From 'Fight the Power' to 'Get Rich or Die Tryin'
Both fighters were more reflections of the respective eras they hailed from than transcendent figures.
Racism: Inside and Outside of the Ring
Beating Down Their Opponents, Beyond the Ropes
Washington, DC - Two weeks before his victory over Puerto Rican bruiser Miguel Cotto, Floyd Mayweather floated around the ring in the Las Vegas gym that bore his name. As fleet with his lip as he was with his feet, the 35-year-old pound-for-pound boxing king charmed visitors, entertained media and onlookers with choreographed one-liners and impromptu jabs at his opponent, and declared his greatness whenever HBO's camera approached for a close up.
Mayweather, who ran his record to 43-0 this past Cinco de Mayo, was cocky and charismatic, clever with his words and a savant in the squared circle.
He was Muhammad Ali, or the closest thing the declining sport has seen since the self-titled "greatest" retired in 1981.
This comparison, at first, seems blasphemous for those who revere Ali's achievements both inside and outside of the ring. However, a closer look into the lives of both fighters - who rank as the greatest pugilists of their respective eras - unveils that "Money May" shares far more with Ali than meets the eye.
Before Ali was an icon who transcended sport, championed by civil rights activists, foreign dignitaries, and ultimately embraced by white America, he was the "Louisville Lip". The young and brash Clay was defiant, disrespected older and established fighters, and lauded his yet-to-be-attained greatness.
This behaviour manifested Clay's confidence, in part, but also foreshadowed his understanding that boxing was as much business as it was sport. Showmanship sold tickets, but it also angered the white audience that favoured the head-dropped modesty of Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson, which was unaccustomed to the unbridled bravado of the young Clay.
Clay became "more black" when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, immediately after dethroning hard-hitting heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. After his conversion, white America not only hated Ali, but also feared the political views he and the Nation espoused. Ali knew that hate and fear generated interest in his fights, and millions of whites purchased ringside and close-circuit tickets to see the black Muslim get knocked out.
Like Ali, Mayweather deserted his safe "Pretty Boy" moniker for an image that would not only generate more interest in his fights, but also galvanise a bigger and broader audience. Bob Arum, Mayweather's former promoter, sought to mould his prized fighter into a black Oscar De La Hoya - boxing's most bankable star since Mike Tyson - who boasted movie-star looks, a clean-cut image, and cross-racial appeal. However, Mayweather's volatile break from Arum was fuelled as much by dollars as it was by decision-making - he did not want to be the "safe black", and coveted the self-determination and unchecked voice that few boxers, and perhaps only those with the unrivalled skills possessed by the likes of himself and and Ali, could demand.
The Pretty Boy became "Money Mayweather": black, flashy and flamboyant. Throwing hundred-dollar bills into the video camera during fight promotions, donning gaudy gold chains around his neck, and assembling an entourage of rappers and actors, athletes and family members that comprise his "Money Team", Mayweather embraced an image that was more rapper than boxer, and he became the kind of black man the US hated. And like Ali, Mayweather's new identity spiked interest in his fights and banked the highest pay-per-view numbers in history, largely because viewers who hated his brand of blackness paid to see him lose.
Yet, like Ali, he won. Time and time again.
Ali and Mayweather also out-banked any other boxer of their eras. Ali was as concerned with prize money as Mayweather, but unlike Mayweather, Ali was not as candid with his business outside of the ring as he was vocal about his plans inside of it.
The era Ali fought in, and the revolution-spirited base he fought for, would not endorse a champion that preferred profit over principle. Resonating with an African American fan base that demanded equality at any cost required Ali to speak the revolutionary language of the day, in which he became more than fluent. He echoed the aspirations of black America, on a global scale, which crowned him one of the civil rights era's most influential voices.
Mayweather, on the other hand, lives in a time when materialism is champion. Hip-hop commercialism, War on Terror patriotism and US excess is culturally ubiquitous, and Mayweather embodies each to the tee.
From 'Fight the Power' to 'Get Rich or Die Trying'
Ali, and the era he so well represented, birthed the most influential voices of the conscious rap era. The revolutionary lyrics of Chuck D and Public Enemy, KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, or the Afro-centric Brooklyn, New York, outfit, X-Clan, challenged their listeners to "fight the power", question white supremacy, and reject materialism. On BDP's Edutainment, "Love's Gonna Getcha" provided a cautionary tale against the trappings of materialism. This was not aberrational in 1980s and early-1990s hip-hop, but a mainstream message that derived squarely from the civil rights era of which Ali was not only an icon, but a vital mouthpiece.
Mayweather, a child of the mid-1990s, came up while hip-hop was experiencing a marked shift away from political consciousness towards extravagence and unabashed materialism. A product of the rough-and-tumble section of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mayweather emulated artists who unapologetically celebrated their newfound wealth, veered away from politics, and chased money at all costs. The son of a fringe contender, who reportedly sold drugs and was incarcerated, Mayweather viewed boxing through the same prism of how his best friend, 50 Cent, or the Notorious BIG saw rap - an escape from the ghetto.
BIG rapped: "Either you're slingin' crack rock, or you've got a wicked jump-shot." Sport was Mayweather's refuge, and he represented the nihilism-to-nouveau-riche narrative that marked his male, black contemporaries just as proudly as Ali symbolised the most salient issues of his day.
Both fighters were more reflections of the respective eras they hailed from than transcendent figures in themselves.
Racism in and out of the ring
Racism fuelled much of the public's hatred of Ali and Mayweather during their respective reigns. While Ali is today revered across racial lines, his fan base during his campaign as heavyweight champion was largely black.
