My front-row balcony seat at the Miami Beach Auditorium gave me a good view of the ring, but when I heard a commotion coming from just inside the entrance to the ground floor, I had to lean over the railing and crane my neck to see what was going on. A noisy group of people was gathered around a handsome young man who was shouting and waving a fistful of money. At first it was difficult to understand what he was saying above the hubbub, but even at a distance, it was easy to recognize Cassius Clay.
I soon realized that the Louisville Lip was bad-mouthing Sonny Liston, insisting he would "whup the Big Ugly Bear" and offering to back up his words with cash if anyone cared to bet against him. I'm not sure if anybody took the bait that night, but two months later, in the same building, Clay stopped the supposedly unbeatable Liston and won the heavyweight championship.
The man who would soon become Muhammad Ali was already a prolific trash-talker by the time I first saw him in the flesh. He would eventually be acknowledged as the finest proponent of the verbal affront to ever duck between the ropes, the one who turned it into an art form. But Ali was far from the first or the last. When it comes to trash talk, boxing is a natural.
Currently, Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are generally regarded as boxing's best trash-talkers, but for the first time in years they have a serious contender in newcomer Tyson Fury. The undefeated British heavyweight, who fights Steve Cunningham on Saturday in New York City, is notorious for his outrageously raw comments. Following a series of inflammatory tweets aimed at heavyweight contender David Price earlier this year, the British Boxing Board of Control told Fury to tone down his rhetoric.
Although there is an epidemic of trash talk throughout the modern sports world, boxing had a leg up due to its longevity and confrontational nature. It's impossible to know which boxer hurled the first insult, but it was undoubtedly during the early days of bare-knuckle prizefighting.
Fittingly, it was a fighter who spanned the bare-knuckle and gloved eras that became America's first superstar, and trash talk played no small role in his rise. During his countless stage appearances, this Boston Irishman of working-class stock would introduce himself by bellowing, "My name's John L. Sullivan and I can lick any son-of-a-bitch alive."
It was trash talk before the term was coined and became his personal catchphrase. According to historian Elliott J. Gorn's book "The Manly Art": "Journalists marveled at [Sullivan's] creative swearing, his clever epithets for opponents and prodigious boasts about himself."
Until the arrival of Ali, the king of trash-talkers was arguably Jack Johnson. As the first black heavyweight champion, Johnson was already in a dicey position, but that didn't deter him one iota from spouting off whenever he felt like it. Johnson's specialty was taunting his opponents during the fight, a trait that would eventually became a prominent part of Ali's repertoire.
During his December 1908 title-winning bout with Tommy Burns, Johnson mocked Burns from the onset: "Poor little Tommy, who told you you were a fighter?" And on the rare occasion when Burns managed to land a punch, Johnson laughed and said, "Poor, poor, Tommy. Who taught you to hit? Your mother?" Although most of what he said was relatively banal, it was always accompanied by a sardonic smile.
Johnson was, of course, doing more than winning the heavyweight championship. He was, as Randy Roberts wrote in "Papa Jack," "physically and verbally destroying the white man's myth" of superiority.
Many believe trash talk had its roots in the oral tradition of "signifying," a form of good-natured needling that originated in black cultures, sometimes called the "dozens." If that theory is correct, trash talk has obviously spread well beyond those origins.
There are two parts to trash talking: content and delivery. Few fighters master both, and it is content that's usually lacking. Mayweather's content is pretty standard fare. His harangue at a recent photo shoot with Robert Guerrero, his opponent in a May 4 pay-per-view, was a typical example. Floyd kept repeating the same phrases over and over: "This is the real deal. You can't hit what you can't see. I don't know who you be. I'm going to give it to you anyway you want it. Easy work." It lacked originality and didn't really go anywhere.
On the other hand, Mayweather's delivery is top-notch. He gets in his opponent's face in an intimidating manner and delivers his message in a loud dismissive tone, seldom pausing to take a breath and hardly letting his adversary get a word in. Unless you're Hopkins -- who has perfected both content and delivery -- it's impossible to outtalk Mayweather. Ricky Hatton handled it better than most by arriving at their New York City press conference wearing an oversized pair of headphones and blithely ignoring him.
Hopkins, the dean of today's trash-talkers, is up there with the best of all time. You're never quite sure what to expect. The Executioner's gambit of delivering his opponent a "last meal" at the final prefight press conference (in Felix Trinidad's case, a bag of beans and rice) was both creatively insulting and funny. At other times, Hopkins goes straight-up street style, like when he told Joe Calzaghe he's "never let a white boy beat me."
Trash-talking boxers can be loosely grouped in several categories. Mike Tyson, for instance, is at the very top of the menacing class, and his "I wanna eat his children" tirade is a classic of the genre. James Toney (who once quipped, "Bernard Hopkins ain't old-school, he an old fool."), David Haye, Dereck Chisora and Hopkins also belong in this group.
Trash-talkers such as Adrien Broner, Naseem Hamed, Hector Camacho and Mayweather are examples of the popinjay variety -- vain, conceited individuals who dress and behave extravagantly, and never stop jabbering.
While Fury's trash talk is comprised of crude comments and an overdose of profanity, his delivery is akin to that of a stand-up comedian, giving what he says a peculiar showbiz quality. His rogue antics have split Britain's boxing fans into two camps: those who love his edgy style and wicked outbursts, and those who think he is a foulmouthed braggart beneath contempt. Either way, if Fury gets past Cunningham, bigger paydays lay ahead, including a possible shot at one of the Klitschko brothers.
The growth of trash talk has been greatly enhanced by television, the Internet, and social media. Television allowed millions of people to see and hear boxers in ways fans never had before, and if one of them said something noteworthy, the word spread quicker than ever.
The Internet ratcheted up the intensity, and social media gave everybody, including the fighters, unlimited access to new modes of expressing themselves. Whether that's been a good thing is a matter of personal taste.
Whether trash talk is effective beyond helping sell tickets is a difficult question to answer. Jonathan Katz, a New York City-based clinical sports psychologist, might have been on the right track when he wrote, "Some players feel they can intimidate other players by getting into their heads, but many athletes are putting time and energy into something that distracts them from playing their best. Playing well is the most intimidating factor."
But boxers are not just athletes and they don't play. They are fighters, and that changes everything.