Amid the Mayweather-McGregor hype, don’t forget this is theatre

Stephen Brunt and Eric Thomas react to a wild press conference that had Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather continue their war of words.

• It’s all about the money
• Mayweather as the heel
• McGregor as the 21st-century Muhammad Ali

TORONTO – The battle is over, and it has been won.

Of course, there is another to come August 26th, the match between Floyd Mayweather Jr., the greatest boxer of his generation, and Conor McGregor, the most charismatic figure ever produced by the sport of mixed martial arts, about which much will be said and written between now and then.

But in many ways, at least in terms of the success of this blatant cash-grab of a promotion, that is beside the point.

By the time the bell rings in Las Vegas, the money will already be in the bank, and there will be plenty of it, because it is clear that the single-most important hurdle has been cleared: belief.


At Toronto’s Budweiser Stage on Wednesday night, the second stop of a four-city promotional tour that now moves on to New York and London, at least 10,000 people waited semi-patiently, through delays while Mayweather’s entourage made its way slowly through big-city traffic, through musical performances, a quick bow from local icon Drake, and many insincere promises that the main event was only 10 minutes away.

The crowd waited and they chanted and they sang, almost to a person, for only one reason. They are certain that McGregor, despite the long odds, despite all kinds of sound argument about the impossibility of it happening, will knock Mayweather’s block off.

That was always going to be the challenge here: Convincing McGregor’s many fans, the hard-core devotees of his sport combined with those who have been wishing for Mayweather’s demise almost since the day he began his remarkable 21-year, 49-0 run as a professional, that the Irishman can do what Manny Pacquiao and Oscar De La Hoya and Arturo Gatti and Shane Mosley and a legion of other excellent boxers have failed to do.

Generations of hucksters have understood the principle all too well. It’s not about what will happen, but what you can convince your mark might happen, the promise, usually empty, of wish fulfillment.

Here, on one side, you have the absolutely rational case that it is hard to imagine someone from an entirely different discipline, with no real pedigree as a boxer and relatively rudimentary skills, has a chance against one of the great fistic technicians in the history of the sport. The only asterisk attached is Mayweather’s age — and in the interests of filling his bank account, Mayweather has been quick to point that out himself — but even if Floyd has lost a step, it’s hard to see him in real danger against a hard-punching but crude (in boxing, not MMA…) fighter like McGregor.

Always risk-averse, that’s precisely what lured Mayweather out of retirement — well, that and the money. He believes, with good reason, that like his fight against Pacquiao, it’s going to be an easy night.

The counterpoint, and it’s a magnificent one, is McGregor’s personality. He may be the most talented athlete in history on the mike. Strutting around the stage Wednesday in a beautifully cut three-piece suit, looking like a bearded banty rooster, he worked the crowd into a frenzy, with his profane, witty spiel — not quite a diminutive, red-headed Ali, but perhaps the 21st-century version.

Verbally, Mayweather couldn’t lay a glove on him. His tired, artificial “money” schtick, an attempt to self-brand that has never quite worked, plays like bad hip-hop parody. McGregor and his natural charm got the better of him in every exchange.

But one thing Mayweather learned long ago is that in these made-up morality plays, the bad guy gets paid just like the good guy. He understands that most of the crowd is lusting for his demise (hard to come to any other conclusion on Wednesday, given the savage crowd response, including an of-the-minute chorus of “Pay Your Taxes!”, a reference to Mayweather’s recent problems with the IRS.) Hate me all you want, just make sure that you drop $99 on the pay-per-view.

To hammer that point home, Mayweather convinced someone in the audience to hand him one of the Irish flags that were everywhere. He wrapped it around his shoulders, McGregor objected vehemently to the potential desecration, and the temperature briefly rose to near boiling point.

Those who know boxing and have long memories will remember Floyd’s uncle, Roger Mayweather, a great fighter in his own right, who earned the nickname “the Mexican Assassin” for his many victories over Mexican fighters. On those nights, in front of crazy-hostile crowds, he’d stroll into the ring wearing a sombrero, and then dodge the coins chucked his way. It worked every time.

Telling, though, was the fact that Floyd didn’t go all the way, he didn’t do anything terrible to the tricolour, and in that moment revealed the man behind the curtain.

This is a partnership. This is a theatrical two-hander. This is a professional wrestling “work”. These are collaborators. They know exactly what they’re doing.

It is not hard to imagine that after all of that mock fury, when safely away from the view of the crowd and the cameras, they gave each other a great big high-five before exiting in their separate motorcades of big black SUVs.

One of them is going to lose in August, but when this is over, both of their hands should be raised.

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