On Friday night in Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney lost a fight that wasn’t really a fight, a three-round charity boxing exhibition against an ex-champ, Evander Holyfield, who barely pretended he was there.
It was for a good cause, to be sure. In this case, the beneficiary of Romney’s non-fight is Charity Vision, a nonprofit dedicated to providing medical equipment, clinics, vision screenings, eye surgeries, and training to doctors in poverty-stricken areas across the globe. According to the organizers, between corporate partners coughing up between $25,000 and $250,000 each—plus the box office receipts—they expected to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million.
Much to everyone’s surprise, in the run up to the fight, Romney actually managed to come across as downright human. He poked fun at his patrician, robotic stiffness in this online video, and winked at Holyfield’s infamous biting incident with Mike Tyson. “It’s true, I don’t have much of a right hook,” he said. “But when I get somebody’s ear, I can be pretty formidable.”
He gave a fun, jokey interview with the New York Times Magazine in which he said that his experiences in politics were in some way applicable to the fight because of “the embarrassment of having everybody looking and laughing,” and revealing that “I was affectionately known as Bird Legs during high school. I’m afraid the bird legs will be unveiled one more time.”
But the whole impetus behind this fight, and why it might garner more attention than a standard-brand charitable fundraiser featuring failed politicians, retired athletes and C-list celebs is a (startlingly) self-aware realization on Mitt’s part that there are a great many people that would like to sock him in the face and/or midriff. Barring that, they might get a good amount of voyeuristic pleasure from seeing a beefy stand-in like Evander Holyfield do it on their behalf.
I emailed Jeb Lund, a columnist at the Guardian and Rolling Stone who covered Romney’s 2012 campaign, to ask why it might have taken so long for this version of Mitt to reveal itself. More to the point, and what, aside from being a perennial contender for Upper Class Twit Of The Year, made the idea of him getting knocked on his ass in a charity bout so appealing?
“The thing that’s infuriating about Romney and that was especially infuriating all through 2012 is that he’s very clearly a smart man with some sense of humor,” Lund wrote.
“He just comes up one crucial point short, some last step of getting it, which makes every good-natured and every likable thing about him fall apart into a shambles of risibility. Like an arch without a keystone, the last step of Mitt’s not getting it undermines all the other things he gets.”
“So, I have absolutely no doubt that Mitt is smart enough to understand that people want to see him knocked on his ass, and that that is part of the appeal. He does get it. I think he always would have gotten something like that.
“But I also am 100 percent convinced that Mitt also thinks that we all want to see that because we’re in on the gag, that we’re laughing with him, that we like the good clean fun,” Lund continued. “Like Mitt right now is saying something like, ‘Bracing persiflage aside, fellows, I know that we all want to have a little tomfoolery!’ and that the rest of America has that wide terrific Jar-Jar smile at what he’s doing and saying, ‘Oh, you and your monkeyshines, Mitt!’”
Oh, how prophetic that turned out to be.
The fight wasn’t being broadcast anywhere, so the only way to watch these two titans tussle was via Twitter’s app, Periscope, as was the case for many individuals who decided not to pony up the hefty pay-per-view fees or cover charge at their local sports bar to watch the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.
I watched a few of the early, non-Romney fights through a jumpy, skipping tiny screen, peppered with the ambient chatter of the black tie-clad audience and a constant ticker of my fellow viewers firing off semi- frustrated tweets like, “r they gonna get closer?” and “wow this app is tha tits” as the signal intermittently fluttered in and out. It wasn’t an ideal viewing experience, to say the least.
Minutes before the opening bell, whomever was in charge of the Periscope feed managed to get the system more or less in functioning order, and Mitt entered the arena. He was resplendent in a shimmering red silk robe, shadowboxing along to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and pointing at various high-profile donors in the front row. Ann Romney was there too, snugly tucked against his hip, sporting a Tim Burton-era Batman cap worn jauntily off to the side (really).
The ring announcer slung a few tepid jokes about Holyfield and Romney “enduring low blows in their respected careers” and that both were “known for not pulling any punches in our outside of the ring“ as the heavily pro-Romney crowd roared with laughter.
Romney shucked off his robe to reveal that he was wearing a suit and tie. Get it? Because he’s so darned buttoned-up he’s always wearing a suit?
Anyway, it’s at this point that we were reminded that we are in Utah, possibly one of the few places left that would explode with thunderous applause when the announcer describes Mitt as “the reigning and some wish defending Republican candidate for these United States of America.”
Suddenly, I started to wonder if all of this—the heavy dollars being raised, the kindest interviews he’s gotten in years, the goofery of staring down Holyfield during the pre-match weigh in—isn’t a question of Mitt finally letting his Brylcreemed hair down, but is instead a not-totally-unsavvy PR assault in advance of to yet another campaign, should the already jam-packed 2016 GOP field fail to inspire.
In any case, Round One consisted mainly of Mitt timidly dancing around a deeply bored Holyfield, his elbows pinned to his side as he offered up cautious, zero-chance-of-inflicting-damage-type jabs, like a guy that’s had one—and only one—boxing lesson.
There are a few moments when Romney sort of pinned Holyfield to the ropes, but the only pro in the ring was absolutely toying with him. Throughout the fight, but particularly during one of these spastic flurries, Romney left himself totally exposed. Had he so desired, Holyfield could have delivered a punch that would have sent him flying all the way to Provo.
In Round Two, Holyfield picked up his activity a little bit, delivering some pillow-soft, practically slo-mo taps to Romney’s gut. And then, after a phantom punch by Romney that would have made Sonny Liston blush, Holyfield took the dive to end all dives, flinging himself to the canvas like the Hulk had taken a swipe at him. Terrible acting or not, the fans lost it. Again, Utah.
Before the start of Round Three, the Romney camp threw in the towel. Your winner, Evander Holyfield. But that’s when things got really ugly.
Romney grabbed the mic for what I assumed was going to be a series of cursory remarks, thanking the corporate sponsors and whatnot. He started out, though, with a few painfully unfunny one-liners:
“I was told we were going to fight by the Queensbury Rules... that way the fight could be as clean as Hilary Clinton’s server”
“Fighting Evander is a little like fighting the New York Times... except he doesn’t hit below the belt.”
Then Mitt began to “interview” Holyfield, asking when he started boxing, who threw the hardest punches, and so on. All fine and good, but for reasons unknown, he started talking about the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, asking for Holyfield’s take.
“A lot of people don’t understand,” Holyfield mumbled. “He’s a genius in the ring.”
The crowd cheered.
Which, dear God why? Why mention Mayweather at all? There was no need to use this, yes, genuinely good-hearted charitable event to try to rehabilitate Floyd’s image, as it were—especially considering that for anyone that’s been paying a lick of attention, his image is thoroughly broken and totally beyond repair.
Not that anyone should have expected a nuanced or even fully informed discussion, but Romney had total control of what went on during this scripted commercial for Mitt Romney. In this world, the long history of charges against Mayweather don’t exist, and the only criticism that could possibly be leveled against Mayweather is that the Pacquiao fight was “boring.”
RomneyBot V.2015 hasn’t learned a damn thing, let alone evolved. He can’t even stage a fake match that’s anything but an oily form of self-flattery or allow for a single moment where he could have faked being hit.
What Lund wrote was eerily and deadly accurate—he’d built up a metric ton of goodwill in the last few months and somehow still managed to squander every single drop.