Reclaim sport for working class

The day after Mike Tyson's win in Glasgow, Mike Marqusee, sports writer and prominent supporter of the London Socialist Alliance, addressed a London seminar hosted by the CPGB, entitled 'Tyson, immigration controls and the left'

In the Mike Tyson affair we have seen questions of race, class, gender, nation, migration, big business, the role of sport in general and boxing in particular all bundled together. So what I want to try to do is unbundle them a bit.

I should say at the outset that I am still not completely sure exactly what the correct socialist response to all this should be. While there is no doubt that the government's action in admitting Tyson was a case of multiple hypocrisies, multiple double standards and multiple double talk, I do have to say that on the other side those calling for Straw to ban Tyson from the country were guilty of, to say the least, an ill considered, knee-jerk response that could set some pretty dangerous precedents. And they are not without hypocrisies and double standards themselves.

Last night, Tyson confirmed that he is a complete idiot. He knocked out Lou Savarese in 38 seconds, who at least walks away with half a million dollars for his pains. But before he did that he managed to disobey the referee's command to stop boxing and he managed to punch the referee himself. Under the rules of boxing this is not surprisingly grounds for immediate disqualification.

Tyson should have been instantly dismissed from the ring. Instead the referee allowed him to continue. He hammered Savarese and was declared the winner. Why did the referee do that? Basically because there was a huge amount of money invested in the fight, and the referee - like many other referees and boxing officials over the years - saw his first responsibility as being not to the fighters, not to the fight fans or the rules of the sport, but to the promoters and the investors.

After the fight, Tyson made a pretty amazing statement: "Lennox Lewis, I'm coming for you, man. I only trained two weeks for this fight. I'm the best ever. I'm the most brutal, vicious and ruthless champion there has ever been. There's no-one can stop me. I'm Sonny Liston. I'm Jack Dempsey. I'm just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat your children. Praise be to allah."

This is a deeply distorted personality and a human being whose mind and soul are hopelessly fractured. The question is, how did he get that way? Was he born like this? - which is what some would have us believe. Did he come out of the Brooklyn ghetto like this? Psychically maimed, irreparably damaged - despite the endless ministrations of trainers and managers, doctors and therapists and TV commentators?

No. What we saw last night and have seen over recent years was the end-product of wide-ranging and quite powerful social forces - principally commercial. They have exerted pressures on Tyson largely since he became a famous heavyweight boxer in the 1980s. A result of an extremely unnatural life, which many millionaire celebrity sports stars now live. A life which is completely unintegrated with anything resembling a common or shared experience, as it might have been in the past. It is a public persona, shaped and exploited over the past decade by promoters, broadcasters and the media.

Frank Warren promoted this fight and paid big money to bring Tyson over here. It is said - and it is pretty obvious from the state of his face - that Tyson took a punch at him when they were arguing about money last week. But I do not feel sorry that Frank Warren got punched by Mike Tyson. Warren and the pay-per-view moguls, including Rupert Murdoch and the Disney Corporation (which owns Showtime, which owns the rights in America to this fight), and the boxing authorities that licensed the fight - they are the real culprits in last night's farce. Tyson was the hired hand. He did what he was hired to do. Right down to breaking the rules and coming out with that mad rant at the end. He was hired not in spite of, but because of his reputation and public persona.

So who the hell is this guy? And why are all these questions circulating around him? To answer that, you need to know a little bit about boxing and boxing history, in particular the history of black boxers.

A couple of general points. The first is that boxing's ethos is often misunderstood. The basic ethos practised by boxers is one of mutual respect, self-discipline, deferred gratification, restraint in the use of violence. And a quite strict code that bans violence outside the ring or in violation of the rules inside the ring. The boxing gym - and I do not want to sentimentalise it - among other things is an attempt to create an oasis of order, of fixed values - of hierarchy, if you like - amid the anarchy of urban poverty. And boxing is always deeply associated with the urban proletariat.

