Vulgarity makes an easy news story. Promoters have always known it. Insults, expletives and occasionally even racism and homophobia have long been go-to methods for convincing fans to spend. Media outlets, desperate for content to fill 24-hour channels and websites, have little choice but to play along.
Yet for much of the boxing public, a lot of what is supposed to shock feels part of a dull routine. They’ve seen it all before and they know the shtick — which leaves promoters and boxers in a vulgarity arms race, pushing offensiveness further and further in the hope of generating a controversy that fans will actually care about. In August we saw how low this can go with a fight being promoted with a staged act of sexual harassment. When Ricardo Mayorga slapped Shane Mosley’s wife’s buttocks, it wasn’t a spontaneous act but a calculated performance designed to salvage interest in a contest of no merit. And plenty of fans saw right through it.
The promoters’ dream is to convince fans that all the insults add up to genuine hatred. As Hollywood knows well, the grudge match is a story that never gets old. The belief that Dereck Chisora and David Haye hated each other turned their domestic heavyweight mismatch into a national sporting event that filled a soccer stadium. The instant camaraderie between the two at the end of the fight suggested that the animosity didn’t run deep but it didn’t matter; it had been believable for just long enough. Hatred is the promoters’ holy grail but a problem for those of us who try to defend boxing’s place in the modern world. It’s hard to argue that a boxing match is a sporting contest when others are trying to convince everyone that it’s an entertainingly brutal way to settle grievances.
Successful trash talk doesn’t have to demean the sport. In declaring that “vulgarity is no substitute for wit,” Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham improbably provided an excellent guide to potent trash talk. While pure abuse is easily forgettable, lines of incisive wit can become part of boxing history. Muhammad Ali needed not just his punches but his quips to achieve his unparalleled status. Ali telling Foreman before the Rumble in the Jungle that “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologise” will endure; Haye promising Audley Harrison a fight like “gang rape” won’t. Wit is hard. It’s asking a lot for a boxer to be both a staggering athlete and a genius wordsmith.
But perhaps if you can’t be clever, there’s something to be said for fooling around. Tyson Fury has explored the full spectrum of crassness during his career so his recent antics came as something of a relief. By entering the Klitschko press conference dressed as Batman (complete with theme tune and a Joker to tackle), Fury both entertained and grabbed headlines, all without dragging boxing’s reputation deeper into the mire.
The irony is that with so many attention-hungry boxers filling the airwaves with trash talk, a polite build-up can really stand out. Watching the final press conference before Floyd Mayweather’s fight against Miguel Cotto, I realised how refreshing it is to listen to two great fighters simply say that they rate each other highly. Of course a damn good fight creates a buzz without trying. Boxing fans are best advised to follow the silence.