From Romney to Trudeau: The political history of celebrity boxing

After serving as mayor of Hammond, Indiana for 17 years, Thomas McDermott Jr. is ready to try his luck in the boxing ring.

Speaking on his “Left of Center” podcast last month, the Democrat formally challenged Indiana Republican Senator Todd Young to a celebrity boxing match at the Hammond Civic Center, claiming that his political rival has gone “soft” since being elected to the Senate five years ago.

McDermott’s comments came shortly after the mayor was asked about the rumor that he was planning to challenge Young for his seat in the Senate. Instead of confirming his potential political fight, he instead turned the attention to an entirely different sort of fight.

“I’m not saying he’d be easy. … Todd could be sneaky tough,” McDermott said on the podcast. “But I would love to fight Todd Young in a celebrity boxing match.”

While McDermott, 52, is four years older than Young, the mayor was open to making the fight more of a mixed martial arts affair if that interest Young. “Let’s throw a cage up. I was a wrestler. I’ll bust out my old wrestling moves and mess him up,” McDermott said.

McDermott, who holds the record as the longest-serving mayor in Hammond’s history, did not shy away from using the proposed boxing match as an opportunity to attack his political rival. He called Young a “sh*t senator,” attacked him for his reported plans to spend $150 million on his reelection bid and claimed that he planned to “knock his ass out.”

While the mayor appears to have embraced the trash talking aspect of combat sports, he is not without his own fair share of controversies. In 2014, McDermott agreed to a $200,000 settlement for a discrimination complaint filed by Hammond Housing Authority Director Maria Becerra. Five years later, McDermott was fined $50,000 for improper campaign loans from his wife. However, the mayor is also aware that a successful celebrity boxing match done in the name of charity would do wonder for his brand ahead of a potential Senate bid.

McDermott isn’t the first politician to see the benefit of participating in a celebrity boxing match. For years, elected officials have used celebrity boxing as a public relations stunt. Some did so to regain relevance, while others utilized it as a strategic decision that would further their political careers.

On March 31, 2012—12 months before being elected as the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party—Justin Trudeau stepped into the ring to take on indigenous politician in a celebrity boxing match.

The bout, which headlined the fifth annual Fight for the Cure event and raised more than $200,000 for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, pitted Trudeau, the Member of Parliament for Montreal’s Papineau riding, against Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau. The stakes were high: the loser would have to wear a hockey jersey with the opposing party’s logo for a week and also have their long hair trimmed in a public display in a House of Commons foyer.

Beyond the high stakes, the charity event carried significant political intrigue. At the time, Trudeau was best known as the eldest son of Canada’s renowned (yet divisive) prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, and was little more than a small-time politician in Canada’s third-ranking political party in 2012. Trudeau, who would become prime minister in 2015, was yet to prove himself as a serious political player. This boxing match marked the beginning of Trudeau’s rise to Canada’s highest office.

Justin Trudeau Boxing

Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The fight was televised on the Sun News Network, a right-wing outlet that would eventually morph into Rebel News, a far-right political and social commentary media website. Rebel News co-founder Ezra Levant, known for promoting Islamophobia and other forms of hatred and propaganda, was one of the commentators on the broadcast.

“I think [Brazeau] has been in more fights in a month than Trudeau has been in a life,” Levant said during the broadcast.

Levant was not the only person who questioned Trudeau’s chances in the ring. Brazeau, 37, was four years Trudeau’s junior, a black belt in karate, and a navy veteran. Though shorter than Trudeau by several inches, prevailing wisdom placed Brazeau as a 3-1 favorite to win.

In an attempt to live up to his billing, Brazeau came out strong to start the fight. He attacked Trudeau with a barrage of heavy shots, controlling the pace for the first round. However, Trudeau weathered the storm, and as the fight went on, the overconfident Brazeau became visibly exhausted. By Round 3, Trudeau was in complete control, peppering his opponent with his jab and punishing him with repeated blows until the referee stepped in.

The dramatic event had a profound impact on the politicians’ careers. Brazeau was arrested on charges of assault, sexual assault, and domestic abuse, and was later suspended from the senate. Ahead of his trial in 2014, he was arrested again on charges of assault, cocaine possession, uttering threats and breach of bail conditions. While he was acquitted of the sexual assault charges, Brazeau pleaded guilty simple assault and possessing cocaine as part of a plea bargain. Prior to returning to the senate in 2016, he was hired as the day manager for a strip club in Ottawa, Ontario.

