COMMENTARY: Exploiting race is not new to boxing — or to politics

In her acclaimed 1987 book, “On Boxing,” Joyce Carol Oates lamented that the sport had become “America’s tragic theater.” So has politics. But let’s look at one crisis at a time.

As Oates was writing “in the grip of an inexplicable, curious compulsion,” she said, boxing was riding a crest of public excitement. Muhammad Ali had retired, but Larry Holmes, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran were still around. A promising young Mike Tyson was on the rise. Those were the days.

Within a decade virtually all of the reigning champs of that time were gone, she would note in a new introduction for the book’s 1994 edition. The enormous purses had multiplied tenfold for heavyweight title fights, but the sport seemed to be in crisis, corrupted with questionable fights, judges and referees. Yet, an occasional match would come along that showed enough skill, courage, intelligence and hope to seem to redeem the sport. Almost.

“Perhaps boxing has always been in crisis,” she wrote, “a sport of crisis.”

It still is, even as Saturday’s battle between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor blew the roof off previous purses with pay-per-view revenue soaring well into nine figures. Mayweather was expected to get $200 million and McGregor $100 million.

That’s a great payday for McGregor, who is new to the sport. That’s right. He’s a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) mixed-martial arts star.

His presence on the bill also marks a curious form of affirmative action. Mayweather, 40, is black and has a 49-0 career record. McGregor, 29, is white and hasn’t boxed since his training days in his native Dublin.

“If this was a black UFC champion and Mayweather,” screenwriter Ron Shelton, who wrote the 1996 movie farce “The Great White Hype” about a similar race-based mismatch, told The Washington Post, “I don’t think they’d sell a ticket.”

Well, I’m sure they’d sell some. Mayweather went into the match widely considered to be the best boxer on the planet these days. And a mixed-race match offered an undeniable attraction to audiences, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Promoters know. The sport has a long history of using racial conflicts, real or hyped, since the first black heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson, was pitted against one “Great White Hope” after another.

Promoter Don King revived the “Great White Hope” label for Gerry Cooney’s 1982 match with Larry Holmes, who won. Happily the two forged an enduring friendship after the fight in striking contrast to the combative pre-fight hype.

No need for “Great White Hope” hype for the Mayweather-McGregor match. They were all too eager to generate their own controversies, including the slinging of racist, sexist and homophobic rhetoric at each other during their multicity promotion tour.

Mayweather has a long history of violence against women, and on the tour hurled homophobic slurs at McGregor.

Yet, behaving like less-than-great role models apparently did not hurt their pay-per-view sales. My larger concern is with what this exploitation of racial conflict means at a time when our national news and discourse is inflamed by a resurgence of white supremacists, new battles over Confederate monuments and dueling resentments over which group is most aggrieved.

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to criticize the exploitation of racial and ethnic conflicts by boxing promoters and participants, but the current crisis in the boxing ring only reflects a larger crisis of national disunity outside of it.

About the Author