Skip to content

The Beltline: What We Talk About When We Talk About Beef

In the first installment of a new Friday column, Elliot Worsell asks whether rival hate can ever be real in a sport as money-driven and devious as boxing

OF the 1,401 words that make up this column, 17 of them are “hate” (as well as six counts of “hatred”) and seven of them are “love”. Both are considered strong words, powerful words, words you use only if you mean them, yet the more they are used, of course, the less they tend to mean.

The word “love”, for example, is, generally speaking, not one I trust, such is the ease with which it can be said. Similarly, in boxing, this sport in which declarations of love are as rare as fair decisions, “hate” is not a word I trust, either, simply because it is one used more than most.

So freely is the word “hate” used, in fact, and so easy is it to say, this supposedly powerful word is rendered in the context of boxing effectively meaningless. It is as meaningless in boxing as “love”, or its equally unreliable partner “sorry”, have ended up becoming in the real world.

What’s more, though often they will say “hate”, rarely is it hate boxers really mean. There is no reason for it, after all, this hate. Not really. Take away the fact they are looking to render one another unconscious in order to feed their family – no minor detail, I’ll admit – and two opponents will actually have more in common with each other than they do with anyone around them, especially when sitting at the top table, this supposed platform from which to vent. They are, let’s not forget, the only ones with experience of what it’s like to prepare for this particular fight, both mentally and physically. They also know what it’s like to win and to lose, and to win when they thought they had lost, and lose when they thought they had won. They know what it feels like to be paid what they should have been paid and what it feels like to be royally screwed by men considerably richer than them who encourage, either directly or indirectly, their hatred of others.

Indeed, given all this common ground, there should instead of hate be a display of unity and camaraderie at that top table. There should be a wink. A knowing node of the head. An eventual embrace. They should, in place of squabbling, be covertly colluding to bring down the establishment and take the power back. Better yet, they should at some point turn to the promoter between them and, like a pair of chimps, rip the face from their owner, then later use it to create their own purse.

Derek Chisora, Kubrat Pulev and promoter Eddie Hearn (Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)

In any event, the hate between boxers is usually a fabricated kind of hate. It’s the sort of hate directed by one man towards another man who has shacked up with the woman he once called his soulmate of him. Incidental and irrational, but fueled ironically by similar leanings and taste, this brand of hatred will, like a chimp, sink its teeth into a man and turn them into something they are not. And yet, if scorned, surely this man should have it in for the woman, not the next man she is inevitably destined to ruin.

Sadly, though, men, and also boxers, don’t tend to think this way. Instead, so painful is it to hate the thing they used to love, they must now attack and make an enemy of a less tangible foreign object. In the case of the scorned man, that’s the new man in his old woman’s life. In the case of boxing, meanwhile, that’s the opponent a boxer is about to fight in the ring. Somehow innocent in all this, however, is both the woman and the sport of boxing, the ones whose very nature, it could be argued, is the root of all the hatred in the first place.

This was never more apparent than last Thursday, the day I watched heavyweights Dereck Chisora ​​and Kubrat Pulev try to be people they aren’t to sell a fight that wasn’t what anybody said it was. It was on that day, much to the frustration of the Jeremy Kyles and Davina McCalls poking them from a safe distance, I listened to one of the two fighters speak in broken English and the other speak via a barrage of obscenities and tried to make sense of it: the thoughts being articulated; the reason why a Bulgarian and an Englishman by way of Zimbabwe would have any issue with one another.

A strange first date, admittedly, the dynamic between Chisora ​​and Pulev created a number of bizarre and barely coherent exchanges before, in the end, the odd couple were resigned to conversing solely in a language synonymous with substandard fights: faux hate. In other words, the two heavyweights raised their voices, even if never actually saying much, and banged fists on tables. When that then didn’t work, they grabbed the harmless bits of each other’s bodies during the saddest of staredowns, not unlike two young relatives forced to dance at a wedding.

Interestingly, before that moment there had been an accidental breaking of character: an increasingly desperate Chisora ​​had whacked his fist on the table only to suffer the humiliation of seeing his expensive watch bounce from the table to the floor. That burst any tension in an instant, his wry smile the pinprick. Moreover, the sheer awkwardness of it all resulted in a far more civil conversation between Chisora ​​and his promoter, Eddie Hearn, about where to go to get the watch fixed, which he demonstrated, without either of them knowing it, the promotional arc in to nutshell.

Then it ended, of course, as always it does. The hate. Thepromotion. The fight.

Though having since settled their differences, the rivalry between Carl Froch and George Groves was one of British boxing’s more sincere (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

“There’s the respect!” growls the commentator, aroused by the sight of embracing rivals following a hard battle. Yet an exhausted embrace is not necessarily a sign of respect. Sometimes, in fact, two fighters embracing at the end of 12 hard rounds is merely a visual representation of money being transferred from an escrow account to a personal account, with any façade of hatred no longer required to complete the transaction. Credit them, sure, but don’t mistake the union of relieved and remunerated prizefighters for VE Day.

Likewise, we often see former fighters in retirement bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones, praised for this as though in making up and not being arseholes they have restored the integrity of the sport. But just as their initial hatred was largely by the price tag placed upon it, so too, in most cases, is the eventual meeting motivated by the price tag placed upon it. There is, rest assured, no sudden understanding, maturation, or even new found appreciation for one another. Rather, it’s typically in retirement these fighters fight for relevance instead of titles, and who, ultimately, brings them more relevance than the rival who helped make them relevant in the first place? It’s another deal, that’s all: trainer, manager, colleagues on the dinner circuit. Together, for money, they can now love each other, just as earlier in their lives it benefitted them to hate each other for the same reward.

That said, I’m no different or better than anyone else. For instance, having assumed this piece would struggle for relevance in the forever filled cesspit of “content” that is today’s world, I knew its headline was every bit as important as its 1,401 words, so therefore tried to think of a good one.

At first, the remaining shards of my integrity steered me in the direction of a Raymond Carver short story, from which the headline I eventually used was borrowed, yet that – both the headline and my integrity – would stretch only so far.

Which is to say, rather than do the obvious – that is, change What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to What We Talk About When We Talk About Hate – I chose to go with “beef” as the uglier but, crucially, more relevant synonym. It was, in all honesty, a coward’s move. Motivated neither by hunger nor even a desire to soften the word “hate”, it was a move I decided to make for no reason other than the word “beef” explains a specific hate to boxing, one that by all accounts the new generation of fight fan gravitates towards and believes owes nothing to marketing and manipulation. It is perhaps the only word worse than “content”, but, alas, boxing creates subservient, insincere puppets of us all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.