‘Black Panther’ magazine covers are missing black photographers Why that matters and 11 who should be considered

The decision by Essence to publish three different covers in honor of the release of Black Panther took the internet by storm over the past 24 hours. That means five major magazines — Time, Essence, Variety, Allure and British GQ — have published cover stories on the highly anticipated film in the past few days. And all five elected not to use a black photographer to handle the representation of the all-black starring cast of Black Panther. Instead, five white men, one white woman and one Asian woman were tasked with creating the pictures, which have immediately gone viral, especially on Black Twitter. (Kwaku Alston did shoot a Black Panther cover for Entertainment Weekly last fall.)

From the Time cover shot of Chadwick Boseman, along with the supplementary photo of him and director Ryan Coogler, which were photographed by the duo Williams+Hirakawa to the Essence covers, which were all photographed by Dennis Leupold, one wonders whether anyone took a hint from Barack and Michelle Obama. The first African-American president and first lady had their images immortalized in the halls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery by African-American artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the first African-American artists to create presidential portraits for the gallery. In the case of the Obamas, the message behind who created the picture can be just as powerful as who is in them.

Unfortunately, this is far from the first time that magazines have missed an opportunity to make a statement with who they hire to shoot their covers. When Colin Kaepernick graced the cover of GQ magazine in December with photos inside echoing the famous photos of Muhammad Ali shot by African-American Howard Bingham, the work was done by Martin Schoeller, a white man. When you look at three of the largest magazines that write about and reflect African-American culture — Essence, Ebony and GQ — you see the lack of African-American photographers is nothing new. In 2017, between the three magazines, just 4.25 covers were made by a black photographer, and three of them were done by the same person. (The .25 comes about because a photographer shot one photo in a series for a cover image.)

At The Undefeated, we are here to throw you some options of amazing black photographers who could have been the Kehinde to Barack when it came to making a cover image for Black Panther.

Kwaku Alston

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Wayne Lawrence

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Marcus Smith

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Itaysha Jordan

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Jeffery Salter

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Andre D. Wagner

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Kareem Black

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Carrie Mae Weems

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G L Askew II

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Jabari Jacobs

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Shaniqwa Jarvis

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Ibtihaj Muhammad: A letter to my teammates ‘Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead,’ the U.S. Olympic fencer says

I want them to know the importance of allied voices in movements for freedom and justice. Their silence is deafening. Their choice to be “safe” and sit out of the conversation is as political as taking a knee. Though a white ally may never truly understand what it is like to be black in America, the ally’s voice as an American athlete matters. Allies send a powerful message that equality is everyone’s fight. Sports are unique in their ability to unite people of different shapes and sizes, ethnicities and faiths and varied experiences. Over the course of history, this dynamic has played an important role in shaping cultural discourse. Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead.

Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead.

We stand at a particularly divisive time in American history, where black and brown bodies are still denied basic human rights simply for the color of our skin, and we as athletes must not fear using our voices to fight for justice and an end to bigotry. We each have the power to change the narrative, as leaders in the movement and as allies for our teammates. For guidance, let us look to predecessors like Muhammad Ali and John Carlos, who risked everything. Let us look to allies who have been largely forgotten by history, like Peter Norman, and to modern heroes like Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe and so many women of the WNBA. Today, and every day, we must continue to fight and recommit ourselves to Martin Luther King’s vision and be inspired by his words: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

Before you clap back at H&M ad boy’s mother, understand that context matters Her world is a little different from yours

As a kid growing up in Jamaica, the only sport I ever played — at recess, in the house, in the neighborhood — was futbol. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t destined to be the next Pelé, the Brazilian star who brought the South American country its first World Cup title in 1958 when he was all of 17. Futbol, in my world, was really the only sport worth watching and playing, with all due respect to cricket.

But when a packed Eastern Airlines flight touched down at Washington National Airport on May 7, 1982, American football entered my world. I became a fast Redskins fan, growing to admire the quiet but effective leadership style of coach Joe Gibbs; the bruising running of John Riggins; even the team’s brash, single-bar-helmet-wearing quarterback Joe Theismann. So big a “Riggo” fan, I asked my middle school soccer coach to assign me his jersey number: 44.

