The Great White Hype: Conor McGregor and the History of Race in Boxing

Conor McGregor & Floyd Mayweather at their Toronto press conference, July 12 2017. Image from Showtime.

By Angie Wong and Travis Hay

On the 12th of July, 2017, downtown Toronto was over-run with a sea of Irish flags and rowdy young white men.[1] More than 16,000 fans had flocked to the scene to witness the Mayweather-McGregor World Tour Press Conference, which promoted the upcoming boxing match between the undefeated African American champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. (widely regarded as the greatest boxer of all time) and the white Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor. Not long into the proceedings, the crowd—overwhelmingly in favour of McGregor—began to hurl taunts, boos, and insults at Mayweather. Enjoying and even encouraging these proceedings, McGregor tried his best to humiliate his opponent, going so far as to shout “dance for me, boy!” as the crowd sang ‘Olé.’[2] When it became Mayweather’s turn to take the microphone, he was drowned out by the crowd who shouted “pay your taxes” again and again (a reference to his recently reported financial troubles).[3] Though he was largely unphased by the Toronto crowd’s hostility, Mayweather failed in his attempt to garner much support from the Canadian crowd, despite having sported a baller cap and t-shirt that infused the Canadian flag into his signature logo.

As critical race feminists as well as fans of both boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA), we could not help but notice that McGregor’s Canadian fans conducted themselves in a fashion strikingly similar to their American counterparts at Trump rallies. We are also troubled by the extent to which McGregor’s sudden rise to celebrity has followed a particular cultural script of the ‘great white hope’—that is, the white, working-class fighter who brings with him a lunch-bucket mentality to the ring and compensates with work ethic what he lacks in natural athletic ability or talent, thereby allowing him to best a Black champion and restore racial pride to a white population that sees itself in crisis. In titling this piece ‘The Great White Hype’ (also the name of a 1996 film poking fun at this very issue), we want to argue that McGregor’s cultural success has more to do with a revival in white pride than in pugilistic prowess. In short, this issue has a history, and the Toronto press conference was evidence enough that we remain trapped within it.

The First Great White Hope

In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first Black man to capture the world heavyweight championship when he knocked out the white Canadian boxer Tommy Burns. Because he was also known to consort with white women, Johnson became one of the most hated figures in the nation at the time; accordingly, white America began to yearn for a ‘great white hope’ who could soundly defeat Johnson and restore American white masculine pride. Jim Jeffries, a boxing legend who had fought in the late 19th century, came out of retirement to try his hand at defeating Johnson. Jeffries, who fans referred to as ‘the great white hope’, was brutally knocked out. When footage of the fight, which took place in Reno, Nevada, was seen more widely across the country, race riots, lynchings, and widely orchestrated attacks on Black communities followed.[4]

An artists’ rendering of Jack Johnson knocking out the Great White Hope. Le pèlerin, c. 1910,

The Johnson-Jeffries episode is an important example demonstrating the extent to which racial tensions have been embodied and exacerbated by the sport of boxing: whereas Jim Jeffries symbolized the figure of the great white hope, so too did Jack Johnson embody the trope of the hated Black boxer—that is, the unbeatable and uppity Black champion best exemplified by Carl Weather’s portrayal of Apollo Creed in the film Rocky (itself a great white hope narrative). Thus, we can appreciate the ways in which the celebrity of the white boxing challenger and the anti-celebrity of the Black boxing champion are, in the western racial imaginary, dynamically co-constituted and often come into emergence through one another. The Johnson-Jeffries affair was present—albeit spectrally—in Toronto on the 12th of July, as was the legacy of ‘The Cinderella Man.’

The Cinderella Man

On the 13th of June, 1935, Irish-American boxer James ‘The Cinderella Man’ Braddock captured the heavyweight championship by defeating the Jewish-American champion Max Baer as a ten-to-one underdog at Madison Square Garden.[5] Not only was Braddock ‘The Cinderella man’ because of the long odds of his victory, but because he had endured poverty during the Great Depression and (like McGregor) was forced to rely on government relief programs before achieving boxing fame.[6] Significantly, Braddock fought with an Irish clover on his boxing shorts, which was in contrast to his championship opponent Max Baer, whose shorts sported the bright star of David. As a figure who represents a rags-to-riches, ethnically Irish and nationally American boxer, the story of ‘The Cinderella Man’ is intensely relevant to McGregor and his celebrity status, as they both embody white working-class social mobility through toughness. And because the figure of the ‘great white hope’ is always co-constituted alongside his counterpart, we can also see the politics of class mobility informing anti-Black racism throughout the sport’s history.

