In defence of trash talk

The build-up to last weekend’s heavyweight boxing contest between Tony Bellew and David Haye was heated to say the least. Haye issued a series of blood-curdling threats to Bellew. Before Christmas, he claimed that his punches would make Bellew’s head ‘explode’. A later press conference ended in a scuffle, with a punch thrown by Haye. And last week, Haye claimed that Bellew should ‘enjoy his last days’, stating that he wanted to ‘cave his skull in’.

The fight did not end with heads exploding. Haye, an ageing 36-year-old fighter, was stopped in the 11th round by Bellew, who was fighting his first bout in the heavyweight division. As is typical, the alleged personal animosity visible before the fight disappeared at the end, with both fighters expressing admiration for the bravery and commitment of their opponent.

All the pre-match fireworks would, in normal circumstances, be quickly forgotten. Anyone who follows boxing knows that so-called trash talk is a promotional routine that is a tradition of professional boxing. The idea that the fighters hate one another makes the fight more exciting. Trash talk is also a tactic used by boxers to unsettle their opponent.

But some were apparently unsettled by Bellew and Haye’s jibes. The British Boxing Board of Control is going to investigate the pre-fight rumbles, and other commentators have suggested that the level of trash talk was unacceptable. Sports journalist Patrick Collins asked whether a ‘threat to public order’ took place in the build-up to the fight, implying that the police should have been involved. BBC journalist Garry Richardson even suggested that censorship of pre-match press conferences should be considered.

These commentators are suffering from historical amnesia. Some have unfavourably compared Haye’s obnoxious behaviour with the ‘wit’ of Muhammad Ali, conveniently forgetting that Ali’s trash talk was often much more brutal. Ali called Joe Frazier an ‘Uncle Tom’ in the run up to their first fight. (This was said in the context of the US civil-rights movement, so a more inflammatory insult is hard to imagine.) Ali also called Frazier a gorilla, which isn’t exactly witty. It’s also unlikely that Bellew will be losing much sleep over Haye’s empty threats to cave his skull in.

Boxing, and the way it is promoted, hasn’t changed. But society’s attitude towards it has. Calls to regulate what boxers can say is based on a low view of the public – that we will be dangerously influenced by boxers like Haye. In reality, boxing fans understand the ritual and pretence of trash talk, and often enjoy the over-blown and inventive bragging involved in pre-match dust-ups.

Of course boxers have been seriously injured in fights in the past. But they are trained professionals. They’re taught how to be controlled and measured when they get in the ring. They’re adults – just like the majority of those watching the fight at home. So let’s calm down about the trash talk, and enjoy the show.

Steve Bremner is a writer and teacher based in London.

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