The Great White Hype is a 1996 film directed by Reginald Hudlin. It stars Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Berg, Damon Wayans, Jeff Goldblum, Jon Lovitz, Cheech Marin, John Rhys-Davies, Salli Richardson Whitfield and Jamie Foxx.
The title is a play on the title of the 1970 film The Great White Hope, but it is not based on an actual boxing contest. It was inspired by Larry Holmes's 1982 fight with Gerry Cooney and Mike Tyson's 1995 return fight vs. Peter McNeeley.
The film was distributed by 20th Century Fox, which also distributed the earlier film.
James "The Grim Reaper" Roper (Damon Wayans), the undefeated heavyweight boxing champ of the world, defeats his latest challenger with ease and visits an after-party thrown by the Don King Expy the Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson), a conniving and manipulative businessman who also acts as Roper's fight promoter.
The Sultan relays some bad news to everyone: The fight was a financial flop. He deduces the reason that boxing events have become far less profitable is because audience members are sick of watching only black boxers fight each other. The Sultan predicts that a white contender, even one without a viable chance of winning, would create a huge payday for all involved in the fight (citing the Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney battle in 1982 and the playing of the race card in that instance as a precedent), and he vows to either find or "create" a white contender in no time at all.
Eventually, after some puzzling and searching since there are no credible white contenders around to challenge Roper, Sultan learns about Terry Conklin, a white fighter and Golden Gloves champion who knocked out Roper as an amateur. Conklin never fought as a professional and has long since retired from the ring and become an obscure socially conscious rock and roller who donates all his (meager, at best) profits to help the homeless. It only takes a few minutes of talking for Sultan to lure Conklin back into the ring, but Sultan soon has to deal with additional problems, including the rightful top contender, Marvin Shabazz, who is furious at being passed over for a title shot, and a freelance journalist named Mitchell Kane who is looking to expose Sultan's corruption and bring him down.
Hilarity Ensues as Sultan talks his way around and through all these problems en route to putting on the fight.
This film provides examples of:
- Acceptable Targets: An In-Universe case. When Sultan and company are looking at footage of potential white challengers, they realize one of the fighters they're seeing is an Afrikaner from South Africa. Everyone in the room promptly starts rooting for the guy to get beat by the black fighter he's facing and they cheer loudly when it inevitably happens.
- Accidental Truth: As part of hyping the bout, at one point Mitchell "reads" a blank piece of paper that he claims is a fan letter to Conklin. The "fan letter" is from a young disabled boy who is inspired by Conklin and thinks if Conklin can do the impossible and win, maybe the boy can do the impossible and walk again. While the whole thing is fake, during the night of the fight a young boy in a wheelchair is seen rooting for Conklin, and is crushed when Conklin loses.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Despite frequent protests about giving a title shot to someone who has never fought as a pro, this has happened in reality.
- 1956 Olympic gold medalist Pete Rademacher bragged that he could defeat then Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson in his pro debut. Patterson obliged and gave Rademacher a title shot for his first pro fight, and knocked Rademacher out. (Although similar to the film Rademacher had some early success, knocking Patterson down in the 2nd round. Patterson came back and knocked Rademacher down seven times before the fight was stopped in the sixth round.)
- This almost happened again in 1976 with Teófilo Stevenson after Stevenson won a second Olympic Gold medal for heavyweight boxing, but Stevenson was a Cuban citizen and famously refused to defect from Cuba, which he would have needed to do in order to fight in a professionally recognized bout. (Stevenson later won a third Olympic gold medal, along with various other amateur championships and honors.)
- More than 20 years after the film, it became a reality again, albeit not for the heavyweight title. Floyd Mayweather fought MMA champion Connor MacGregor who had never fought a single professional boxing match, under boxing rules. Mayweather, a far more defensive and cautious fighter than the fictional Roper, let MacGregor exhaust his stamina before stepping up his own attack, and the referee stopped the fight in the 10th round to keep an exhausted and defenseless MacGregor from being hurt by Mayweather.
- Appeal to Familial Wisdom:
- Mitchell Kane interviews Marvin Shaabazz and Hassan El Ruk'n, and this confused exchange of parental advice emerges:Shaabazz: Like my Daddy say, you out there, James, the poodle, pussy whatever your name is, Roper, if you a man be a man! Step up. Fight me. You ain't fought nobody.
Mitchell: Your Daddy said . . . what?
Hassan: Just like my father have told me, when the green grass starts growing, you know, on the other side, somebody gotta cut the lawn.
Mitchell: You know, my father said once that when you laugh the whole world laughs with you, cry and I'll give you something to cry about, you little bastard! That's what he said.
