Last year, Deontay Wilder evoked Black History Month prior to his rematch with Tyson Fury. It was a bold statement accompanied by an ostentatious ring walk that spoke volumes. Unfortunately, “Bomb Squad” was defused and tamed by Fury while being humiliated before the world.
During a post fight presser in late 2017, I told Wilder that he was the boldest heavyweight champion since Muhammad Ali — and he was. Hell, he even declared that he wanted “a body,” code for he wanted to kill a man in the ring. But serious aficionados knew that he was more hyperbole than hype. More gimmick than grit. In reality, to conjure Larry Holmes who went in on Rocky Marciano, Wilder couldn’t carry Ali’s jockstrap.
He knows that.
Because boxing is a niche sport, rare is the fighter who can capture the world’s attention and keep it. Even rarer still, is the fighter who can occupy a place in history as a truly transcendent figure that influences generations while needing only a first name to generate discussion.
Jack. Cassius. Floyd.
Reflecting back on Black History Month, I felt it necessary to pay a measure of homage to three men who truly did it their way — right or wrong — while their work and achievement stands for itself. Trendsetters who stared down the barrel of the white man’s gun, they fired shots that echo through silence.
Understand the cojones it took to be this man. The type of man who would’ve boarded the Titanic, filled with some of the wealthiest white men in the world and proudly declared: “I’m Jack, and ALL OF YOU can swallow my Johnson.” He would’ve done this while dangling a white woman on his arm. There is no “Great White Hope” without Johnson, who always loomed larger than life in the shadows of White Supremacists everywhere he went.
Born March 31, 1878, Jack Johnson grew up around poor whites in Galveston, TX. He was accustomed to being served by white women because his friends were predominantly white. He’d often stay at their homes and never knew anything about a white man being superior to him. Johnson reigned as the heavyweight champion of the world from 1908 – 1915 during the height of the Jim Crow era. He was a Conor McGregor type in terms of personality and was the most famous and notorious African American on earth. Johnson was crazy even by today’s standards; he had a “black and tan” nightclub which was run by his white wife and constantly hounded by the media. Johnson was linked to extra marital affairs with white women, possessing a little black book of phone numbers that would’ve made Tiger Woods blush at the height of his sexual indiscretions.
He even had laws made just for him, most notably the Mann Act, which forbid one to carry women across state borders for “immoral purposes.” The act was strictly racially motivated, as his relations with white women lead to a year in prison. Rather than serve this time, Johnson fled the US and fought abroad until 1920, where he then served his time inside of a Leavenworth penitentiary. Donald Trump ended this law formally and pardoned Johnson.
Johnson was the first black fighter to obtain lucrative endorsement deals for many years and lead a luxurious lifestyle. Almost fittingly, he died while crashing his race car at the age of 68. He lived just as he fought, a defensive genius who dared fighters to hit him only to drag out fights and leave them spent. He was so relaxed he made his fights look effortless, as there’s footage of Johnson actually holding up fighters (with the referee’s seeming approval) to prevent them from falling, no doubt pleasing bookies. Johnson was as bold as he was black, leaving a daring legacy that will stand the test of time.
It’s amazing how much good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit. Declare peace everyday and war is sure to follow. The truth is, Floyd Joy Mayweather Jr is nothing like his father, even though he taught him everything he knows about boxing. He taught him how to survive, but never really how to live, forcing a victim of extreme poverty to survive being rich. Being defeated so often as a child of want brought about a need to never be defeated in the ring. And not unlike Michael Jackson, Floyd wanted his childhood back, just to prove to his father that he could be successful, young and black.
Some wounds never heal.
How influential is Floyd? There was no such thing as an “A-side” or “About Billions” until Floyd declared such, while allowing his ass to hit the canvas. When you live 7 deep inside of a room with no heat and nothing to eat, that hunger stays with you. When your mother abuses drugs and is taken advantage of, that pain stays with you, as you unknowingly pick women just like your mother, leading to bursts of rage while being misunderstood.
He was matched tough by Bob Arum as “Pretty Boy Floyd” at Top Rank and decided “Money” would be independent under Al Haymon to the chagrin of his father. He became the ultimate winner, while never trained to become the ultimate loser once unleashed on urban black teens and black men who never grew up. Warren Buffet understood his investment; a kid with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and bipolar to boot, Floyd, still a man-child in his 40’s, descended on pop culture while marketed with Hip/Hop cognoscenti. Its doubtful Leonard Ellerbe really gets enough credit for captaining the Mayweather brand while keeping Floyd, unnuanced and unrefined, from hanging himself under the tenants of boldness in a white man’s world.
