What Boxing Can Teach Us About Image and Reputation
The history of boxing has lessons to teach our growing sector of esports. Its growth from bare-knuckled street brawls to formalized career was a bumpy road. While a discussion ought to be had about the parallels of the two sports, I hope to focus on one aspect. That is the use of imagery and entertainment to promote oneself.
Early in formal boxing, the Marquis of Queensberry established rules to reduce the savagery of the sport. These rules removed the gouging of eyes, banned grappling, and required the use of gloves, among other changes. A majority of players and establishments adopted these new rules for their own safety. Yet, most players were still street brawlers at heart. Some of them refused to adapt, as they believed it removed the sportsmanship of the game. They continued to fight bare-knuckled and with the savagery intact.
From the streets came John L. Sullivan. A trouble boy who engaged in illegal bare-knuckle fights, he was a brawler through-and-through. Sullivan was not opposed to the Queensbury rules. Though, he had garnered an image of the bare-knuckle boxer through key victories in championship bouts. He had also built his reputation by engaging in over 450 unofficial fights for money. What modern Smash players would call a “Money Match.” These fights established a dominance that garnered national attention. The rise in popularity paid off. In 1889, he fought Jake Kilrain, in the last bare-knuckle championship fight. Over 3000 spectators boarded trains to see the fight in person. National newspapers did pre-coverage and post-coverage articles. Not only was this the first national coverage of boxing, but among the first of national sports news. With his victory, Sullivan was the defacto World Champion.
With the new rules, there also rose the prominence of formal training and dedication to the sport of boxing. More players were seeking guidance, and started to change their approaches. Here, we have the rise of hall-of-fame inductee James J. Corbett. An educated man, he had pursued a career in acting after his high school graduation. Eventually, he shifted gears and took to boxing as a heavyweight. Using his acquired acting skills, he took the audiences by storm. Known as “Gentleman Jim,” he beguiled masses with his impeccable grammar, his groomed looks, and smart dress. With a more scientific approach to boxing, he used speed and stamina to outplay his heavyweight counterparts. Even with his reputation as sophisticated, his play-style was not what people wanted. They preferred the straight brawl that previous fighters had used for decades. Soon, Corbett wanted the Heavyweight Champion title, and set his eyes on Sullivan.
The fight between Corbett and Sullivan is seen as a pivotal point in boxing’s history. Two distinct styles went head-to-head, with only one retaining the title. Here, we see two distinct personalities clash at their fullest. The Brawler vs the Gentleman. Both respected the other, but the audience was swayed towards the style of Sullivan. Corbett started the match by dodging all he could. He wanted to see Sullivan in action. He wanted to know how he worked. The audience did not appreciate this. Yet, Corbett used the audience’s anger to his advantage. Here is what Corbett himself wrote on it:
“In the second round he was still backing me around the ring. I hadn’t even struck at him yet, and the audience on my right hissed me for running away and began to call me ‘Sprinter.’ Now I could see at a glance that Sullivan was not quite near enough to hit me, so suddenly I turned my side to him, waved both hands to the audience and called out, ‘Wait a while! You’ll see a fight.'”1
Corbett hit at two prides here, Sullivan’s and the audience’s. This struck a nerve, as Sullivan doubled down on his charging approaches. Corbett kept up the running, watching how Sullivan came at him. He was playing the long game. Soon, his time came:
“Then, just as he finally set himself to let go a vicious right I beat him to it and loosed a left-hand for his face with all the power I had behind it. His head went back and I followed it up with a couple of other punches and slugged him back over the ring and into his corner. When the round was over his nose was broken.
At once there was pandemonium in the audience! All over the house, men stood on their chairs, coats off, swinging them in the air. You could have heard the yells clear to the Mississippi River!”1
The audience was booing and jeering him from the start. Yet, they cheered him when his hand was shown. Corbett was not just playing his opponent. He was playing the audience. He continued to play the audience as time went on, making them sympathize with him:
“In the twelfth round we clinched, and, with the referee’s order, ‘Break away,’ I dropped my arms, when Sullivan let go a terrific right-hand swing from which I just barely got away; as it was it just grazed the top of my head. Some in the audience began to shout ‘foul!’ but I smiled and shook my head, to tell them, ‘I don’t want it that way.'”1
When the audience wanted action, Corbett made himself seem above it. He started the fight by goading, and switched tactics to seem sophisticated and sporty. Corbett was mastering the raw emotion of the audience. Even if he lost, there would be no doubt about his growth in popularity. Though, he made sure to finish the fight as the audience intended. A good old knockout:
“When we came up for the twenty-first round it looked as if the fight would last ten or fifteen rounds longer. Right away I went up to him, feinted with my left and hit him with a left-hand hook alongside the jaw pretty hard, and I saw his eyes roll. . . . Summoning all the reserve force I had left I let my guns go, right and left, with all the dynamite Nature had given me, and Sullivan stood dazed and rocking. So I set myself for an instant, put just ‘a little more’ in a right and hit him alongside the jaw. And he fell helpless on the ground, on his stomach, and rolled over on his back! The referee, his seconds and mine picked him up and put him in his corner; and the audience went wild.”1
Earning the title of Heavyweight Champion, Corbett became the victor. While the title was important, Corbett also won another key tool. The adoration of the nation. His style, grace, and showmanship earned him a place in the hearts of fans across the country. Even long after he lost his title, he was beloved.
As Smash players, I believe that this story is important to our progress forward. In fact, we see top players use this themselves. Mang0 is a player notorious for using the energy of the crowd to fuel his plays. Leffen used his infamous attitude to drive himself into the spotlight of viewers everywhere. Westballz fueled a rivalry between himself and Leffen to try and steal the spotlight from Leffen. The use of personality and entertainment is not unused. Yet, it is underutilized.
Event organizers are catching on at a faster pace than most players. This year, we have had several events that use content to hype up the crowd. Everything from fan mail reading2 to opening cinematics.3 This content is great, and grows consumer interest in streams. Yet, players do little in using themselves. Most viewers do not engage top players outside of tournament streams. This leaves gaping holes in the images that can be formed about them. To most viewers, top players are boring as people. I would even go as far to say that tools like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are ignored too much. While I am not a fan of his, I enjoy ESAM’s use of Snapchat to flesh out his personality.
While the joke of a Melee “script” is good fun, there is something to be said about a scripted personality. Not from an all-powerful “Melee Illuminati,” but players sculpting their own self. A crafted and controlled reputation can be just as powerful as one’s tech skill on the national stage. There are many technical players. Yet, there is only one Leffen, one Mang0, and one Westballz.
1.) Corbett, James John, The Roar of the Crowd: the true tale of the rise and fall of a champion (1926)