I remember watching a Monday Night Football telecast on Sept. 5, 1983, where legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell said of Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett: “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”

The response to Cosell’s description of the 5-foot-7, 178-pound wide receiver was quick, even in our pre-social media world. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, denounced Cosell’s comment as racist and demanded a public apology.

But Cosell refused to do so, citing his past support for black athletes, Muhammad Ali being the biggest, and stated that “little monkey” was a term of endearment he had used in the past for not just black athletes but also for diminutive athletes of all shades, white included. (Cosell is on record having used the term 11 years before in describing Mike Adamle, a white journeyman running back who played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Chicago Bears.)

Cosell, then 64 years old, admitted to calling his own grandson a little monkey; he’d leave the Monday Night Football booth after that 1983 season, citing his waning interest in professional football.

This week I harkened back to that moment in time when the pictures of an African-American boy, Liam, in an H&M ad wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” inscribed on it broke Twitter.

The response on social was fast and furious. Manchester United and Belgian national soccer star Romelu Lukaku, LeBron James, Diddy, The Weeknd and many more were among the big names to slam H&M, calling for shoppers to boycott the Swedish clothing company.

When Cosell said, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” my 13-year-old self missed it. Completely. I don’t remember my parents discussing it in the house in the days that followed. But this much I’m sure of: Even if my parents had heard the comment, I doubt there’d have been an outcry for Cosell’s dismissal from his job. Why? As West Indians, raised in the Caribbean and educated in the U.K., our sensibilities toward issues of race, racism and social activism were far different from 1983 America’s.

It matters not that Cosell used the term in reference to a white player. It doesn’t matter that he used it toward his own family. The bottom line is there are people who were offended when he used it in reference to an African-American player; therefore, he should have apologized for it and never done it again.

Why? Because he used the term out of context, and context matters.

So I understand that Liam’s mom didn’t grow up here and is Nigerian-Swedish and is not tuned in to the many nuances of being woke in America. So … she don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter — because there are people who were offended. In American context, the sweatshirt was out of context and that reference is offensive. So H&M should apologize, which it did, and never do it again. Ever.

Know this: What happened to that kid in the H&M ad could never have happened to my sons — not if I am breathing, anyway, and certainly not if I’d been on that photo shoot. No doubt, my reaction to the ad was no different from yours; I share the outrage, particularly at such a time in America where subtle and not-so-subtle racism in all its forms, from intentional and murderous to intentional and microaggressive, has dominated our lives, from the athletic field to the White House.

When the mother of 5-year-old Liam ranted on social that America’s reaction to the image was “unnecessary,” I suspected she might not be African-American. (Turns out, Terry Mango moved to Sweden from Nigeria.)

In a series of Facebook posts, Mango urged critics, including high-profile musicians and sports stars, to “get over it” and to “stop crying wolf.”

She wrote: “Am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled… stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here… get over it [sic]. … ‘Not coz am choosing not to but because it’s not my way of thinking sorry [sic].’ ” In a separate post, she added: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

That last point is probably Mango’s best, and only, good one. Growing up in Jamaica, we all spoke different versions of the patois dialect — and that included Chinese-Jamaicans, white Jamaican and Indian-Jamaicans and various combinations thereof. Our issue in Jamaica is not one of race, it’s of class. We had, and still have, a class problem.

Mango’s reaction tells me that this simply wasn’t her reality growing up; the American reaction irked her, maybe even surprised her too.

I have two black sons, ages 16 and 13 (and a daughter too). The world they live in scares the bejesus out of me; I worry about them walking home from school or, God forbid, driving my car without fear of being randomly harassed by police, who are supposed to protect them. Those are the fears that sparked this “quick” reaction, and Mango, I suspect, doesn’t understand that because that is not her reality. For those reasons alone, the national reaction cannot be deemed a small deal.

As you’d imagine and may have seen, Mango has taken more than a few hits on social, and for her comments, perhaps it’s well-deserved. She won’t have to defend herself to me. But I do hope that when the dust settles, she will look at this episode as a teachable moment — for herself and for young Liam, because the world in her head is not the world little Liam will live in.

