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The tangled history of hip-hop and boxing

From Mike Tyson and Tupac to Zab Judah and Lil’ Kim, new book examines the connections between musicians and the fight game

Even you yourself predicted that last night in Vegas,” raps Treach of Naughty By Nature on the Tupac Shakur tribute song “Mourn You Till I Join You.” The night Treach is referring to, of course, is Sept. 7, 1996, the night of the Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and the night Shakur was gunned down. Todd Snyder, author of the new book Beatboxing: How Hip-Hop Changed the Fight Game, says it was a “big bang” moment in the complex, fruitful and at times, violent history of boxing and hip-hop.

Growing up in a trailer park in West Virginia, Snyder was introduced to the sport through his father, who owned a boxing club and trained fighters. Snyder would eventually box himself for a short time, but he says hip-hop was his first love. “I started watching fights with my father growing up, I’m watching Tyson, but I’m watching him through the lens of his relationship with Tupac, who was my hero.”

The Ring via Getty Images

Snyder, a professor of rhetoric, writing and oral communication at Siena College, near Albany, New York, spoke with The Undefeated about the relationship between Tyson and Shakur, the early apprehensions about rap music on fight night, and why he opened the book with Zab Judah.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The popularity of boxing has diminished significantly in America, but it remains ever-present in hip-hop culture and lyrics. Why is that?

Hip-hop still loves boxing, maybe now more than ever. My students don’t watch boxing. But if you listen to Griselda, they’re out there talking about Gervonta Davis, and they’re talking about Deontay Wilder, they’re talking about the boxers who are now. So, you know, we have a lot of current boxing stuff showing up in hip-hop lyrics. Hip-hop also does this cool thing where it does harken back to boxing history a great deal. I think a cool example is Wu-Tang Clan and their album Wu-Tang Forever. They did a song called ‘M.G.M.’ They re-imagine a rematch between Julio Chavez and Pernell Whitaker and a controversial draw that never took place. Hip-hop romanticizes boxing in a way that’s fascinating.

You write that an argument can be made, due to the number of boxing references and how so many boxers are held in high regard, that hip-hop is preserving boxing history.

Boxing has trouble with the youth market. It tends to be a 30-plus demographic. But there have always been these hip-hop shows. Cedric Kushner had this ThunderBox show that brought rappers to perform in the ring before fights. HBO had KO Nation, which Ed Lover from Yo! MTV Raps hosted. Current day, you see what Triller is doing and what Verzuz is doing, incorporating boxing elements. Often, when you see those innovative things that mix cultures and skew young, the old heads of boxing are not a fan of that. One of the things I said in the book is that I feel like a lot of the announcers and folks in boxing media miss all the hip-hop stuff because they don’t come from hip-hop culture.

How do you think the marriage of boxing and hip-hop would be different if hip-hop as a genre were invented today?

Floyd Mayweather (left) hits Zab Judah (right) with a left to the back of the head during the welterweight championship fight at Thomas & Mack Center on April 8, 2006, in Las Vegas.

Al Bello/Getty Images

I remember Inspectah Deck from Wu-Tang and R.A. the Rugged Man made this point. They both argued that one of the reasons these cultures are connected is that your hip-hop heroes from the early era grew up with Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, ‘Hands of Stone.’ All that stuff was what their dads and uncles were watching. A wave of early hip-hop stars created the genre that was mixing in boxing from the jump. Looking at early hip-hop songs like ‘The Message,’ it’s got a Sugar Ray Leonard reference. ‘Rapper’s Delight‘ has a Muhammad Ali reference. When Mike Tyson’s career took off, hip-hop was just entering its golden era. The way this was all happening at once and how it tied the two cultures together, it might be a different story if it happened today. But I would still argue that as long as there are still people growing up in the streets and tough circumstances, they’re always going to look to boxing as a way out. They’re always going to look to rhyming as a way out.

Floyd Mayweather ahead of a fight with Zab Judah back in the early 2000s said, ‘I love hip-hop, and I love R&B, and I love rap artists, but I’m a little different from Zab Judah. I got my fame from putting fighters on their back pocket, and putting them on their face, and racking up [victories] — that’s how I got my fame. He got his fame from being a video groupie.’ That sounds like Suge Knight’s quote from the Source Awards where he went at Puff Daddy and Bad Boy.

I opened the book with Zab Judah for a very specific reason. I think he was the first boxer who was completely wrapped up in a hip-hop ethos. He was on the cover of The Source. He was in XXL Magazine. They called him the ‘king of bling.’ He was in all the rap videos from Shyne to Lil’ Kim and Jay-Z. I opened the book with him because I think he most brilliantly demonstrates this person who was misunderstood because he was from Brooklyn, and he repped Brooklyn like a hip-hop artist would. He would show up on mixtapes, SMACK DVDs. I think he represents the kind of person who was completely misunderstood by a certain audience because they didn’t understand hip-hop.

Playing unedited rap music during ring walkouts in the late ’80s and early ’90s was frowned upon. Do you think this had to do with any racist undertones from the boxing elite and their attitude toward rap music? It isn’t like boxing events then were family-friendly affairs.

If you know the history of boxing, it’s gangsters and the mob. Boxing does not have a pretty history. Once Tyson came to the ring to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power,’ all these boxers wanted to do it because it looked so cool. James Toney told me a brilliant story. Toney had Dr. Dre make a song for him, but he couldn’t play it. The boxing commission wouldn’t let him play it because it had curse words. He’s lost the song over the years, but he had an original Dr. Dre song that no one heard. I don’t want to say it was racism, but there was a moment where hip-hop was so feared and misunderstood that it makes sense to me, in hindsight, why commissions wouldn’t want to play the music. It’s funny because boxing is at a point now where you would be shocked if you didn’t see and hear hip-hop at a fight.

How do you sum up the friendship between Tupac Shakur and Mike Tyson?

Tupac was 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, not a big dude, but he was such a big persona. He was fearless. He was the most fearless emcee; you believed what he was rapping. Mike Tyson was this fearless fighter. He was the ultimate fearless, reckless fighter. Let’s be honest — we’re attracted to people like that. Both guys were contradictory at times. Both guys could be brilliant and articulate. Mike doesn’t have the best resume in boxing history, but because of the way he fought, we’ll love it forever. Same thing about Tupac. He wasn’t the greatest lyricist of all time, but it’s the way he rapped, the way he told a story. They were just shooting stars, that’s what they were, and their relationship was deep.

What is Tyson’s lasting legacy in hip-hop? 

Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson are the two boxing figures who have done the most to connect boxing and hip-hop culture. Tyson was a phenom bigger than sport, bigger than boxing. But he was constantly performing with a hip-hop identity, from hanging out with Tupac to hanging out with Public Enemy to bringing the music into the arena. He’s going to Dapper Dan’s to get all the hip-hop fashion. Mike is the guy we look to and say Mike Tyson was the first hip-hop athlete.

Adam Aziz is a writer and consultant living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @brokencool.