The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Black Lesnar

Continuing All-Brock Lesnar, All-The-Time week here at TSBS….

This is intended as a very rough draft of some thoughts; these are issues I don’t have a strong handle on as yet.

It fascinates me in some respects that Brock isn’t covered in what you might call a more explicitly racial fashion. I don’t want to say he’s unique and I’m sure there’s a variety of people I’m forgetting (arguably including half the NHL), but he represents a very rare thing in American sports: a white American athlete defined by pure, raw physicality who’s become a very large star and arguably the face of his sport. There’s big physical white linemen in the NFL of course, but few people can name more than a handful especially if they play for other teams, few if any would be stopped or recognized on the streets as anything other than “that big guy”, and none are what you’d call memorable public figures. The NBA periodically turns up a David Lee type who does get attention for being white, American (unlike a Dirk Nowitzki) and good in a largely black sport, but few NBA fans would say Lee is among the 50 best or most memorable players in the league. Baseball is so non-physical (and substantially white) that the comparisons don’t really even make sense. What does this mean? I don’t know, but here’s a variety of open-ended musings:

– I’ve read a lot of newer fans in various places outside the MMA blogosphere focus in on Brock’s size when discussing the factors responsible for his success. Unquestionably, his size matters and is an important factor; but would people be as quick to focus on that as the key issue if Brock were black? He’s an astonishing athlete for his size, a true physical freak in that respect who’s essentially unprecedented in his sport for the combination of the two. The standard read in American sports- and I believe in some non-American contexts- is to overstate the athleticism of black athletes and the hustle/heart/intelligence of white athletes, and to understate the inverse. Brock’s not stupid and he works hard, but he scrambles this social tendency by being defined by unteachable, natural athleticism which dwarfs that of most of his competition- a phenomenon Brock himself touched on with his infamous “built like a black man” comments. If Brock continues to dominate, does he make the sports world safe for the recognition of big natural white athletes? Does that make it safer to recognize the Doug Glanvilles of the world, the small smart hustling black athletes? Does he make it easier for people in this country to acknowledge that Manny Pacquiao is as athletically gifted as any athlete today?

– How many people in discussing Bobby Lashley and Brock Lesnar together have emphasized the fact that Brock has substantially superior natural athleticism by any measure you care to use, including amateur wrestling credentials and things like 40 yard dash time?

– MMA is a sport supported by many races, many cultures, many countries and increasingly, many continents even; but its face in the US is as the sport of tattooed white guys. Does Brock reinforce this? Is that part of his appeal? It’s tempting to wonder if a non-white fighter could draw as many buys, except that last year’s largest buyrate- UFC 92- was drawn by a triple main event featuring two white Americans, two black Americans, and two (I believe) mixed-race Brazilians. It beat out that year’s big Brock fight against Randy Couture by a slim margin as I understand it. The buyrate for Rampage Jackson vs. Rashad Evans- two black former champions, with a full season of TUF to promote them- will be fascinating to compare to some of Brock’s. My honest expectation is that it will be largely similar to Brock’s non-UFC100 stuff.

– There are people who have flipped out insanely over Brock’s promos, people who have said they’re worse than anything Mike Tyson ever did. I’ve made my arguments against the rationality of these statements, but I’m still unclear as to the motivation. Is it because Brock was a pro wrestler? Because MMA is still a young sport? Or is it because we unconsciously in this nation expect black athletes to act in ways much of the public considers stupid and offensive, but find it vastly more shocking when a white athlete does so? Does it matter if the person making the Tyson/Brock comparison is black? To make it clear I don’t personally believe there’s a meaningful difference between the two groups on the basis of race, and the difference in assumptions is a manifestation of what’s described as “soft bigotry of low expectations” combined with a hefty dose of selective memory.

– Who was the last white American athlete to be unquestionably top-3 in stardom in his sport and not be a quarterback? Larry Bird? You could argue Chuck Liddell, although I’m not sure he ever broke through to the mainstream as strongly as Brock has.

– I can’t shake the sense that Kimbo Slice and Brock Lesnar are hilarious negative images of each other who a good novelist would have a great deal of fun with, if they weren’t the sort of characters considered too unbelievable for fiction. Kimbo is a black fighter who may have consciously played on white fears and stereotypes about scary-looking black men as part of his self-promotion, who nevertheless is unfailingly intelligent and low-key in his interviews, and who can’t fight a lick at the professional level- and has what some would call a stereotypically “white” style of straight ahead boxing. Brock is a white fighter who looks like a larger version of every other white fighter but whose style is based around stereotypically “black” elements (dominant, otherworldly athleticism), who comes off as completely unhinged and what some have called white trash in his interviews, and is a dominant fighter. They both fuck with people’s racial expectations in very different though related ways; I consider this progress, personally.

And finally, and not in regards to Brock specifically- one of the things I find fascinating about fighting sports is just how nakedly racial and ethnic they are and have been, from the days of blacks vs. Irish vs. Italians vs. Jews in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in boxing to Muhammad Ali in the 60’s and 70’s to Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney to the endless Puerto Rico vs. Mexico rivalry in boxing to Cain Velasquez’s “Brown Pride” tattoo to a year ago when Bernard Hopkins told Kelly Pavlik after he beat hm stupid for 12 rounds that he needed to learn to compete with “slick black fighters.” The old cliche about there being no lies in the ring is even more true than you might expect. All sports in nearly every country with a major pro sports league have a racial component, but when the sport is combat, feelings run high and the issues which are hidden elsewhere come to light. I love sports for their own sake, but I also love what they can tell us about the world we live in and the people we share it with, which is why I believe these sorts of issues are worth considering.

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July 16, 2009 - Posted by | Boxing, MMA | ,

2 Comments »

  1. Good points Brendan. I’m interested to see how MMA and PPVs continue to evolve. If you look at boxing, black fighters have not been able to sell PPVs in recent years, outside, of course, from Mike Tyson…who is a whole different kind of beast. But Floyd Mayweather couldn’t even sellout arenas in Michigan until 24/7 and ODLH. Even now, as the main A-side, his fight with JMM sold terribly and is probably the real reason the fight was rescheduled. Sugar Shane can’t sell as the A-side. Neither can B-Hop. For some reason, the black community has never really gotten behind its fighters. But the Irish will sellout MSG to see Duddy and Jews love watching Salita (who is dreadful to watch) and Mexicans will rally behind their countrymen, as will Filipinos, Brits, Germans, et al.

    The UFC is dominated by white fighters. It will be interesting to see, as more black fighters rise to prominence, if PPV sales will be as good when they are the A-side. I actually think sales will stay strong because in many ways people buy the UFC product more than the fighters (but, no doubt, people outside of the UFC fanbase will pay to watch Brock). Just throwing it out there.

    Comment by Tony M | July 17, 2009 | Reply

    • Tony:

      I think the Rampage-Evans fight will be an interesting baselining exercise. That, to the best of my memory, will be the first high-profile main event with 0% Caucasian content that is expected to do serious business. Not only that, but it will have the full backing of the UFC Hype Machine behind it with TUF and all that (not to mention the serious hate on that they have for each other…or are pretending to, anyway).

      If that ends up doing a disappointing number, then we’re looking at a serious problem in terms of promoting African-American fighters. My hunch, however, is that race will end up being immaterial and it will do monster business…maybe not UFC 100 buys, but buys nonetheless.

      Comment by primetimeswift | July 20, 2009 | Reply


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