Roy Jones Jr.’s next chapter is about sharing his boxing skills, his final fight and passion for life As he prepares, he’s teaching others as one of Star Vizn’s featured athletes

It was his speed. It was his footwork. His mesmerizing moves.

Watching Roy Jones Jr. in the boxing ring during his prime was like watching a well-crafted dance battle. In each of his bouts, Jones came out with a fight plan that would invite opponents into his world time and time again — a world where he won so much that he made history.

Jones is a six-time world champion whose career spans four weight classes (middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight). The elite boxer, rapper and commentator is the only boxer in history to start his professional career as a light middleweight and move up to win a heavyweight title. He won the silver medal in the light middleweight division at the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Jones has the combination of Sugar Ray Leonard’s handwork and Muhammad Ali’s passion. In a career that includes him soaring from obscurity to glittering fandom, his razzle-dazzle in the ring thrust him into the spotlight. Not that one needs to tell the Pensacola, Florida, native about the contributions he’s made to the boxing world. He knows his resume.

Jones also has a surprisingly prolific rap career, with one of his famed songs titled “Ya’ll Must’ve Forgot.”

Now he’s sharing his skills with the world. He has partnered with Star Vizn to offer a first-class experience in his boxing world.

Star Vizn is an online training platform where youths, adults, athletes, future entrepreneurs and aspiring entertainers can learn how to become better at their craft through an app. The platform allows anyone to gain exclusive, behind-the-scenes training from some of the biggest names in their industries on both iOS and Android.

The monthly subscription service is dedicated to users of all ages. Jones lends his expertise, joining other former professional athletes such as Jerry Rice, Robert Horry, Dominique Wilkins, Melissa Gorga and Cameron Mathison.

Focusing on fitness and sports training techniques, Star Vizn offers workouts ranging from as little as five minutes to a grueling 50 minutes as well as personal audio training. Jones’ 12-week training camp includes cardio, total body strength and endurance workouts through his legendary boxing and self-defense techniques and interval fitness training.

Jones applauds Star Vizn for introducing the platform, which was not widely available during his prime.

“You get to learn who I am through this app,” Jones told The Undefeated. “We didn’t have that when I was coming up. We didn’t have that in my prime. You feel me? If we would have, I’d have been watching Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan every day, along with a little bit of Barry Sanders.”

Roy Jones Jr.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Jones, recently wrapping up his media tour in the ABC Studios in New York City, mic’d himself. He knew which camera to face. He recited rap lyrics during sound check and said he is always prepared. He didn’t need any direction.

Jones said Star Vizn gives him the opportunity to regain some of the time he lost not being part of social media. Collaborating with Star Vizn is important because to the boxer it’s a conduit to give back the things he learned during his journey.

“The things that God blessed me to be able to learn and accomplish, I can now share all my experiences with the world if you want to learn or if you want to know or if you want to be shared with,” Jones said. “It’s very beautiful for me because it’s an opportunity to give back yet to also strengthen the core of amateur boxing and professional boxing, because they saw what I did with my career, where I can show you how I did that now.

“God blessed me to be able to do so many remarkable things with my career and during my career that stays relevant because they are the best highlights on YouTube. We all get to benefit from the fact that people can go back on social media now, look at it and share it, and they share my videos all the time because nobody has more intriguing yet exciting videos of boxing than does Roy Jones Jr. You ain’t gotta go back and look at one fight; you can go back and it’s a whole collage. It’s songs, videos of true stuff that I did in fights that nobody else did. So that’s what kept me relevant. When people say they want to look at boxing, you want to see boxing, you want to see fighting with excitement to it. You’ll go watch probably two or three people: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr.”

Jones’ music even got noticed in the 1990s era when hip-hop connoisseurs appreciated elements of music that described real-life situations. His music was often a testimony of the portrayal of his life, except he said he didn’t smoke or drink.

“Once I learned how to box and I got my steps down pat, I used to go in my mirror at nighttime and I was practicing stuff. I put my music on,” Jones said.

He said that his most memorable fight was against James Toney on Nov. 18, 1994.

