Thursday, December 19, 2013

Adrien Broner: Cautionary Tale or Trickster

The history of boxing is full of cautionary tales of fighters who have quickly achieved fame and fortune and lost it all just as fast. The attraction of the sporting culture, or living a fast life, did them in. As the great fighter George Dixon once indicated, “I lost my money by gambling, playing the races, leading a fast life and by lending my money to friends.” Dixon, who was the first black champion (1890,) and a hero in the black community, squandered nearly $250,000 in his career and died a broke in 1908. Like many boxers, then and today, he spent the last years of his career trying to catch that elusive payday. When he could no longer fight he died friendless and penniless. “No instance seems more pathetic than the career of George Dixon,” recounted one white writer. For his generation, Dixon became a poster child for white writers as a cautionary tale for the black prizefighter. For example, one writer observed that “it seems to be an unfortunate trait with the colored fighters that they have not sense enough to lay up a little of worldly goods against the coming of old age. Practically every one of them has been an object of charity at some time or other.” According to many observers, black fighters had a racial pathology that predisposed them to spending money on worthless items. The fact that these pugilists lacked manly responsibility fit into stereotypes of the child-like happy-go-lucky black minstrel character.
In many ways, the public still views the black athlete as the man-child waiting to lose it all. For example, in a recent Sports Illustrated article entitled “Problem Child,” writer Chris Mannix explores the quick rise to fame of black prizefighter Adrien Broner. Broner, who lost for the first time on Saturday, goes by the nickname “The Problem,” and is equally known for his skills in the ring as for his antics outside the squared circle. Broner once posted images of himself flushing $20 bills down the toilet. In his article, Mannix falls into the common trope of writing about Broner as a immature black man unprepared for the economic fortunes of a professional athlete. Mannix notes “many wonder: Are we witnessing the rise of boxing’s next big thing or the early rounds of another cautionary tale?” But is it possible Broner is playing us? After all, coming into his last fight Broner was one of the most marketable fighters in the game.

In his blog, the brilliant sportswriter Morgan Campbell wrote that Broner “is, depending on your perspective, a bad guy, a buffoon, or a coon. And it works for him — when he fights even mainstream sports fans tune in to see if somebody will knock that smirk off his face.” In other words, Broner has played the role of the trickster and used the historical contempt for the young black athlete and America’s belief in black pathology to sell more tickets. With his antics and braggadocios attitude, Broner tricked the public into hating him. According to Campbell, “It has everything to do with entertainment, and the entertainment value in a Broner bout is the hope that whoever they line up against him will give him the beating he’s been baiting. And that hope springs from Broner’s antics and arrogance, and the idea that he deserves to lose for disrespecting fans, opponents and the sport.” Whereas others see Broner’s antics as a cautionary tale, Campbell urges on the trickster and asks him to keep “trolling.”

I see both a cautionary tale and the trickster in Broner. He has brilliantly followed the path Floyd “Money” Mayweather blazed in selling a notion of so-called black pathology to stardom, but Broner has also had many brushes with the law and seems to like his drink a bit too much. As a person who studies the history of black fighters, as see parallels with Harry Woodson, the first black boxing star from Cincinnati.

Like Broner, Woodson, “The Black Diamond,” grew up in poverty. Born a slave in Kentucky in 1855, and raised by his mom in the notorious levee district in Cincinnati, Ohio, Woodson used boxing as his way out. His mother, Winnie, operated a bar and brothel and trouble frequently found the establishment. Both Woodson and his mother had their lives threatened, had been stabbed, and Woodson had been shot in a gambling dispute.  In 1882, he escaped the drudge work of a riverman and the hard world of the levee and turned his fighting propensities into a lucrative profession. A Cincinnati Enquirer writer noted he was a “fine specimen of manhood,” and “a well-scienced and powerful man…” Like Broner, he had a quick rise to the top of the pugilist rankings.  Within a year he had fought for the Colored Championship. Despite losing that title fight to Professor Charles Hadley of Connecticut he remained one of the more popular fighters in America. Unfortunately for Woodson, the sporting life style caught up to him. In September 1887, a porter from Chicago killed him for sleeping with his wife. Woodson, who had reportedly been drunk for 3 straight days, was in the city to provide muscle at his mom’s saloon.

In reality, a poor black man in the 1880s had very few options. Boxing was Woodson’s only way out. The sporting lifestyle gave the “Black Diamond” comfort from his hard life. Like Woodson, Broner seems to find escape and comfort in the sporting life, but Woodson’s story doesn’t have to be Broner’s reality. I don’t mind if Broner continues to play the role of the trickster, but for his case, I hope he avoids some of his self-destructive behavior of Woodson and George Dixon.

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