Likewise, in a sport today dominated by non-US fighters and fans, a Mayweather fight will capture the attention of both diehard and casual African American fans. While there were viewers of all ethnicities who gravitated to watch both Ali and Mayweather, they were generally not fans who accepted Ali and Mayweather for who they were as individuals and showmen.
Boxing's gatekeepers also scrambled to dethrone the loudmouthed, black champions. Boxing promotions are infused with racial nationalism and the exploitation of ethnic rivalries, and boxers such as Jerry Quarry and other "great white hopes" were thrown in with Ali to carry out what every white viewer wanted to do.
Mayweather's boisterous blackness was pitted against a series of foils that mobilised immediate interest, and racialised each and every one of his fights. From British darling Ricky Hatton, a blue-collar, beer-drinking white welterweight, to Mexico City native Juan Manuel Marquez, race and racial rivalries played a key third-party role that not only generated greater interest in Mayweather's fights, but also exacerbated anti-black stereotypes within the communities of his opponent.
Whether at press conferences in Manchester or post-fight interviews with HBO's Larry Merchant, Mayweather sparred against the same (but more latent) brand of racism Ali fought against when he sat atop boxing.
Beyond the ropes
A year after regaining his boxing license - previously stripped from him due to his arrest after refusing to be drafted into the US Army to fight in Vietnam - Ali convinced new heavyweight champion Joe Frazier to give him a shot at his old title. Frazier, a hard-nosed slugger from Philadelphia, whose hard upbringing clashed with Ali's middle-class youth, agreed. Ali, however, flipped the script - he branded himself champion of reform-minded African Americans and branded Frazier an "Uncle Tom". More ruthlessly, Ali likened Frazier's dark complexion to an "ugly gorilla", feeding into the colourism that plagued African Americans.
Mayweather was just as ruthless to his opponents outside of the ring. Before his much-anticipated showdown with then-undefeated lightweight contender Chico Corrales in 2001, Mayweather picked at his opponent's domestic feuds with his wife as pre-fight fodder. Ironically, starting on June 1, Mayweather will begin a three-month stint in prison for domestic violence. Mayweather, like Ali, resorted to racial slurs to disparage his contemporary nemesis Manny Pacquiao, illustrating that while both fighters challenged Sugar Ray Robinson for boxing perfection inside the ring, they were hardly that outside of it.
Ali's exploits have been eroded by the kind winds of time, which, after decades, has created a pristine and almost unimpeachable memory. Time will tell if Mayweather will be as lucky.
Mayweather is the purest boxer since Ali, and perhaps the most complete fighter since Sugar Ray Robinson. Ali dominated the heavyweight circuit because he brought an unprecedented athleticism and speed to the sport, and like Mayweather, relied as much on his intelligence as he did on his physical skills.
Mayweather, the better defensive fighter, grew up in a boxing family. Like Ali, Mayweather outworked his opponents, trained mercilessly, and possessed a limitless confidence that comes with a special brand of sporting genius that few boxers, let alone any other athletes, possess.
Mayweather could out-dance fleet-footed fighters such as Zab Judeh, outsmart cerebral counter-punchers like Marquez, adapt to disciplined bruisers such as Jose Luis Castillo, and, as he demonstrated on May 5, bang with the sport's finest punchers.
This brand of dexterity was mastered by Ali, who bested opponents such as Liston, Frazier, and most memorably, George Foreman, at their own game. But it was perfected by Mayweather, who, unlike Ali, still boasts a perfect record.
More similarities than differences
There are a host of differences, and considerable ones, that distinguish the two boxing icons. Above all, Ali's courageous political stances - most visibly his refusal to be part of the Vietnam War draft - elevate him above every athlete of his calibre in this regard.
In What's My Name Fool, David Zirin examines why present-day athletes fall short of following the political path paved by Ali, and notes that commercial pressures within and outside the sport have effectively silenced sports figures - particularly the most prominent ones - from taking stances that would conflict with endorsement opportunities, the interests of the team, and the branding of the league.
Mayweather, while articulate and honest, diverges from Ali with regard to political consciousness or leadership. However, the never-restrained Mayweather freely speaks his mind, and exhibits a brand of honesty that is almost extinct in modern sports. You may not always agree with what he says, or does, but Mayweather is more realer and less filtered than any other athlete who commands his level of celebrity.
Mayweather also ranks among sport's biggest philanthropists, donating to a number of charities and even paying for the funerals of once-opponent Generro Hernandez, whom he defeated for his first championship, and Ali arch-rival Joe Frazier.
Today's villain, tomorrow's victor
Thirty years from today, Mayweather will likely be romanticised for his trailblazing achievements in the boxing business, his candour with media and fans, and his ability to navigate himself out of the ghetto and towards the American Dream.
Ali walked that very same path. As the political moment shifted, racism mutated, and new racial stereotypes replaced old ones, the very public that had vilified him opened their once-folded arms in acceptance.
The Louisville Lip turned black Muslim was finally pegged the "greatest". Today, Ali is a multi-million-dollar brand with an Adidas clothing and shoe line, a cultural ambassador deployed to the Middle East and Olympic torch bearer - and perhaps the world's greatest sporting icon. Time has erased memory of Ali the "subversive", the "draft-dodger", and the "racist" condemnations he carried into the ring each time he laced up his gloves.
Money Mayweather, today's villain and boxing's present-day Ali, is following in his hero's footsteps. He too has been called a racist, a narcissist, a coward, and a "thug" - an insult often generally assigned to black men in the United States.
Defeating Manny Pacquiao may lead to one more distinction in the sea of similarities that bind the two - propelling Mayweather past Ali in the minds of many as the sport's best ever.
Khaled Beydoun is a Washington, DC-based attorney.
Follow him on Twitter: @Legyptian
Source: Al Jazeera