I have ambivalent feelings about trash talk in boxing. The old school crank in me generally thinks, “Look, if you fellas are going to fight, anyway, why spend so much time talking about it?”
But then there's the part of me that writes about fighting on the Internet. That part of me has deadlines to meet and copy to generate. And I want people to read that copy.
So fighters who like to talk smack make my job easier. And in boxing, it's good for business all the way around when the two competitors have spent some time jawing at each other in sight of the paying public.
I was on a media call earlier this afternoon promoting the June 29 fight with Gennady Golovkin and Matthew Macklin. Everybody on the call was a total gentleman.
Co-promoters Tom Loeffler and Lou Dibella complimented each other. Trainers Buddy McGirt and Abel Sanchez complimented each other. And Macklin and Golovkin were very respectful and complimentary of each other.
That doesn't make me want to see the fight any less. Two of the top middleweights in the world will be squaring off. For me, that's always going to be enough.
But when Paulie Malignaggi fights Adrien Broner Saturday night in Brooklyn, I'm going to be pretty curious to see which guy ends up eating crow.
For the purposes of this list, my own tastes have been weighed towards entertainment and historical significance. Most of the fighters on this list have talked enough trash to generate an entire list all of their own.
John L. Sullivan was America's first sports hero, and his colorful, boisterous rhetoric played a large part in driving his popularity. He was an entertaining talker and provided terrific copy for newspapers of the day.
He probably made more money in his career as a public speaker and stage performer than as an actual championship prizefighter. At his height, the great John L. traveled the globe, hobnobbing with royalty.
The sublimely down-to-earth Sullivan once famously told the King of England: “Look me up if you're ever in Boston. I'll make sure they take care of you.”
The quote above was Sullivan's catchphrase, and his standing dare to the entire world. For a glorious decade, nobody came close to making him back off from it, and for his swagger, he became the most popular man in the entire United States.
When Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion in 1908, the white power structure shook with anxiety to see a member of a long-oppressed race triumphantly rise to the position of ultimate masculine power that the heavyweight title represented.
The way Johnson won the belt made many shake with rage, as well. He didn't just beat up a white man en route to taking away the belt. He humiliated him.
Johnson trash talked Burns all fight long, before knocking him out in 14, condescendingly referring to him as “poor, little Tommy.”
In The Heavyweight Championship, Nat Fleischer describes the action:
“Hit here, Tahmy” he would say, exposing the right side of his unprotected stomach, and when Burns struck, Johnson would neither wince nor cover up. Instead he would receive the blow with a happy, careless smile directed at the spectators, turn the left side of his unprotected stomach and say, “Now there, Tahmy,” and while Burns would hit as directed, Johnson would continue to grin and chuckle and smile his golden smile.
James Toney is one of the all time kings of trash talk. There are probably more clips on YouTube of Toney running smack than of any other fighter.
Toney is a guy who was able to smack talk his way into a six-figure payday in an entirely separate sport, MMA.
Toney understands the fight game well enough to know that the best way to make people want to buy tickets to his fights is by talking. He also seems like a genuinely outspoken individual who enjoys saying outrageous things and daring the entire world to shut him up.
The clip above is vintage Toney, during one of the high points of his career. Toney is the IBF super middleweight champion in this clip, which in my opinion, was probably his very best fighting weight. Chris Eubank deserves a nod, for his well-played response here.
In the build up to their 2011 showdown, David Haye trash talked relentlessly against Wladimir Klitschko. He went out of his way to behave in a disrespectful manner, even wearing a t-shirt that showed him holding Klitschko's severed head.
But to my mind, the real quality trash talk belonged to Wladi. In contrast to Haye's loud and showy bravado, Klitschko came across as all that much more ruthless and cold-blooded.
The first time I saw the above clip, moderated by HBO's Max Kellerman, I thought, “Man, somebody needs to cast Klitschko as a Russian mob boss.”
Haye's performance, meanwhile, has to go down as one of boxing's epic trash talk fails. It's one thing to talk trash and then get beat in a war. But after promising over and over again to knock Klitschko out, Haye spent the entire fight avoiding engagement.
Paulie Malignaggi has built his career around his brash personality, and he has used his speaking skills to already launch a career as a broadcaster, even as his boxing career is ongoing.
On Saturday he defends his WBA welterweight title against Adrien Broner after one of the most trash-talk infused build ups in the history of the sport. Malignaggi and Broner have been sniping at each other for months, and have engaged in loud, profanity-laced debates in public on more than one occasion.
Malignaggi's best material has come from when he puts his boxing analyst cap on, and offers up hype-deflating assessments of Broner, like the one he gave to RingTV.Com in a recent interview:
There’s an Adrien Broner in every urban gym in the United States, a guy like that exists everywhere. I see them all the time. A lot of them don’t have the help Adrien Broner has. Adrien Broner is (hyped) because of Al Haymon.