James ‘The Cinderella Man’ Braddock – the prototype for the Irish(-American) working class fighter.

The Brown Bomber

On the 22nd of June, 1937, boxing legend Joe Louis knocked out James ‘The Cinderella Man’ Braddock in brutal fashion, ending his storied rise to fame. In contrast to Jack Johnson, Joe Louis was one of the few Black American athletes to have become a nationally venerated figure: during the Second World War, ‘the Brown Bomber’ (as he was popularly known) did a series of recruitment promotions and prize-fighting events to support the war effort and entertain the troops; however, Louis fell into severe financial distress despite his previous stardom. As one source recalls:

In order to further endear himself to the American public (white America), Louis enlisted in the army and fought promotional bouts for various army departments (which were in racially segregated units). His reward for this public show of patriotism was being hounded by the federal government for taxes on these ‘promotional bouts’ that left him emotionally and financially broke.[7]

Joe Louis, AKA ‘The Brown Bomber’, steps over a defeated Max Schmeling.

The legacy of Joe Louis matters in the context of the Mayweather-McGregor World Press Tour; so too does the story of ‘The Cinderella Man’ Jimmy Braddock and the ‘Great White Hope’ Jim Jeffries inform and inflect the social structures of feeling that are invested into the upcoming event. Thus, while the homoerotic, masculinist, and always class-configured spectacle of two men fighting each other in a ring (while partially naked) can be about a great number of things, anyone with a cursory knowledge of the sport of boxing ought to appreciate the foundational ways in which the sport has always been firmly embedded in a racialized and most often racist dialectic.

Conclusion

Conor McGregor’s anti-Black antics in Toronto and at other stops in the World Press Tour made news headlines globally: in New York, McGregor responded to allegations of anti-Black racism by quipping that he was “black from the belly button down.”[8] Recalling here that Black men were lynched following Johnson’s brutal knockout of ‘the great white hope’ Jim Jeffries—as well as Fanon’s articulation of lynching as a sexual revenge[9]—we can appreciate the ways in which McGregor’s invocation of the excessiveness and the monstrosity of the Black penis sits uncomfortably within a racial history of murder, lynching, and sexual violence in the sport of boxing.  

The white crowd’s chanting of ‘pay your taxes’ was also uncomfortably reminiscent of the chants of ‘lock her up’ during Trump’s rise to presidential office. Moreover, for readers unfamiliar with the story of McGregor, the Irish fighter is widely reported to have collected welfare cheques just weeks before his debut in the sport’s lead promotion. All of this has come together to construct McGregor as the hard-working Irishman who successfully acquires upward social mobility not through natural athletic gifts but through hard work and determination. When taken together with his brash, cocky, and unapologetic attitude, these tropes of the hard-working white male immigrant and his rise to fame and fortune suggest that McGregor, like Trump, benefits from a larger structure of social feeling that celebrates and uplifts white men who are celebratory and shameless about their wealth, sexism, and racism.

The Irish flags that littered downtown Toronto on the 12th of July eerily resembled the ‘Make America Great Again’ hats that coloured Trump rallies. Indeed, the behavior of those who sported them was largely indistinguishable: rowdiness, covert and overt displays of white ethnic pride, celebrations of racial violence, and masculinist displays of shameless chauvinisim. Importantly, McGregor—the Irish fighter—remained the crowd’s heavy favourite even when appearing at press conferences in the United States with Mayweather, the American fighter. It is therefore relevant in this capacity to apply what Will Cooley has written about shows of support for white ethnic boxers in other contexts: mainly, that white fans of the sport shroud their celebrations of white pride in Irish flags as a way to conceal overt displays of white supremacy. Thus, both Donald Trump and Conor McGregor return to their white fans something they feel they have lost—that is, “the white ethnic toughness so lacking in many modern assimilated white men.” Both achieve cultural and financial success and rise to heights of unprecedented power by virtue of being seen as “organic, authentic, working class men unrestrained by the shackles of modernity.”[10]

Seen in this historical light, the hoisting up of McGregor as the next great white hope is informed by the same noisy, fragile, and hostile social sentiments that allowed a crude and tasteless reality star to become the most powerful man in the world.

