By Ronan Keenan
Washington, D.C. — Boxers engaging in morally questionable behavior is an occurrence as old as the sport itself. But while a tendency to challenge social norms hasn't changed much, the marketability and recognition of such actions certainly has.
Ten years ago one fighter made a bet that would have a profound impact on the boxing business. The most talented fighter at the time was far from a mainstream name and felt a lack of stardom was due to poor marketing by his promoter. The fighter paid to be released from his contract, effectively gambling $750,000 that he could make superior revenue by promoting his bouts himself.
The fighter, Floyd Mayweather Jr, felt that Bob Arum’s Top Rank was applying an outdated formula to their marketing, with the promoter trying to turn him into a matinee idol of the Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya variety. Instead, Mayweather was convinced that embracing 21st century hip-hop culture would be necessary to attract notoriety, and with it more money.
“The [hip-hop and rap fan base] was an untapped market, a billion-dollar industry,” Mayweather’s business partner Leonard Ellerbe told the Las Vegas Review-Journal of the decision to start Mayweather Promotions. “We wanted to capture the urban market. But we also wanted to connect with the mainstream world.”
With a moniker change from “Pretty Boy” to “Money”, Mayweather’s image transition involved an embracement of the villainous role whereby he would extol his superior abilities and denigrate opponents, in stark contrast to the portrayed innocence and bright smile during his early Top Rank days. The flaunting of wealth and habitual presence in nightclubs became other pillars of his new persona, while numerous encounters with the law added to the infamy.
Mayweather’s embrace of hip-hop and ascension to the position of world's highest paid athlete has seen rappers such as Jay Z and 50 Cent enter the world of boxing promotion, and of course, fighters have tried to get in on the act. None are more notable than Adrien Broner. The 26-year-old has adhered to the Mayweather template, and in many ways surpassed the outrageous behavior of his acknowledged idol.
While Broner has won versions of world titles in four weight divisions, he is far from being the best fighter in the world, and is most synonymous with a litany of incidents that range from bizarre to heinous. What's more, Broner has been responsible for the release of the scandalous material through social media.
In 2013, Broner released a video in which he flushed $20 bills down the toilet. He later released another video in which he seemingly defecated into a toilet and subsequently flushed away more wads of money. Continuing with his social media activity, Broner posted a sex video showing him having intercourse with two women, and last month added a video in which he threw his change at a Walmart cashier.
And that’s not mentioning his brushes with the law. As a teenager he spent more than a year in prison for aggravated robbery and battery. In 2013 he was charged with battery after allegedly biting a security guard, and in 2015 he was convicted of a DUI offence in which he bragged to arresting officers that he was rich, famous, and had made more than $100 million in his boxing career [a considerable overestimate].
Most recently, Broner was charged with felony assault and aggravated robbery following a January incident in which he is accused of assaulting a man and robbing him of $12,000 at gunpoint outside of a Cincinnati bowling alley. What’s unusual with this incident for Broner, is that the arrest warrant is outstanding and he was licensed to fight in a title bout Friday night in Washington D.C. with an understanding that he will turn himself in on Monday.
To add another dollop of bad taste to the bout against Ashley Theophane, Broner failed to make the agreed 140 pound weight limit, thus forfeiting his WBA world title. Moreover, he refused to even try and shake off his extra 0.4 of a pound despite being given two hours to do so [shaving his bushy beard would have gone some way to making the limit].
Despite the distraction, Broner made relatively easy work of the limited Theophane, as expected, with the referee halting the main event contest in the ninth round to save the British fighter from further punishment. In the days leading up to the bout Broner understandably received copious criticism from boxing media commentators, with many expressing disgust at his behavior. Yet, if the wider general public felt disgust, it wasn’t reflected in the interest generated for Friday’s event. A sold out crowd of 8,172 packed the D.C. Armory arena for the Premier Boxing Champions fight card that was screened on Spike.
