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In the not-especially-funny but disturbingly prescient satire “The Great White Hype,” Peter Berg plays Terry Conklin, a white fighter who is getting a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world solely because he is Caucasian and promoters know a white-versus-black fight will sell extremely well in America. Although he is not of Irish descent, the people in charge of promoting the fight decide to market Conklin as “Irish” Terry Conklin. They have a team of leprechauns follow him and make him wear green trunks and Boston Celtics jackets, all because they know Irish fighters sell especially well. This idea of pretending a fighter is of a different descent seemed funny in 1996; however, the joke has manifested itself into reality through the weird, insensitive and completely unnecessary act of cultural appropriation known as “Mexican Style.”
When Bob Arum was promoting the match between Manny Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya in 2008, Arum created a “Mexicans for Pacquiao” campaign, brought out all of the Mexican fighters he promoted to announce that they were rooting for Pacquiao, implied that Mexican fans could relate more closely to Pacquiao than the pampered “Golden Boy” De La Hoya and made a declaration: “You have to understand that Manny is more of a Mexican-style fighter than Oscar De La Hoya is or ever will be.”
Arum was not the first to level this “not Mexican enough” claim against De La Hoya. Fernando Vargas had years earlier claimed that he truly represented Mexico -- this despite both he and De La Hoya were Americans -- because Vargas “fights like a warrior, like Mexican people do.” Meanwhile, Felix Trinidad made other outrageous claims after he fought De La Hoya: “I told Julio [Cesar Chavez] he is a real Mexican champion and De La Hoya is not. De La Hoya is a chicken, not a Mexican. Chicken De La Hoya.”
However, what Arum was doing was different. He was not just taking shots at De La Hoya for not being “Mexican” enough; he was taking bits and pieces of a national stereotype and applying them to a completely foreign fighter for promotional purposes. This was an ugly moment for boxing that unfortunately has been repeated recently. Gennady Golovkin’s team in an attempt to promote him has renewed the “Mexican Style” mantra that Arum concocted. Golovkin has marketed himself as fighting “Mexican Style,” spoken bits of Spanish, worn sombreros in the ring and sold T-shirts with the letters “GGG” surrounded by the Mexican flag. With Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Golovkin having been linked to each other for years, the implication of this promotion was clear. Golovkin comes forward looking for knockouts like real Mexicans do, and Alvarez does not; “GGG” is a real, gritty and tough brawler like Mexicans should be, and Alvarez is not. In essence, Golovkin is a Mexican, and “Canelo” is not.
Golovkin’s idea that Mexican trainer Abel Sanchez is teaching him “Mexican-Style boxing” is confusing to Alvarez and his team. See, Mexico does not have a highly centralized boxing pipeline, like the famed Cuban amateur system, so arguing that Mexican fighters all fight a certain way is either misinformed or intentionally misleading. Alvarez himself questioned the idea: “I don’t know where they get that about how the Mexican style is to go forward and to punch and get punched. That’s not the Mexican style.” He then pointed out that a large number of Mexican fighters were, like himself, slick counterpunchers, not the face-first brawlers the cultural stereotype implies.
So history repeats itself. We have a foreign fighter leveling claims that he is closer to what a Mexican should be than an actual person of Mexican descent. Given that De La Hoya promotes Alvarez, I had to ask what De La Hoya thought about the fact that this “Mexican Style” insult is being leveled against a fighter he promotes. De La Hoya’s response was clear; it’s nothing but a pathetic marketing gimmick.
“Well, it’s obviously all a gimmick,” he said. “It’s a gimmick to win fans over. I did it with fighting hard and beating the best out there and fighting the best out there. ‘Canelo’ did it the same way. He’s a Mexican national and the Mexican nationals love him. So all this gimmick stuff about, you know, ‘Mexicans For Golovkin’ and ‘Mexicans For Pacquiao,’ that’s all it is. It’s a gimmick. It’s sad to know that there are a few fans that fall for [the gimmick], but it’s really nice to know that ‘Canelo’ has Mexican fans that love him and support him a thousand percent.”
This promotional style is both completely unnecessary and incredibly dangerous. I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of boxing fans do not remember the “Mexicans for Pacquiao” campaign, because it was so uncalled for. Pacquiao’s knockouts of legitimate first-ballot hall of famers made him an international celebrity, not a promotional campaign; and Mexican boxing fans came to love Pacquiao for the same reasons boxing fans from every nation came to love him: his exciting performances and humble attitude, not because of a pandering marketing scheme concocted by promoters.
The “Mexican Style” gimmick should be stopped and not just because it’s unnecessary. The real issue is much more dangerous than that. The bitterness that lingered for decades when Muhammed Ali implied that he was really black and Joe Frazier was not scarred the sport of boxing well past the retirement of both men. With the tide of social change trending toward an increasing hostility towards any person representing a culture -- even positively -- and experience they have not thoroughly lived through, for once let’s get ahead of the curve. In a sport that has consistently embarrassed itself by resorting to petty racism to sell fights, go ahead and retire the “Mexican Style” gimmick once and for all.
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