Now in this respect Tyson is an anomaly. He is not a typical boxer. And he is not representative of the culture of boxing, although it often appears that way to those who are not familiar with it. He is seen as someone who represents unbridled male aggression, lawlessness (both inside and outside the ring), predatory sexuality. And he is taken as proof of the very reactionary adage that, 'You can take the fighter out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the fighter.' This is something that has to be completely torn apart.

Ever since boxing emerged in the mid to late 18th century as a popular and therefore profitable spectacle, there have been campaigns to ban it or restrict it. And throughout most of the 19th century and into the 20th, by and large these campaigns were couched in terms of middle class morality: they deployed anti-working class elitism and even explicitly racist arguments. They were rooted in a fear of the lower orders and a puritanical disdain for the pleasures of the hoi-polloi, who we all know need to be civilised by the upper classes.

On the left there has also been a long-standing opposition to boxing, based on a belief that it exploits working class people, that it is dangerous, that it celebrates violence and individual competitiveness. There are undoubtedly huge truths in the traditional left critique of boxing - it does exploit working class people, it is dangerous, it does celebrate violence - but these are only partial truths.

There is an umbilical connection historically between boxing and criminality, but that does not derive from some sociopathic character flaw in boxers. And it certainly does not derive from boxers' working class backgrounds. The criminal element derives principally from promoters, boxing authorities, bookmakers and gamblers, all seeking to maximise profit. It rests on the extreme inequalities which shaped boxing as a social institution and always have done: on the one hand, there is the poverty and extremely limited life chances that continue to be the lot of the vast majority who engage in boxing; and on the other hand there is the huge wealth generated by a very small handful of big-time, top-of-the-bill, pay-per-view prize fights. Despite the big money paid to Tyson, Lennox Lewis and others, boxers remain more dependent on the whims of promoters, authorities and administrators than most other sports performers. They still have a kind of semi-feudal status that footballers, baseball players and even cricketers have managed to shake off over the past 50 years.

And corruption in boxing, which has a long history and continues to this day, stems from attempts by the investors - and people have big money riding on it - to reduce the risks that are always inherent in sport. You can never tell precisely who is going to win or, as last night showed, how long the event is going to last. Boxing is not the natural modus operandi of capitalists. So you have mismatches staged, you have bogus challengers promoted. You have the rankings - very important in terms of who fights whom - rigged in open bribery. This year's huge FBI investigation into the International Boxing Federation revealed the most crass corruption.

You have boxers coerced into signing contracts in which they forfeit practically all autonomy, and of course you have outright bribery: of referees, judges, doctors and licensing authorities. There is no doubt that the doctor who allowed Muhammad Ali to fight one of his last fights, which was a contributory factor in his becoming extremely disabled, was bribed by Don King. And we know that the judges in the Lennox Lewis v Evander Holyfield fight last year were almost certainly bribed as well.

Boxing has very deep roots in black communities on both sides of the Atlantic. And no-one has suffered more from these inequalities and this corruption, this manipulation by powerful vested interests, than black boxers - they have felt it the most and it has shaped the whole black identity within boxing.

Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion. He won the title in Australia - they would not let him fight in America against a white opponent - in 1908. He immediately became an icon of fear for white people because his triumph in the ring undermined the whole ideological edifice of white supremacy which in the United States was, particularly in that period, a way of life, a way of thinking. It led to calls for a 'great white hope' to reclaim the title from Johnson for the 'white master race'.

Now, as far as we know, Johnson's actual style in the ring was clinical, defensive, scientific. He did not waste punches, he did not waste energy. Nonetheless the white sports writers portrayed him as a savage, a kind of force of nature erupting into the ring, who was going to disrupt all the known hierarchy. This was because of the particular type of black champion Johnson was. He was proud, he was unapologetic, he smiled when he won, he did not bow and scrape, he flaunted his wealth, and, crucially and unforgivably in the eyes of white America, he flaunted his sexuality by publicly consorting with white women, and ultimately marrying at least one and possibly two.

He was as a result viciously hounded by the media - if you go back and look at this stuff, it was quite obscene - and by state, local and federal authorities, who ultimately succeeded in turning him into a criminal. He was convicted under an act which prohibited the transport of women across state boundaries for illegal or 'immoral' purposes. It was intended to give the federal authorities some control over prostitution - not what it was used for in this case, which was simply to criminalise a man who was having an affair with someone of another colour.

