By Thomas Gerbasi
From a quick Google search at 10:15am eastern time on Thursday:
George Zimmerman Boxing – 119,000,000 results
Floyd Mayweather Boxing – 21,800,000 results
The best boxer of this era and a future Hall of Famer, Floyd Mayweather Jr., received less search engine results when attached to the word “boxing” than George Zimmerman.
Must be a glitch, you might say, but that would probably be a wrong assessment, simply because nothing has captivated the masses in recent days like the news that Zimmerman, the man acquitted of second degree murder and manslaughter in the February 26, 2012 slaying of Trayvon Martin, is currently preparing for a Celebrity Boxing match on March 1, with the frontrunner to face him being rapper DMX, though the 43-year-old’s publicist claims that no deal has yet been signed.
DMX was quoted by TMZ.com as saying “I am going to beat the living f*** out him … I am breaking every rule in boxing to make sure I f*** him right up,” and reportedly 15,000 people also asked for the chance to fight Zimmerman by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org . There are probably a lot more folks who would like that opportunity as well, but chose to ignore what has become a media circus of epic proportions.
You might even say we’re contributing to that circus by running this piece, but this is an issue that really can’t be ignored until something is said about it first. Then, by all means, ignore the “fight,” and don’t contribute anything to an event where a man who killed an unarmed teenager is deemed in today’s society as a celebrity.
I will not get into the ins and outs of the Martin case and debate about it here. I’ll simply make it quick for those who didn’t follow it: Zimmerman, on a neighborhood watch in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, followed Martin, 17, who he deemed as suspicious, even though he was told by his superiors not to. An altercation followed, and Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed teen, who was living in the community at the time. Zimmerman, now 30, claimed self-defense and was acquitted of the crime.
I believe the justice system got this one wrong. I’m not alone.
There are those who believed the verdict was just, though I have to assume that they wondered about that belief after two late 2013 incidents involving Zimmerman, his estranged wife, his girlfriend, and alleged threats involving a gun and a shotgun. Charges were not filed in the case with his estranged wife, and aggravated assault with a weapon, domestic violence battery, and criminal mischief charges were also not pursued in the case with his girlfriend, after she asked the charges to be dropped and wouldn’t cooperate with officials.
This is what qualifies as a celebrity these days. That’s the saddest part. Next on the ‘shaking my head’ list is that whether you believe Zimmerman to be innocent or guilty, the bottom line is that Trayvon Martin is dead, and yet the man who pulled the trigger is allowed to profit off that death. Think about that for a minute…or longer…and wonder about where we’re at if this is considered entertainment. And don’t get me wrong, I like lowbrow entertainment as much as the next guy. My Friday night last week was spent watching Johnny Knoxville in “Bad Grandpa” and I loved it. It was fun, entertaining, and it made me smile.
Zimmerman vs. anybody won’t evoke those same emotions. If anything, it will provoke the worst out of those who support him and those who don’t. And it will be ugly – in the venue, online, and throughout the media world.
Would seeing Zimmerman get blasted by a left hook or sent to the canvas by a crushing right cross please some people? Probably. But that doesn’t make it right or erase what happened on February 26, 2012. Think of it as a public execution where the one getting executed has the opportunity to fight back and win.
This is entertainment?
Hey, if former child stars, C-level movie actors, and former reality TV participants can make a few bucks by putting on the gloves, more power to them. But someone who made it into the public eye due to a tragic killing? No, no, no. If this is acceptable, what’s next? I shouldn’t even ask because someone will find a way to come up with something lower.
Yet my original point, as a boxing writer and fan of the sport, is that the public will pay more attention to this than they do to the men and women who compete in the sweet science. And believe me, I know that there are those who look at boxing and equate it to being a home for thugs and the lower end of society, with this Zimmerman debacle being more fuel for their fire. Back in 2005, I wrote an open letter to reality show king Mark Burnett, one of the creators of The Contender, who was quoted as saying the following to IGN – FilmForce before the premiere of the series:
"Nobody cares anymore about boxing, because nowadays boxers are felons or just unlikable characters,” said Burnett. “This show is our first step in changing that."
