Now that we’re done poisoning my already slightly-below-average brain functions with the entire Air Bud series – congratulations to star Kevin Zeger on his engagement this weekend! – I decided that I wanted to get a little of my sanity back this week by doubling down on five movies that I’ve long considered to be among my favorite sports movies (if not movies in general) ever made. Next up on 73 Sports Movies in 73 Days? The Great White Hype, which I have long considered to be the best boxing movie ever made.
“But what about Rocky or Rocky II?!?!?!” almost everyone on Earth will shout at the same time, causing me to fall out of my seat in shock. Well, as I’ve previously stated, Rocky IV is my favorite Rocky film, and it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, sure, because of its incredible patriotism and the fact that it saved the world from nuclear annihilation. But I’ve just always loved The Great White Hype a little more. Not more than America, of course, but… Hey! Look over there!
Now look back over here, because I have to decide how well The Great White Hype holds up.
The Great Interracial Plot
1996 was a very interesting year for the IBF, WBO, WBA and WBC, as there were multiple heavyweight champions for each belt, and since professional boxing’s numerous belts have always confused the hell out of me, I’ll just say this – it was the last year that Mike Tyson ever held a title. But even before Iron Mike lost to Evander Holyfield on November 9, 1996, there was this subplot in the media that boxing needed a white heavyweight, because two guys beating the life out of each other can’t be fun unless we can add a racial connotation to it.
That’s what The Great White Hype so hilariously addressed, the fact that there were no talented or menacing white heavyweights anywhere in the world, so if one was going to suddenly appear, it was going to have to be as the result of a fabrication by the famously (allegedly) corrupt governing bodies of boxing. It was a preposterous idea that had the very rare luxury of being way too realistic.
In this case, it was the Don King-esque promoter Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson) convincing boxing’s president Julio Escobar (Cheech Marin) to let “Irish” Terry Conklin (Peter Berg) inexplicably leap to the No. 1 contender spot against the reigning heavyweight champion, James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans), because he was the last fighter to defeat the champion. Forget that Terry hasn’t fought in years and is now a 90s post-grunge dirt rocker, but money can change any man’s mind, even if he simply wants to “eradicate the homelessness situations in America, as well as the United States, forever.” That’s still one of my all-time favorite movie quotes.
At the heart of the story is also the reality that while everyone is desperate for any sport’s gimmick as a reason to be excited, there’s always someone talented, albeit lacking in charisma, who is being dicked out of an opportunity. That man was Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace), who was, of course, accompanied by the incredibly hilarious Hassan El Ruk’n, played by Jamie Foxx in possibly his most underrated role. My apologies to his performances in Booty Call and Stealth, of course.
In addition to the relevancy of boxing’s great dilemma, there was also the social commentary of the blue collar documentary filmmaker (Jeff Goldblum) trying to fight the power by exposing the great Sultan as a ruthless, misogynistic douchebag who is simply full of crap, only to himself fall victim to the lure of the almighty dollar.
But in the end, this was a story of one sport trying to take advantage of the hype machine until its dying breathe, only to fail miserably as the Great White Hype couldn’t even defeat the fat, black champ because he simply wasn’t prepared. And then the champ loses his luster as the real No. 1 contender becomes the most appealing man in boxing. The teats may be dried up, but there’s always milk available elsewhere.
The Art of Suspended Disbelief
Of course, The Great White Hype has always had one significant, lingering problem. That’s right, Damon Wayans and Peter Berg as heavyweights. I had a teacher back in high school who was the first to introduce me to the idea of “suspended disbelief,” in that I’d always ask him ridiculous rhetorical questions to bust my balls, and his ball-busting response was always, “Suspended disbelief, Mr. Burns. Suspended disbelief.”
Now, if you employ this philosophy in The Great White Hype and pretend that Wayans or Berg actually looks like he belongs in a ring with Tyson, Lennox Lewis or Evander Holyfield, then what’s the problem? After all, they’re similar in size to each other, so why does it matter if they look like they should be training at a suburban kickboxing studio?
Because it just does. As much as I loved this movie then and still love it now, it’s a really nagging issue. It’s almost as if they should re-edit it now and pass them off as Light Heavyweights or Cruiserweights.
A Wealth of Characters
But what this film has always lacked in realism, it has more than made up for in its cast of very well-written characters. From Jackson’s Rev. Sultan to John Rhys-Davies’ hilariously racist boxing trainer – “Do this for the white race. You may be Irish, but they’re almost white.” – there’s hardly a character in this film that isn’t funny in both writing and acting.
Hell, even the guard gets in on the stupid fun.
I still don’t get that scene, but whatever.
How Does It Hold Up Against The Classics?
Maybe my hyperbole is a bit stronger today, because I’m just happy that I’m not watching a movie about a dog that reveals that he’s awesome at boxing. Although, Air Bud: Paws of Iron would be a film I’d be willing to write. Is The Great White Hype the best boxing movie ever made? I say no, not because I like this film any less, but because the stage has obviously changed since 1996.
Now we have The Fighter, The Hurrican, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby and, of course, a little film entitled Raging Bull that 1996 Burnsy had barely even heard of. But most of all, Diggstown was an awesome movie, too, and I always forget that one.
Where Have You Gone, Damon Wayans?
I guess it’s because I still hold In Living Color in such high regard as a cornerstone of the humor that shaped my childhood and turned me into such a cynical dick along the way, but looking back at Wayans’ movies, what the hell happened to this guy? The Last Boy Scout (coming soon) is a personal favorite and I quote I’m Gonna Git You Sucka almost daily all these years later. Mo’ Money was also decent enough and some people like Major Payne (although it was a dud for me).
But everything else just reads like a transcription of me making mouth fart noises for an hour. This is very strange to me. I’d love to see a documentary about the lost potential of Damon Wayans someday.
Final Grade: 100% Method Man performing ring intro music.