The attendance was almost double that of a HBO-televised event in the same arena last month that featured top heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz and a welterweight title fight between Jessie Vargas and Sadam Ali. Conversely, Friday’s undercard lacked major names, with emerging prospect Robert Easter the standout. In another page from the Mayweather template, Broner has formed his own promotional outfit, AB Promotions, and has signed Easter to its stable.
As was the case with Mayweather, no matter how much Broner’s outside-the-ring actions are reviled by media commentators, the fighter will continue to receive high-profile opportunities from event organizers and TV networks as long as the consumer keeps showing an interest. Unlike with most other sports, in boxing there is no universally recognized governing entity that can act as the moral police. And unless a marketable fighter is behind bars, his visibility will remain unaffected by his extracurricular conduct.
In an era when the human attention span appears to be dwindling by the second, Broner has managed to continually generate outrageous headlines and connect with a younger audience through a masterful use of social media. However, beyond the headlines there is a man with a compelling backstory. As his trainer Mike Stafford notes, “When Adrien was eight years old I’d drive the van out to his neighborhood and there’d be 20, 30 kids trying to get to the gym. Out of all those kids, there’s only about four or five left. The rest are dead or in jail or running the streets. Adrien’s one of the only ones left.”
When in a rare reflective mood back in 2013, Broner recalled: “I know what it's like, to wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'I'm hungry,' and see what's to eat and say, 'F—, I got to eat syrup and bread again … and water. I know what that feels like.” But playing the role of a likeable guy who overcame the odds didn’t help Mayweather at the box office, and would not be much benefit to Broner, who lacks Mayweather’s extraordinary natural talent.
Fittingly, with Broner’s notoriety at its peak, Mayweather was at ringside on Friday. Broner has habitually called Mayweather his “big bro” after the two struck up a friendship several years ago. Yet on this night Mayweather was ostensibly supporting Theophane, who is part of the Mayweather Promotions stable.
Notably, in recent weeks the relationship between Mayweather and Broner has seemingly gone sour with the pair engaging in a war of words through the media. In an interview, Mayweather criticized the images of Broner throwing change in Walmart, while Broner later countered with a video in which he implied Mayweather was a hypocrite for doing similar actions in nightclubs.
The newfound acrimony between the pair was heightened in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s bout when Broner attempted to jump over the ropes to seemingly confront Mayweather at ringside. Several minutes later during an in-ring interview, Broner challenged Mayweather to a physical confrontation. “I will never let a man disrespect me like [Mayweather did in the interview],” said Broner. “So he gotta see me. I don't care if we spar or we fight, let’s get it on.” The D.C. Armory crowd, which had earlier booed Broner’s performance at stages in the bout, loudly cheered the braggadocio statement.
Of course, trash talk in boxing can never be taken at face value, and the friction between Mayweather and Broner only served to engender more hype about Friday’s event, which was in the interest of both parties. Indications that the “heat” was manufactured came hours after the event had finished. Standing outside his dressing room, away from the bright lights and cheering crowd, Broner admitted that the dispute between the pair was a “misunderstanding” and that he had wanted to shake hands with Mayweather after the fight to “pay homage to a man I’ve learned so much from.”
Broner has undoubtedly been the best student of Mayweather’s self-promotion techniques and will surely find new ways to denigrate the sport and shock long-time observers before the year is over. He will probably also generate more articles, retweets, and shares than any fighter outside Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
As evidenced by the large, relatively youthful crowd that Broner attracted to the D.C. Armory, brashness sells. Broner is adhering to promotional techniques that work in the boxing business. Mayweather’s former promoter, Bob Arum, is regarded as one of the best ever, but even he admitted to a failure in recognizing the potential for a new style of marketing.
“What did I, an old Jewish white guy, know about marketing to hip-hop?” Arum said last year in reference to his promotion of Mayweather. “I knew how to promote to African-Americans, but it was older African-Americans, not the young people. Floyd knew how to connect with the young people, and that was our mistake.”
Ronan Keenan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rokeenan
Check out The Boxing Channel's review of the show featuring former WBC World Light Heavyweight champion Montell Griffin, who attended the fights live.