TORONTO — Something special is happening here, people.
Conor McGregor is more than merely a UFC superstar. He has morphed into a global pop culture phenomenon and his popularity soared to new heights Wednesday as he roasted polarizing boxing icon Floyd Mayweather Jr. on the Canadian leg of their international press tour.
McGregor is a different type of athlete; a unique brand. One that can captivate throngs of humanity like a foul-mouthed Tony Robbins, only instead of inspiring entrepreneurs and do-gooders McGregor is making it near impossible for sports fans to say anything besides, “shut up and take my money,” for his Aug. 26 superfight with Mayweather.
“He’s a promoter’s dream,” executive VP of Showtime Sports Stephen Espinoza said of McGregor. “He’s charismatic, he’s funny, he’s outrageous, he’s confrontational. He showed everything that’s made him a superstar.”
Espinoza said this, by the way, less than an hour before McGregor called him “a [expletive] weasel” at Budweiser Stage in front of more than 16,000 raucous fans that laughed uproariously at some of the lines the loquacious Irishman was dropping.
In an alternate universe—perhaps a more grounded, sane plane than the one we currently occupy—a Mayweather vs. McGregor matchup would be a conversation you brought up only after you were done telling your buddies, “Dudes, Bruce Lee would’ve totally been a UFC champ. I’m telling you.”
Except Mayweather vs. McGregor is no hypothetical. It’s real. It’s happening. And this collision of personalities is a perfect storm for big business and potentially some improbable history courtesy of McGregor.
Mayweather is untouched when it comes to generating pay-per-view buys. The 49-0 tactician has featured in the three biggest PPV events in history. His bout with Saul “Canelo” Alvarez had 2.2 million buys six years after he and Oscar De La Hoya set a record with 2.4 million buys back in 2007. That record was shattered in 2015 when Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao generated 4.4 million buys while simultaneously letting down fans the world over with their clunker of a fight.
McGregor’s spectacular rise to stardom has seen him become a bon vivant and the chief draw in mixed martial arts history. His past two tilts are the two most lucrative events in UFC history in terms of PPV buys. McGregor’s UFC 202 rematch with Nate Diaz drew 1.6 million buys and his UFC 205 lightweight title bout against Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden topped it with 1.7 million buys.
So when you combine the drawing power of these two combat sports powerhouses there’s a strong chance the spectacle sets a new PPV record.
And what better way to sell the fight—a fight many are calling a joke since, well, McGregor isn’t a boxer—than by letting the fighters themselves convince people it’s worth their attention and, more importantly, their money.
Los Angeles on Tuesday was great despite some flubs in production (pro tip: always make sure Conor McGregor has a working mic in his hand). Toronto’s event started nearly an hour later than it was scheduled to but it upped the ante. The chaos continues Thursday in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Friday in London, England.
“I don’t think there was any doubt that when these two guys got together it would be epic,” UFC president Dana White said.
This world tour is gaining momentum by the minute and it’s the perfect week for these two pugilists to participate in an international press tour. The week of the MLB All-Star Game is generally the quietest sports week on the calendar. The #MayMacWorldTour was going to get plenty of hype regardless of when it took place but there’s nothing in the sports world to draw any attention away from it.
At the end of the day, what we see on this tour is going to lead to more buys.
July 11 happened to be a fitting date to kick the tour off, at least from McGregor’s perspective. When the two fighters stepped on stage at the Staples Center it was the two-year anniversary of McGregor stopping Chad Mendes at UFC 189 to win the UFC’s interim featherweight title. That win and becoming a UFC champion marked the start of something magical for McGregor.
Could that be a dose of kismet? Could this press tour with Mayweather be the start of an even more staggering accomplishment for McGregor?
In terms of their skills on the mic, Mayweather at times looked like a man who bit off more than he could chew, which is what McGregor has done to all of his opponents not named Nate Diaz—because Diaz didn’t give a bleep just as hard as McGregor didn’t give a bleep.
McGregor routinely gets under the skin of his foes prior to fights, so much so that it has altered their strategy in the cage. Dustin Poirier fought angry and McGregor bounced his head off the canvas like he said he would. Jose Aldo was uncharacteristically aggressive with his hands early and McGregor slept him in 13 seconds. The game plan Alvarez had practised for months disappeared the second their fight began and Conor tuned him up and embarrassed him without breaking a sweat.
