Todd Snyder: “When I was a kid, I learned politics and world history through boxing.”
By Chris Akers
This final part of this interview will look at how boxing intertwines with hip-hop and politics, plus how boxing can get back to the sporting forefront in the United States in a way it hasn’t done in a while.
Boxing has predominantly been associated with the working class and also with immigrants, who have used the sport as another avenue by which to climb their way out of poverty and, if there are world class, earn a fortune. Snyder believes that boxing in the US still reflects this demographic.
“Most certainly it is in America,” says Snyder. “Let me tell you. My dad’s gym. In the US, to get your passbook to be an amateur fighter, it cost $40 a year. If my dad hadn’t paid for all of the passbooks for the kids at the gym, zero would have been able to fight. We’re talking about very poor circumstances. Some of the kids in your gym, they lived in tiny little houses and there would be 15 people in one house. In America, it’s not funded like sports like football and basketball, where you can get your uniform for free at high school. In America, it’s very much the bottom of the barrel. It’s the least of the least. It’s one of the reasons America isn’t doing so good in the Olympics no more in boxing.
“It’s because people lose interest. We lose kids to the street. We lose kids to drugs and alcohol and other things. My dad had some kids who could have been fantastic professional fighters. But they took wrong turns. You can only save so many people. So I think in America, I do think it’s very much a working class sport and it’s one of the reasons you’re not seeing a lot of great American Olympians anymore. The system isn’t strong enough to keep them interested in the sport. They’re not getting paid and they’re not getting the encouragement and the opportunities that maybe happen in other countries that used to happen in America maybe decades ago. I think it’s truer now than ever.”
Similar to youth centres in the UK, have a lot of boxing gyms closed down in the States, in the communities where they are needed the most?
“I don’t have the numbers, but it’s a lot of sacrifice on the part of the trainers. Sometimes clubs can get grants to stay afloat. But it takes a lot of charity and a lot of heart to make a gym work. My dad’s gym is no longer open either. A lot of those gyms that helped a lot of people, just don’t have the resources to serve communities. I do think once again that’s another reason America’s starting to fall behind in boxing. You look at the last 15-20 years. We’re not where we were in the 80s or 70s.”
Boxing serves a lot of communities, but as discussed in part three of the interview, it lends itself to artistic and linguistic depiction. But it can also permeate and become part of another culture. Snyder explores this with his latest project, Beatboxing: How Hip-Hop Changed The Fight Game, looking at how hip-hop and boxing have intertwined over the years.
As he explains, this in part builds on the biography of Bundini and is not just a timeline of how the two have merged.
“The goal for me, is to not write a boxing book or not write a hip-hop book. This book is going to interweave those worlds because they’re closer than most people recognise. In a lot of neighbourhoods, you’re either going to play ball or box or rap or get into something negative. A lot of the boxers I loved growing up where very much part of hip hop’s infancy. They were part of that same world. So our goal for the book was to build on what we establish in Bundini, as far as Ali and Bundini being pre hip-hop icons.
“We’re going to interview 25 rap legends and 25 former world champions, talk about the ways boxing changed hip hop and the ways in which hip-hop changed boxing. I talked to the Wu Tang Clan. I talked to Public Enemy. I talked to Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, a lot of boxers who I saw as hip-hop people like Zab Judah from Brooklyn. He’s from both worlds.
“They’re still some really prominent hip-hop and boxing people I have interviews lined up with. I don’t want to jinx myself! But we’re talking to hip-hop pioneers and we’re talking to boxers who came up during the hip-hop era and tell you the ways in which those worlds collided in various parts of their history.”
One of the ways they collide is in terms of the business. Boxers, especially those at the top, know how to commodify their talent. They will not fight certain people unless it is for a certain amount. Hip-hop, it could be argued, has the same level of thinking, in that they understand the product they are and how to maximise it financially. Roc Nation Sports, founded by Jay Z, is another example of hip-hop and boxing merging, with the company having signed fighters the calibre of Andre Ward and Miguel Cotto in the past.
But there are other similarities between the two.
“I recently did an interview with Masta Killa, who was a member of the Wu Tang Clan. They’re a big group. They had eight members when they came out in 1993. But he said that even though they were in a big group, hip-hop is built on competition. It’s an individual sport. You have to be fresher than the guy on the floor with you. You have to be better than them. Whether it’s breakdancing, graffiti, DJing, rapping, hip hop is competitive. If you don’t have flava, if you don’t have style, you got to sit down, because it’s competitive. He said that one of the reasons that rappers talk about boxing so much, is because of that mutual respect. He said that, ‘I got to go after my opponent. I gotta be better than him, I gotta be fresher than him, I gotta be more creative than him, I gotta outthink him on the mic.’ So that competition in which both worlds exist, that mutual respect is there.