Broner is a fighter who thrives mentally on how special he thinks he is. “I make everybody look like nobodies,” he told me once, when I interviewed him. He's utterly convinced that he's the future of the sport, Floyd Mayweather's heir.
At every turn during the promotion for this fight, Malignaggi has spun the counter-narrative: Adrien Broner is really nothing special at all.
Ricky Hatton got off the first shot in this trash-talk war, declaring in his post-fight interview that he'd provided more action in four rounds against Jose Luis Castillo than Floyd Mayweather had offered up in his entire career.
But once the fight was signed, it was Mayweather's mouth that dominated the fight's promotion. “You're facing the truth now,” was his constant refrain.
Hatton made for a perfect foil to Mayweather's bombast, even bringing earmuffs to the press conference, to make a humorous show of not listening to a word of Mayweather's bluff.
Hatton's diehard fans came all the way to Vegas from Manchester in droves, and gleefully engaged Mayweather in shouting matches at the press conference. The Vegas strip on fight night halfway resembled a Manchester United home game.
In the end, the truth was exactly as Mayweather had declared all along, and Hatton was stopped in 10. But not before participating in one of the most memorable boxing nights of the past 20 years.
Bernard Hopkins is a great all-around talker. He is a boxing expert, but his conversations easily and casually touch upon issues of society and culture. He's a smart guy, who likes to talk and is good at it.
And when it comes to talking trash, he is among the very best of the best. He uses the verbal sparring matches before fights to get in his opponents' heads, but also to get inside his own head and motivate himself.
Going into his last fight against IBF belt holder Tavoris Cloud, Hopkins barely had a word for his opponent. I interviewed him one-on-one by phone, and was on a media call a few days later, and it was clear that the person Hopkins saw as his true antagonist for the fight was Cloud's promoter, Don King.
Entering the fight, Cloud was the last remaining major fighter signed to Don King Promotions, once the most powerful promotional organization in the entire sport.
Hopkin's history with King is extensive and well-documented, and Hopkins was anxious to dredge it all up and focus on it as the motivation he felt to “be the one who takes out King's last fighter...who puts the nail in the coffin for Don King as a promoter.”
Throughout his career, Ricardo Mayorga has toed the fine line between trash talker and raving maniac, as often as not coming down on the maniac side of the line.
His press conferences have been as crazy and chaotic as any in the history of the sport, save perhaps Mike Tyson's, full of outrageous outbursts and near-physical confrontations.
As often as not, Mayorga chain smokes throughout his press conferences.
No Mayorga promotion has been more rowdy than the build up to his fight with Fernando Vargas. The Nicaraguan, Mayorga, boldly promised to turn the Mexican people to his own side against Vargas.
He proudly declared that he had a million dollars in bets out on himself to win by knockout. He mocked Vargas for the need to set a catch weight and referred to him as “this fat girl I am going to beat up.”
Muhammad Ali didn't invent trash talk, and in the era of social media, it's been taken to a level he could never have imagined. But over 30 years after his last fight, he remains the unsurpassed king of the art.
There are so many memorable and amusing Ali quotes, I really could have done this slide show just using him. I even considered it, almost to make a point that when it comes to trash talk, there's the Greatest, and then there's everybody else.
Although he's among the most beloved figures in the history of the sport, and a personal hero of mine, an honest assessment would have to recognize that at times he went too far with his lip.
His race-baiting around the promotion of his fights with Chuck Wepner and Joe Frazier was regrettable, and left Frazier bitter.
This clip of Ali trash talking Foreman is more playful. This is Ali convincing himself, as much as anybody else, that the seemingly impossible really can be done.
When I was in Grade 6, my teacher would have us write to famous people and ask them to allow our class to interview them over a conference phone call. Usually only local politicians and media figures responded, or else the occasional children's author.
I wrote a letter to Muhammad Ali and forgot about it. When I got called to the office to take his phone call a month later, I nearly passed out.
Ali arranged with my teacher to have us call him back two days later. This was shortly after his last fight with Trevor Berbick, and only a few months before the first announcements about his health problems came out.
He got up at six a.m., California time, to make time for us before a day of travel.
He started the phone call by interrupting my opening question to assert: “Wait, I heard about you. You're that ugly fella'.”
He asked my friend Josh if he had ever boxed. “A little,” Josh replied (which was a lie) and Ali asked, “What'd you box, bananas or oranges?” When a girl in my class asked him who he thought was the greatest fighter of all time, he started snoring loudly.
Later he made my teacher nervous by pretending to expect that a payment would be forthcoming. He concluded the call by reciting a poem for us that ended with the line: “but since your parents are so cheap, don't call me back for awhile.”
It may have no significance in the history of the sport, but from my own subjective opinion as a fight writer, the time Ali called me ugly counts as one of the ten best trash talk lines of all time.