The Rev. Fred Sultan (Samuel L. Jackson) has a problem. He is the richest and the best known fight promoter in America but the current (and undefeated) heavyweight champion is just too good. No one is paying to watch James “The Grim Reaper” Roper (Damon Wayans) fight because Roper always wins. Sultan has a plan, though. Before Roper turned professional, he lost a fight to Terry Conklin (Peter Berg). Conklin has long since retired from boxing and is now a heavy metal, progressive musician. Sultan convinces Conklin to come out of retirement and face Roper in a rematch. Since Conklin is white and Roper is black, Sultan stands to make a killing as white boxing fans get swept up in all the hype about Conklin being the latest “great white hope.”
In the days leading up to the fight, crusading journalist Mitchell Kane (Jeff Goldblum) attempts to expose the crooked Sultan before getting seduced into his inner circle. Meanwhile, boxer Marvin Shabazz (Michael Jace) and his manager, Hassan El Rukk’n (Jamie Foxx), unsuccessfully pursue a match with Roper. Conklin gets back into shape while Roper eats ice cream and watches Dolemite.
In its attempt to satirize boxing, The Great White Hype runs into a huge problem. The fight game is already so shady that it is beyond satire. This was especially true in the 90s, when the The Great White Hype was first released. (Even more than the famous Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney title fight, The Great White Hype’s obvious inspiration was the heavily promoted, two-minute fight between Mike Tyson and Peter McNeeley.) The Great White Hype is a very busy film but nothing in it can match Oliver McCall’s mental breakdown in the middle of his fight with Lennox Lewis, Andrew Golota twice fighting Riddick Bowe and twice getting disqualified for low blows, or Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear.
The Great White Hype has an only in the 90s supporting cast, featuring everyone from Jon Lovitz to Cheech Marin to, for some reason, Corbin Bernsen. Damon Wayans is the least convincing heavyweight champion since Tommy Morrison essentially played himself in Rocky V. The Rev. Sultan was meant to be a take on Don King and Samuel L. Jackson was a good pick for the role but the real Don King is so openly corrupt and flamboyant that he’s almost immune to parody.
When it comes to trying to take down Don King, I think Duke puts it best.