What It's Like to Call a Boxing Match When a Riot Breaks Out

Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE

If you've ever been a commentator on a five-hour sports broadcast, and have consumed the amount of water required along the way to keep your vocal chords working, you know that not pissing yourself is one of the biggest challenges of the night. When a champagne bottle whistles past your head as you're speaking, with such velocity that you can hear it despite wearing earphones, the difficulty of that challenge increases dramatically.

As the bottle scuttled into the ring, followed by a cascade of cups and trash, I realized that on Jan. 28, 2017, after nearly a decade as a boxing commentator, I suspected I was about to call my very first riot. Then, when a metal bucket with another champagne bottle still in it struck one of the fighters in the head and he collapsed to the canvas, I knew I was in one.

The night's main event between junior middleweights Steven Butler and Brandon Cook was an intriguing one for Canadian fans. It pitted a pair of young, undefeated fighters, both of whom were already rated in the top 10 in different sanctioning bodies in their weight class. In modern boxing, matchups like it are a rarity, as promoters seldom risk a fighter in such a position unless there is either a world title, or a guaranteed world title shot on the line.

In this instance, there were neither. What it was, according to many pundits, was a great-looking victory for Butler waiting to happen, on home soil at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

Cook, a native of Ajax, Ontario, was a significant underdog heading into the fight, with most Vegas moneylines pegging Butler as a -480 favourite. Much of that had to do with pure name recognition. While Quebec remains one of the most boxing-rabid areas of the world with regular events and an interested press corps, boxing in Ontario has been swimming upstream for quite some time. So while Cook was defeating credible opposition, hardly anyone outside of those in attendance at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, ever noticed. Butler, meanwhile, had received significant media attention, had fought on Canadian pay-per-view several times before, and had received a sign of approval from boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya himself.

With that kind of disparity in public opinion and in betting odds, the only logical way to market the bout was to turn it into a provincial rivalry: Quebec vs. Ontario. French vs. English. As the co-feature of the night concluded and the audience became aware that the main event was up next, it was apparent that the marketing strategy had worked. Perhaps too well.

Though the monstrous Bell Centre had been scaled down to a little under half the arena, the electricity inside rivalled that of true mega fights the venue had hosted in recent years, such as Jean Pascal-Lucian Bute and Pascal-Bernard Hopkins.

The crowd had turned into a sea of fleur-de-lis, as event organizers handed out Quebec flags to anyone who wanted to wave them. Opposing them was a small but vocal crowd of Cook supporters from Southern Ontario, many of whom had crammed into chartered buses to make the six-hour trip to the event.

When Butler emerged through the curtain to enter the arena, whatever tensions were created were amplified even more. In addition to the fleur-de-lis, one of the members of Butler's entourage also wielded the Patriote Flag, an antiquated flag from 1832, used by the Patriote movement in Lower Canada. Today, it remains a symbol for fervent Quebec separatists. However premeditated it was, the storyline of the bout was as on the nose as it could get. It had gone beyond the playful provincial rivalry between two fighters who had no personal reason to hate one another, to something much larger. Suddenly, there was presumably a portion of the crowd emboldened by the idea of an English-speaking fighter from Ontario coming to Quebec and trying to beat up one of their own.

That pent up aggression came to a head when it actually happened.

Late in the seventh round of a rugged, back-and-forth fight, Cook hammered Butler with a massive overhand right that sent him to the canvas. Butler struggled to his feet, and as his eyes glazed over and his equilibrium struggled to return, referee Marlon B. Wright waved the fight off.

After Cook celebrated his massive upset, he approached Butler, and two things happened simultaneously. Butler dismissed Cook's embrace and shoved him back. And, as that was happening, Cook was struck in the head by a projectile.

As I was calling it in real time, I yelled, "Oh my goodness, Brandon Cook has just been hit in the face with a glass bottle." That wasn't entirely correct. Cook had actually been hit with a bottle and the metal ice bucket which housed it. Amazingly, it wouldn't be the apex of the mayhem.