Perhaps that’s how McGregor gets Mayweather off his game enough to land one shot that changes the landscape of the fight.
Maybe it’s already working.
“I haven’t seen Floyd act like that since probably the De La Hoya media tour (a decade ago),” Espinoza said of Mayweather’s copious f-bombs and b-words.
At the very least, it seems McGregor ups his chances of pulling off the upset if he can truly get under Mayweather’s skin during this press tour.
“I think those mind games for Floyd, he’s never lost a press conference,” said former UFC heavyweight star Brendan Schaub who has been serving as an analyst for Showtime Sports during the press tour. “He had everyone beat before they get in there. With Conor he truly believes he’s going to win.”
Schaub is one of the few pundits you’ll find on record saying he thinks McGregor has a legitimate shot at winning and agrees the press tour could have a lasting effect in the fight itself.
“If Conor can get in his head and get Floyd to get out of his element and pressure him and come forward and throw some shots and be a little more aggressive, now you’re in Conor’s world. Counter-striking is Conor’s thing as well,” Schaub said. “It’s all going to be a respect game. Will Floyd respect him enough to play the game and win rounds, or is he going to try and get him out of there [and finish him]? If he tries to get him out of there and takes chances he’s going to get in a lot of trouble.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. Mayweather is the massive favourite and justifiably so. On paper, this shouldn’t be close and Mayweather toying with McGregor for 12 rounds is the most logical outcome.
Yet uncharacteristic aggression and overconfidence could be Mayweather’s downfall, age and recent inactivity aside.
Mayweather kept telling McGregor this will be “easy work” as the two stood at hope-you-just-ate-a-breath-mint distance during their first intense stare-down.
To say Mayweather isn’t going to take McGregor seriously would be insulting Mayweather’s professionalism—and say what you will about the man but when it comes to prizefighting he is as pro as it gets.
Yet hours after stop No. 2 on this four-day, four-city tour Floyd was chowing down at The Real Jerk drinking Coca-Cola. McGregor on the other hand is travelling with his personal nutritionist George Lockhart, who’s monitoring everything McGregor puts in his body. Enjoying a can of Coke might be a whole lot of nothing, but what you put in your body six weeks out from a huge fight could also be an indication of how seriously you’re taking training camp.
That July 11 start date for the tour was significant for another reason, too. It marked the one-year anniversary of the UFC being sold to talent agency WME-IMG for $4 billion, a landmark day in MMA and one that represented a changing of the guard in terms of how the UFC goes about its business.
It’s speculation, but allowing McGregor to leave the UFC for a side project like boxing Mayweather doesn’t seem like something that would get the green light under the old regime. In 2017, however, the UFC cares more about paying off massive debt from the purchase than the sanctity of the championship belts they doll out. So it’s fitting they’ve allowed McGregor this opportunity since he cares more about his paycheques than defending the world titles he keeps collecting.
“Listen, are we going to make money? We’re absolutely going to make money,” White said. “We’re going to make money, those guys are going to make money, but at the end of the day the only reason I even entertained this was for Conor. The fact that we’re actually standing here talking about it and doing the press conferences is pretty crazy.”
Again, McGregor is a different type of athlete.
McGregor has vowed to KO Mayweather within four rounds.
It’s a result that isn’t supposed to happen but two weeks ago Manny Pacquiao lost to an Australian schoolteacher named Jeff Horn, a fighter many said didn’t belong in the same ring as an all-time great.
Massive upsets do happen, though, regardless of how improbable, and anyone writing McGregor off completely is doing a disservice to both the man known as “Mystic Mac” and combat sports in general.
“Defeat is never an easy thing to take but a true champion can overcome adversity,” McGregor said prior to going on stage in Toronto. “I have no doubt when Floyd wakes up after being sparked unconscious he’ll be a better man for it.”
The first words McGregor shouted from the dais on this tour were, “Baby we did it!” because making this fight a reality was something few thought was possible.
One can only imagine what he’ll say at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Aug. 26 if he does what few feel is possible and hands Mayweather his first career loss.