After his conviction he skipped the country. He came to Europe and became a bit of a circus performer. He had very few serious fights - the big money was all in America. He went to Havana in 1915, seven years after he won the title, to finally meet a white American challenger, named Jess Willard, the latest in a series of great white hopes, and he was eventually counted out. He later on claimed that he took a dive because he wanted to make a deal to get himself back to America, which would not be possible as long as he was still heavyweight champion. He returned to the USA five years later and served one year in a federal penitentiary for the 'crime' of driving across a state boundary with his wife.

No black challenger was given a chance at the heavyweight title for 22 years after this. The Jack Johnson affair was a massive trauma - not only for white America, but for black America. Johnson was exactly what the black middle class did not want. They considered him an unfit and unsuitable representative; they thought he had brought upon black people white violence and given the racists an excuse. He was denounced by Booker T Washington, the great spokesperson for self-reliant, boot-strap politics subordinated to the white political machinery. He was defended by virtually no-one of note except WEB Du Bois - one of his many great achievements. He pointed out that the whole thing was a grotesque hypocritical charade. Those who sponsored and promoted and profited from wars were the real criminals who should be prosecuted, he said.

Nonetheless, the black middle class was quite concerned that this was never repeated and they groomed the next black heavyweight champion, who turned out to be Joe Louis, in a very different mould. They wanted him to be everything that Jack Johnson was not. He had to be polite, humble, ingratiating, asexual, unthreatening and uncritically patriotic. Poor old Joe, who was a magnificent fighter, did everything possible to fulfil those conditions. He did become a great hero, but that did not stop him being bankrupted by the Internal Revenue Service and ending up like most modern boxers: semi-disabled and poverty-stricken.

Last night Tyson compared himself to another legendary black heavyweight who scared the hell out of white America - Sonny Liston. Liston came from the poorest of the poor of black America. He was born to sharecroppers in the deep south. He was illiterate. His birth was not even recorded - his family was part of the unofficial world of America that is never acknowledged. He was something like the 24th child of his parents. He got into trouble early and at the age of 19 in a Missouri state prison for young offenders he learnt how to box. Not an unusual story.

When he came out of prison, the only way he could get professional fights was through doing deals with organised crime - the local mob syndicates for whom he also provided the muscle for the odd bit of debt-collecting. He did though rapidly establish himself as an amazing heavyweight fighter. One of the most effective punchers the ring has ever seen. But also a very determined, very disciplined, very quiet guy. In 1956 he was sent to jail for assaulting a police officer outside his own home. And we know in retrospect that this was nothing but a case of racial harassment. Sonny was a big, strong guy and he talked back. He ended up serving nine months in prison.

This made it even harder for him to get fights. It made him more dependent on mob patronage and most significantly made him a marked man for every racist cop in America - and that is a lot of people. He was constantly harassed by cops. He was arrested at one point for impersonating a police officer. Since he was 6'5" and black and instantly recognisable all over the country, just who thought he was a police officer was never determined. By 1962 when he did become heavyweight champion, he had been arrested 19 times in six years.

For many years he was the number one challenger, but he was not given a title shot, because of his criminal associations, because he was seen as an unsuitable person to be heavyweight champion, both by white America and black middle class America. Leroi Jones wrote back then that, "Liston was the big black negro in every white man's hallway waiting to do him in" - and the black middle class shared that hostility. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the principal mainstream civil rights organisation in America, publicly said that he should not be given a title shot, even though under the rules of the sport he was entitled to it and was clearly the best fighter in the country.

He did eventually get a chance and knocked Floyd Patterson out in the first round. Six months later he knocked him out again in the first round. And so America looked around once more for a great white hope and, in one of the most amazing ironies of boxing history, the person they chose was a young man named Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali.

