Some 15 years ago, Australia’s mainstream sporting community baulked incredulously as Anthony Mundine turned his back on a successful rugby league career to become a professional boxer.
Since then, he’s had two reigns as WBA super middleweight champion, participated in some of the biggest boxing events Australia has ever seen, and become the most polarising figure in Australian sports bar no one.
All of this without an amateur campaign, and all under the most intense scrutiny from fans and media alike.
Your average punter won’t have much sympathy for Mundine in that respect. They’ll tell you he brought the scrutiny upon himself with his irksome, disrespectful antics, which often served only to overshadow his achievements in the ring.
And they’d be right. Anthony Mundine is brash, cocky and loud of mouth. The quintessential example of a tall poppy.
Whether they be positive or negative (the majority leaning toward the latter) opinions on ‘The Man’ are rife, and passionate in nature. Why can’t he let his fists do the talking? Why can’t he be more respectful to his opponents?
Why can’t he shut up?
Boxing, by its very nature, is an unconscionably cruel sport. It’s not that its competitors risk their health, they openly destroy it for our entertainment. If they don’t put up a good showing, history teaches us that they’re likely be sneered at and referred to as a ‘bum’ or a ‘tomato can’.
And what do they get in return for being compared to a canned food preserve? The big bucks, of course.
In most sports, the prize money is pre-determined in relation with the competition or title they win. In tennis, for example, the same prize money is doled out to the winner of the US Open, whoever it may be, and regardless of their level of popularity.
In other sports such as football or basketball, in which individual athletes are paid on a sliding scale considering ability and marketability both, one can at least say that talent speaks for itself; the player who can put the ball in the back of the onion bag, or stuffs the stat sheet with points, assists and rebounds, will be recognised and, in turn, find themselves with a plethora of opportunities.
Sadly, boxing can make neither of these claims. A fighter winning a title unification bout may be paid less than a fighter in a title elimination bout. And a fighter who can deliver a boxing masterclass may not necessarily be invited to the big dance. Rather, history is littered with examples of fighters who found their opportunities reduced by their own skill.
So what is the missing ingredient? Bums on seats.
Skill, in all its forms, is not marketable. Being able to produce a stunning knockout, or a sustained, 12-round exhibition of technical brilliance, means near nought if you lack the box-office pull to entice a champion to risk his belt. In many cases, the onus is on the fighters themselves to say, or do, whatever they need to in order to generate the public interest to make a fight happen.
This is certainly not a new phenomenon. Self-promotion has been a necessity in the fight game since ‘Two Ton’ Tony Galento, a colourful character with a 76-23-5 record, taunted then world-heavyweight champion Joe Louis by declaring he’d “moida da bum” ahead of their 1939 title fight.
Years later, Muhammad Ali would take the art of self-promotion to unprecedented levels. His provocative antics and larger-than-life media persona reached far beyond the scope of the sporting arena into the realm of popular culture, drawing the admiration, and intense ire, of the world.
But, at its essence, one could at least say Ali’s schtick was as only as inflammatory as it was jestful. He laced his barbs with a healthy dose of natural charisma, concocting amusing rhymes and working press-conferences for laughs like a stand-up comic.
Adversely, today’s shrewd, self-promoting fighters seem to have dropped the charisma from the routine altogether, finding the pure vitriol of the masses to be the most potent marketing tool of all.
In 2014 Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather was once again named Forbes Magazine’s highest paid athlete, which is a remarkable achievement considering he competes in a sport many consider to be floundering against the ever increasing popularity of MMA. It’s more than an interesting coincidence that he’s also consistently placed in at least the top 10 of countless most-hated athletes lists since the beginning of the decade.
Whereas an athlete in any other sport might try to limit such negative press, Mayweather wallows in his terrible public image. He’s established himself as the undisputed king of pay-per-view despite coming across as the kind of guy who’d probably complain about the McDonald’s drive-through lane being too narrow to accommodate his Bugatti Veyron. Or his other Bugatti Veyron. Or his Lamborghini Aventador. You get the idea.
Furthermore, most critics malign his fighting style as boring. As is the case with most fighters who move up in weight classes, his knockout power has dwindled. So rather than producing the kind of crushing knockouts that he was so well known for in his early career, he’s reverted to a safety-first style that garners wide margins on the scorecards, but a cacophony of snores from the viewing public.
So why do so many people pay so much money to watch him fight?
The kind of figures Floyd Mayweather Jr generates when he fights are not representative of boxing fans. Mayweather is smart enough to know that the real money lies in engaging the peripheral sports fans. And the peripheral fans aren’t watching for the excitement of a good, clean fight. They’re watching on the chance that someone might finally shut him up and teach him some humility.
This is all well and good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t appreciate the quiet achievers. But appreciation and actual support are two very different things.
