Here is part of the text of an ad that ran in the sports section last Sunday's Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch: THE GREAT WHITE HOPE vs. THE CAUCASIAN ASSASSIN
The Caucasian Assassin, Ken Norton, KO'd Jerry Quarry, Duane Bobick, Ron Stander and has never lost to a white fighter.
Will the new Great White Hope, undefeated Gerry Cooney, go the way of Quarry, Bobick and Stander?
Under the copy, a picture of Cooney and Norton chin to chin was placed over little type identifying them as "The Great White Hope" and "The Caucasian Assassin." Buried was the information that Cooney was the No. 1 contender with 24 victories, 20 by knockout, and that Norton is a former heavyweight champion.
Don Elbaum placed the advertisement.
I called him. He is a fight promotoer in Cincinnati. He once sold ads on the soles of a fighter's shoes, but the guy didn't get knocked out that night. Some days you can't make a nickel. Elbaum, 41, is putting on the closed-circuit telecast of the Cooney-Norton fight in five cities around the Midwest. He runs the ad in every city.
"I've seen your ad, and I'd like to ask you. . ." I said.
Elbaum was laughing. "That ad has created more controversy than the fight," he said.
"What's been happening?"
"First of all," Elbaum said, "let me say this: I think it's the most ridiculous thing in the world for that ad to be controversial. You know Pete Franklin, the sports talk guy in Cleveland? He had me on the radio for two hours."
"The ad is extraordinary," I said.
Elbaum didn't think so. "Gerry Cooney is white and Ken Norton is black, or at least they were the last time I looked. Are people saying white is a dirty word now? Is there anything wrong with cheering for a white guy? The same was Italians would cheer for Italians? This is getting so ridiculous."
"Aren't you playing on people's prejudices and bigotry?"
"The least-bigoted guy in the world is the guy you're talking to. I grew up with blacks as my friends. Look, Ken Norton has never lost to a white guy and so I pointed it out. What the hell is wrong with that? I can't believe people. They're just trying to hype something."
I said, "If you're not trying to hype the racial angle, why doesn't your ad talk about Cooney's great left hook, say, and Norton's being in the ring with three heavyweight champions?"
"Every fighter has a great left or a great jab or a great something," Elbaum said. "Work it this way. If an Italian fighter knocked out four straight Jews and then he's in with Mike Rossman (who is called "The Jewish Bomber' and wears the Star of David on his trunks), wouldn't you wonder if Rossman could survive?"
Elbaum took a breath. "This all has been a laugh for me. It's been funny."
"How could billing a fight as a race war be funny?"
"It was done with tongue in cheek. It's a p.r. thing, an eyecatcher. It sure as hell makes more sense than saying Gerry Cooney will try his great left hook against the bobbing and weaving Ken Norton. And it causes some talk. I wouldn't have had a call from you if the ad had just talked about left hooks, would I?"
The day after Christmas in 1908, Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion by defeating Tommy Burns. Covering the fight for the New York Herald, author Jack London wrote, "The fight! -- There was no fight! . . . It had all the seeming of a playful Ethiopian at loggerheads with a small white man . . . (Burns) was a glutton for punishment, (but) a dewdrop had more chance in hell then he with the Giant Ethiopian."
London was distraught.
"But one thing now remains," he wrote. "Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff it's up to you!"
Money brought Jeffries from retirement and, as a fight with Johnson drew near, a newspaperman named W. P. McCloughlin wondered about Johnson's training. "Is Johnson a typical example of his race in the lack of that intangible 'something' that we call 'heart?"
Meanwhile, in "James Jeffries, the hope of the white race," McCloughlin saw "a gradually growing sullen ferocity."
In Howard Sackler's 1968 play "The Great White Hope," an old champion named Cap'n Dan says of the Jeffries character, "Oh, he's the man all right. I just don't like the idea of calling it a 'hope'. I wish you boys hadn't hung that tag on him."
A sportswriter replies, "It's sure caught on, though!"
Cap'n Dan: "That's what bothers me, I guess."
It doesn't bother Don Elbaum.
"I do not think 'Caucasian Assassin means anything racial," the fight promoter said. "Norton is a black man who has never lost to a white guy. So what's wrong with calling him the 'Caucasian Assassin'? Is it wrong to be the Brown Bomber? . . . It's like people are afraid to say a man is black or a man is white. To me, it's like the dark ages. It's not like my ad is saying 'nigger' and 'honky' or 'dago' or 'kike.' I wasn't brought up that way. I was brought up open-minded."
Aren't you simply selling racial conflict instead of a sports event?"
"Yes, this is a selling point. No, not a selling point; no, not that. It's a story, is all. I cannot believe that's not a story, that Ken Norton never losing to a white guy is not a story."
"I've never once read a story pointing that out," I said.
"I'm finding out people are afraid to mention it," Elbaum said. "If Ken Norton knocks out Gerry Cooney, Norton and Mike Weaver on Norton and Larry Holmes for the championship will be a good Saturday afternoon TV show. But if Gerry Cooney knocks out Norton, then Cooney-Weaver or Cooney-Holmes is a primetime show. Why? Because there happens to be something else there that people are afraid to talk about."
Jack Johnson knocked out Jim Jeffries in the 15th round July 4, 1909, outside Reno. Ever since, entrepreneurs of fear have grown rich, entrepreneurs of fear grown rich searching for a white hope. In the last 44 years, there have been only two white champions, Rocky Marciano and Ingemar Johanson. Now comes Gerry Cooney, a contender, who says the white hope stuf is aggravating.
"I don't want to be a green hope or a purple hope, just a fighter," he has said. "I'm the hope of my family and friends and the people rooting for me."
Nice, kid. But we'll all be gone before a shameless chill runs an ad hyping a fighter as "The Great Family Hope."