Initially when Clay beat Liston in February 1964 to take the heavyweight title and when he beat him again a year later, the white boxing commentators said that it must be a fix: 'We all know that Sonny Liston is in with the mob. He must have taken a dive, he must have thrown it.' That indicates the reluctance of the commentators to acknowledge the genius of the young Muhammad Ali, which he had to prove again and again. Liston himself died of a drug overdose a few years later. It was a tragic end to an utterly tragic life. But a life that was actually much more typical of what black boxers have had to endure than Mike Tyson's.

So both Jack Johnson and Sonny Liston were criminalised in different ways by white power. They were both subject to crass racist stereotypes. They were both persecuted by the media. They were both victims of deep social hypocrisies. Some would argue that Mike Tyson has suffered the same and no-one should be in doubt that something like that is very widely believed among African-Americans - although probably less so now than a few years ago. But there are profound differences between Jack Johnson on the one hand and Sonny Liston on the other.

The criminalisation of black males and the accompanying racist stereotyping is a huge factor in American life, a huge factor in the lives of millions of black people, both male and female. Just look at the figures for young black males who end up in prison. And, in embracing Tyson, many young African-Americans felt that they were defying that stereotype. Resisting that whole horrific historical process. I think that this is a perverse and deeply depressing tribute to the enduring power of white supremacy in America and the fact that this remains a deeply colour-coded society. So many African-Americans saw Tyson as the victim and identified their fortunes and their grievances with him.

But Tyson was not a victim: not this time. Tyson's crime was not victimless. The victim was a young black woman, Desiree Washington, whom he raped in a hotel room in Chicago. The evidence was overwhelming and he served some years in prison. And the hypocrisy here, unlike in the cases of Liston and Johnson, was principally - though not exclusively - with those who would scream in outrage if Desiree Washington had been raped by a white man but, when she was raped by a wealthy black celebrity, they found extenuating circumstances.

It is important to note that Tyson at that time enjoyed widespread support from the black middle classes - including religious leaders, both christian and muslim. Some of the most outrageous things were said by the leaders of the National Baptist Conference - a mainstream, conservative and very large black organisation in America. Despite the fact that he enjoyed a degree of middle class black support - of a kind that Johnson or Liston never did - nonetheless in the African-American ghettos the partisanship for Tyson had a class element as well as a race element. People said that Desiree Washington was just a 'bourgie debutante', whereas Mike, son of the ghetto, he was 'one of us' - a real street-type guy - and he was just being picked on because he had got a bit uppity and 'touched the goods'. That was widely said. It is utterly deluded. It is utterly unacceptable. And it is only one example of a much bigger, more worrying thing: a false populism that is becoming an ever bigger factor in all sports.

Tyson is principally a creation of big-money, big-media professional heavyweight boxing. He was taken out of the ghetto in his early teens by two white middle class gentlemen of the ring - ardent believers in the 'art of self-defence' who would have you believe that boxing was a noble and redeeming calling. Once he had moved on from them, his career and his public persona were shaped by Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Bob Arrow, Don King, ESPN, HBO, Sky Sports and so forth. As an aside, Don King has come and gone from this country with total freedom for 20 years despite the fact that he served six years for manslaughter and despite the fact that he is without doubt currently engaged in major white collar criminal activities of a wide variety. One of the minor hypocrisies in all this that went virtually unmentioned.

So it was in this milieu, created by big money, created by the celebrity culture, that Tyson learned that he could do what he wanted, take what he wanted, when he wanted. That the ordinary rules governing social behaviour did not apply to him. He did not learn this in the ghetto. He did not learn this in the boxing gym, where there would be some pretty severe penalties for this kind of behaviour. He learnt it in the hotel suites, the boardrooms, the posh restaurants and the first class airline cabins. He learned that aggressive and threatening behaviour was highly saleable and would be well rewarded, and that his misbehaviour would not be punished because he was rich and famous. It was from the backstage fixers and the wheeler-dealers - not just the Don Kings, but the Rupert Murdochs - that he learnt that fair play, the higher ethos of sport, abiding by the rules, treating others with respect, that all these things were for fools and for suckers.