The moment after Cook (blue trunks) was struck. Photo by Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press

Containers of alcohol of various shapes and sizes began to rain down in the ring, as Cook's cornerman dove on top of his fallen fighter to protect him. Soon, however, the crowd's furor would no longer be directed at the referee or the participants in the ring, but at one another. Both sides of the arena which contained floor seating turned into an all-out brawl, including the section immediately behind our broadcast table.

As my broadcast colleague Jason Toufexis and I turned around, we immediately watched a man pick up a steel folding chair WWE-style and bash a security guard in the face, dropping him immediately. Smaller fights began to break out in the stands, and it became apparent that assistance beyond the hired Bell Centre security was going to be necessary if this was to ever end.

That help came in the form of the Montreal police, who wear camouflage pants despite a growing insistence upon the demilitarization of police forces worldwide. Though their presence should have been comforting—and indeed, after roughly 10 minutes did halt the violence—their arrival made the chaos look more like an actual war zone.

***

Riots don't normally happen in boxing, but it maintains the unique ability to make one happen in the right circumstances.

For the most part, boxing matches take place between two men or women who have very little to do with one another, and little reason to hate one another beyond the fact that they have a mutual goal of advancing their careers and, as such, are obstacles for one another. Unfortunately, that doesn't sell fights, especially in the increasingly convoluted boxing world where titles and title pictures are more abundant and difficult to understand.

Boxing marketing is at its best, and its worst, when it preys upon the racial, ethnic, national and regional tensions of the viewing audience. Though the greater cultural effects of using these tactics and perpetuating such thoughts are undoubtedly negative, most of the time it does just enough to get folks through the turnstiles or to click "order" on their pay-per-view channel, but occasionally it makes them smash people with ice buckets, or worse.

"The first fight I ever covered, there were gunshots," Hall of Fame broadcaster Steve Farhood told VICE Sports. "I was 21 years old at the time. I turned to the guy next to me and said, 'Does this always happen?'"

Farhood, who has been ringside and on the air for more fights than almost all living people, wouldn't experience another true melee until the 2005 bout between Allan Green and Jaidon Codrington, a fight which ended in 18 seconds, but a brawl that carried on much longer.

"It was me and Nick Charles, and I think for about seven minutes, we didn't say a word. The action was speaking for itself. We didn't know who the guys were in there throwing punches. It was a reminder that television is a visual medium," said Farhood. "It's a combination of fear and adrenaline. Because while you're worried about everything that's going on, you also realize this is your moment, you're the connection between the mayhem and the audience."

At the turn of the 20th century, elite-level boxing was at times little more than a construct to prove white superiority. When Jack Johnson foiled those plans, riots occurred across the country. Fights today are not overtly marketed in hateful racial terms, but still seek out national rivalries (see: Mexico vs. Puerto Rico), or as is particularly popular and effective in the United Kingdom, intercity and regional rivalries. Boxing demands that as a fan you have to connect to the fighter because of who they are. A fighter doesn't have to wear a jersey for you to know that's the one you're supporting or rooting against.

"The nationalization and politicization of competition is maybe more upfront in boxing. We're not just trying to win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, we're trying to win something that bears a stronger relationship to daily life," legendary HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley told VICE Sports.

"The one thing I always say about boxing is that it's the purest metaphor. There are no conventions here to turn it into a game. It's not a game. Why did Muhammad Ali rise to his level of significance as a crusader for social justice and as a social symbol? It was because he was a boxer. If he were any other kind of athlete, he could have never been Muhammad Ali. But boxers can achieve that kind of social significance because even the most uninitiated 10-year-old fan can look into the ring and see this isn't a game. They are not playing here. These men fight for their lives. And so the strength of that metaphor makes them more important in terms of their connection to society."

Lampley was on the air for boxing's most infamous riot at Madison Square Garden, following the 1996 heavyweight bout between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota.

Following a series of repeated low blows by Golota, in a fight he was otherwise winning handily, the match was waved off. The manner in which Golota behaved enraged a member of Bowe's team, who sprinted across the ring to hit him with a 1994-sized cell phone, which set off nearly half an hour of violence in the arena.

"I've seen scarier things that affected other people, but in terms of me being or feeling threatened and close proximity to physical violence, I would say that's the most apprehensive I've ever been," said Lampley, recalling the wild night in New York.

