It was a heavyweight title fight like no other. Watched by 9.7 million viewers on its initial airing in the United States alone, it outdrew Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao and Mayweather vs Conor McGregor put together. The challenger had built a career fighting in a dingy pub while the champion had recently been released from incarceration. ‘Payback’ was one of the most memorable boxing promotions ever staged. The catch? It wasn’t real.
“You want Homer to fight Tatum?”. With those immortal words, pugilist-turned-publican Moe ‘Kid Moe’ Syzslak changed the course of boxing history. The fighter under his tutelage, ‘The Southern Dandy’ Homer Simpson, had made his name on the Springfield Hobo Boxing Association circuit. Who can forget his classic victory over Boxcar Bob, the boxing drifter who fought Simpson for a sandwich? This fight was notable for Bob’s relentless pressure, the fighter only stopping his flurries to check on his bindle.
But Drederick Tatum was no drifter. He was the heavyweight champion of the world. A fearsome knockout artist with a high-pitched voice, shaved eyebrows and a flat-top. He had also recently been released from prison. Sound familiar?
Yes, Tatum was the Mike Tyson avatar in The Simpsons’ brilliantly observed boxing satire ‘The Homer They Fall’. The episode aired on this date in 1996, one day after Evander Holyfield’s 11th round TKO of ‘Iron’ Mike. It’s interesting to note that Tatum’s aura of invincibility lasted longer than that of the man he was parodying.
The episode drew from multiple real-life boxing inspirations to bring Homer’s rags-to-riches pugilistic tale to screen. The requisite Rocky references that populate any boxing pastiche were there in abundance. Moe’s gruff exterior made him the perfect Mickey Goldmill, while Homer made Rocky Balboa’s ultimate underdog look positively capable. But the most memorable elements of ‘The Homer They Fall’ drew from real-life.
The episode was scripted by Jonathan Collier, whose other credits include King Of The Hill and Monk. Collier is a huge boxing fan and imbued his love and knowledge into the episode. This included the addition of Lucius Sweet, who Homer describes as "exactly as rich and famous as Don King and (he) looks just like him too." This fun line lampshades the fact that Sweet is a Don King parody, used because the genuine article reportedly turned down a cameo.
There’s also an appearance from The Fan Man, the notorious prankster who interrupted Evander Holyfield’s second fight with Riddick Bowe on a large, bladed flying machine. But the very structure of the story itself is ripped straight from boxing headlines. On Mike Tyson’s release from prison in 1995, he took on Peter McNeeley in a fight mocked for featuring the world’s most lethal heavyweight against a regional journeyman. This formed the framework that grounded Homer’s tale of rising from bar fights to pay-per-view.
Homer didn’t lift the heavyweight crown. Unlike Tyson the following day against Holyfield, Tatum pounded his opponent into oblivion. Cue Moe rescuing his friend and second most loyal bar patron (after Barney Gumble) on The Fan Man’s paramotor. Sweet berates Moe for the fact “you couldn’t even give me one lousy round”, but in King-like fashion he gives him $100,000 dollars to “get out of my sight” anyway. The credits roll with Moe using his new toy to fly around the world rescuing people.
The episode was a smash hit. 9.7 million Americans saw ‘The Southern Dandy’ walk out to the War classic ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’. To put that into perspective, that’s nine times more than watched Tyson-Holyfield the previous day. It’s more than the combined buyrates of the two biggest PPVs of all time, Mayweather’s bouts with Pacquiao and McGregor. Simpson might have only offered up one lousy round, but it’s one of the most watched rounds of boxing, real or animated, ever staged.
NASA astronaut. Grammy-winning musician. Inspiration behind ‘Police Cops’. Voice of Poochy on the iconic 'Itchy and Scratchy Show'. Homer Simpson has achieved an awful lot since first appearing on the Tracey Ullman show in 1987. But for a generation of fans of the sweet science, heavyweight title challenger is perhaps the greatest of them all. He might have lasted mere seconds in the ring with Drederick Tatum, but the memories will last a lifetime. With nostalgia in such demand in the world of boxing, perhaps the time is right for a rematch. Come on Matt Groening, let’s see the exhibition fight the world has needed since 1996.