Over the past decade he has endlessly remade himself. It is a kind of weird pastiche life. He tours Brixton and Moss Side as if he was Muhammad Ali. He puts on an England football shirt. He marries a beautiful movie star. He quotes Mao Zedong - I kid you not. And he converts to islam.

It is like he has assembled a selection of off-the-shelf, ready-made identities that were created by other people's struggles, other people's historical experience. This reflects a much broader social development, and one in which sport has played a very significant role: the hollowing out of a whole series of social identities that were previously founded in social resistance. If you compare Tyson's vanity and boasting - like that ludicrous speech he gave last night - with Ali's poetic boasting, or Tyson's conversion to islam with Ali's, it is immediately apparent that these are empty gestures: they are devoid of social content or relevance to a larger community. I think Tyson's whole career is a kind of post-modern parody of black boxing traditions.

Let us take another example to see how this process works. Prince Naseem - Naseem Hamad from Sheffield - is also a person with a big mouth. He did not convert to islam because he was brought up in it. Nonetheless, he is very significant: there are not that many islamic international stars and he has made a virtue of that. His fight in Detroit last year against the Mexican challenger, Cezar Soto, was promoted by HBO, which is owned by Time Warner, which is owned by AOL. At one point Naseem body-slammed Soto, which is an illegal manoeuvre. He lifted Soto off the ground and threw him over. This was condemned by everyone: 'Outrageous! Not fair play at all!' It was said that this was more like the World Wrestling Federation, not the noble art of boxing. And Naseem was made to apologise - not to the fans, not to the other fighter, but to HBO.

Yet if anyone was guilty of WWF-style tactics, it was HBO. How did they promote this fight? Why was it in Detroit? Why was a fight between a boy from Sheffield with a Yemeni background and a Mexican held in Detroit? Because Detroit has America's largest Arab-American population and, outside of the south-west, the largest Mexican population. HBO and the promoters plastered the Arab-American and Mexican American neighbourhoods with posters in Arabic or Spanish. In other words it was HBO that packaged ethnic identity and ethnic conflict and commercially exploited it. Yet it was Naseem who was made to carry the can for a poor fight.

After Tyson's fight, the newspapers are again making the WWF comparison. Tyson has actually appeared in WWF - as a referee! - a good example of the flagrant and unapologetic cynicism of WWF, which is one reason why people all over the world love it. WWF is probably, for better or worse, the closest we have to global sporting entertainment. After the Olympics and the world cup, it has the biggest global audience. Half of the top 60 pay-per-view events in America last year were WWF. It has the busiest sports-related website in the world. I did send them an e-mail once asking them for a copy of the rules, but I never got an answer. Because they do not have any.

I think one reason for the appeal of WWF, apart from its incredibly crude melodrama, is that it does not have the mealy-mouthed hypocrisy and abeyances to the higher values of sport. The whole of WWF is a pretence. It is not a sport: it is an entertainment. The fights are fixed, the outcomes are preordained - that is why you cannot place a bet. It has the pretence, but not the pretentiousness, of a lot of sports. They do not bother to disguise the artifice and they do not bother to justify it. Tyson's animalism is a commodified spectacle of the sort that WWF and its imitators have made such huge profits out of.

So where does all this leave the question of Tyson's admission to Britain? The people who argued that he should be banned from the country said that in admitting Tyson Jack Straw appeared to endorse violence against women and belittled the seriousness of the crime of rape. They argued that the adulation of Tyson and his legitimisation by all the media attention made women more vulnerable. They also argued that, in the context of the more than 100,000 deportations carried out by New Labour since they came to office in May 1997, the decision gave priority to the putative economic benefits of this fight for Glasgow over any other consideration. And I think there are great truths in all of those arguments.

That all this exposes the hierarchy of values of New Labour quite starkly I do not deny. However, Straw's hypocrisy cannot be answered by simply turning it upside down: by arguing that he should have used his extremely arbitrary powers in another way. Especially in this climate with the attacks on asylum-seekers and general attacks on freedom of movement, the campaign waged by left, feminist and nationalist forces in Scotland to exclude a particular individual with an odious reputation was entirely misguided. And that is putting it gently. We do not want the home office to have the power to exclude people from this country on general moralistic grounds. We do not want them to have the power to exclude people on the grounds that they have a criminal record. We do not want them to have the power to exclude people on the grounds that their presence here may have a 'negative influence', or set a 'poor example'. The huge dangers of these arguments, I know, are obvious to everyone here.

