Trash talk has long been a key part of boxing. Be it mind games or a way of adding additional hype to an event there have been few large fights which did not involve heated words as a part of the buildup.
There are numerous moments from Muhammad Ali’s poems to Mike Tyson’s near flow of consciousness rants where the words a fighter has spoken have become as important to their place in history as in ring accomplishments.
However, a new trend has appeared in boxing; trash talk to build up a fight only without the fight ever taking place. A generation of fighters have discovered that threats and braggadocio can earn a boxer as much money as a marquee victory, but the fault of this new trend does not necessarily fall on the heads of the fighters.
As previously stated, trash talk is nothing new to the sport of boxing.
In the late 1800’s John L. Sullivan would proudly proclaim his ability to whip anybody in the room. As time went on media became more visceral as it moved from print to radio and finally to television.
Subsequently quotes and their delivery became increasingly key to the sport’s and the athlete’s fortunes. Words helped lead to success both in the ring and in the bank accounts of numerous fighters.
As part of a strategy words have been used to get into an opponent’s head.
Cassius Clay, later to become Muhammad Ali, convinced Sonny Liston that he was a raving lunatic prior to one of the largest upsets in history. Roberto Duran taunted Ray Leonard into standing toe to toe in a stunning victory only to be later humiliated with words and taunts into an equally stunning loss.
Furthermore, Mike Tyson’s snarlingly aggressive demeanor froze a previously talented and brave Michael Spinks. Even the traditionally low-key Lennox Lewis used a casual and dismissive attitude helping convince the heretofore aggressive David Tua into believing he had little or no chance of getting past the rangy Brit’s defense.
Trash talk has often been used to build up financial interest in a fight. Ricardo Mayorga is long past his prime yet he has used over the top speech to obtain large pay-days against Shane Mosley, Felix Trinidad, Oscar de la Hoya, and, in the near future, Miguel Cotto.
Jack Johnson in the early 1900’s would use eloquent words to insult opponents and subsequently drive white sporting fans into a frenzy, causing many to give up their hard-earned cash in hopes of seeing Johnson lose.
Even fights that would already have been huge events were made bigger such as when the news media focused more on Mike Tyson’s threat to eat Lennox Lewis’ children than they did the skill-set of either combatant.
Presently the two most prominent trash talkers are Floyd Mayweather Jr. and David Haye. Both men have used verbal talents to great extent when eviscerating their top challengers.
The problem is that unlike in the previously mentioned examples, neither Mayweather nor Haye have any intent of fighting their top challengers.
Mayweather used the hype surrounding his comments on Manny Pacquiao to have his name mentioned on numerous non-boxing focused sporting shows. This was not done to promote a fight against Pacquiao, but rather to promote a fight against Juan Manuel Marquez.
More appalling has been David Haye’s verbal assaults to the Klitschko brothers, Waldimir and Vitali. Haye’s taunts have included wearing a shirt depicting him holding the severed heads of both brothers, mocking their skills, and announcing how soundly he would defeat them.
Yet through three sets of contract discussions, Haye has only shown a passing interest in actually fighting either Klitschko. Still, for both Mayweather and Haye the trash talk has paid off by receiving constant media coverage, resulting in much exposure and increased revenue.
Mayweather has become as much a household name for his racist online rants about Pacquiao as he has for his impressive technique, possibly more so. Mayweather has leveraged his fair share of trash talk against opponents such as Arturo Gatti and Shane Mosley, but his most vicious words have been held for the men he did not fight—Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, and Manny Pacquiao.
Haye is one of only a few heavyweight boxers currently active to receive any American media attention and this was accomplished without a marquee heavyweight victory to his credit. And the irony of the fact that this article is denigrating this behavior while simultaneously catering to it is not lost.
Neither Mayweather nor Haye is truly at fault for taking advantage of earning cash for talking instead of fighting. Boxing is a sport where paychecks are often earned through concussions, and if millions and millions of dollars can be earned for "dissing" one boxer and fighting another it is hardly surprising that they prefer to talk.
The fault truly lies with the fans that have far too long been willing to grease only the squeaky wheel. Tomasz Adamek has beaten the same number of top-10 opponents as David Haye and is scheduled to actually fight one of the Klitschko brothers in 2011—yet he receives very interest from fans.
Showtime’s Super Six Tournament has pitted the absolute best super middleweights against one another but has difficulties selling out venues in America.
So, until boxing fans decide that winning fights and beating top contenders has more value than talking trash, the fighters will have no incentive to take on larger challenges.