Luckily, as the mayhem progressed toward the ringside area, Lampley and his broadcast team had a rather intimidating bodyguard on the air with them that night who helped keep them safe.

"No more than two, three minutes into this, maybe in the first minute, our audio table was pulled over and everything crashed onto the ground. [Larry] Merchant still had his headset on his head, and it apparently stayed in tact. I held onto my headset and the box it was plugged into to make sure it was still operational. I was describing what was going on in the ring, and I heard George Foreman say, 'No, you don't want to do that, you don't want to go in there.' I turned around and looked, and George had his long arm like a bar behind me. He had stretched it out behind me like a protective bar, and he was trying to talk people out of going into the ring.

"Most specifically there were two white guys, probably Polish or Polish-American followers of Golota who were standing there glassy-eyed. They had arrived, loaded for bear and eager and ready to go into the ring, and George was just looking at them saying, 'You don't want to do that.' And I think they were startled enough that George Foreman was taking an interest in what they were doing that it got their attention. They stood stock still and didn't go in."

In total, 16 people were arrested and 22 more had to receive medical care as a result of the riot. As the carnage began to wind down, HBO producer and executive Ross Greenburg instructed Lampley to wrap of the show, and to add "any personal comments." At that moment, Lampley realized his 16-year-old daughter was somewhere in the arena, and he had to go and ensure her well-being.

It was a moment that immediately came to mind as the Butler-Cook riot began, as my fiancee was somewhere amidst the insanity in the Bell Centre. On this night, she just so happened to be seated in the stands with friends, rather than in a ringside seat she would normally have occupied, a comfortable safe distance away from any violence.

"You and I had identical experiences. That's pretty stunning," said Lampley. "Very fortunately, that afternoon she had decided to bring a guest and the choice to bring a guest had occasioned changing her ringside ticket to another place up on the second level. The serendipity of her choosing to bring a guest had taken her away from a dangerous place and to a much safer place."

The Bowe-Golota riot illustrates another peculiarity about boxing melees. Sometimes, violence simply begets violence. There is no inherent hatred between Brownsville, New York residents, who supported Bowe, and the Polish. It would be ignorant to suggest that racism existed nowhere inside the MSG walls, however the event was hardly marketed using racial undertones, or even nationalism. Rather, the event was titled "Big Daddy Comes Home," and was seen as a cakewalk for Bowe to set up an ill-fated bout with Lennox Lewis. Without even the suggestion that Golota would be competitive, it was hard to imagine the bout engendering the kind of passion it ultimately created.

Whether the reasons to become impassioned are explicitly provided for the audience or not, the sight of people fighting inside the ring—much less other members of the audience around you—combined with the consumption of alcohol, can embolden even the traditionally passive and make them find a reason to fight, too.

The people in the audience at the Bell Centre didn't necessarily buy a ticket to come and rumble on behalf of their beliefs about Quebec sovereignty, nor did Eye of the Tiger Promotions—notorious for its compassionate handling of fighters—encourage doing so. Polls would indicate that people having those beliefs in the first place are in the vast minority in 2017, let alone wanting to cause a riot over them. Nor did the Ontario attendees likely show up to pummel French-speakers. But when the action started, people found a reason—be it politics, skin colour, language, intoxication, the thrill of the bedlam—to take part.

"When someone you consider one of your own gets his ass kicked by 'one of them,' to many, it feels like dying. Now what if it happens on national television and you've been drinking all day?" said ESPN host Bomani Jones, during a 2012 monologue titled "Boxing Brings Out The Basic Instincts."

"Perhaps it's a testament to the primal, uncivilized nature of fighting. And when there's a boxing promotion behind it, it speaks to how easily people buy into the foolishness of it all. As long as there's hate in people's hearts, we'll see it come out surrounding a boxing match."

Boxing is the purest of sporting spectacles—the opening bell being the harbinger of truth. It brings out the truth about people. Both the ones inside the ring fighting, and the ones outside watching. And when it does, that truth, like a gloved fist, a steel chair or an ice bucket, will hit you in the face.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

 

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