I also think the protests against Tyson conceded too much ground to the celebrity culture. They were too focused on an individual. They assigned too much significance to Tyson himself and not enough attention to (in fact they completely ignored) the forces that created him, the real culprits in all this. Where were the protests against Frank Warren, against Showtime? Where were the protests against the Glasgow municipal authorities and the British Boxing Board of Control, who licensed the fight?

The Scottish National Party opposed the Tyson admission on a weird mixture of grounds. They echoed the feminist criticism, but they also used the Tyson case to argue that Scotland should have control over its own borders. This was an entirely opportunistic approach, typical of the SNP. It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that an independent Scotland would have looser border controls than Britain does now. But that is not what Alex Salmond and the SNP argued or implied. They argued that in an independent Scotland ruled by them Mike Tyson would be barred, but multinational corporations would not.

I am worried about calls to ban (from the country or from their profession) sportsmen who are rapists or wife-beaters - or alleged racist thugs, like the Leeds United footballers accused of being involved in an attack on an Asian. This seems to reproduce on the left the ideology of the role-model - one of the most contradictory and unsustainable phenomena of modern sport. Why on earth should sports performers be better than anyone else? I think they should be subject to the law of the land. If they beat someone up, if they commit a rape, they should be punished. But they should not be made exceptions of. Those footballers will probably go to jail from what I have heard, and that will be the end of their football careers. That is fine with me. But to ask sports figures to play some sort of super-moral role is very dangerous. This is precisely the cross on which Sonny Liston and Jack Johnson were crucified.

My conclusion is that Mike Tyson should have been admitted, but that the fight should not have been licensed. And I say that not on moralistic grounds, not because of Tyson's criminal record, not because of his image or reputation, but simply this: it was - and it was confirmed last night - an entirely bogus bout. It was inevitably going to be a rip-off for anyone who knew about boxing. It was a dangerous mis-match, which the boxing authorities are obliged to prevent for the obvious reason that people die in them and that they are not a sporting contest. It was everything that the boxing authorities are supposed to prevent. The more sport drifts from the rigour of the level playing field, the more its internal and impersonal logic is compromised by extraneous forces - which in our society are principally the huge vested interests of big capital - the more it becomes meaningless.

Sport has its egalitarian and democratic premise. It is only sport if everyone is timed with the same stopwatch, the goalposts are the same size, each team has the same number of players. But the ruling class have imposed their hierarchy of values and their priorities. The role model is a Victorian invention that comes out of the public school tradition. It is an attempt to tame the egalitarianism of sport and incorporate it into a highly inegalitarian society. It is something of which we should be very wary.

It is important to realise that over the past decade there has been a conspiracy among boxing authorities, broadcasters, municipal officials, doctors, medical experts, promoters, advertisers and of course bookmakers to keep Tyson fighting in the ring, when he should have been excluded years ago. Again, not because of his criminal record, not because of his bizarre pronouncements and image, but very specifically because he consistently breaks the rules of the game inside the ring. The rules of the ring do not represent a higher morality, but they are the basic requirement of sport. Sport simply does not work, either as a spectacle or a pastime, if you compromise them.

Sport works because it sets up parameters within which various human attributes - speed, stamina, strength, agility, tactical/strategic thinking, inventiveness, discipline and many others - are showcased and tested and explored, and can form a deeply engaging and compelling spectacle. So, very simply, what we need to regulate is not the free movement of individuals across borders, but the global industry of sport and the way it has been distorted by capitalism.

The left needs to develop a broad democratic programme relating to sport - which now represents two to three percent of the advanced capitalist world's GDP. We need to oppose the commodification of the spectacle, its impact on our culture and the way that it has unloosed particularly hollow and dangerous national and other forms of chauvinism. This is something we need to pursue, not least within the London Socialist Alliance.