10 June 2016

Fighting Words: The Power of Trash Talk

Daniel Gallan

Muhammad Ali was more than a boxer. He was a humanitarian, activist and poet who brought laughter and light to so many people who only knew darkness and despair. His ability to spin a yarn for the press or hurl verbal jibes at his opponent were unrivalled and no one since has been able to match Ali in this regard. CONQA Sport takes a look at the art of trash talk and finds that it exists within a subjective realm where what is appropriate or not comes down to the individual's perception. We also pick our 12 best scathing moments of trash talk in sports history. 

Muhammad Ali (the Cassius Clay) hours before his first title fight with Sonny Liston. Ali flew into a rage and had to be restrained by several people. Ali's trash talk was otherworldly and unrivalled. Image supplied by Action Images.

Muhammad Ali (the Cassius Clay) hours before his first title fight with Sonny Liston. Ali flew into a rage and had to be restrained by several people. Ali's trash talk was otherworldly and unrivalled. Image supplied by Action Images.

The world is still mourning the death of Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest athlete who ever lived. Ali was not just a boxer who dazzled with speed and power. His presence transcended sport.

He was a humanitarian and political activist, courageously standing up for those who saw him as a hero in the face of an all-powerful and oppressive regime. His legend has not only been cemented by his actions, but equally by his words.

The man was a poet; a quotes machine who knocked out historic phrases with as much regularity as he knocked out opponents. In this regard, Ali truly was the greatest.

The litany of famous one liners, double entendres and comical quips that came of Ali’s mouth ensured that pre-fight weigh-ins and interviews were events unto themselves. If a man’s words are the narrative to his philosophies, two quotes in particular from Ali sum up the great man’s ethos:

“It ain’t bragging if you can back it up,” and “Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far”.

For Ali, his words were cannons in his arsenal to go along with his left and right hands. Beyond the range of his 198cm reach lay his opponent’s psyche and no one was better than he at landing blows in the subconscious mind of another boxer.

In 1964, at just 22 years old, when his name was still Cassius Clay, the ‘Louisville Lip’ had a shot at the World Heavyweight title when he faced the imposing Sonny “The Big Bear” Liston.

Liston was a bruising figure with a criminal record (he had learned to box in prison) and had alleged ties to organised crime. He was the hardest hitter in the world, perhaps of all time, and he was still the champ. None of that mattered to Ali.

The night before the fight, Ali’s sparring partner appeared on CBS’s ‘I’ve Got a Secret’ and read out a rhyming diatribe that is the greatest piece of trash talk promotion in boxing’s history. Ali himself told the world that he would use Liston’s body as a bear rug in his home. He droned on about how ugly he thought Liston was and that the world deserved a “pretty” champion.

Ali went on to win the fight and cement his place in history.

Whether you call it smack talk, trash talk or sledging; running your mouth to intimidate or unsettle an opponent is a tactic that has been used since the inception of competitive sport. Back when boxing was bare-knuckled, John L Sullivan proclaimed, “My name is John L Sullivan, and I can lick any son of a bitch in the place.”

Few phenomena in elite sport divide opinion like trash talk. If it spews forth from a hated rival it is labelled bombastic and arrogant. If it floats like a butterfly from the mouth of a hero it’s praiseworthy poetry.

Modern culture plays a role in encouraging it. Commercials from athletic companies like adidas venerate the tactic and make role models out of those who employ it. Young athletes find themselves pulled in opposite directions. On one side is the Corinthian ideal that demands respect for the opposition and fair play. On the other side is professionalism and pop culture that places an emphasis on winning at all costs. If you happen to have a few choice words with the opposition along the way, so be it.

Trash talk thrives in combat sport due to the nature of the game. While boxing and MMA have rules, the point is to hurt your opponent. Some rants, like Mike Tyson’s promise to eat Lennox Lewis’ children, might cross the line for some people, but generally everything is taken with either a pinch of salt or used as motivation once the bell rings. Fighters mostly view words for what they are and realise they’re not as harmful as sticks and stones.

It’s in other sports that trash talking enters murky waters. In the 2006 FIFA World Cup final, France and Italy were locked at 1-1 in extra time. Marco Materazzi, Italy’s centre back, had been marking France’s playmaker and captain, Zinedane Zidane, for much of the match.

As defenders do, the Italian had been grabbing at Zidane’s shirt throughout the encounter. When Zidane confronted Materazzi, explaining that he would have to wait until after the game if he wanted his shirt, the defender replied, “No thanks. I’d rather have your sister.”

A man takes pictures of a bronze sculpture titled 'Coup de Tete' by Algerian-born French artist Adel Abdessemed during its installation on the Corniche in Doha October 7, 2013. The sculpture, which was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority, was removed on October 28, 2013 after generating criticism from religious conservatives, according to local media. The art work portrays French footballer Zinedine Zidane headbutting Italian player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup. Image supplied by Action Images

A man takes pictures of a bronze sculpture titled 'Coup de Tete' by Algerian-born French artist Adel Abdessemed during its installation on the Corniche in Doha October 7, 2013. The sculpture, which was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority, was removed on October 28, 2013 after generating criticism from religious conservatives, according to local media. The art work portrays French footballer Zinedine Zidane headbutting Italian player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup. Image supplied by Action Images

Zidane then turned around and head-butted the Italian full in the chest, flooring the big man under a crushing blow. Zidane was shown a red card in the final professional game of his illustrious career and had to watch from the sidelines as his country lost the final on penalties.

