This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 2 Music Issue. Subscribe today!
WHY BOXING FOR Roc Nation Sports? Or, to counter: Why not?
RNS is run by Jay Z, the King of Cool Points, Connections, Creativity and Content Leadership -- and with a flurry of signings of elite athletes such as Robinson Cano, Skylar Diggins, Dez Bryant and Kevin Durant in less than two years, the company is in audacious growth mode. Why not take on the sport Don King called his "catalyst to bring people together" if you've already signed the sitting MVP of the NBA? Why not go for some title belts to match future rings? One of the newest RNS clients? Super middleweight champ Andre Ward, signed on Jan. 9, the same day Roc Nation Sports' boxing division presented its inaugural card, titled Throne Boxing.
This is, after all, a sport that could stand some snap-out-of-it slaps to the face. Boxing, by about all accounts, has been untidy for a while, losing ground to the appeal of the disconcertingly modern barefoot kicks of MMA. Point a finger (if you can) at the merry-go-round of boxing's sanctioning bodies. The supposed Sport of Gentlemen has been all but written off to corruption, lack of charismatic heavyweights and questions about head blows and brain damage.
But don't try to sell any of that to the fans who packed the Theater at Madison Square Garden on one of the most frigid nights of the new year. Don't try to sell it to junior welterweight Wellington Romero of New York state, who knocked out Cleveland's Leo Kreischer a minute and 24 seconds into the first round. And please don't try to sell it to the diverse cast of card girls in stilettos and booty shorts. Instead, join in the knowing roar of the Triple-A-spirited crowd when the DJ spins Jay Z's eternal 2003 "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" as the fighters, chins up, exit the ring. Got some / Dirt on my shoulder / Could you brush it off for me?
But this was neither concert nor exhibition. Throne Boxing was an eight-bout card televised by Fox Sports with three championship matchups and a main event -- the vacant WBC Continental Americas welterweight championship, won by Dusty "the Beltway Boriqua" Hernandez-Harrison over Tommy Rainone.
The Theater, which can still feel like a basement joint (Billy Joel was playing in the arena above), was festooned and filled to the brim with a crowd that wanted to watch uppercuts, catch a glimpse of Rihanna and maybe slide into the 40/40 Club afterward, if the baby sitter was on for that long.
Not that the bouts weren't enough entertainment. South Africa's Chris Van Heerden, with the fauxhawk, beat Randallstown's Cecil McCalla in a split. "The white boy won it! Can't believe the white boy won it!" Those words were from the relentlessly multiracial (including white people) audience. Oh, it was a party. Especially if you like snot and spit and bloodlust, dead-eyed boxer stares and profanity in various languages.
It was a celebration of what appears to be Roc Nation's stance and strategy -- Shawn Carter and his team are believers in the multicultural future.
More than just a vehicle for brands like Geico (the ropes) and Tequila Cazadores (two of the corners and card girls) to find a home in the pockets of doubty millennials and Gen Y heads of household who recall Tyson before prison and the face tat and the spoken word artist redemption tour, Throne Boxing was an orchestrated move by Roc Nation Sports to reimagine the '70s era of boxing -- back when Frank Sinatra was photographing Frazier and Ali's Fight of the Century for Life (with Norman Mailer reporting). On that long-ago night, a moment into the Me Decade, everyone from Miles Davis to Dustin Hoffman to Diana Ross was in the building. Here, Fabolous held his own in a massive fur hat during a performance of "Lituation," and the sexy scene was ringside, where Jay Z sat with a bodacious crew, including Rihanna in ebony tresses, a red lip and gray suede Manolos. A bearded Jake Gyllenhaal was nearby, as was Rosie Perez. This was not anyone's grandfather's fight night. Roc Nation Sports isn't trying to stay in the 20th century. That game has changed. That crowd has changed. The self-awareness and ambitions of -- and the possibilities for -- athletes are different.
"It is more than a boxing event," Hernandez-Harrison said the night before his match. "The way [Throne Boxing] promotes fights will do wonders for me outside the ring. The biggest thing, obviously, that I've got to do," he said plainly, "is win."