During last night’s Super Bowl, one professional boxer appeared in a commercial. It was not Floyd Mayweather, and it was not Manny Pacquiao, though they are the two highest-earning athletes in all of sports. It was not any champion of any weight division at all. It was Mike Lee, a mediocre light heavyweight with only 11 fights. Why? Because Mike Lee went to Notre Dame, and because Mike Lee is white.
Boxing has a Great White Hope problem. (It’s more of a problem if you’re not white.) It always has. It’s a cliché with its own Wikipedia entry, for fuck’s sake. Since before the days of Jack Johnson, the white businessmen who run boxing have been very consciously on the hunt for white fighters with potential, because they are perceived as gold mines. This is racist. It is clearly and inarguably racist, when you look at the gallery of boxing’s champions from the past half-century or so and consider how few white fighters are among them. The very idea of a Great White Hope is an outright dismissal of boxing’s real champions. It is a statement that what matters is not success in the sport at hand, but marketing power, based solely on racial identification.
Boxing is elemental. It is a symbolic version of tribal warfare. It is populated by ethnic tribes that support their own kind— Irish fans for Irish fighters, Puerto Rican fans for Puerto Rican fighters, Mexican fans for Mexican fighters, and on and on. The problem, from the perspective of boxing promoters, is that plain old white fans, who have more money than anyone, have few members of their tribe to root for. The number of boxing champions who grew up in the suburbs is frightfully thin. The number of boxing champions who are white in that classic sort of “all-American” way is basically zero. This is not an actual problem; this is a marketing problem, for people whose business it is to milk racial identification for dollars.
And so when any moderately talented white boxer appears—and I mean classic white, American white, untainted even by the traces of Eastern Europe or Italy that are fairly common in boxing—you can be sure that the sport’s Official Hype Machine will begin churning to make him into The Next Big Thing. This is the case with Mike Lee. He is, objectively speaking, a nobody. This is not to denigrate Mike Lee; anyone who can have a professional fighting career of any sort is a braver and more committed man than I am. But in the context of boxing talent, he is an afterthought. He is 11-0, and his opponents have a combined record of 39-51-7. That means that he has not even begun to prove himself as a contender.
Most new fighters, even solid prospects with impressive amateur records, need to win 10 to 15 fights before anyone really considers giving them plum spots on big time undercards, or even on TV. Mike Lee was on the undercard of a pay-per-view Manny Pacquiao match (as big as boxing gets) for his third fight. His third fight. I’ve seen Mike Lee fight in person, twice. He’s OK. He’s sort of a cockstrong, overeager straight-ahead slugger. Which has worked fine for him so far, since he has not fought anyone who could be considered a challenge. He would probably not be a betting favorite against any top 10 light heavyweight. Which is to say, he is not as good as Beibut Shumenov or Karo Murat or Isaac Chilemba. None of whom you have heard of. None of whom draws hundreds of cheering fans in Notre Dame gear every time he fights. And none of whom was in a series of Subway commercials during last night’s Super Bowl. A white man! A fight man! Finally, a slugger with whom Americans like you and me can identify! No gangsta, Mike Lee! Embrace him, mainstream consumers!
So what’s the big deal? Why be such a hater? Can’t the feeble shell of American boxing use all the publicity and popular heroes that it can get? Yes, sure, of course. And it has plenty of potential hero types. Bernard Hopkins was in jail at the age when Mike Lee was attending Notre Dame. Hopkins went on to win the world middleweight championship and defend it successfully 20 times. He’s still fighting, and announcing, on HBO at the age of 48. There’s a mural of him in the prison where he used to be caged up. He’s a world-class fighter. Where is his Subway commercial? Andre Ward is an Olympic gold medalist, devoted father, and staunch Christian. He’s a world-class fighter. Where is his Subway commercial? Guillermo Rigondeaux, widely considered one of the best amateur fighters in history, left his family behind and risked everything to defect from Cuba to America in order to become a champion and earn a fortune with his own two hands like a goddamn transcription of the “American Dream” entry in the encyclopedia. Where is his Subway sandwich commercial on television’s biggest stage?
All of these guys have the type of inspirational stories that should appeal to even the most conservative sporting fans. And all of these guys have something that Mike Lee doesn’t: world-class talent. They are boxing stars, in the truest sense of the word. Pound for pound, all of them are much, much better fighters than Mike Lee is or ever will be. But Mike Lee does have one thing that none of these superior fighters has: He is white. And he went to a well-known college with a large fan base. So Mike Lee gets a Subway commercial during the Super Bowl.
The marketer’s great existential shrug—welp, that’s just the way things are—doesn’t apply here. The entire system— the promoters who fast-track Mike Lee ahead of other, better fighters; the media that focus on Mike Lee more than other, better fighters; the corporations that throw endorsement money at Mike Lee rather than giving those deals to other, better fighters; the ad agencies that put him in commercials with actual world-class stars in their respective sports, like Blake Griffin and Mike Trout and Apolo Ohno—is not reflecting reality. The system is creating reality. A reality in which Great White Hypes are constantly rewarded, while legions of other fighters who have worked just as hard or harder and accomplished much more in the bruisingly meritocratic world of a boxing ring are given nothing, because advertisers do not believe that their dark skin or minor country of origin will endear them to white American consumers.
This shit is ridiculous. Athletes of all races and nationalities have been successfully turned into stars. America Knows Bo. America Wants to Be Like Mike (the black one). The idea that boxing needs a Great White Hype is a relic of a time when the sport was bigger and the nation was more racist. The fact that it persists to this day is an embarrassment. Get over yourself, boxing.
Source: Hamilton Nolan, Deadspin