“One of the things that I did for this book is put together a database, of 1000 hip-hop songs that refer to boxers by name. It was easy to put that together, because so much of boxing history shows up in hip hop history. There is no genre of music where you’re going to hear an artist sing about John ‘The Beast‘ Mugabi. Where you’re going to hear an artist talk about Lights Out Toney. Hip-hop loves boxing and boxing loves hip hop. Think of the ring walks today like Anthony Joshua. All these guys always got rappers coming into the ring with them. Even the presentation of boxing has been heavily impacted by hip hop.”
Listen to the ring entrance music of fighters such as Adrian Broner. It’s hip-hop. His entourage as he enters the ring consists of MCs. Boxers such as Broner that are influenced by hip hop, don’t just choose the ring entrance music.
“He makes the music he enters the ring to. Roy Jones Jr also. A lot of the boxers you see, they’re in the hip-hop world too. It’s interesting to me that this hasn’t been looked at in a serious academic way yet. The ways in which these two universities exist in the same space. It’s the most fun book I’ve ever worked on because it’s my two loves in life. I’ve been doing research on this one since I was eight years old!”
It was certainly an excuse for Snyder to have a look at his hip-hop collection again.
“Absolutely. I have done quite a bit of that the last four to five months. There’s a lot of historic moments in which with hip-hop and boxing, things are happening in the same space. My hero coming up was Tupac. Tupac was murdered after a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. So some of these moments I’m writing about in the book aren’t really boxing or hip-hop moments. They’re both. These historical moments are happening in the same space literally. Tupac was on his way to the afterparty of the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight.”
With hip-hop, like with Public Enemy, there was always a political element to what they talked about. Boxing also seems to reflect the times politically.
“When I was a kid, I learned politics and world history through boxing,” explains Snyder. “You want to the learn about the American Civil Rights movement? Learn about Ali. You want to learn about the Great Depression? James J Braddock. You want to learn about World War Two? Louis and Schmeling. You want to learn about the hip hop generation? Learn about Mike Tyson. Because the history of what happens in the world, that produces a Mike Tyson.
“Those circumstances are the same that produced a LL Cool J. I’m a little bit of a history nerd and I’m very interested in the ways in which histories, communities and economies produce certain types of people. I’ve always thought of boxing that way and I’ve always thought of hip-hop that way, because for the first 20 years of hip hop, all of those MCs were coming from lower middle backgrounds and impoverished neighbourhoods.
“Today it’s a little different because it’s a global thing. But hip-hop was just like boxing, where it came out of this feeling of desperation. It came out of this feeling of disfranchisement. I think in a lot of ways boxing and hip hop came out of the same circumstances. One of the things that shocks me writing this book, is that so many of these boxers are hip hop geniuses. They know everything about hip hop. Hip hop and boxing exist in the same space at least in the United States of America for the first twenty years of hip hop existing on Planet Earth. Hip-hop and boxing are tied together in a lot of ways.”
Finally, I asked Snyder his views on the state of boxing in the US and in particular, what needs to happen to boxing in America for it to get as close to the peak of popularity it achieved in the 50s, 70s and 80s. The list is extensive.
“Because I came up seeing what gyms could do for communities, I do think we start with improving the amateur system. Providing spaces in communities for those type of community centres like my dad’s gym. We have a lot of trainers, but not a lot of teachers. My dad was a trainer. A lot of people can get you to hit hand pads. We need people who can actually teach. So better teaching for amateur boxing trainers. Better facilities.
“Also, one of the things that hurt us, was we’d have a kid who loved it, dedicated, train, go to a fight and then his guy doesn’t show up and he doesn’t get a fight. So we got to have better co-ordination between the gyms at these events, so the kids know that when they go train, they know they’re getting a fight.
“If they reach the regional Silver Gloves or Golden Gloves, that they have the means and access to make it to the nationals. So we just got to improve the amateur system. We also have to improve access to the sport. A lot of these pay per views, poor kids can’t watch. So they’re not getting to see the top guys. They only get to watch, if that, some of the lower level stuff that’s free. They don’t have the money for the apps like DAZN. We got to provide better ways for kids to get to see it, so they can fall in love with the sport too. It’s not an easy fix. It will take years and years.
“Teddy Atlas has always talked about we need a national commission. We need a regulatory body that helps makes this thing work a little better than it does right now. But boxing will never disappear Chris. I think boxing will always be around, as there’s always going to be poor people. There’s always going to be communities that produce fighters. I think it’s not in a great shape right now, but who knows. It just takes one Mike Tyson, one Floyd Mayweather to inspire a generation of kids who want to be that. So I’m an optimist in that way. I don’t think that just because its bad now, it will always be bad.”
Bundini: Don’t Believe The Hype will be published August 25th in the US and August 27th in the UK.
Beatboxing: How Hip-Hop Changed The Fight Game will be published in November 2021. Both books will be published by Hamilcar Publications.