Carlos Acevedo is the author of the critically-acclaimed Sporting Blood: Tales From The Dark Side of Boxing. Read more of Acevedo’s journalism work here.
In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta (as played, in ferocious Method mode, by Robert De Niro) discusses plans for his next opponent, the handsome welterweight Tony Janiro: “I’m gonna open his hole like this. Please excuse my French. I’m gonna make him suffer. I’m gonna make his mother wish she never had him. Make him into dog meat. He’s a nice, a nice kid. He’s a pretty kid too. I mean, I don’t know, I gotta problem—if I should fuck him or fight him.”
Of course, Janiro had a bigger problem, and that was the prospect of being trapped in a ring with an infuriated LaMotta. On fight night, Janiro took a beating that left his winsome face temporarily misshapen. This, of course, is an occupational hazard of a pretty boy in boxing, one that Ryan “KingRy” Garcia hopes to avoid as long as possible.
The unlikely rise of Garcia, the twenty-two-year-old Instagram luminary who recently signed an endorsement deal with Gatorade, hints at both the future and the past. For the future, Garcia seems to presage the inevitable arrival of the reality-star boxer, the concept of famesque finally downloaded into a blood sport.
As far as his link to the past goes, Garcia is the latest in a longstanding tradition of boxing pretty boys such as Tony Janiro. Although his career has been considerably augmented by the tech advances of the last decade or so, his key selling point—good looks—links him to an era that goes back to the halftone.
It was “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, the first man to win the heavyweight title under the relatively civilized Marquis of Queensberry Rules, who set the stage for the pretty boy. Dapper in Victorian high style—including embroidered vest, bowtie, and a pomaded coif—Corbett was black-and-white fashion-plate material. His jaunty yet genteel appeal would lead to theatrical engagements a cut or two above the drunken vaudeville hoofings of his boorish predecessor John L. Sullivan. While Corbett was arguably the first pretty boy in boxing history, it would take mass media technology, namely television, to improve on the prototype. Between the late nineteenth century and the arrival of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous TV, there were a handful of fighters considered pretty boys, but they had a rough edge to them that would be muted by the demands of broadcast homogeneity.
One of the first television pretty boys in boxing was Chuck Davey, whose receding hairline and man-in-a-gray-flannel-suit vibe was a perfect fit for a rapidly suburbanizing country now looking to Philco and Magnavox for lifestyle inspiration. To housewives whose Bake-Lite lives may not have been the quiet desperation of Douglas Sirk flicks or John Cheever short stories, Davey, squeaky-clean, with a degree from Michigan State University, was dreamboat material. As far as boxing went, Davey scored a few notable wins en route to a 38-0-1 record and a title shot against Kid Gavilan. The flitting, fleeting amateur moves Davey used to outpoint his previous opponents (often under the unusual circumstances endemic to the mobster era of boxing) proved ineffectual against a world-class warhorse.
As with so many other boxing-related subjects that orbited him, Muhammad Ali proved to be sui generis even with the question of image. Handsome, charismatic, and natty, a young Ali loudly (how else?) proclaimed his pretty-boy bona fides to anyone within earshot—which riled the plebeian fight crowd and drove crusty newshawks batty. No one, they thought, that narcissistic, that mirror-haunted, could be a real fighter. Barely a month after his twenty-second birthday, Ali upset the odds—and the preconceived notions at press row—and battered the fearsome, baleful Sonny Liston to a TKO defeat. Even that shock achievement failed to convert the true (dis)believers. Somehow, Liston entered the rematch as an odds-on favorite. No matter—Ali would prove over time that his preening act was mostly showbiz and that beneath the veneer of an unlikely sex symbol was as tough a heavyweight as had ever lived.
As society became scruffier with the passing of the Sixties and Hollywood stars morphed from Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson to Jack Nicholson and Elliot Gould, the pretty boy in boxing vanished for nearly a decade. He resurfaced in the late 1970s, the Disco Era, before dovetailing neatly with the dawning digital age.
When Sugar Ray Leonard emerged from the star-studded 1976 Olympics with a megawatt smile to go along with his gold medal, he instantly sparked antipathy among the peevish boxing hoi polloi. That Leonard earned more than $40,000 in his pro debut—a payday that far exceeded the purses of some world champions—only served to rev up the resentment. Solidly middle-class, with boy-next-door good looks, Leonard was a coast-to-coast celebrity whose popularity would fill the yawning void left by a retiring Muhammad Ali. But Leonard, despite his gold medal, had difficulty convincing some of his staying power.
Even after stopping Wilfrid Benitez, the cunning wunderkind who entered the ring with a record of 38-0-1 entering the fight, doubts about Leonard swirled. This skepticism about his ruggedness or fighting spirit might have been responsible for his strategic faux pas against Roberto Duran in 1980, when Leonard tried, foolishly, perhaps, to out-macho “Hands of Stone.” In losing to Duran by a narrow split decision, Leonard may have lost the fight, but he gained newfound respect from some but not all of his perpetual begrudgers.
As late as 1987, before his miracle comeback against Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Leonard faced barbs based on his looks and unblemished demeanor. “He’s one of those pretty boys,” Hagler said. “I like those pretty boys….I like to smash in their faces.” Although Hagler had the chance to do exactly that in a Las Vegas ring, he missed his many shots and wound up dropping a split decision to his stylish nemesis.
After a short-lived retirement, Leonard returned to the ring in 1988 for an odd and possibly miscalculated pairing: Sugar Ray would be facing another pretty boy, Donny Lalonde, in an unusual matchup of heartbreakers. A handsome ex-hockey player from Winnipeg, Lalonde had blue eyes, feathery, layered hair dyed blonde, an interest in the arts, and a propensity for complete sentences. Surprisingly, he scored a knockdown against Leonard before winding up crumpled on the mat, physicians bustling over him, his short-lived dreams of transcending pin-up status over.
