Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A Snapshot of the Role of Ethnicity in American Boxing

This is a short piece I wrote for TheSweetScience.com following a boxing event I attended in Connecticut.

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – Ireland’s Matthew Macklin didn’t attend the press conference at the Foxwoods Casino following his fight with Gennady Golovkin. Media interaction wasn’t a priority for someone who had just been pummelled by one of boxing’s hardest punchers.

A few miles away, Danny O’Connor was in hospital receiving stitches to a damaged eye following his bout on the same card. But despite his facial appearance, O’Connor was victorious, outpointing Hector Munoz and helping bring some joy to the Irish-American bandwagon that drove the several thousand ticket sales for the event.

A promoter’s goal is to find fighters that can resonate with a community. That’s because boxing is among the few sports still driven by ethnic tribalism. Save for a couple of major fights each year, the US mainstream media generally ignores boxing, thus diminishing its exposure to the average sports fan. It’s left to those fuelled by factors of race and nationality to keep smaller shows alive.

HBO and much of the boxing media heralded Kazakhstan native Golovkin as a future star before Saturday’s bout, and while he may yet realize that status, it was Macklin and O’Connor that most of the crowd traveled to see. A fighter without an established fanbase must accomplish exceptional feats to attract a crowd. Not so for Irish fighters; their fervent support means that even unremarkable achievements can result in high-profile exposure. The Irish contingents don’t follow a fighter because they think he will be the next star. Their pursuit is based on ethnic pride.

Nobody went to Connecticut on Saturday thinking the 31-year-old Macklin was headed for greatness. Macklin, born in England to Irish parents, had 29 wins but was knocked out by the premier middleweight Sergio Martinez last year, was outpointed by another middleweight titlist Felix Sturm in 2011 and had two previous losses on his record. The oddsmakers made the unbeaten Golovkin a 1/8 favorite to win. Regardless, Irish fans still came to see him try to take Golovkin’s WBA piece of the middleweight crown.  

Yet the pro-Macklin chants of “Ole, Ole” quickly dissipated as the bell sounded and the out-numbed Kazakhs suddenly made their presence felt. Macklin was on the back foot from the start, unable to mount much offense. Avoiding thudding blows from Golovkin became the top priority. His face severely reddened after only two minutes, Macklin looked like he had completed an average fight. But Golovkin isn’t an average fighter. Every time Macklin attempted an attack, he was caught by head-snapping punches. The pattern continued until one minute into the third round when Golovkin forced Macklin onto the ropes and delivered a sickening left hook to the stomach. The challenger went down and remained there for several minutes, gasping for air.

“He never let me get started,” said Macklin after regaining his composure. “He has clubbing, solid power and you can feel the weight of every punch he throws. I tip my hat to him.”

“We knew Macklin would be brave, but we knew that once he stood and fought with us, it would be over,” said Golovkin’s trainer Abel Sanchez. Golovkin now has a record of 27-0 with 24 knockouts.      

The Irish-American fans were in better voice earlier in the night. Even though welterweight Danny O’Connor was fighting a man who entered the ring with a 21-10 record and a first round knockout defeat in his most recent bout, it was immaterial to the busloads of supporters from Massachusetts who wore green “Clan O’Connor” shirts. O’Connor, a proud Irish-American from the Boston suburbs, may have just one loss on his record but after another points victory on Saturday he has now scored only seven knockouts in 21 wins, a worrying stat given that concussive power is a typical requirement for a world-class prizefighter. O’Connor has rarely been in an easy bout. Although not powerful, he often adopts a straightforward, aggressive style that results in crowd-pleasing fights. So was the case on Saturday en route to a 79-73 points decision verdict from all three judges.

“I let it become a fight,” said O’Connor, 28, afterward. “He was a tough dude, but that was partially my fault. At the end of the day, I just like to fight. I guess I’m more old-school than some guys. Obviously it’s not the best route.”

An Irish fighter who achieves even a modicum of success can attract partizan fans who think their man is worth following regardless of how porous his defense or delicate his scar tissue. The Jewish and Italian groups that also drove US prizefighting in previous generations no longer have the same staunch loyalty to the sport. Excluding the Irish, enthusiastic American crowds in recent years have come from immigrants associated with poorer economies, such as Mexico, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. 

While many Irish have assimilated into the upper echelons of American society, large swathes of the community still band together for the fights, using the events as a vehicle to embrace their heritage. Boxing provides the perfect opportunity for ethnic groups to sing songs about the homeland, forget woes in a sea of alcohol and testosterone, and cheer on one of their own as he bravely takes the fight to the world.

And so it was that those with varying degrees of Irishness traveled to Connecticut on Saturday. The crowd would have been notably smaller if Macklin was waving the Union Jack or if O’Connor chose not to emphasize his roots.

While their performances weren’t overly inspiring, both Macklin and O’Connor fought like stereotypical Irishmen; game, tough and flawed enough to make the fights entertaining. Macklin’s journey may be coming to an end and O’Connor will need to make some tactical adjustments if he is to extend his career. But there’ll be others before long; Ireland’s severe economic recession will see continued emigration and more fighters looking for support from their US-based kindred. Before that, promoters can always dream that Golovkin will spur an awakening in the Kazakh community’s love for the fight game.

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