Boxing, along with baseball, is the sport that most cherishes its history. There is a thread that connects the legends of the past to today's modern pugilists. Whether you fought on a barge to avoid the long arm of the law or you walked to the ring with rapper 50 Cent in tow, there are ties that bind.
Like the ultimate Kevin Bacon game, almost any serious fan of the sport can weave a path through the mists of time. Tyson to Holmes to Ali to Henry Cooper to Joe Louis. And back further, to Jack Dempsey, to Jack Johnson.
Little has changed in the hundred years that separate the modern fighter from the ghosts of yesterday. The ring still has four corners. The trainers still yell to work a little harder, to run a little further. And when the gloves are laced up, it's still the story of two men facing both each other and their own fears in a ritualistic dance with danger and even death.
There's something almost old-fashioned about boxing. Critics call it barbaric, brutal, uncivilized, a relic of another era unfit for a modern, verdant and so very sensitive world. Supporters prefer terms like epic and classic.
And no one is exactly wrong.
It's an argument that has raged for decades and one that will continue until the sun sets for the final time—as long as there are men in the world there will be fighting. And as long as there are men fighting, crowds will gather, popcorn in hand, to soak in the spectacle.
That too has changed only in form and language over the years. From John L. Sullivan to Floyd Mayweather, the boastful boxer is a comfortable trope, a character we all recognize and that most of us enjoy. Loud talk is as much a part of boxing as a crisp jab.
And while some, like Muhammad Ali, stood apart for the sheer poetry of their threats, the end result was much the same. When Ali told the media that Leon Spinks was so ugly "every time he cries tears run down his cheeks halfway, stop and then run back" it was beautiful and hilarious.
But it was still, boiled to its core, just a " you so ugly" joke, the same crack in essence that Paulie Malignaggi used in particularly crass fashion to belittle Adrien Broner in the lead-up to their June 22 fight on Showtime.
"He doesn't understand what it's like to be good looking," Malignaggi said of his young opponent. "Where you get regular p*ssy, weekend p*ssy and you don't pay for none of it. It just comes to you. That's the life I live."
Welcome to boxing in 2013.
For all the reasons I've shared above, Paulie Malignaggi and Adrien Broner are connected to boxing's grand and glorious past in ways they've likely never contemplated. Broner's is a right of passage many exciting prospects have been through before, a path fighters have walked for decades. Malignaggi is the kind of opponent—bigger, more seasoned, sturdy—that can very quickly establish whether Broner will be an enduring star or a flash in the pan, sizzling against lesser fighters before fizzling out against the first man who will stand up and punch back.
And yet there's something distinctly modern about the showdown. Hat askew, diamonds in his ears and the African American patois of the streets coming off his Italian-American tongue, Malignaggi is the walking, breathing embodiment of the Jersey Shore ethos. Broner, in turn, is the hip hop generation's progeny. Instagram and YouTube are his spray paint, Pro Tools his turntable.
The resulting culture clash was every bit as raw as you can imagine. "Ugly" and "sissy" escalated quickly into completely uncharted waters—Malignaggi's bedroom prowess, or lack thereof. Broner, in a rambling story, likely completely fictional, told the story of Paulie's ex-girlfriend Jessica, even putting her on speakerphone for the assembled media to hear.
"I'm going to bring a guest who's really one of my closest, closest friends now. Jessica, well, Jess as he used to call her. His ex-girlfriend. She is my sweetheart right now. She told me some things," Broner said, asking Golden Boy Promotions boss Richard Schaefer if he had time to share a story.
Had he known what was coming, Schaefer might have answered differently. But he said "go ahead" and Broner continued.
"She was real depressed after our altercation. They sent threatening messages...they was threatening to do this and threatening to do that. She was just so depressed, she's crying...she gets to talking and she's like 'Well, he hit me.' And I'm like 'He hit you? What you mean?' She said 'Well, I was talking about why don't you ever knock nobody out?'...To make a long story short, they broke up. Paulie wasn't hitting it hard enough. And now she's with a heavy hitter."
The joke, such as it was, is that Malignaggi is such a light puncher that he couldn't even smack his girl around effectively. Domestic violence played for laughs. At some point a well wisher must have told Broner that comedy is his forte. The tragedy is that he apparently believed them. But if an onlooker thought that the misogyny needle was pointing at 10, they were bound for serious disappointment.
As Showtime Sport's head Stephen Espinoza hung his head, likely mortified, Malignaggi looked up from his cell long enough to get in his two cents.
"Hey Jessica—don't worry," he said. "I've got those pornos on my phone."
Worse came from the peanut gallery as part of his entourage shouted "Hey ho, we got you on Instagram straight sexin."
Malignaggi took to the microphone, not to discuss his opponent or his upcoming fight, but to explain just what kind of relationship he shared with the young lady who was now apparently Broner's main squeeze.
"There's girls that are closer to you and then there's girls us guys call weekend p*ssy," Malignaggi told the audience as jaws, already slack, continued to drop further still. "Jessica was weekend p*ssy. That means Jessica can f*ck anybody she wants and when I've got time on the weekends, I'll do what I want to do. And she loved it."
And then the coup de grace.
"Not only that, she loved getting hit when we slept together," Malignaggi said. "Adrien, if you f*cked her you know it."
From there the insults continued on more traditional ground, as the two argued over who's name was more feminine and which man was more likely to make the other his "b*tch."
"I see the whole crew back there with a "Paulette" shirt," Malignaggi said. Broner, to be fair, did indeed have on a shirt that read Paulette. "Dog, at least my name, you've got to feminize it. Your name is feminized to begin with. Your mother thought you were a b*tch when you were born. She named you Adrien. That's f*cked up."
Indeed. But perhaps not in the way Malignaggi meant.
Tensions are expected to be high in the days before two men meet in the ring. They are about to compete in an athletic contest that is deeper and darker than any other sport or game. The two will test each other in ways that require them to shut down their basic humanity— and that test begins with mind games before the fighters even come near a boxing ring.
Hyping a fight is one thing. Even public spectacle has its purpose.
This sort of hype, however, seemed a bridge too far for many. It was an ugly day for women—and for boxing.
Is getting in your opponent's head at the expense of dignity and decorum a dangerous game for fighters who get paid based on their ability to attract a crowd?
Or is this the future of fight promotion, boxing's attempt to meet an increasingly dumbed down and emotionally numb culture at its margins?