Angie Wong is a second-generation Hong Kong–Toishan scholar born on Treaty 7 territory. Angie currently lives in Toronto where she is pursuing her doctoral degree in Humanities at York University. Her research investigates Canadian histories of anti-Asian racism, policies of exclusion, and the literary history of the social justice magazine The Asianadian.

Travis Hay is a settler historian from Treaty No. 9 territory in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He is in the final stages of his doctoral degree in the History Department at York University where he studies connections between science and settler colonialism in the context of Canadian federal Indian policy.

 


Notes

[1] Video footage of the press conference and the crowd’s behaviour is widely available online: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7ZcGjg03-E&t=6439s [accessed 25 July 2017].

[2] For coverage and context, see Char Adams, “Conor McGregor Sparks Outrage for Racist Taunt at Floyd Mayweather Jr.: Dance for me, boy!” People, July 12th, 2017; available online, see: http://people.com/sports/conor-mcgregor-floyd-mayweather-racist-dance-boy/ [accessed 25 July 2017].

[3] Alex Kirshner, “Crowd Chants Pay Your Taxes!’ at Floyd Mayweather during McGregor Press Conference in Toronto” SB Nation, July 12, 2017; available online, see: https://www.sbnation.com/2017/7/12/15962736/mayweather-pay-your-taxes-chant [accessed 25 July 2017].

[4] As Neil Farrington et al. recall “Riots and lynching occurred all across the US in the days after the fight. In Little Rock, two blacks were killed by a group of whites after an argument about the fight on a streetcar; in Roanoke, Virginia, six blacks were critically beaten by a white mob; in Norfolk, Virginia, a gang of white sailors injured scores of blacks… in New York City, one black was beaten to death and scores were injured; in Shreveport, Louisiana, three blacks were killed by white assailants.” See their Race, Racism, and Sports Journalism (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 73. More generally, see Chapter Five titled ‘Boxing: Race on the Ropes’, pp. 69-83.

[5] Readers are most likely familiar with the figure of Braddock as portrayed by Russel Crowe in the film Cinderella Man (2005).

[6] For example, Business Insider reported on the same day as the Toronto press conference that McGregor “collected a $235 welfare cheque one week before becoming a star in his first UFC fight.” See Scott Davis, whose article title makes this claim, Business Insider, July 12th, 2017; available online, see http://www.businessinsider.com/conor-mcgregor-welfare-before-first-ufc-fight-2017-7 [accessed 25 July 2017].

[7] See Farrington et. al., Race, Racism, and Sports Journalism (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2012), p. 74.

[8] See Jesse Holland, “Conor McGregor: I’m Black from the Belly Button Down!”, MMA Mania, July 17th, 2017; available online, see: https://www.mmamania.com/2017/7/14/15970960/conor-mcgregor-im-half-black-from-waist-down-mayweather-brooklyn [accessed 25 July 2017].

[9] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Trans. C.L. Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), pp. 159.

[10] Will Cooley, “‘Vanilla Thrillas’: Modern Boxing and White-Ethnic Masculinity” in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol. 34, No. 4 [2010]: pp. 418-437.

7 thoughts on “The Great White Hype: Conor McGregor and the History of Race in Boxing

  1. Justin S

    This article unearths some interesting histories, but in my opinion its core argument is very poorly substantiated. Like all problematic scholarship, it reaches for evidence to support an argument that the authors have previously constructed. This, to me, is exactly the opposite of what a historian should try to do.

    Racism and the construction of race in boxing are of course fascinating topics for a cultural historian. No doubt popular perceptions of Mayweather and McGregor are shaped, in part, by race. It certainly would have been possible to write a compelling article on the topic. Yet the article the authors ended up writing:

    -Fails to mention the legitimate sources of widespread disgust for Mayweather, which include his history of abuse (threatened and real) against women and children.
    -Fails to mention the important distinctions between boxing and mixed martial arts, which appeal to very different viewers and have very different racist/racial histories.
    -Fails to distinguish between race and ethnicity in Toronto, which is surely important considering the large and vocal Irish community in the city.
    -Argues for relationships between discourses and moments without providing evidence for them. It’s an awfully big reach to connect anti-Mayweather and anti-Clinton sentiments, and problematic to do it on what seems here like a gut feeling.

