Thursday, January 23, 2014


Back when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, he hit upon a plan to sell tickets to his fights. Ali studied the antics of a professional wrestler who went by the name of Gorgeous George. George loudly proclaimed both his beauty and his superiority over his prospective opponents. Everybody hated him and they flocked to his matches to see him get beat. He only seldom got beat. The more he trash talked, the more people hated him, the more they flocked to his matches to see him get beaten. The more he won, the more people hated him, the more they flocked to his matches to see him get beaten. The trick was to keep winning. If a trash talker made a habit of losing, he was a laughingstock, not a villain. Of course, fixed matches kept George winning, but talent kept Ali on top.  

So Ali sold a lot of tickets with his mouth. Few may now remember that before he was “The Greatest,” he was “The Louisville Lip.” He did something else with his trash talking—he got into the minds of his opponents. His victories over Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier came as much from getting into their heads as from superior boxing ability. Liston was the “Bear,” and Frazier was the “Gorilla.” People remember the “Thrilla in Manila.” How many remember Ali carrying around a rubber gorilla and pounding on it while saying words to the effect that this was what he was going to do to the gorilla at the Thrilla in Manila? Frazier never forgave him, and had I been in Frazier’s shoes, I wouldn’t have either.
When did Ali do his trash talking? Before the match. Unless there was real bad blood between him and his opponent (as with Ernie Terrell), he had good things to say about his opponents after the match. Why? Nothing constructive could be accomplished by running down his opponents after the match. All he could do with his trash talk after the match would be to injure his opponent and take the luster off of his victory. Talking about how “sorry” your opponent is after you defeat him accomplishes only three things: (1) It hurts his feelings; (2) it suggests that your victory was not much of an accomplishment because it was achieved against an inferior opponent; and (3) it makes you look like a jerk to no purpose.

A lot of athletes since Ali have emulated his trash talking style without understanding why he did it. I suggest that this is what was going on with Richard Sherman immediately after the Seahawks victory over the 49ers.  From some of the comments he has reportedly made in the wake of the uproar over his display, it appears that he has realized his mistake. Only time will really tell.

Sherman might learn something from the example of Fred “the Hammer” Williamson in Superbowl I. Williamson was a brash defensive back who had a tendency to “sell tickets” with trash talk. In the leadup to Superbowl I, he talked about how he was going to knock the Green Bay receivers out of the game. He became something of an object of ridicule when it turned out that he was the one who got knocked out of the game.
Something all trash talkers need to have is a thick skin. By their antics they invite retaliation. Ali knew how to handle the backlash from his trash talk. Ali used to predict the round in which he would knock his opponents out, and he was often correct. When he fought Doug Jones, however, his tongue wrote a check that his fists couldn’t cover. He began by saying that he was going to knock Jones out in six rounds. Later he cut the number to four. The fight went the distance and Ali won a ten round decision. When it was pointed out to him that he had failed in both his predictions, he defended himself by saying that he was correct after all because six and four equaled ten.

Sherman, it seems, is somewhat better at dishing out disrespect than he is at taking it. When some people called him a thug for his comments, he responded that his critics were being racist and that “thug” was code for the “N-word.” He went on to point out that predominately white hockey players regularly engage in thuggery when they fight on the ice.
Here’s where I agree with Sherman: (1) When he proclaimed that Michael Crabtree was sorry, he wasn’t acting like a thug, he was acting like a jerk. There’s enough real thuggery in professional sports without characterizing boorish behavior as thuggery. (2) Pro hockey players who engage in fist fights on the ice are acting like real thugs. That’s one reason I don’t watch pro hockey.
Here’s where I disagree with Sherman: The mere fact that someone called him a thug doesn’t mean that the name-caller is a racist. It means that the name-caller is engaging in hyperbolic language by taking mere jerkery and transforming it into thuggery. The name caller is doing exactly the same thing that Sherman did to Michael Crabtree when he took Crabtree’s misfortune on one play and suggested that it showed Crabtree to be a sorry player.
I have a suggestion for aspiring young athletes who might want to emulate Sherman's behavior: (1) Don't say things that make you look like a jerk. (2) If you simply must act like a jerk, don't dish out verbal abuse if you can't take it.