Bold. General. Stereotypical. Wrong. And I let Burnett know it. He never responded to the letter, but I know he read it, as I later received a lengthy phone call from another one of the principals with the show, Jeff Wald, who gave me chapter and verse on why Burnett didn’t really feel that way. It didn’t matter. Some will always hold their biases and prejudices, and you have to just call them on it sometime.
I won’t deny that there are plenty of folks inside and outside the ropes who wouldn’t be described as angels, but for the most part, boxing has been a redemptive sport for so many. Just look at future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, who served time in Graterford Penitentiary, got out, got a job, never got in trouble with the law again, and began a march to the middleweight championship of the world and eventually greatness. He is also a non-smoker, non-drinker, and a husband and father who, at 49, is still winning and defending world championships.
That’s a role model. That’s a celebrity. Google can only muster 1,420,000 search results on him when matched with the word “boxing” though.
Support boxing and boxers. They deserve it a lot more than George Zimmerman.
FOR OLD TIMES SAKE
Here’s a copy of that letter to Mark Burnett, which was originally posted on MaxBoxing.com in 2005. It’s funny, but looking back more than eight years ago, the only thing I would change was listing former heavyweight contender Clifford Etienne in the piece, as it was clear that any redemption he found in the ring was only fleeting, as he now spends the rest of his life in a Louisiana prison. Sad, especially since he had every reason to stay out of trouble and live a productive life.
Anyway, without further ado…
An Open Letter to Mark Burnett
The Glassjaw Chronicles by Thomas Gerbasi
I am writing this to you without having watched the premiere episode of your latest reality series, ‘The Contender’. I guess that may not be the fairest way to start things off here, but hey, if you can make statements to the world without having any basis in fact, so can I. It’s America, and freedom of speech is one of our greatest freedoms, and one that has helped you become a wealthy man based on presenting a version of ‘reality’ that just glues people to the television set.
Whether its Donald Trump firing wannabe executives, ‘survivors’ drinking cow blood, or just Rocco and his mama making meatballs, you have created an industry here in the States, and I will refrain from using the phrase my late father was always fond of – “the masses are asses”.
Now you’ve turned to boxing, our little corner of the sports world that you and your partner Jeffrey Katzenberg hope to change. That’s an admirable goal, and we can put your name on the list of everyone else that has proclaimed to be changing boxing over the last 100 years. But what I take issue with are some recent comments you and your partner made in a recent article on IGN – FilmForce, where you gave your .02 on boxing circa 2005.
"Nobody cares anymore about boxing, because nowadays boxers are felons or just unlikable characters,” you said in the piece by Edgar Arce. “This show is our first step in changing that!"
Felons or just unlikable characters? Well, where do I begin, Mark? This is akin to your own brother having buckteeth and crossed eyes. I can make fun of him, but you can’t. How dare you attack the entire roster of professional boxers with one fell swoop?
Are there unlikable fighters in the sport today? Sure.
Are there guys who have done time? Of course. But ask Clifford Etienne, Diego Corrales, Rico Hoye, or any other number of fighters who have done time about the redemptive powers of the ring. And dare I add that the three aforementioned boxers - who you would just toss aside because of their pasts – are three of the nicer guys in the game.
But more importantly, look at Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins did hard time in Graterford Penitentiary as a young man, yet he came out, got a job, kept on the straight and narrow, and began a march to the middleweight championship of the world. He now holds court as the champion of the 160-pound division, a distinction he has held for almost ten years. He is also a non-smoker, non-drinker, and a dedicated husband and father. Not bad for an ex-felon, eh Mark?
But let’s continue.
Unlikable characters? Jeez, I think guys like Jeff Lacy, Wayne McCullough, Vernon Forrest, Mike Anchondo, Paulie Malignaggi – wait, wait. I was going to start listing the nice guys of this game here, but I would crash our server with the amount of them I would list. In fact, in interviewing fighters full-time for the last five years (and part time since 1996), I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the fighters who I just didn’t like. Maybe it’s just ignorant comments like yours that perpetuate the myth that fighters are just thugs with no redeeming value other than punching other human beings in the head. Thank God you were able to find the only 16 ‘likable’ fighters in the game.