“At that time, I was trying to get to be the man and James Toney was the man,” Jones said. “He was knocking out all comers, he was beating pretty much everybody with the exception of Dave Tiberi, and he was a bully. He was a mean bully that really could fight, so it was no weaknesses in him. He had the attitude, he had the personality, he had everything. He had the skills, he had the power. He had everything. So when you look at him, you’re like, ‘Wow, how’s somebody gonna beat him?’ But I didn’t look at him that way. I looked at him like, ‘Ha, how’s he gonna last with me?’ And that’s what I did to him.”

The hardest part of Jones’ journey has been ending his time as a fighter.

“At the end of the journey, when you finally get everything that you want and you try to tap into that hunger or that drive or that motivation or that anger that you used to have … very difficult to get it because when you do everything you want to do, what’s left?”

Jones’ idol was the legendary Ali.

“Without him I would be nothing, because he set a standard and a bar for me that I had to follow suit with because he was the reason I started boxing,” Jones said. “Without him I’m nothing, because I wouldn’t know where to start without seeing him fight.”

Jones often thinks about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but he’s not too concerned about his own brain trauma although he has been taking blows since he was 10.

“It is something that you have to worry about,” Jones said. “I always have been concerned about it to a degree, but yet I knew I wasn’t wrapped too tight to start with, so it can’t mess me up much more than I already am. But I thank God that I’m still capable of handling myself, speaking to where people can understand what I say. Knowing how to slow down and be a commentator and do things in a way that or in a manner that people can comprehend exactly what I’m trying to say.”

He believes in causes such as fighting the Libyan slave trade and welcomes other athletes’ voices to shed light on social causes of interest.

“You’re gonna stand up for it when you first see it happening so that you can hope to bring enough attention to it to get it stopped before it does hit home,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. I’m here because I want to do the Star Vizn thing and ready to promote Star Vizn but I’m not afraid to speak out for what I believe in, and anytime that I have an issue or they have an issue, everybody’s entitled to what they want to do. We have freedom of speech in the United States of America, so you think something’s wrong with something or you think something needs to be adjusted with something, then you have a right to go stand up for it. Everybody don’t have to do it. It’s not an obligation of yours, but you’ve got a right to do whatever the hell you want to do. So if you want to go stand up for that, you have the right to go stand up for that.”

Jones lives a healthy lifestyle. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday he wakes up at 5:15 a.m. to play basketball at 6.

“Sometimes I go back to sleep. Sometimes I go home and eat breakfast and go to work in my yard, however it goes. But about 1 or 2, I train my fighters. Then most of the time about 4, I go back to the basketball gym and dominate the kids, and I come back home at about 8 o’clock at night. I train my fighters for a second time. Then I’m in the bed. And it’s a hectic week and a hectic day, but that’s how I live.”

He still maintains a healthy diet. When training he does not eat red meat, sweets, dairy or bread.

“I got myself in shape, went out to L.A. for the filming, got my mind right, went back to my old self. I put on my boxing uniform, got my workout uniform, got my mind into workout mode. Start thinking about what I did when I fight, what I do, how I see boxing on a whole, how I see the technique of boxing, and we went to work.”

Jones is also preparing to leave the ring. He announced that his farewell fight in the cruiserweight division will take place Feb. 8 in his hometown of Pensacola. Although his opponent has not been determined, he is set to headline the Island Fights 46 card that will include a mixture of boxing and MMA matches.

The 48-year-old (turning 49 on Jan. 16) in his prime was untouchable until his 2004 bout with Antonio Tarver.

Jones has won 11 of his past 12 fights, with his most recent on Feb. 17 last year when he knocked out Bobby Gunn in the eighth round in Wilmington, Delaware. The win was Jones’ third in a row against low-level opposition.

These days he begins his morning with an early basketball game with a few youth in the Pensacola area. Yet he remains one of the most viewed boxers on YouTube, and he is well-aware of the stardom younger generations of people still let him bask in — and he intends to keep it.

Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.

The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

Welcome back, Tiger Woods is coming back to the PGA as a human, not a symbol of his father’s or golf’s hopes and dreams

The father spoke glowingly about his son to anyone who would listen. Once, at an awards dinner in honor of his son, the father issued a bold claim — or, under most circumstances, an asinine boast.

