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The racism of the Mayweather-McGregor tour has a long history in boxing

Among major sports, this one stands almost alone in using bigotry to sell tickets

Race and racism have been front and center in the promotional campaign for the upcoming Floyd Mayweather Jr. versus Conor McGregor fight, with McGregor performing a mutated version of the Great White Hope and Mayweather playing his accustomed role of the brash and boisterous black heel.

However, boxing’s checkered history of capitalizing on racial and ethnic rivalries to sell bouts has taken a turn for the worse with this unprecedented megafight, with racist taunts and bigoted trash talk showcased, loudly and vividly, throughout the four-city press tour that concluded in London on July 14.

Much of it has come from McGregor, the charismatic Irishman crossing over into boxing from mixed martial arts to cash in on an eight-figure payday. Boxing experts have given McGregor next to no chance of beating Mayweather, the greatest boxer of his generation, when they climb inside the ring of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Aug. 26. However, McGregor has already achieved the impossible weeks before the two men step into the ring. He has made Mayweather, the man with a horrific record of domestic abuse who has built a long and lucrative career playing the villain, the fight’s sympathetic figure and public favorite.

On the first leg of the promotional tour in Los Angeles, McGregor taunted, “Dance for me, boy,” as Mayweather shadowboxed on the Staples Center stage. McGregor’s use of “boy” — a slur that conjures up imagery of slavery, Jim Crow and the residual racism still prevailing in the United States, and a proxy for the N-word — spurred an immediate firestorm on social and mainstream media.

Again, racism took center stage to sell a fight. But many thought this promotion would be different since it is projected to be the highest-grossing fight in combat sports history, and because it comes at a time of intense racial tension and polarization in the country. A circumstance used by President Donald Trump, no less, who took a page from boxing’s strategy of peddling racism for votes instead of pay-per-view purchases.

Instead of yielding in the face of the racial hostility gripping the country, the Mayweather-McGregor promotion has raced ahead and in line with it. During an interview on The Jimmy Kimmel Show after the third news conference in New York, McGregor was asked who would win a fight between him and Sylvester Stallone’s character in Rocky III. “Rocky III, that’s the one where he had that celebrity gym isn’t it? With the dancing monkeys in the gym and all,” McGregor responded. Some believed that McGregor’s statement was an innocent mistake, while others held that his use of “monkeys” referenced scenes in the film where Rocky aligns himself with Apollo Creed and trains in a predominantly black gym in preparation for his rematch against Clubber Lang.

Accusations of racism rained in on McGregor after this statement. But instead of diminishing this view of him, he made matters worse, stating in New York, “All of the media seem to be saying I’m against black people. … Do they not know I’m half black? I’m half black from the belly button down.”

Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions and the fighter’s closest friend and aide, rebuffed claims that McGregor’s a bigot, responding, “He’s pushing the envelope a bit. He knows what he’s doing. … He’s a cold pimp.”

The final leg of the promotional tour, in London’s Wembley Stadium, witnessed more of the same. In front of a crowd of 10,000 fans, McGregor called Mayweather a “b—-” throughout his speech, patted him on the head and called him a “good kid” as his opponent sat down, silent and smirking.

However, Mayweather was hardly an innocent bystander. When it was his turn to speak, he incessantly called his opponent a “b—-” and a “ho,” slurs that are especially menacing coming from a man who did a two-month jail bid for beating up former girlfriend Josie Davis in front of two of their children. To make matters worse, Mayweather added homophobia to the promotional pot in London, calling McGregor a “f—-t” and telling him “you’re gay” in closing, turning the news conference into a cesspool and circus of bigotry.

It is certainly easy to condemn McGregor as racist, and Mayweather as sexist and homophobic, as many have in the past several days and well before the press tour. However, in order to get at the core of the racism and sexism, homophobia and hatred unfolding on the promotional tour, one must look beyond the fighters themselves and more deeply into the history and culture of boxing that not only enables the vile words coming from Mayweather and McGregor but very likely encourages it. Look to their promoters.

The concerning pattern of racially charged or suggestive statements coming from McGregor, and the venom coming from Mayweather, is embedded and emboldened in the institution that is boxing and, more specifically, the promotion of fights.

Yes, institutional racism instead of individual racism, which are intimately linked. The promotional brain trust charged with selling the fight is creating an open forum for McGregor to freely resort to race and racism to rile up audiences, and Mayweather a carte blanche to say what he sees fit, regardless of whom he offends, to sell pay-per-views.

The promoters are not hiding in the shadows of boardrooms but front and center, speaking along with their respective charges at every stop of the press tour. Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza was flanked next to Mayweather throughout the promotional tour, and the UFC’s Dana White sat next to his sport’s biggest star. The press tour seems carefully orchestrated by both parties, and some of the content coming from the mouths of the fighters feels scripted. Therefore, the joint promotional team is either encouraging the racially charged language uttered by the fighters or, at minimum, is doing little or next to nothing to prevent it.

Instead of stepping in after McGregor makes a racially insensitive remark, or intervening when Mayweather appeals to homophobia or sexism, the promotional heads seem to always smile, make room and give the green light to bigoted speech from their fighters.

Unlike other major sports, where athletes are routinely fined for using slurs and making offensive statements, boxing virtually stands alone — a warped and backward dimension of the sports world where racism, sexism and the ugly underbelly of American hate is strategically showcased to generate interest and sell tickets. The Mayweather-versus-McGregor promotion is an extension of this checkered history and institutional culture, but this time, the stage is far bigger and the stakes much higher.

The fight, which has generated unprecedented excitement and attention, has many asking why? Why is racism in 2017 still an integral part of boxing’s promotional playbook? Why turn to racism and bigotry to sell a fight that was projected to break a billion dollars and all revenue records before it was even announced? Particularly during the volatile moment the United States finds itself at, when hate is trumpeted and rising from every corner of society.

While the individuals at the center of it all, McGregor and Mayweather, deserve the criticism that has come their way during this historic fight’s promotion, the deeply institutionalized racism that is central to promoting fights is where the bulk of the blame must be laid.

Since its inception, the business of boxing has always been the creepy sideshow in the world of sport, where anything goes and everything is fair game. But in a country where racial tensions are at a climax, and bigoted rhetoric is endangering vulnerable communities, inciting hate is never more dangerous. Particularly when uttered from the mouths of two athletes with global legions of fans.

However, instead of slapping the hands of the fighters — who are encouraged, if not instructed, to play on bigotry as a promotional tool — the deepening crisis that is American racism and racial polarization demands that the institutional and strategic exploitation of racism in boxing be fought, head-on, outside of the ring in order to revitalize the integrity of the sport within it.

Khaled A. Beydoun is an Associate Law Professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He is also Affiliated Faculty at the UC-Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.