Column: Is the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight following a movie script? The writer of Great White Hype thinks so
Ron Shelton knows boxing.
The acclaimed film director and screenwriter used to watch fights at the Grand Olympic Auditorium. He is looking forward to Canelo Alvarez’s upcoming showdown with Gennady Golovkin, as well as Mikey Garcia’s with Adrien Broner. When we first exchanged emails over the weekend, Shelton was watching a tripleheader on HBO featuring fighters you probably have never heard of.
The novelty match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and mixed martial arts champion Conor McGregor is another story.
“I’m not even going to watch it,” Shelton told me over the phone.
Why would he watch? He practically wrote the script.
Shelton’s directing and writing credits include several sports-themed movies, including “Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” and “Tin Cup.” One of his less-known works is a hilarious and insightful 1996 comedy he wrote with Tony Hendra, “The Great White Hype,” directed by Reginald Hudlin.
A quick synopsis of “The Great White Hype”: An undefeated but unpopular African American champion played by Damon Wayans demands a huge payday from his Don King-inspired promoter (Samuel L. Jackson). This leads the promoter to match him against a white fighter who beat him as an amateur. The white fighter (Peter Berg) is now the front man of a heavy metal band and has never fought professionally. A large segment of the media describes the contest as a farce, but the public nonetheless buys in. The challenger is knocked out in 27 seconds.
Shelton thinks McGregor has as much of a chance as Berg’s character did.
“You have one of the greatest fighters who ever lived against a guy who’s not a boxer,” Shelton said. “It’s such hype. I don’t want to contribute to the hype. I’m old enough. I’ve seen the carnival barkers and the three-headed lady. It’s all B.S.”
What reminded me of Shelton’s film was the news conference Mayweather and McGregor staged last week at Staples Center. McGregor, who is a white Irishman, was the overwhelming crowd favorite. It wasn’t even close. Some other reporters reminded me of Mayweather’s history of domestic violence, but who were they kidding? Fans of combat sports, especially boxing, are wired to ignore traditional moral dilemmas, starting with how they like to watch sanctioned assaults.
“Yeah, it’s probably …” Shelton started.
He paused and reconsidered.
“Most definitely, it’s a black-and-white deal,” he said.
Of course, Shelton said, it’s more nuanced than that. There’s the curiosity of seeing a mixed martial artist in a boxing ring. There’s McGregor’s charisma and Mayweather’s active marketing of himself as a villain.
But the fight wouldn’t sell if fans didn’t think McGregor could at least be competitive. And they do. The reason McGregor is listed as only a 7-1 underdog — the odds should be something like 100-1 — is because people are placing bets on him.
“I think McGregor’s people honestly believe he can win,” Shelton said. “By the way, so did Trump’s people.”
Shelton didn’t hesitate when asked if McGregor’s complexion made fans more inclined to believe in him: “Yes.”
It’s important to point out how this isn’t a reflection of Mayweather or McGregor, but of the fans.
None of this is new.
“When you do research of boxing in the teens, the ’20s and ’30s … boxing matches were shamelessly promoted on the basis on ethnicity,” Shelton said. “Keep in mind, Joe Louis’ nickname was the Brown Bomber. I mean, you wouldn’t get away with that today. That was a way of telling people before television, ‘That’s the black dude.’”
Shelton also mentioned Billy Conn, a popular Irish American fighter in the 1930s and ’40s.
“When he was a rising young star out of Pittsburgh, [radio broadcasters] would say, ‘Billy Conn, that’s C-O-double-N, Conn, the young Irish kid,’” Shelton said. “They would make sure you weren’t thinking he was the Jewish guy, C-O-H-N.”
The racial dynamics aren’t as overt as they used to be, but boxing remains stuck in the past.
“I just think boxing is an old-fashioned promotion,” Shelton said. “They can’t turn it into something corporate like baseball and football. NBA is so corporate now. Boxing is still kind of out of control.
“Boxing is primitive, it’s primal. It appeals to all those primitive, primal, tribal, ethnic identifications. My guy against your guy.”
Shelton doesn’t hold any of this against Mayweather, whom he holds in high regard as a fighter. He spoke with admiration of how Mayweather recovered from early shots against Shane Mosley and Zab Judah. He was ringside for Mayweather’s greatest night in the ring, a 10th-round stoppage of Diego Corrales in 2001.
A modest crowd of 8,000 fans watched the Corrales fight in person. The fight wasn’t on pay-per-view. Mayweather wasn’t the obnoxious loudmouth he is now, which makes you wonder if an African American fighter can become a box-office star today without adopting a repulsive public persona.
If you find this tragic, you aren’t alone. It’s why when Shelton wrote a screenplay about boxing and race, he wrote a comedy.
“It has to be,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s too dark.”
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
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