Sunday, June 6, 2010

National Pride, is it innate or inherited?

As I just finished watching Miguel Cotto (pictured) stop Yuri Foreman to win his fourth world title, I can't help but feel good as I type this column. Not only did one of my favorite fighters win, but a native son of Puerto Rico won as well. A conversation I had earlier in the day and the feeling of pride I feel every time a Puerto Rican fighter steps into the ring or cage has made me wonder, is this feeling innate or inherited? More importantly, is it wrong?

Earlier today someone had asked me whom I had in tonight's fight and I stated that I had Cotto. Before I could give my educated reasons as to why I felt this way, the person quickly responded by asking, "is it because he's Puerto Rican"? My response was, being Puerto Rican isn't why he will win the fight, but it is a huge reason why I will cheer for him. They stated they did not understand why I felt I had to cheer for him just because he's Puerto Rican. They went on to say I am an American first and my allegiance should be to USA. Of course, I went on to have this deep conversation about patriotism, during which I explained that unless you are of Native American descent, we are all Americans that have descended from another culture. I then went on to explain my allegiance to Puerto Rican fighters.

As long as I can remember, the sport of boxing has always had somewhat of a cultural divide to it. Go all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century when Jack Johnson, the first great black heavyweight had to not only battle opponents, but also racial barriers. In the '30's when Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling it was the U.S.A. vs. Germany and for many it was still black vs. white. In the 40's and 50's Italian Americans cheered proudly for champions named Graziano, Marciano and LaMotta. In the '70's when I was growing up I remember watching fighters with names such as Irish Jerry Quarry and Danny 'Little Red' Lopez, proudly displaying their heritage as they represented not only themselves, but also their native homelands. At the same time, while growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. then in Bethlehem, PA, I remember my uncle and his friends in the neighborhood proudly backing Puerto Rican fighters such as Alfredo Escalera, Wilfredo Gomez and my personal favorite Wilfred Benitez.

Puerto Rican pride was embedded in me from an early age, not for boxing but because it was important to know where your ancestors and heritage came from. However sports, especially boxing, just help accentuate that feeling. This week sports fans from around the world are anticipating The World Cup of Soccer. Just like the Olympics it comes every four years and is all about international competition. Thus, it's only right that cultural and national pride will come to the forefront in terms of fan support. Yet, there is something different when a fighter is the representative. An over the top sense of pride tends to swell within a person. It is more than just the feeling of being the best; it seems to be a twisted sense of superiority for some reason. Not only that, emotions tend to get deeper when it comes to a fighter of your same background.

In 1978 @ 15 years of age, I cried when Wilfredo Gomez got knocked out by Salvador Sanchez. In 1999 when I was 36, I fell to my knees overjoyed when Felix Trinidad defeated Oscar De La Hoya. Just this past November I was saddened as I watched Manny Pacquiao slowly but surely decimate Miguel Cotto in front of my eyes. It's hard to explain, but it's no different than the same feelings Mexicans, Italians, Filipinos, Canadians etc. all feel when their native sons step up to do battle. It is pride through and through and you can only understand it if you have lived it and have knowledge of self and where you came from.

This same nationalism is crossing over into the world of MMA. Canadian and British fans have traveled far and wide in support of fighters such as Georges St. Pierre and Michael Bisping. Last week @ UFC 114, I heard a tremendous roar for Diego Sanchez from a large contingent of Mexican fans in the audience. I myself root for MMA fighters Jorge Rivera and Eddie Alvarez largely in part because they are Puerto Rican. Even fighters like Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson have helped to increase the number of African American fans who turn out to root on their own. It's nationalistic and cultural pride at its finest and there is nothing wrong with it.

Understand though, all because you are Puerto Rican, doesn't mean I'm automatically a fan. John Ruiz was a heavyweight champion and I never once cheered or supported him in any of his fights. A connection has to be made between the fighter and his people; one Ruiz never seemed able to make. Last week while in Vegas I met some fans from the U.K. and when I asked if they were there to support Bisping they all said they didn't like him. For whatever the reason, he didn't connect with them on that level. I guess pride isn't innate after all, but rather inherited and there's nothing wrong with that.

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