    I wish the authors well, and I hope they interpret my comment as constructive criticism. But this was disappointing.

  2. Geoff

    You may be extrapolating more from the pre-fight hype than is warranted. Mayweather has often played a villain character, and enjoys doing so. He openly worships money, has been jailed for domestic abuse and apparently does owe the IRS money. He has mocked McGregor’s Irish heritage to drum up hate, because that sells tickets, just as McGregor has reciprocated in kind. While McGregor is undoubtedly playing the blue-collar character to the masses, ironically your statement about his “brash, cocky, and unapologetic attitude” and the society that celebrates (white) men who are “celebratory and shameless about their wealth, sexism, and racism” sounds equally fitting for the African American Mayweather. Referring to Filipino fighter Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather once said: “As soon as we come off vacation, we’re going to cook that little yellow chump…Once I stomp the midget, I’mma make that motherf—er make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice … you know how it is baby, we gonna cook that motherf—er with some cats and dogs.”

  3. Sean

    As mentioned in the above comments this article whilst interesting for its recollection of history is attempting to extrapolate evidence from what appears to be a biased uninformed lense. Floyd mayweather for many years has adopted the heel personality in order to maximise his profits, not to mention his past. This article furthermore fails to acknowledge the nature of the Irish and why the support their own as they do. The stretch you made from likening the Donald Trump chants to the chants sung at the press conferences completely negates the folk, supporting culture of the Irish fans. Go back and watch McGregors press conferences on the Aldo world tour. Conor made some very poor, uninformed comments and should have been tapped on the shoulder and informed as to why such racial sensitivities exist in America. His attempt to apologise was further poorly executed as you notice his bewilderment when his below the waist comment was poorly received. These were two moments of personal indiscretion are not representative of the macro great white racial movements youve listed above. The layout of the tour 4 cities in 4 days, expectations to deliver every night placed unreal expectations on the two to go above and beyond and may be a reason why such comments were made. Note Floyds faggot comment in London. It appears as the author perhaps isnt very well hearsed in the sports of mma and boxing. This comes from a POC who is a fan of both.

  4. Sean

    Furthermore Conor Mcgregor is by far the more naturally gifted athlete. He’s been proven to have an incredible bone structure and fast twitch muscle setup that allows him to deliver the powerful left crosses. Furthermore he has a wingspan on a natural 170 pound ufc fighter despite being a champion at 145. Floyd is built small in stature whos greatness was developed through his heritage and being taught how to box from 4 years old by his uncle and father. He has no great natural athletic feats as his style revolves around his fight iq, defensive footwork and developed cardio.

  5. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 23, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  6. cfresque

    Hi, I was also about to write to them about this. I am disheartened to see this. One post is speaking about the first world war and its history, one of Canadans fighting for what they believed in at the time and then further down it seems almost like race baiting. I came here to support the article on reconciliation only to now feel uneasy about even supporting anything coming from here. In a position such as this one must remain compassionate of every man woman and child. Not use the leverage there is today in order to help to spread further tension within the country. I spent about three days not long ago arguing with two ethnomasicistic ladies that were trying to say that just because of my skin that I am a racist from birth. We are so close to having a loving and peaceful society yet the temptation to ride the hate whitey train seems too much for so many. I have never been a racist, even when I was the minority in my past, I unfortunately actually do know what it is like to be the minority, and I am mostly white. Now I have to have this feeling again because of ignorance and bullying? Not cool. Well, I will not let things like this take away my support for the FN and am still going to take that seriously, but please, stop trying to make more out of something that here in Canada has never really been that oppressive regarding black and white. Has everyone forgotten history of the slavery days? Yeah we have a lot to do for the FN still, but stop this or you will hurt thier cause more than help it.

    *side note, putting on a Canadian flag doesnt all of a sudden make Mayweather a great guy. They cheer Connor more for his candor if anything. This article is so biased it hurts to read lol

  7. Pingback: The Great White Hype : Conor McGregor et la notion de race dans l’histoire de la boxe – HistoireEngagée.ca

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.