In the mid-1980s, Iran Barkley, who would never be confused with Billy Dee Williams, openly rebelled against pretty boys, despite their relative paucity in boxing. He directed his scowling ire mostly toward Leonard, but he also seethed at his downtown rival Michael “The Silk” Olajide. “Nobody likes the hard-working guy who gets to the top,” Barkley growled. “They like all these guys with Jheri-curls and fancy boots, stuff like that. Nobody likes the guys who just pound people into the ground. The only guy like that who is loved is Mike Tyson. He pounds them. I guess I’ve got to keep pounding guys into the floor and make people respect me, too.”
Image was a key factor for Olajide when he arrived in New York City from Vancouver, instantly captivating the local press and triggering the suspicions of hard-bitten ringsiders who cringed at his glib retail gab: “I am a model,” he told the New York Daily News. “I signed a contract with an agency and did my first assignment for Ebony magazine. I hope to do more modeling work now that I’m in New York. This is a dream come true, fighting and modeling in New York.” But the glitter, the gold, and the gaudiness did not translate as well in the ring as they did in photo studios.
First, Olajide was outclassed by Frank Tate in a 1987 IBF middleweight title shot, and then, a few months later, he was steamrolled by a snarling Barkley in five rounds at the Felt Forum.
Of all the so-called pretty boys in boxing in the wake of Sugar Ray Leonard, none succeeded as wildly as Oscar De La Hoya, “The Golden Boy,” whose sleek LA chic look, combined with a Marketing 101 smirk (not the jerk kind, at least not always), and a lethal one-and-done left hook made him the biggest non-heavyweight pay-per-view star of the pre-social-media age. His charm took De La Hoya far beyond strip clubs and Vegas compounds and sent him mingling with Hollywood bon vivants, television producers, celebrities on the golf links, and music industry insiders (even winning a Grammy in 2001). If his life and career ultimately unraveled because of jet-set temptations few fighters face, it only underscored his authenticity as a genuine crossover star in the ’90s.
The last pretty boy to make waves in boxing was Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez, the dashing middleweight fashionista based out of Madrid. Because Martinez made his HBO debut when he was already in his thirties, however, he was not the recipient of a vanity buildup. Instead, like Manny Pacquiao, another fighter HBO had no idea what to do with, Martinez was thrown in with the wolves, facing Kermit Cintron, Paul Williams, Kelly Pavlik, and Paul Williams (again) in consecutive fights.
For a little while, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, the Howdy Doody look-alike with chiseled features and a keen sartorial sense, might have passed for a pretty boy, but he was far too reserved and, ultimately, far too ambitious to play up to an image.
Then came Ryan Garcia. In a way, it makes sense that Garcia has captured the scattered attention span of the mediascape. So much of modern boxing focuses on the extracurricular—fictional pay-per-view sales figures, promotional alliances, network allegiances, fetishist pound-for-pound rankings, and Twitter negotiations—that Garcia is a natural flashpoint.
None of the impressive numbers Garcia has racked up are boxing-related: millions of Instagram followers, hundreds of thousands of TikTok devotees, and millions of views of a YouTube Originals series dedicated to him. In a recent Sports Illustrated profile, Garcia offered up a quote about his social media presence that has a hint of ambiguity in it: “People love what I do,” he said. “They love my talent. They love the speed. So, I mean, if anything, I could just do boxing videos all day and get paid. You know what I mean? But I don’t. Because I love the sport.”
If Garcia prefers the bloody glory of hand-to-hand combat over the instant gratification of apps and emojis, then he will have to avoid the set-up road so common to fighters deemed buzzworthy. As paradoxical as it sounds, no sport is easier for the image-is-everything athlete in which to succeed—at least temporarily—than boxing. Despite its hazards, which include humiliating losses, injury, CTE, and, sometimes, death—boxing has an intrinsic flimflam/sham component that undermines its gravitas. Boxing matches are often cynically arranged affairs staged almost wholly for the benefit of managers, promoters, and, ultimately, fighters, who can go years with nary a competitive fight. In the past, this build-up process usually culminated in a payoff—think of Gerry Cooney or Peter McNeeley or any number of circuit pros who wound up getting a WBO title shot in Germany—but increasingly it has become an endgame in itself. With various network and promotional factions creating their own distinct universes—parallel to each other—natural rivalries have become just another casualty of a sport that trips itself up every chance it gets.
A logjam of young talent at lightweight, for example, which includes Garcia, Teofimo Lopez, Devin Haney, and Gervonta Davis (possibly), is no guarantee of a marquee fight emerging.
Whether or not Garcia can turn his social media standing and telegenic appeal into boxing riches, without a heated rivalry, is questionable. Trying to harness ineffable gif stats or YouTube views into metrics that matter—Nielsen ratings, box-office receipts, subscriptions, and pay-per-view sales—is an alchemy that is unlikely to be mastered any time soon. When Deontay Wilder etherized Dominic Breazeale in 2019, clips of the KO went viral, prompting the usual sirens of hype to wail incessantly throughout cyberspace. (NB—Boxing is a sport in which publicists will e-blast press releases about the broadcasting of inconsequential fights that took place in 2011.) But those widespread viewings of the Breazeale KO led only to a middling pay-per-view rematch between Wilder and Luis Ortiz a few months later.
Unless Gen-Zers begin subscribing to a combat sports app or decide to overtax Ticketmaster servers when Garcia fights in the future (when live crowds are once again permitted) or purchase PPVs en masse, then Garcia may be nothing more than the 4K, 2,000 MBPS, 5G boxer of the present—or, in the end, just another pretty boy, a decidedly analog distinction.