- After Sultan, with a little help from his phalanx of armed bodyguards with laser sights on their guns, defuses a hostile situation.Bambi: My Daddy always says don't whip your shit out if you ain't ready to use it.
Sol: Shut up!
- Mitchell Kane interviews Marvin Shaabazz and Hassan El Ruk'n, and this confused exchange of parental advice emerges:
- As Himself: A few figures who were connected to real life boxing show up essentially playing fictional version of themselves. The most prominent is probably Bert Sugar, a longtime boxing journalist and historian known among fans for his trademark appearance, (including always wearing a fedora and holding an unlit cigar) who plays a boxing journalist who always wears a fedora and who protests the absurdity of the fight and the way Sultan hypes it on a number of occasions.
- Bad Boss: Sultan rewards his subordinates but makes it abundantly clear that he is the boss, his word goes and do not piss him off. Wielding a very hefty looking scimitar during a business meeting is not a sign of a nice man. But then, the man he is based on is a rather notorious figure who was involved in criminal activity and once was convicted of second-degree murder of an employee.
- Blatant Lies: This could probably have its own page:
- Mitchell reading a letter from a boy in wheelchair saying if Conklin wins he believes he could walk again. It's a blank piece of paper.
- Most things that Sultan says to the press.
- Julio including Conklin in the rankings.
- Johnny Windsor proclaiming that he is not a racist.
- Broken Pedestal: Mitchell Kane to his documentary team. He sold out. Big.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Mitchell Kane. Starts off as a crusading journalist out to expose the Sultan only to take up a job with Sultan for a big paycheque. While it looks like the reverend is very happy with Mitchells work and will reward Mitchell for his efforts, Mitchell just cant help himself. Once he starts to think that Conklin may have a legitimate chance to upset Roper, Mitchell gets exclusive rights to manage and promote any future Conklin bouts, stealing Conklin out from under Sultan's nose.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Conklin is a ditzy, not especially bright guy who is frequently overly naive and out of his depth. (And one press conference where a doctor talks about the medical records of Conklin and Roper establishes that Conklin has at least some brain damage.) However, he does still have at least some legitimate fighting ability, best shown when Marvin Shabazz tries to crash one of Conklin's press conferences and Conklin lays him out with one punch. That's the point where the film's public (and Mitchell Kane) start to think Conklin has a real shot.
- David vs. Goliath: A challenger who never fought as a professional but is training hard versus the overconfident champion who has dominated the sport. Goliath wins, and it's not even a contest.
- Deconstructive Parody: In this movie the plucky underdog faces the harsh reality that sometimes the underdog doesn't get a happy ending.
- Equal-Opportunity Evil: Sultan's inner circle of allies, advisors, and employees is rather color blind. Also, unlike some of his associates, who want to keep Bambi relegated to Eye Candy status and shoot down her ideas and suggestions in a misogynistic way, Sultan recognizes her good ideas and promptly promotes her within his organization.
- Evil Mentor: Sultan, who is an amoral liar, cheater, and thief, takes Bambi and Mitchell under his wing. In Mitchell's case, it's explicitly to derail Mitchell's campaign to expose Sultan. Mitchell first becomes one of Sultan's most promising employees, then winds up becoming virtually a carbon copy of Sultan, and even seems to plan on trying to compete with Sultan as a promoter in the world of boxing by the end of the film. Bambi seems more content with being a competent employee.
- FaceHeel Turn: Mitchell Kane sells out his documentary team and becomes (for awhile) Sultan's right hand man. That swine.
- Fake Irish: In-universe example. Despite his very Irish name Terry Conklin is not Irish at all, but Sultan claims he is in promotions so that he can play the race card more blatantly. Amusingly Terry's trainer holds to older ideas of race and mentions that as far as he's concerned being Irish means Terry isn't actually white.
- Faux Affably Evil: Sultan. His charisma and charm result in him twisting everyone around him into his victims or pawns. As a result he gets away with a ridiculous number of crimes, backstabbings, and double crossings and always profits from it, and even people who know what a ruthless cheat he is seem helpless to do anything about it once Sultan starts sweet talking them. But what else would one expect from a Don King parody?
- Fish out of Water: Conklin is an All-Loving Hero utterly disgusted by the racism and sexism around him fighting for the hope of earning money for the homeless. He's so far out of his depth in the cynical world of boxing that he doesn't even comprehend how bad it is, and by the end just wants to go home.
- Gangsta Style: Shaabazz, Hassan and two Mooks ambush Sultan and co at Sultan's mansion brandishing guns horizontally. Cue lots and lots of pretty red lights focusing on Hassan. Even some of Sultan's bodyguards, who are presumably properly trained, are guilty of this.Hassan: See this is what happens see when you been living lavish, you know, sippin' wine an' everything then we come in here Neno Brown Style. Huh-yeah!