“My heart fills with so much joy when I realize that this young man is going to be able to help so many people,” the father said. “He will transcend this game and bring the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and his presence.”

His son would “do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.” Limiting the absurdity of such a prediction strictly to sports, that would be more than Arthur Ashe or Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens. More than Muhammad Ali. The father’s logic (to stretch the definition of the word) was that the son was “more charismatic, more educated and more prepared for this than anyone.”

More charismatic than Ali.

“He is the Chosen One,” the father said, anointing the son who he also said would have more of an impact upon the world than Nelson Mandela.

More impact than Nelson Mandela.

This father isn’t LaVar Ball. His son Lonzo had not yet been conceived when these statements were made. These words uttered in 1996 are the vocal property of one Earl Woods, father of Eldrick Tont Woods or, as first his father and then fame named him — simply Tiger.

Earl Woods was many things at many times. He was a philanderer and, at times, an opportunist. But he loved his son deeply and passionately and believed absolutely in the once-in-a-lifetime talent his son carried on his shoulders. It’s an impossible question to answer, but worthwhile to ponder. Much like Kanye West and his late mother, is so much of Woods’ rudderless time in the past few years toiling between mediocrity, irrelevancy and frustration because his father and his absolute faith is gone?

J.D. Cuban /Allsport

That Woods is not as socially transformative as Ali is as expected as the rising of the sun. That’s just a wild boast into the wind (even if you believe it). It also does not seem possible in this time space continuum that he will eclipse Mandela’s legacy. He is not the Chosen One. And yet.

Woods did try. In the 21 years since those words were uttered, Woods changed the entire culture of golf. There is very little beyond the rules of play left unchanged in his wake. He became a tour de force, the most dominant player of his generation. There is such a thing as Tiger-Proofing and a Tiger Effect. Only Sam Snead has more tournament victories than Woods’ 79 victories, and his attack on Jack Nicklaus’ majors record was thrilling to watch. His father has died — its own complex story. Then Nov. 27, 2009, happened. The fire hydrant crash and all the revelations of all the infidelities obliterated his idealized image. Injuries ground his career to a halt. Then in May, his mug shot from a DUI arrest became as synonymous with his life story as the red polo on Sunday. And yet.

Here we are, as Tiger, almost 42 years old, a father himself, a ghost of the player he once was, embarks on another “return” to competitive golf. And he is still the most captivating name in the sport by a country mile. Tiger is why the 18-man Hero World Challenge is on TV. He’s why, as the 1,180th-ranked golfer in the world, he commands more attention than the 1,179 in front of him combined.

If only the son, in so many ways, hadn’t tried to live up to the prophecy his father set forth for him as if they were the Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Commandments. If only Woods had known that his father was wrong twice more in that benediction that could also double as a curse. There is no education or preparation for the burden he assumed.


Golf knows it needs Woods back more than Woods needs golf. Young stars such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and current world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, immensely talented and superstar golfers in their own regard, have failed to move the needle. There is no post-Tiger plan.

His dominance reverberated around pop culture in a way the game could have never imagined (or desired) for the better part of a decade — portrayed by Sean “Puffy” Combs” in The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” music video and the subject of legendary Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle bits. Not after his statistical tyranny over golf made Babe Ruth’s stats look trivial, even now a decade after injuries and scandal exiled him. And surely not after his game assured him a spot on golf’s Mount Rushmore.

Oh, and Woods unquestionably dominated America’s most segregated sport. Jim Crow didn’t fully perish. It continued to live in country clubs when it could no longer legally claim residency at buses, lunch counters and water fountains. Woods reigned in a sport that drew much of its identity from its exclusion, snobbery, socioeconomic status and walled-off fairways.

Getty Images

When asked about golf’s history with racism in 1990, a 14-year-old Woods’ answer was telling, cognizant of the world around him and perhaps more prophetic than anything Earl Woods envisioned.

“Every time I go to a major country club I can always feel [racism]. Always sense it. People always staring at me. ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.’ When I go to Texas or Florida you always feel it,” he said. “They say, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.’ And that’s probably because that’s where all the slavery was.” But in his very next statement, there was Earl Woods’ optimism, his aim-for-the-stars mentality shining through in his son. Woods recognized his power. “Since I’m black, it might be even bigger than Jack Nicklaus. I might be even bigger than him. I may be like a sort of Michael Jordan in golf.”

