It was April 2002 and through 11 rounds, Marco Antonio Barrera had been dominating “Prince” Naseem Hamed.
It wasn’t so much that Barrera was winning – everyone knew this would be the undefeated Hamed’s most difficult assignment.
It was how thoroughly he was winning that was a surprise.
This had been the cocky, self-assured, arrogant Hamed’s Las Vegas debut. With his mocking, bombastic, trash-talking ways, he was ready to make Las Vegas his town. It was a glitzy scene that was made for a guy who entered the ring on a magic carpet ride.
But Barrera beat Hamed to the punch, dominated him with jabs, whacked him with left hooks and pummeled him with body shots. To the dismay of the British throng that had traveled across the pond to support their countryman Hamed, it was an old-fashioned butt-kicking.
And when Barrera punctuated his victory by grabbing Prince’s noggin late in the 12th and final round, placing it in a well-executed headlock and ramming it into a corner turnbuckle, it was humble, old-school, fundamentally-sound technicians taking cocksure show-offs to the woodshed.
Twenty-two years later, Barrera is still hailed and Hamed is still, well, mocked, for their respective performances that night at the MGM Grand.
What is it about showboating that divides the boxing universe?
In one corner, you have the fans who adore the braggarts, cheering their boastful heroes on with every smirk, every tongue-wag, every hip wiggle and every windmill imitation.
In the other corner – you have the purists who despise any form of braggadocio, paying good money just to see the preening pugilist put on his backside.
Last week, light heavyweight Ben Whittaker, a silver medalist for Britain at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, showboated so much he’d have made Hamed blush.
In improving to 6-0 as a pro, the 26-year-old continuously showboated against his obviously outclassed 41-year-old opponent, Khalid Graidia.
High-steps, Euro-steps, backhands, back-turns. Whittaker did it all in earning a knockout win. And apologized for none of it.
Some were thrilled with his antics. Others were disgusted.
Of course, all of this showing off began in earnest about 60 years ago by a guy named Cassius Clay, later the most recognized name on the planet, Muhammad Ali, and the all-time Captain of the Showboat.
It was as if he invented trash-talk, boasting and predictions.
His entire style was based on boundless self-confidence – gloves by his side, dancing on his toes, chin jutting out daring opponents to hit it.
He had an array of mocking tools in his bag of tricks, everything from the Ali Shuffle, to the playing possum to the funny faces to standing completely still in a corner and somehow still avoiding punches just by moving and angling his torso.
And don’t even get started on the rhymes (“Float like a butterfly…”) and nicknames (“Hey Gorilla, we in Manila!”) and poetry recitals (“Moore in four!”) before the fight even started.
He was the master of mock, and the superintendent of psychological warfare.
He got all of his antics from a wrestler named Gorgeous George. But he obviously took that to the next 30 levels.
No one before or since will compare to Ali when it comes to playfully – or not-so-playfully – belittling an opponent. But there have been many who have tried. And a few that have come close.
Ali’s successor as First Officer of the Showboat was Sugar Ray Leonard, like Ali a United States Olympian who was introduced to audiences long before he turned pro.
Leonard adopted Ali’s psychological tricks and refined them. He too did the Ali Shuffle, and the windmill. But they were the Sugar Ray version.
The windmill in particular was used to embarrass Roberto Duran in their 1980 rematch.
There he was, winding up cartoon-like with his right hand, only to pop his nemesis with the hard left jab – making “Manos de Piedra’s” eyes water.
He moved laterally, danced, used every bit of the ring and fired off fierce combinations in the process.
In the famous – or infamous, depending how you look at it – seventh round, Howard Cosell at ringside wondered aloud why Leonard was playing with his own life in taunting the dangerous Panamanian.
But he nevertheless jutted out his jaw, daring one of the greatest fighters of all time to clock him before pulling back and countering.
At the end of the round, Duran walked away disgusted and humiliated and a few minutes later, it became apparent that Leonard’s tricks had worked as the fierce, unbeatable Duran quit, uttering “no mas” and becoming a punchline for years.
Later, Leonard pulled similar antics vs. Thomas Hearns (throwing his hands in the air when he hurt the Hitman in the 14th round) and Marvin Hagler (the fourth-round bolo punch, dropping his hands and sticking out his chin throughout).
Because of Leonard’s ways, many disliked him. Some would say hated him. Others thought he was a 1980s version of Superman.
And again, it was the showboating supporters vs. the purist non-supporters. As a result, he became the richest non-heavyweight in boxing history (at the time).
Roy Jones Jr. put his 1990s style stamp on showboating.
Much like Leonard, Jones was so physically superior to most of his early opponents that he seemingly showboated just to keep from being bored.
He embarrassed poor Thulani Malinga in 1993 before stopping him in the sixth round. Thomas Tate made the mistake of calling Jones a dog – in a bad way – before their 1994 title fight. Jones responded by wearing a dog collar into the ring, then flattening Tate with one punch. He produced a highlight-reel knockdown of a fellow Hall of Fame fighter in 1994, when he dropped his hands and stuck out his chin against James Toney, who reacted by doing the same. Only issue was that Jones was so much faster that he caught Toney with a hook mid-mock, sending Toney stumbling backward into the corner and onto the canvas. Toney never did that again – but lost every round in dropping a decision to Jones.
But Jones’ most noteworthy mockery was in 2002 against then-undefeated contender Glen Kelly.
Jones, knowing he was light years superior in every way imaginable, allowed Kelly to maneuver him against the ropes when he suddenly put not one glove – but both gloves – behind his back.
Kelly, not nearly quick enough to take advantage, tried to anyway and was caught with a lightning-quick right hand that dropped and stopped him in the seventh round.
It was a combination of showboating and skill that produced one of the greatest knockouts in boxing history.
Most recently, Floyd Mayweather was known as a cocky fighter.
But he wasn’t really a showboat. Once in the ring, Mayweather was typically all business.
It was before and after that he trash-talked and mocked. Same with Hector “Macho” Camacho, who needed a muzzle to keep his mouth shut outside of the ring but was committed to the task once in it.
And same with another Whitaker – Pernell – who did a bit of showboating (he yanked down Roger Mayweather’s trunks in a wild 1987 fight) but mostly stuck to the gameplan.
And in England, Chris Eubank sometimes posed for entire rounds – if not entire fights – in becoming one of the most decorated and popular British fighters in history.
We’ll see what becomes of Whittaker, a talented fighter who figured he needed something more than talent to be noticed. It’s worked so far.
After the win, his social media presence blew up.
That display/backlash resulted in more eyes on Ben.
And fighters who wouldn’t have thought of showboating in their primes – like the always classy Barry McGuigan – have praised Whittaker, saying while divisive, showboating creates interest and – oh yeah – boxing is the entertainment business.
Whether Whittaker can keep it up against better competition is the question. Ali and Leonard were able to do it against elite opponents. Hamed, not as much.
Time will tell.
@MatthewAguliar5 on Twitter
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