- Hard Work Hardly Works: The challenger trains hard and also has lots of moral support and fans backing him. Meanwhile the undefeated champion lets himself get fat and hardly trains as a sign of his contempt for the challenger. During the main event, the challenger lands one good punch, before getting knocked out by an angry, overweight champion.
- He Who Fights Monsters: Michell Kane starts out trying to expose the Sultan's corrupt practices. By the end of the film, he decides to leave journalism and become part of the corrupt and brutal boxing industry.
- Hidden Heart of Gold: When Conklin's charity work and social justice focus starts being contrasted with Roper's self-indulgent lifestyle in the media, one journalist finds out that Roper is actually spending large amounts of money on charitable causes and AIDS research, as well as visiting children's hospitals in every city he visits. Roper is pissed at what he sees as a privacy intrusion by the press and angrily ends the interview. (This is likely based on Muhammad Ali, who gave massive amounts of time and money to charity during his career but utterly hated it being bought up, as he considered making a big deal out of one's charity to be bragging about it and the antithesis of true charity).
- Hope Spot: By the time of the fight Roper is badly out of shape and blatantly doesn't care, versus an opponent who has been training hard and thinks this is his big shot. After an exchange of blows, Terri lands a big punch that causes Roper to stagger into the ropes... except it turns out that Roper isn't hurt, he's just mad. Roper quickly gets serious and the fight is over 27 seconds into the first round.
- Insistent Terminology: "It's Merlot"
- Invincible Hero: This is the major reason they need the plot; Roper is so dominant in the sport that his matches are boring and the outcomes never in doubt. Shabbazz accuses Sultan of setting this up on purpose by keeping the real top fighters away.
- Karma Houdini: The Sultan gets his payday, gets off scott free, and gains a new fighter in the process.
- Large Ham: Jeff Goldblum enjoys a bit of scenery chewing in this flick. Whether hes mangling metaphors aimed at the corruption in boxing or reading a blank piece of paper telling the audience that wheelchair bound child will believe that he can walk again if Terry beats Roper.
- Laser Sight: Shaabazz and Hassan try to ambush Sultan at his mansion but the Sultan has many bodyguards, all very big men, all with guns and all with Laser Sights. Hassan becomes much more willing to negotiate when the little red dots all congregate on his crotch.
- Let's Get Dangerous!: The moment Terry stunned Roper with an overhand right, that was when the champ started taking the fight seriously and delivered a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown on his opponent.
- Manipulative Bastard:
- Sultan. He gets the boxing world, even the cynics, to believe that Terry is a legitimate contender for the Heavyweight Crown, and that's just the start of his antics throughout the movie.
- Sol is no slouch in the department either. After Mitchell Kane replaces him in Sultan's inner circle, Sol waits for a chance, and then gets Kane to start considering the potential that Conklin might win a fight with an out of shape Roper. This leads to Kane secretly signing a contract with Conklin behind Sultan's back. At this point, no matter what happens, Sol stands to gain; if Conklin actually wins and Kane becomes a big name in the boxing world, he owes Sol for giving him the idea. If Conklin doesn't win and Kane gets kicked out of Sultan's inner circle because of this backstabbing, Sol has a chance to get back in Sultan's good graces and win his old place back. And along the way he either gets payback at the boss who dismissed him or the guy who replaced him.
- Metaphorgotten: Mitchell Kane interviews Marvin Shaabazz and Hassan El Ruk'n and this confused exchange occurs:Shaabazz: Like my Daddy say, you out there, James, the poodle, pussy whatever your name is, Roper, if you a man be a man! Step up. Fight me. You aint fought nobody.Mitchell: Your Daddy said (beat) what?Hassan: Just like my father have told me, when the green grass starts growing, you know, on the other side, somebody gotta cut the lawn.Mitchell: You know my father said once that when you laugh the whole world laughs with you, cry and I'll give you something to cry about, you little bastard! That's what he said!
- Ms. Fanservice: For a film about boxing's excess and corruption, you can bet that there are more than a few women here just to look attractive:
- Bambi. Ooh La La.
- The Playboy Bunnies for Terry's photoshoot.
- The female fans who increase in number for each of Terry's press conferences.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The film contains plenty of counterparts and analogues to real life figures involved in the boxing trade. Some examples include:
- Samuel L. Jackson as Sultan is Don King. No two ways about it.
- Today Damon Wayans James "Grim Reaper" Roper could certainly be considered a 90s version of Floyd Mayweather Jr., but back when it was made he was a spoof of Mike Tyson when Tyson was still at or near the top of his game.
