“WELL DONE, he’s thirteen,” moaned Neville Southall as he watched Michael Owen wheel away in celebration of a goal scored against the young goalkeeper Southall was mentoring for Owen’s Soccer Skills show in 1999. Said with feeling and no small amount of disdain, the reminder of the boy’s age, a detail relevant to all but Owen, would not stop the star of the show from raising his arm, smiling for the camera, or having his fun. Nor would it stop him saying, with no hint of irony, “Game, set and match, Owen,” and giving birth, unwittingly, to a video clip destined to go viral many years later.
The reason why is obvious. With just four words Southall had managed to convey his feelings towards both Owen and the bigger issue of unjustified celebration. Meanwhile, Owen, either lacking the self-awareness to realise this or care, conveyed, in rejoicing the way he did, the kind of detachment and ruthless streak which made him such a prolific goalscorer.
Some athletes, of course, are able to switch this tap on and off, whereas others, like Owen, find it trickier. For some, the ones who struggle, a competitive streak and incessant need to win is the very foundation of their personality; in some cases, often coming at the expense of one.
In boxing, we see a version of this video every time a grossly talented and hyped prospect engages in a bout of showboating against a woefully overmatched opponent. Typically, this happens – and sticks in the throat – at four and six-round level, where there is very little danger coming back at them and therefore next to no chance of the humiliation changing hands. It is for this reason it appears so ugly, not unlike Owen’s celebration in the face of a child.
It seems, on the one hand, unearned for a boxer to express superiority in this way, when their superiority was established not during the fight itself but when the fight was initially made; when the tale of the tape revealed the gulf in class between them and their opponent through a series of numbers. Also, given the inherent violent nature of the sport, there is surely a cruelty to the idea of showboating in the company of an overmatched opponent; a cruelty that surpasses even that of Owen mocking a child. Consider, after all, the physical pain the opponent will in that moment be experiencing, not to mention the psychological pain of being embarrassed, perhaps in front of a large crowd or on television for millions at home to see. That can’t be nice, to be treated this way. Moreover, the feelings involved in this baiting are not feelings the journeyman opponent expected to feel when agreeing to take the fight and provide this novice pro with rounds. To be beaten and left in physical pain are occupational hazards; symptoms of the sport and their role in it. But to then be humiliated in such a way as to demean their role in the sport – an invaluable one – is the sort of pain from which they should be protected at all times.
Then again, maybe it’s too idealistic to think that. Maybe, in light of the fact some of our most revered fighters are celebrated for their mind games and ability to take risks on fight night, we should cut today’s showboaters some slack and see them as only part of a well-established lineage. Men like Ben Whittaker, for instance, who came under fire for toying with Jordan Grant last Saturday, is hardly breaking new ground with his behaviour, nor pushing any kind of envelope. Already, despite being just three fights into a pro career, he has drawn obvious comparisons to “Prince” Naseem Hamed, who of course messed around long before Whittaker and, because it brought him fame, inspired a spate of subsequent copycats. Blame Hamed, then, or Muhammad Ali, if you have a problem with someone like Whittaker now trying to express himself in this same manner. Blame yourself, too, for once being entertained by those men and now considering entertainment to be a key component of the hurt business.
Because, clearly, Whittaker’s desperation to be seen and become a meme or a viral video clip stems as much from the idea that boxers must be “personalities” or “brands” these days as any kind of showboating heritage. He is, after all, just another victim of the social media age; this era in which everybody is offered the opportunity to become the centre of his or her own universe and see the rest of the world as merely the supporting cast. Whittaker’s behaviour, in the ring at least, smacks of that. Above all else, he wants you to notice him and he wants these early fights, all of which are routine to the point of tedium, to stand for something greater than just another predictable “W” on his pro record.
In some ways, it’s a shrewd approach, too. He is talked about, whether positively or negatively, and he will, like Hamed, and like Chris Eubank, become a boxer fans will (a) remember and (b) want to watch, either to see him continue winning or get his comeuppance. That, in an age of indifference, short attention spans and a million other screen-based options, is crucial for a boxer with a television platform. If in doubt, think how Whittaker’s bizarre antics against Grant, 6-3 (0), were contextualized perfectly by the comparatively vanilla display produced by Joshua Buatsi in the night’s 10-round main event.
Of the two, it goes without saying, Whittaker will be the one who inspires people to tune in again next time. He also does enough, Whittaker, both during the fight and after it has finished to endear him to fans potentially put off by his vulgar displays of power. For example, in between the goofy posturing, he tends to land eye-catching punches and even finishes fights, habits preferable to using showboating to simply mask technical deficiencies or a lack of killer instinct. As well as that, when it’s all over, and he has both embarrassed an opponent and stopped them, he makes a point of visiting his beaten opponent and showing them the respect they not only deserve but were unable to detect in Whittaker’s demeanour during the fight itself.
If nothing else, this indicates Whittaker’s desire to emphasise his superiority via showboating is less an attempt to make another human being feel inferior and more an attempt to get himself going, create angles, and ultimately have fun doing something others deem dangerous and scary. You, the purist, and them, the opponents, are well within your rights to hate him for that. But, as with anything in life, hate must first follow an attempt to understand.