He would beat women, according to press accounts, even as he wanted the best for his daughter. He would serve a brief prison stint even as he wanted his sons far from such. Enigmatic and always assiduous, Floyd knew when and how to rattle the press while not giving a fuck about what anyone else wanted him to be. Fight Pacquiao five years too late? So what and fuck you. Retire from the sport in late 2007 against the wishes of fans? So what, kiss my black ass. A lot of this had to do with being robbed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where he settled for a bronze medal. Never again would he lose, managing to reinvent himself at least 3 times during a career that saw him win 26 consecutive world title fights, 23 wins in lineal title fights, 24 wins against former or current world champions, 12 wins against former or current lineal world champions and 4 wins against international hall of fame inductees.
Mayweather became the most lucrative pay-per-view attraction of all time, amassing approximately 24 million PPV buys and 1.67 billion in revenue throughout his career.
He surpassed the likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao. The key to his success was a personality cult that attracted rappers and movie stars, in addition to athletes from other sports. He carried a rappers’ swagger that was easy to hate, as casuals and diehards would smash “Buy” on their remotes, salivating at the mere thought of him getting his ass beat. It’s doubtful most thought about or even knew what it felt like to see used heroin needles in the front yard, or being confined to a boxing ring while most kids were outside playing.
He had nothing and the sting of that never went away. Unmarried and never knowing true love, Floyd’s world is money and boxing and very little else, thus forcing him into a different type of prison one could never understand. Floyd almost conjures Richard Pryor from “Brewster’s Millions,” sick of “Money” and leery of those who attempt to enter his circle. As black fighters attempt to emulate the blueprint Mayweather left behind, it seems impossible that anyone could ever match his success or come close to it. In the end we’re left with a question… Why in the world does he seem so poor?
He was Miles Davis in a pair of Everlast trunks and improvisation personified.
When Cassius Clay morphed into Muhammad Ali in 1961, all at once he competed against himself — and won. Talk about a tough act to follow, for it wasn’t until 1964 that he told the world he would be known as Muhammad Ali, due to his allegiance to the Nation of Islam. In 1966 he decided he would not follow in the footsteps of the Uncle Tom that was Joe Louis, refusing military induction to fight in the Vietnam War.
Considering he’d won Olympic gold in Rome as a light heavyweight in 1960 (discarding the medal upon returning to a racist USA) and “shook up the world” defeating a Mafia controlled Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, Ali fought both the US government and elite heavyweights during the entire decade of the 1960s. Losing nearly 4 years of his athletic prime due to being stripped of the heavyweight title by the government because of the war, the world will never know just how great he could have been.
Ali really “shook up the world” when as an iconoclastic icon he lost to Joe Frazier, all the while summoning movie stars, politicians and athletes of other sports to the “Fight of the Century.” He was a walking legend who left Babe Ruth in his shadow, and by the time he fought Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila,” he’d already assured that he’d be bigger than Michael Jordan. Later, he would prove bigger than the oval office, sending hostages home from Iran. His voice rang louder than Malcolm X and inspired Martin Luther King. One could almost say he was bigger than Black History Month.
The most beautiful thing you can wear is confidence, and Ali wore this in spades. Devastatingly handsome and quick to let you know it, “The Greatest” donned charisma and a preternatural showmanship as accessories. To say he loved women would be an understatement, for Ali was as big a philanderer as he was philanthropic, going through 4 marriages while producing 9 kids including Laila Ali. With an indelible charm and an irresistible grace, Ali was captivating in front of the camera. He and Howard Cosell were biscuits and gravy, and there wasn’t a microphone he didn’t call a friend.
He remains the most high profile and beloved figure of racial pride for African Americans due to his works during the Civil Rights Movement right up to the lighting of the torch at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. His likes will never be seen again. He was the sport of boxing’s only 3-time lineal heavyweight champion. Ali defeated 21 fighters for the world heavyweight title and won 14 unified title bouts. Among other notable achievements, Ali is the only fighter to be named RING magazine Fighter of the Year six times. He has been ranked the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. He even managed to achieve success as a musician, receiving two Grammy nominations. He got featured as an actor and a writer, releasing two autobiographies. His activism and philanthropinism will live on through the ages, as he was arguably a better man than he was a fighter. If he could whisper a few parting words to us before he departed, he’d tell us: “Be bold. Be brave. Be you.”