- Julio, the man who works closely with Sultan and manipulates the rankings of the WBI to make Conklin a top ten rated fighter, is one for Jose Sulaiman, the lifetime president of the real life WBC (World Boxing Council) who worked closely with Don King and often gave preferential treatment, rankings, and title shots to King's fighters.
- Even though he might not be meant as one, it's easy to see the parallels between Mitchell Kane and Bob Arum. Arum, like Kane, started out in a profession unrelated to boxing, (Arum was a lawyer while Kane was a journalist) got involved in boxing almost accidentally and became so enthralled with the boxing trade that he wound up becoming a promoter. Also, similar to how Kane first works with and then tries to supplant Sultan, Arum would vary between reluctantly partnering with Don King in order to promote specific fights to viciously competing against King to be the top promoter in boxing during the 80s and 90s.
- Nothing Personal: Sultan shakes Mitchells hand after the fight. He knew Mitchell had succumbed to greed and wasnt that bothered, he would have done it too.
- Oh No You Didn't!: Mitchell really should not have said My brother, I'm a man of peace to the angry black man whose view of the fight he was blocking.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Politically incorrect world, more like. Nearly everyone around shows some level of contempt for women, other races, etc. About the only people who never do are Conklin and Bambi. Special notice goes to Conklin's trainer, however, who displays some true old school level of racism, between openly calling black people monkeys, speaking with approval of the Waffen SS, and at one point saying that the Irish don't properly count as white, but they're close enough.
- Professional Butt-Kisser: The film is full of them, just as in real life many such groupies and hangers on can be found around fighters and promoters. Sultan and Roper both have small squads of such figures.
- Read the Fine Print: Sultan's contracts aren't so much filled with tricks as deceptively vague. His legal adviser tells him that any attempt to prove it means anything specific will lead to years of litigation. This is done to make Sultan's contracts so difficult to enforce that it's easier for fighters to just go along with doing whatever Sultan wants. It's remarked in the movie that no sane lawyer would allow their client to sign such contract, which is why Sultan places his own people as his fighters' lawyers.
- Reality Ensues: Despite weeks of intense training and some flashes of potential, Conklin hasn't fought in years, never fought as a professional, has at least some brain damage, and has been living a hedonistic Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll lifestyle that hasn't done his athletic ability any favors. When he gets in the ring with the Heavyweight Champion, even one as out of shape, disinterested, and overconfident as Roper, he's quickly squashed. Turns out a few weeks of training and a lot of hype doesn't equal the years of dedication and honing his craft that the champ has put in.
- Shown Their Work: Real fight footage is shown when Sultan is trying to find a white challenger, complete with details about the fighters seen. Other real facts about boxing are referenced, most importantly the record breaking box office of the Holmes vs Cooney fight.
- Smarter Than You Look: Roper, despite his violent trade, is no fool. He's much more clever and shrewd than most people judge. He can instantly tell that Sultan has bad news and is trying to butter him up after the first fight of the film because Sultan is laying on the friendship and brotherhood talk too thick for it to be anything else.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: Invoked in-universe by being really blatant about it. Sultan's opening gambit when announcing the fight is the "Is it Hype, or is it Hope?" tagline. He also repeatedly exploits the race angle by denying that he's exploiting the race angle.
- Talking Your Way Out: Sultan confronts Mitchell, a crusading reporter with a grudge against him and blackmail material that Mitchell is willing to use, and by the end of the conversation Mitchell is Sultan's publicist. This is in fact Sultan's MO, as every time he encounters a potential obstacle, (Conklin's drugged out nature and goody two shoes politics, Hassan and Shabazz trying to use force in order to get a title shot, boxing journalists protesting and pointing out the open corruption of Conklin being rated as a top contender, etc.) he finds an angle to take and a way to outfox his opponents. He never uses anything more than an occasional implied threat of violence, yet he always manages to get the better of people who are willing or threatening to be violent towards him.
- Title Drop: Almost.Sultan: Is it Hype, or is it Hope?
- Underdogs Never Lose: Conklin is played up as this bright and promising rookie who could take down the heavyweight champion. He even scores a good hit in the fight. Then said heavyweight champion gets serious.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Mitchel's reporter team. Sure they quit when Mitchel did a FaceHeel Turn but one would think that they still have enough evidence to ruin The Sultan's career.
- Xanatos Gambit: Sol talking Mitchell into taking a shot at displacing Sultan is a win-win for him. If Mitchell wins he gets his old job back in the new regime, and if Mitchell loses he possibly gets his job back under under Sultan but definitely gets revenge on his replacement.