Materazzi defended himself, arguing that his comments were pretty standard stuff when compared to the usual banter that can be heard on football pitches around the world. Arsenal goalkeeper, Petr Cech, told the Sun that foul and personally insulting language is “entrenched” in the sport. If taking offence is subjective and insults exist along a sliding scale, where do you draw the line?

This ambiguity creates a disparity in our judgement of athletes who employ trash talk as well as what is appropriate and what isn't. Tennis is a sport that likes to see itself in an idealistic light, with its flagship tournament, Wimbledon, harkenin back to a time where sport was played in all white clothes and aristocrats watched on while enjoying champagne and strawberries.

Despite the pomp, tennis greats Borris Becker and John McEnroe have both called for more trash talk among the game’s elite. McEnroe told the Guardian, “It was fun when guys were trash talking each other.” Few would argue. Sport is entertainment and if watching two adults hurl insults at each other wasn’t gripping the reality TV industry wouldn’t exist.

It’s when things start getting too personal that lines get crossed. When Australian tennis star, Nick Kyrgios told Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka that another player was “banging” his girlfriend, the sport’s community unanimously condemned the comment.

McEnroe though, offered a different perspective for Fox Sports: “I think that’s entertaining and part of one-on-one sport. I’m not saying they should go out and start cursing each other, but this is an extremely mental game.” He went on to say that what Kyrgios did happens a lot in other sports, suggesting that in the heat of competition, boundaries are blurred.

When Michael Jordan, the man nicknamed “the GOAT (Greatest of All Time)”, stepped off Muggsy Bouges and allowed him a free, undefended shot at the basket, he shouted, “Shoot it you fucking midget!” Bouges, 160cm and incredibly short for a basketball player, missed. He later admitted that verbal jibe from Jordan ruined his career. Was this any different to the exchange between Kyrgios and Wawrinka? It all depends on who you’re asking.

Ultimately, trash talk is just a tool used to achieve a desired result: winning. Researchers at Florida State University found that trash talking can improve performance by as much as 46%. It boosts self-confidence and belief that your opponent is weaker as a result of it.

It’s not going away, nor should it. Sport needs characters that run their mouth and stir the pot. It would be a dreary affair without pantomime villains. Instead of placing muzzles on our athletes we should allow them to bark. Muhammad Ali will pass into folklore for what he said as much as for what he did. Silencing superstars could deprive the world of another athlete of his ilk. 

CONQA's Picks

Justin Woolford (@justinwoolford):

  • "You're sweet. I'm going to make sure you kiss me good with those big lips" - Mike Tyson, one of the most feared men in boxing's history, sought to emasculate Razor Ruddock ahead of their fight.
  • Rod Marsh: "How's your wife and my kids?"; Ian Botham: "Wife's fine. Kids are retarded" - this witty comeback from 'Beefy' Botham is pure comedic gold.
  • "Trash talk? Smack talk? This is an American term that makes me laugh. I simply speak the truth. I'm an Irish man." - Connor 'The Notorious' McGregor, MMA's superstar, shares his thoughts on trash talk.

Claire Early (@clearley_7)

  • "When my time on Earth is gone, and my activities here are past, I want them to bury me upside down, and my critics can kiss my ass" - Bobby Knight, one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, has some pretty specific burial plans. 
  • "Pele should go back to a museum" - Diego Maradona brushed off suggestions from Pele that he took the Argentinian coaching job because he needed the money. 
  • "You just want to make sure you're putting your best foot forward" - one of 10 foot references that Wes Welker, then wide receiver for the New England Patriots, worked into a press conference. Welker's Patriots were set to play the New York Jets, whose coach, Rex Ryan, had been embarrassed by a public foot fetish scandal that had surfaced just weeks before the clash.
Micahel Jordan (l) was never shy to have a few words with an opponent. 

Micahel Jordan (l) was never shy to have a few words with an opponent. 

Kyle Dutton (@duttonkyle)

  • "I’m coming down. I’m going to dribble it between my legs twice. I’m going to pump fake and then I’m going to shoot a jumper. And then I’m going to look at you" - and that is exactly what Michael Jordan did shortly after telling Nick Anderson what he planned on doing. 
  • "I've seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won." - Muhammad Ali never thought his opponents stood any chance against him.
  • "Because every time I [sleep with] your wife she gives me a biscuit."  - Zimbabwe's rotund cricketer, Eddo Brandes, responds to Australia's Glenn McGrath queries about his weight.

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

  • “Four more years boys!” – One of the world’s greatest ever scrumhalves, George Gregan, had a knack of getting under the skin of the opposition. In the dying stages of the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final, Gregan reminded the soon to be vanquished New Zealand All Blacks how long they’d have to wait for another shot at the title.
  • “I’m just looking around to see who’s gonna finish second”­ – Trash talk is all about confidence, and it doesn’t get more confident than this. At the start of the 1986 All-Star three point competition, Larry Bird stood in front of his competition in silence for a few minutes before unfurling this bombastic one liner. He was right too. He won the first of his three 3 point contests with 22 out of 30 shots.

  • "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up." - matter of fact words from the greatest of them all - Muhammad Ali (1942-2016).

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town from 5 - 7 October 2016.

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