Robbie Peden was a decorated amateur boxer who represented Australia in the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Born in Queensland, he fought the majority of his professional career in the United States. His record boasts names such as Juan Manuel Marquez, who dispatched Manny Pacquaio to the canvas not too long ago, and Marco Antonio Barrera, a three-division champ with victories over Erik Morales, Naseem Hamed and Kevin Kelley. But Peden’s most enduring performances are his two fights with Nate Campbell.
Their first encounter took place on American soil in 2004. In the fifth round of a typically action-packed affair, Campbell doubled Peden over with a vicious body shot that delivered such blunt force trauma it made people in the back row wince. Visibly hurt, Peden responded the only way he knew how; by punching his way out, and in an ensuing exchange, caught Campbell with a glancing left hook. Unfazed by the blow, and perhaps deceived by Peden’s modest knockout percentage, Campbell dropped his hands about his waist and deliberately left his head unprotected. Not one to engage in foolish games, Peden promptly ended the fight by planting a crushing left on Campbell’s beckoning chin. Campbell met the canvas, and would not rise to beat the count.
The following year, Campbell got his rematch on Australian soil, for a piece of the super featherweight title. This time, Peden eventually won by referee stoppage in the eighth, leading on all three scorecards. Robbie Peden was a world champion.
A humble, tenacious fighter who brought home the big prize. All the desired qualities to be one of our most beloved sporting personalities.
Drop his name in front of your casual fan, and you might be left to ponder a blank stare and at least a moment of complete silence.
Having been inducted into the Australian boxing hall of fame three years past, Robbie Peden certainly not an unsung hero. He is known and respected by boxing fans the world over. But compared to the recognition we afford footy players, cricketers, and boxers we apparently hate, Peden toiled in relative anonymity in his own country.
Social media trends are by no means a decisive yardstick by which to judge an athletes popularity, but they can be telling. To give you some idea, Danny Green’s Facebook fan page has about 508,400 likes at time of writing. Anthony Mundine’s has about 64,750. The ‘Anthony Mundine is a moron‘ page has over 830. The closest thing Robbie Peden has to a fan page, containing only a wikipedia synopsis of his career, has 87.
Once again, these numbers are not intended to make any conclusive statements. But when the difference between popularity and notoriety is expressed so concisely in the disparity between Green and Mundine’s social media fan-bases, Peden’s paltry following would imply that he has neither.
The examples don’t stop there.
While contesting the WBA world lightweight championship in late 2010, Michael Katsidis put Juan Manuel Marquez on the canvas in the third round with a counter left-hook so picturesque it made highlight reels all over the world. Despite Katsidis’ best efforts, Marquez showed why he is a first-ballot hall of fame candidate, winning the fight via a tough ninth-round stoppage. In the post-fight interview, Marquez told HBO’s Larry Merchant (by way of a translator) that he expected such a challenge from Katsidis and praised him as a “valiant” opponent.
With the endorsement of a ring legend behind him and a knockdown that would live on for generations, Katsidis deserved no less than a hero’s welcome.
Yet any praise or attention he may have received from his home country was eclipsed a mere fortnight later by the media saturation of Garth Wood’s knockout of Anthony Mundine – a victory in a fight that was essentially meaningless and held no substantial stake in terms of titles or world rankings.
In the closing weeks of 2010, any Australian who even pretended to care about boxing with a straight face should have been talking about Michael Katsidis. Instead Wood was the toast of the sporting town, sitting atop the mountain of hostility that we, as a sporting nation, have for Anthony Mundine.
If that isn’t market power, nothing is.
Some would tell you that they only ever watch his fights to watch him lose. But the pay-per-view buys, sports wagers, ringside tickets and schooners at your local care not a whit as to why they were bought. And all the jeers, barbs and hatred people have lobbed at Anthony Mundine over the years have turned into money mid-flight and landed in his pockets.
So where does that leave us? Should we be ignoring him?
Probably not. You’d be doing yourself a disservice to ignore the kind of characters who make the fight game so unique. Plus, we all remember what happened at school when the teacher asked you not to encourage the attention-seeking kid in the class; his behaviour just got twice as annoying.
Despite how he may come across, Anthony Mundine is not a villain. Nor is Floyd Mayweather. They are merely astute at playing the villain’s game. And those who follow the sweet science have seen it all before.
In a sport where the competitors ratio of risk to reward can be so abysmally lop-sided, one could be forgiven for considering such theatrics a necessary evil. But if a little obnoxious self-promotion turns your stomach, don’t spend all your time and energy hating the culprit. Try to divert some of your attention to the quiet achievers out there.
In boxing, more so than other sports, money talks. And at the moment, it’s the self-styled bad guys who laugh all the way to the bank.