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In his fight against Manny Pacquiao, is Keith Thurman the ‘American’?

Who does and doesn’t represent the U.S. is a vexing question for black boxers

In the lead-up to his 1938 fight with German boxer Max Schmeling, black American fighter Joe Louis had the weight of the entire United States on his shoulders. Just two years beforehand, German leader Adolf Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles through multiple acts of aggression and rearmament, which would eventually push America into a global conflict over ethnonationalism, fascism and world domination.

Baked in the conflict was Hitler’s belief in a master race of tall, blond and blue-eyed white people. So, naturally, a heavyweight bout between a descendant of black slaves and the Nazis’ example of the ideal, superior human became a proxy for what would soon be World War II.

Under normal circumstances, those in attendance for the fight at Yankee Stadium or the millions of Americans listening over the radio would have sided with the white man over the black brute in a test of strength, power and masculinity. But because this fight represented the future of democracy and freedom, Louis’ blackness took a back seat to his American citizenship; he was more of the “American” than “African” in “African American.” Author and boxing historian Thomas Hauser, writing in 2007, said that during the Louis-Schmeling buildup, it was “the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as ‘the American.’ ”

Nearly a century after Louis knocked out Schmeling just over two minutes into the first round, the question of who does and doesn’t represent the United States is still a vexing question when it comes to black athletes participating in international competitions.

On July 20, World Boxing Association (WBA) world welterweight champion Keith “One Time” Thurman, 30, will defend his title against boxing legend Manny Pacquiao. While the lead-up to the fight has centered on how much the 40-year-old Pacquiao has left in the tank and the effect multiple injuries and absences from the ring will have on the younger and undefeated Thurman (29-0 with 1 no contest), there’s still that elephant that’s always been in the middle of any boxing ring: race.

Pacquiao, the only boxer to ever hold world titles in eight different weight divisions, is quite possibly boxing’s most famous fighter, which is in no small part due to his being a native of the Philippines. To a country of more than 105 million people, the “Pac Man” is a superstar, icon and hero all wrapped up in one. He’s both a lieutenant colonel in the country’s army and a Philippine senator. He’s acted in multiple Filipino films and was the inspiration for two movies, 2006’s Pacquiao: The Movie and 2015’s Kid Kulafu. Pacquiao is the Philippines and the Philippines is Pacquiao.

On the other hand, Thurman is from Clearwater, Florida, a city with as many black people (approximately 12,000) as Florida has complaints about alligator sightings (it’s true). Thurman is the son of a black father and white mother, although his olive skin and wavy hair have led people to confuse him for Hispanic or any other number of ethnicities. He’s also the quintessential pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, American story: going from a poor upbringing to a possible eight-figure payday for one fight. Thurman views himself as an American, plain and simple.

Manny Pacquiao (left) and Keith Thurman (right) face off during a news conference at Gotham Hall in New York City on May 21 in preparation for their upcoming fight. Pacquiao and Thurman will meet for the world welterweight championship Saturday in Las Vegas.

J. Yim/Getty Images

But in a fight with world title implications and an opponent who represents an entire country and millions of people, it begs the question: Is Thurman, a black man, the “American” in this fight?

Racial conflict has always been a marketing ploy to drum up interest in prizefights, normally playing up differences in skin color and ethnicity to make it easier for audiences to choose sides: English fighter Daniel Mendoza was marketed as “the Jew” during fights in the late 1700s.

“It’s always the African versus the Puerto Rican, the white versus the black, the Russian versus the American, the Cuban versus the Puerto Rican, the Mexican versus the black, or the Mexican versus the white,” Thurman said over the phone recently.