Diversity was an issue in golf long before Woods. That, not even he could change. Nor should that responsibility have sat so squarely on his shoulders.

Golf failed to expand its reach when it had the biggest phenomenon in sports on all the TVs, winning all the trophies and making it look good too.

The game will never see another Tiger Woods. That rare combination of irresistible force and immovable object that shook the game up forever and once made it almost cool. That so-rare combination of power, grace and infinite marketability. But every run has an end, and Woods’ is nearer than any of us would like to admit, even with the excitement of his return to competitive golf.

He returns to golf as a human, not a symbol. He’s a 41-year-old man, not the 26-year-old phenom. That Tiger is dead. At this point, he’s playing for two goals. He mentioned one Tuesday during the Hero World Challenge news conference. He wants his kids to see how good he was, not just through word of mouth and YouTube videos. That their dad was once a pillar of precision and skill in a sport that demands laserlike focus even on bad days. The other one — and this is a hunch, and he’d never admit it anyway — is to go out like Peyton or Kobe. Woods likely won’t eclipse Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, but a 15th would be the nightcap on a career that’s seen meteoric highs and soul-crushing lows.

Throughout Woods’ decade of course destruction, it was never his job to recruit people of color to play more competitive golf. To get the kids, who years earlier would have only been allowed to be caddies, and turn them into the stars of tomorrow. Woods was a window, not a door. Symbolically, he did lead people of color to take up golf in ways they hadn’t in the decade. Diversifying the sport fell in golf’s lap. But here we are, nearly 21 years after Woods became a household name at the Masters, and golf has shown minimal progress in the area. In 2011, Joseph Bramlett became the first player of African-American descent to make the PGA Tour since Woods in 1997.

Much remains the same on the LPGA Tour too. Founded in 1950, only eight black women have played the tour. Althea Gibson and Renee Powell were the first two, Cheyenne Woods (Tiger’s niece) came in 2015, and this year there is Mariah Stackhouse. Many black female golfers at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are up against a lack of avenues to improve their games as programs are slashed. No black woman has ever won an LPGA title.

But beyond the pristine beaches of the Bahamas and the competitive but fraternal bond of the Hero World Challenge, one unsettling question and one certainty looms.

Question: If this is really the beginning of the end of maybe the greatest golfer to ever live, was it all worth it?

Fact: A chunk of this is on Tiger, a chunk on Earl. The great majority, however, falls on golf and how it chose to capitalize on Woods’ glory years and ignore the diversity of the sport long term — determined to keep their chosen one. Woods may still owe a debt to the people closest to him. Golf and all who love it, though, owe him.

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ — and the poster that sold it Remembering The Champ’s historic comeback

 

In the darkest night part of morning they came 60,000 strong — to watch undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman take on challenger Muhammad Ali. It was another time. The 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire, is now the Stade Tata Raphaël in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and The Rumble in the Jungle, as it was known, was scheduled to begin at 4 a.m. local time on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1974. This was so the match originally titled From Slave Ship to Championship would air live on closed-circuit television in U.S. theaters at 10 p.m. EST.

From backstage, journalist Norman Mailer described the scene. Although his entourage was somber, Ali appeared relaxed as he addressed himself in a mellifluous tone: “I been up and I been down. You know, I been around. It must be dark when you get knocked out. Why, I’ve never been knocked out. I’ve been knocked down, but never out.”

Ali was about to prove, once again, why he was the greatest of all time. Ever since the boxing commission stripped the champ of his title and suspended his boxing license for refusing to serve in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War, Ali had been on a mission to reclaim all that had been stolen from him. Ali fought the law — and won, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he was vindicated in June 1971.

“No one had heard the word ‘Zaire.’ ”

Boxing license back, Ali took on then-world champion Joe Frazier in The Fight of the Century in March 1971. It was the first time that two undefeated heavyweights had battled in a title fight. They went the full 15. Frazier won by unanimous decision, handing Ali his first loss.

