Behind Mike Tyson fight
Boxing moguls out for blood
JACK Straw bowed down to the powerful figures who make a fortune out of boxing when he allowed Mike Tyson into Britain. HASSAN MAHAMDALLIE looks at the background of a brutal and corrupt business.
"THERE WAS this nightmare image I always have. Like in the old slave days on the plantations, with two of us big black slaves fighting, almost on the verge of annihilating each other, while the masters are smoking big cigars and urging us on, looking for blood." These comments from Muhammad Ali sum up the nature of boxing. Ali was referring to the time when plantation owners would put up slaves to bare knuckle fight against slaves from neighbouring plantations for entertainment and gambling.
But the rich have always gained enjoyment through watching men knock chunks out of each other in the ring. And those who climb into the ring have always been drawn from the poor-whether blacks in Harlem or whites in east London. Today boxing is in the control of big business. Professional boxing is kept going by big multinational "entertainment" corporations like Rupert Murdoch's Fox and Sky, Time Warner, and TV cable companies such as Showtime. Big money promoters like Frank Warren and Don King dominate heavyweight boxing in particular.
A measure of the grotesque nature of modern boxing is the "saleability" of Mike Tyson himself. The more brutal Tyson is, the more money he makes for the likes of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's Sky company has exclusive rights to screen this Saturday's fight in Manchester. Tyson's value as a boxer had been on the wane at the time he was jailed in 1991 for raping a Miss Black America contestant. Yet two years after he left prison Tyson was the darling of the media moguls, picking up $135 million, mostly in cable TV "pay per view" fees. The "dangerous" image of "Tyson the rapist" was considered a money spinner.
As Richard Hoffer writes in his book A Savage Business, "On his release, whether or not he had been forgiven, he had become perhaps more interesting than ever. "A hundred million [dollars] the day he hit the street. It was a cruel idea: raping a teenager had turned out to be a great career decision." Tyson's "marketability" increased two years later when he bit off the ear of opponent Evander Holyfield, followed by another spell in prison. His boast that he would kill his opponents by driving their skulls through their brains enhanced his TV "pull".
The sight of two black men slugging it out typifies boxing from its early days. By the 19th century it was also poor immigrants such as the Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans and Jews who provided the fodder for the US boxing industry. As one boxing historian has written, "One could look at the Boston newspapers of any given era and, by seeing who was fighting whom, determine where the various immigrant groups were on the social ladder. Men fought in the Boston rings, not because they wanted to but because it was the only way out."
Racial segregation dominated the sport throughout the late 19th century and most of the 20th century. A black man could never challenge a white man for the boxing crown in case the black man won. In the 1900s black US heavyweight Jack Johnson was famed for his ability to take on all-comers. This was too much for the establishment, who also resented his "strutting" attitude and fast lifestyle. They had him hounded out of the country on charges of sexual "impropriety" with white women.
Those who ran boxing then searched around for a "great white hope" to beat Johnson, and found Jess Willard. Willard beat Johnson in a dubious fight in Havana, Cuba, over 26 rounds. Willard became "an instant hero". The fight was filmed and copies illegally distributed in what must have been the first "pay per view" boxing enterprise. Racism has ensured that black boxing heroes from Johnson to Muhammad Ali, and even Tyson, have always drawn support from sections of the black community who see them as champions against racist society. But when it comes down to it, professional boxing is all about "entertainment with blood", as one promoter recently put it. Boxing has always been dogged by crime and corruption. Most of the big fights in the US are still staged in Las Vegas, the gambling town built on mob money.
Today the "mobsters" who finance boxing tend to be of the corporate type that rub shoulders with prime ministers. It was Rupert Murdoch's Fox company which tried to stage a comeback fight when Tyson got out of jail after serving time for rape. Murdoch's Sky TV reaped record takings after screening last year's Lennox Lewis fight on pay per view. Time Warner, which has just merged with the AOL net service provider, is also a big player in the boxing world. The reason why Lennox Lewis has not yet fought Tyson is because they are signed to different networks-Lewis to HBO, Tyson to Showtime. These companies happily use shady figures like promoter Don King to broker their multi-million dollar deals. Boxing has never been a pretty sight, but the Tyson row has uncovered an industry that really has hit rock bottom.