Black fighters, from Jack Johnson to Louis to Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson to Floyd Mayweather, have evoked an irrational fear and hatred from white audiences based almost entirely on the fighters’ blackness and white people’s fear of it. (Domestic violence incidents further tainted Tyson and Mayweather.) Johnson’s 1910 knockout of Jim Jeffries, who agreed to the fight only to “make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race,” led to riots and multiple deaths. Americans came around to supporting Louis during his two fights against Schmeling (Louis lost the first fight in 1936) for two reasons: 1) Louis wasn’t as controversial a black figure as Johnson, and 2) World War II was just around the corner. Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army and his association with the Nation of Islam made him one of the most hated men in America. As researcher Neil A. Wynn noted in his article “Deconstructing Tyson: The black boxer as American icon” published in The International Journal of the History of Sport, Tyson was called “an animal,” “a monster,” “a savage” and “evil incarnate” during his heyday throughout the 1990s. Mayweather’s 2017 fight against Irish UFC fighter Conor McGregor continued the tradition of racialized fight promotion.

“If you really understand the history of boxing, then you do understand that boxing has always been a racist sport,” Thurman said, portraying zero malice or hyperbole in his voice, as if it’s accepted fact.

As has been seen with the U.S. women’s national soccer team this summer and Serena Williams during any of the major tennis championships and Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, skin color, gender and politics can decide who truly represents the country. Aside from the 1992 Dream Team, you’d be hard-pressed to identify a black athlete who could be considered the American hero in international sports competition.

Canelo Álvarez and Andy Ruiz Jr. both represent Mexico. Gennady Golovkin is the pride of Kazakhstan. Of the 17 black American world champion boxers, including World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder and International Boxing Federation (IBF) welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., it would be hard to argue that any of them fit the mold of “the American.”

Thurman wants to “break the mold” of how audiences view black fighters.

“Keith Thurman is not only an African American, but my mother’s white and my father’s black,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “So, at the end of the day, when I step in the ring — and what I’m grateful for with the beautiful sport of boxing — I get to live out my dream. This is my American dream to be on this stage, to be on this platform, to make a living, to provide for my family. Every time I step in a ring, I wear red, white and blue because I’m proud to be an American. Not just an African American, but an American.”

He’s asked if the color of his trunks will actually make fans view him as “the American” and not just the black (or the Mexican or the Polynesian or the …) boxer fighting the Philippines’ Pacquiao.

“I am an American. He is a Filipino. I am a world champion. He is a legend. I believe, just like we have our freedoms, cheer for who you want to cheer for. Do your rah-rah with whoever you support. … All you have to do is cheer for the people that you want to succeed in life. If you’re the kind of person that, when you cheer for one you have to despise the other, so be it. Love me, hate Pacquiao. Love Pacquiao, hate me. We are your entertainment. We are the gladiators. For me, it ain’t nothing but another fight. It ain’t nothing but me living out a dream that I’ve always wanted to live. … Let the people have their opinion. Let the people do what the people want to do. The people crucified Jesus Christ. They were given a choice, but for them that was their entertainment at that time.”

Kimberly Doehnert, Thurman’s aunt, trainer and nutritionist, said her nephew has been navigating the question of race his entire life and that hasn’t changed since he became a professional boxer. She’s had to argue with people that Thurman is actually black. “I had someone argue me down that my nephew wasn’t black,” she said. “ ‘He’s not black. His dad is Mexican, his mom is white.’ I’m like, ‘OK, it’s kind of funny because I know the man, his dad, because I’m his sister.’ ”

There’s a “mystiqueness” about Thurman, she said, that makes him an enigma because people don’t know a lot about him. “It’s hard for them to figure him out.”

Thurman works out for members of the media at the St. Pete Boxing Club in St. Petersburg, Florida, on July 10 before his July 20 bout vs. Pacquiao. “This is my American dream to be on this stage, to be on this platform, to make a living, to provide for my family,” Thurman said.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

His matchup with Pacquiao, however, has brought him more exposure than any fight before this. It will be Thurman’s first pay-per-view headline fight.

“You’ve got people that are interested in Tiger Woods [at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am], and they have to constantly see an advertisement for Keith Thurman-Manny Pacquiao. You’ve got people that are cheering for the women’s soccer team, and they’re constantly seeing Keith Thurman-Manny Pacquiao,” he said.

“This is one of the biggest fights of the whole year. This is one of the best fights, best matchups, all year.”

No matter what American fans think of him, Thurman plans to use this fight as an opportunity to make himself a household name — American or not, black or not.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"