By 1974, George Foreman held the title. Undefeated, Foreman had more than 35 knockouts under his belt, and at 25, seemed an unstoppable force, but Ali, seven years his senior, never lost heart.

On most fight posters, the location was not a visual part of the story. Whether held in Las Vegas, Chicago or Miami, the location was simply a matter of logistical information. But with The Rumble in the Jungle, Africa was a central character. “No one had heard the word ‘Zaire,’ ” recalled sports photographer Neil Leifer. “If you want to put your country on the map — what a way to do it. If you wanted the world to know who you were, get the most popular black man on earth to promote it. It was probably a good business move for Mobutu.” Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was noted for his cruelty and for being a master of terror on a grand scale, died in exile in 1997.

Set against a blazing yellow background, black and white photographs of Foreman and Ali floated above the continent of Africa, silhouetted in verdant green, perfectly matching the colors of the flag of Zaire. The poster had gone through slight modifications after Foreman cut his right eye during training, pushing back the date of the match, and it ran in both English and French. The French version of the fight poster included the words Un cadeau du President Mobutu au peuple Zaïrois et un honneur pour l’homme noir: “A gift from President Mobutu to the people of Zaire and an honor for the black man.”


Leifer, a boy wonder who began his professional career in 1958 at the age of 16, produced arguably the most famous photograph of Ali on earth: the image of him standing above Sonny Liston after throwing “the phantom punch” that sent the challenger to the mat during the first round of the 1965 world heavyweight title fight.

A photographer, like a boxer, has to be fully prepared for the fight, to be in peak condition and determined to make history. With more than 200 magazine covers and 17 books to his name, Leifer’s most recent book, The Fight (Taschen) is a triumph of book publishing. Limited to just 1,974 copies, the book features photographs by Leifer and Howard L. Bingham, Ali’s best friend, who died in 2016.

Using abridged copy from Mailer’s 1975 The Fight as its departure point, the Taschen volume follows Ali’s path through Zaire, crafting a comeback that blew people away. The book comes inside a slipcase that is modeled after the fight poster, using the same colors and design concept. “An image has to stop you — otherwise you will walk right by it,” said Leifer. “A cover is a poster — and if you take a second look at it, you might want to look inside. That yellow just jumps out at you … you can see it from half a block away.” But it’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement and the African independence movements.

It’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement.

The story belongs to the champion. This is increasingly clear when paging through The Fight. The Rumble in the Jungle was Ali’s return to glory. Unlike Foreman, whose strengths did not translate outside the ring, Ali took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, never meeting a camera or a reporter he did not like.

As Mailer reported, after shaking hands, Ali told Foreman, “You have heard of me since you were young. You’ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now, you must meet me, your master!” Foreman blinked.

The bell rang, and 30 seconds into the fight, Foreman had Ali on the ropes. They sparred, landing blows. It was an intense round, but people feared Ali would not be able to sustain that level of aggression. They weren’t wrong. Somewhere in the second round, Ali switched it up: rope-a-dope.

Ali hung back against the ropes, inviting Foreman to charge, then ducked, bobbed, weaved and blocked the champ’s fists of fury. Everyone was stunned. “What Muhammad did was so unusual, I honestly didn’t know when he would win,” Leifer recalled. “Any sensible person said, ‘What is he, out of his mind? He’s letting himself get hit.’ Foreman was an incredible puncher. You had to assume that at some point he’s going to break through Ali’s defense … but it didn’t happen that way.”

By the eighth round, Foreman was spent and Ali was prepared, landing several hooks followed by a five-punch combination that sent the champ sputtering to the ground. Mailer reported, “Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position … he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. His mind was held with magnets as high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground. He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news … ”

Determined to rouse himself, Foreman made it back on his feet after a count of 10, but he was finished. With two seconds remaining in the round, referee Zack Clayton stopped the fight. Ali had won the title back. Then he fainted.

Soon after the fight, the sky broke open and the rains came pouring down. The rainy season had been two weeks late, and the torrents flooded the stadium, drenching the batteries until the generators gave out. Half of the Telex machines shut down, and pictures and words could no longer get out — but they didn’t need to. Ali lived up to the poster — and did what he came to do as the whole world watched.