As for Trudeau, his political ascent had just begun. He became a media sensation and revitalized the Liberal Party after being elected as its leader in 2013. He would go on to defeat Conservative Stephen Harper in the 2015 election. Trudeau’s political pivot underscores the symbolic significance of sports and how they can be used to rewrite narratives.

“Never underestimate the power of symbols in today’s world,” Trudeau said ahead of the fight. “The Liberal party is in a weak position in parliament. We’ve never had so few MPs. The Conservatives have all the money and the support. So … wouldn’t it be fun to see Justin Trudeau win? A triumph over the all-powerful Conservatives?”

“I was put on this planet to do this,” Trudeau added. “I fight – and I win.”

While Trudeau used celebrity boxing to help launch his political career, other politicians used it to remain relevant in the twilight of their careers. In 2015, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney challenged five-time world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield to a boxing match in Salt Lake City, Utah.

For two rounds, Romney, 68, and Holyfield, 52, faced off in an exhibition bout that could best be described as a light sparring session. Romney, who weighed in at 179 pounds, traded friendly blows with Holyfield, who registered at 236 pounds on the scale, with the proceeds from the event going to CharityVision, an organization that provides surgeries to heal blindness.

“The good news is that Evander Holyfield always hits above the belt, and sometimes in politics that isn’t the way things are done,” Romney said before the fight.

Romney trained for the fight at the Fullmer Brothers Boxing Gym, where he received help from Holyfield himself. He walked out to “I Will Survive” and did his best to do just that, bobbing and weaving around the heavyweight for the better part of two rounds before eventually throwing in the towel in Round 2.

“For a man who’s never got in the ring to box, he can throw a jab. He can move around. I was impressed. He’s the oldest person that I ever fought. He’s the smallest person I ever fought,” Holyfield said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for that.”

Romney revealed that he would never have considered stepping into the ring during his 2012 presidential campaign. However, following his failed presidential bid, Romney viewed it as a casual way to court attention and highlight his charitable endeavors.

Mitt Romney Takes On Evander Holyfield In Charity Boxing Event

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Several months following Romney’s combat sports debut, boxing was once again used as a political prop by Jorge Kahwagi, a Mexican politician, businessman, and personality who is infamous among boxing fans for allegedly fixing fights.

Kahwagi was a member of Mexico’s PVEM political party and also served as a commissioner of the Mexican Government. While his political achievements are nonexistent, he once asked to be excused from his post in Congress in order to be a contestant on Big Brother, where he ended up staying for 50 days. While dabbling in politics and show business, Kahwagi also compiled an unbeaten, albeit deeply suspicious, 12-0 record. Kahwagi won all his fights by first or second round knockout, and yet, four of those opponents were linked to people implicated in the “Operation Matchbook” FBI investigation into fight fixing and corruption in boxing.

While Kahwagi attempted to use boxing to enhance his popularity in politics, it did not work. His final fight took place in 2015 when he faced Ramon Olivas in one of the most absurd fights in modern boxing history.

When Kahwagi disrobed after making his way to the ring, he appeared to have implants lodged in his pecs, biceps and deltoids, which drew mockery from the crowd in attendance. Once the fight began, Olivas attacked with a series of light body blows that had no effect on his opponent. Kahwagi then countered with a left hook which sent Olivas to the canvas. It was his first punch of the night.

Kahwagi proceeded to unleash a series of slow motion blows that Olivas made little effort to defend himself against. He eventually knocked Olivas down again, which caused the referee to bring an end to the fight with more than two minutes remaining in the opening round.

“Kahwagi threw combinations like a baby trying to get hold of the milk bottle mom was keeping away from him,” Ed Tolentino, a sports journalist who called the fight that night, said in a recent interview.

While Kahwagi-Olivas was little more than a farce, it remains an interesting case study in modern boxing and its allure for celebrities and politicians. Though Kahwagi came from wealth and had an influential father, he attempted to use boxing to appeal to the Mexican people and further his political career. And while he was unsuccessful for obvious reasons, others such as Trudeau were able to gain necessary popularity boosts that furthered their political ambitions.

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