And I know you’re a busy man, Mark, but if you did a little research, or even spoke to the boxing people involved in your show – like Sugar Ray Leonard, Prentiss Byrd, or Jackie Kallen – you would see that there is more to the average fighter, whether he’s a world champion or a four round prelim kid, then what you could fit in a snappy soundbite.
You also said, "People today don't care about boxing like before because they don't have good role models to root for anymore."
My daughter is nine years old. I wouldn’t mind if she looked to someone like Juan Diaz – who is a world champion and full-time college student – as an example of how to live your life. Or she could look at Cal Brock, who has a college degree, has worked in the banking industry, and is also a tap dancer along with being a heavyweight contender. And don’t forget Chazz Witherspoon, who is finishing up his degree in pharmaceutical marketing at St. Joseph’s University. That’s just touching the iceberg. What about those who were born in horrible situations, had nothing growing up, and who worked hard and persevered to make something of themselves, like many fighters? That’s inspiring to me and a good example to those who will see that hard work can pay off in this world.
And not to knock the fighters of the past - the ones you idolize as perfect role models – but again, if you did your research, you would know that a lot of our sacred heroes from the past weren’t angels – but humans with flaws like anyone else. It’s just that today, the media plays up those human flaws and the negativity, a climate that suits the business you’re in. Nobody tunes into ‘The Apprentice’ to see how a business is run by Trump – they want to see people get fired and they want to see someone like Omarosa be a bitch. Nobody among the five of us who viewed it watched ‘The Restaurant’ to learn how to make lasagna - we watched to see Rocco battle it out with Jeffrey.
But as far as role models go in the sport of boxing, these are people who for the most part who are forced to live clean lives to excel, who have complete dedication to their craft, and who have risen from less than ideal circumstances to chase a dream. These aren’t elite football or basketball players who have been recruited since they were 12 years old – these athletes came up the hard way in a hard business. Give them a little respect.
And while we’re on the subject of role models, you said to IGN, "People want to see someone they love to cheer for, someone who is a good role model, another Rocky."
Very true, and we’ve already got our modern-day heroes like Arturo Gatti, guys who always give you your money’s worth when they step into the ring. But to use Rocky Balboa - a fictional character made famous by another one of your partners in this venture, Sylvester Stallone – as an example as a good role model, can I nit-pick for just a moment?
If I remember correctly, wasn’t Rocky Balboa a legbreaker for the mob? Not exactly the type of profession I would want my child to look at as admirable. And didn’t Balboa have brain damage by the fifth movie, rendering him unable to box? Wow, that’s something to aspire to and cheer for, eh Mark? Sure, the fictional Balboa was never in a bad fight, but based on your criteria, Balboa is a typical fighter – “a felon or just unlikable”.
How could we cheer for that?
Mark, I must be honest. Unlike yourself, I will keep an open mind when I view ‘The Contender’, and I will view it, as it comes right after ‘American Idol’ and ‘Growing Up Gotti’ and right before ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ on my Monday night TV lineup. But if you’re going to tell a boxing story, tell it right. Your partner Jeffrey Katzenberg told IGN, "We don't want to compete with the big boys, we just want to present a wholesome product with inspirational boxers that everyone can cheer for."
Well, you’re not going to compete with the big boys because you don’t know the game, first off. All the money in the world can’t change that. Stick to what you know and what you do well. But by that same token, don’t make this a series of quick camera cuts, soft lighting, and mood music.
That’s not boxing.
But there is a beauty among the brutality that I hope you can capture. And remember that it’s all about the fighters – and you’ve got some good ones there like Peter Manfredo Jr., Sergio Mora and Ishe Smith, among others. Tell their stories and also tell the story of Najai Turpin, who tragically took his life before he was able to see himself on national television. Tell his story, and don’t just relegate him to a little screen with a date of birth and death. Give him a tribute that his daughter can be proud of.
You don’t know boxing, Mark, but maybe you can use your talents to tell the human stories that make up this sport. And when you multiply the stories of your 16 fighters by hundreds, then maybe you’ll see the sport differently.