexican — they booed him because he was fighting Kelly Pavlik, who happens to be from Youngstown. Klitschko is a mega-star in Germany, where his style is popular and he collected a 58.4 percent market share on television there for his most recent fight, but he does horrendous ratings in the United States, in part because many American fans want to see heavyweights score quick, furious knockouts. (Another part of it is that boxing is not televised as exclusively in Germany as it is in the U.S., but Klitschko-Lamon Brewster II did a 1.7 rating, one of HBO’s lowest ratings to date.) And, yes, some of the people who hate X fighter of Y ethnicity are racists. Occasionally, these factors evolve over time. For instance, what’s popular with Mexican fans now may not be popular with Mexican fans tomorrow if a Mexican boxer they like, for whatever reason, fights in a different style that eventually catches on, ushering in a new generation of Mexican fighters who fight in that new, different style.

But historically, and, now, increasingly, few American boxing fans (and, really, few boxing fans that I know of any origin) give much of a damn what country someone comes from, or what their parents look like. Boxing has globalized and Americans seem to have embraced this, or else a Filipino and a Brit wouldn’t have combined recently to generate 800,000 pay-per-views in America — although it’s worth noting that even when racism was more prevalent in the United States than it is now, a black boxer, Joe Louis, was wildly popular. I count myself among that group that fails to give much of a damn. As long as a fighter fights in a style that entertains me, I could generally care less about anything else. In the “about” tab under this blog’s banner at the top of the page, you’ll note that my list of favorite fighters, as of now, includes three Mexicans; two Puerto Ricans; two Filipinos; two black Americans; one Cuban; and one white American. Take a look at my pound-for-pound list, in the right-hand column. It features five black Americans; three Puerto Ricans; two Filipinos; two Mexicans; and one each of the following — white American, Australian, Pole, Indonesian, Ukranian, Panamanian, Dane, German. Those are both pretty random assortments for a white dude from Indiana. It certainly makes me anything but a white American supremacist, because if that was my priority, there’d be a lot more white Americans on those lists. Just about every continent and skin color is accounted for somehow. And the lists reflect my actual opinions; I don’t see any value in populating them with disingenuous picks for the sake of diversity. If 20 Antarcticans were the 20 best fighters in the world, there’d be 20 Antarcticans on my pound-for-pound list.

For the one millionth time, if I’m critical of a fighter, it’s because I find some fault in him that I will clearly explain, and there will be no other motives at play, and I’ll often criticize fighters I like very much. And odds are good that anyone else who criticizes a fighter is doing the same. Anyone can be critical of something a fighter does without having some deeper agenda than finding that fighter’s behavior worthy of criticism. I’m a big fan of Chad Dawson, but I was critical of him for trying to avoid a rematch with Glen Johnson — and now that he’s accepted that rematch, I have praised him for doing so. I’m not a big fan of Floyd Mayweather, Jr., but I’d be the first to praise him if he signed to fight Shane Mosley or Paul Williams or some other quality welterweight, as opposed to fighting a lightweight as he intended to do July 18 before the fight was postponed. I’m a fan of the fighters I’m a fan of because of their collective record of providing me entertainment and fighting the best opposition. I’ll only occasionally take into account other factors, such as their personalities, or, rarely (just like people from the Philippines who root for Pacquiao because he’s from the Philippines, or just like the Eastern European fans who filled Madison Square Garden last year to root for either Wladimir Klitschko or Sultan Ibragimov) because they’re from my country. It would be a positive thing for boxing in America if there was an American heavyweight champion — people here really pay close attention to the division — so if one comes along, great. But it’s a higher priority for me to have a heavyweight champion whom I enjoy watching fight than it is for me to have a heavyweight champion who was born here. And I think, really, boxing fans in America would be perfectly happy if the heavyweight champion was some Antarctican so long as he was entertaining to them. Look at how they’ve embraced lower-division boxers from other regions, such as Pacquiao, who fight in a style that appeals to the American eye.

Ultimately, though, the burden of proof when there is an allegation of a racism or bias in some way is on the accuser. It’s easy to lob accusations at people when you’ve got no evidence. It’s proving it that’s harder. And for the person who’s been accused, proving one’s own non-racism is usually far more difficult. There’s a reason our court system is
set up the way it is, with a presumption of innocence. So next time you go to throw the word “racist” at someone, you better have some evidence other than “because I think so.” If not, your words are empty and meaningless. You’ve not struck out at some injustice. All you’ve accomplished is making yourself look like the kind of zealot who would say anything to try to score cheap points in an argument, along the way cheapening legitimate allegations of racism or bias.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.