For all of the talk and all of the finger-wagging and all of the premonitions of disaster, in the end everyone got what they wanted.
Well, everyone except those who cast a pox upon the fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor and all associated with it, appalled by a cynical promotion of a violent spectacle fuelled by racism and cuss words and hyper-masculinity that was designed purely to pick the pockets of the unsuspecting – a description, by the way, which, minus the cussing, could also be attached to many of the legendary fights of the 20th Century. Not sure that anyone has ever argued that boxing is a forum where our better selves are on display.
The only sign of divine intervention was a pay-per-view glitch in the hour before the main event which may have cost the promoters and the fighters a few million dollars. Otherwise, the match between the finest boxer of his generation and a charismatic MMA fighter with no professional experience in the ring came off according to its best possible script.
McGregor, who some thought wouldn’t land a punch, won the first three rounds on two of the three scorecards. He did so in large part because Mayweather let him, content to sit back, defend, and try to decode the Irishman’s awkward, unconventional style. McGregor landed punches, but none of real consequence, as Mayweather retreated and studied. Still, there was his moral victory, and a real charge went through the T-Mobile Arena – the same way it did when Sugar Ray Leonard survived the first few nervous minutes against Marvin Hagler down the Strip at Caesars Palace 30 years ago.
Leonard, embarking on what many believed was an ill-advised comeback, was a prohibitive underdog that night, and there was real fear he could get hurt. Instead, with those upended expectations perhaps influencing the judges, he pulled off the great upset.
The difference is, Leonard was a great boxer. McGregor, for all of his abilities in the octagon, is a novice who doesn’t know how to move his head, how to set up combinations, how to play an entirely different game than the one that made him a star. And so in the fourth round, when Mayweather settled on a plan, moved from the outside into the pocket where he has always done his best work and began picking McGregor apart, McGregor had no answer.
Anyone who has followed Mayweather understands that he goes on the offensive only when he is absolutely confident that any danger has passed.
From the fifth round on, it was only a matter of when, only a question of how long the rapidly tiring McGregor would be able to hang on. Mayweather isn’t a great power-puncher, but he pressured McGregor relentlessly, never giving him a chance to catch his breath. The difference between an MMA bout – maximum five, five-minute rounds – and the 12-round championship distance in boxing, proved to be a huge hurdle for McGregor. In the later rounds, obviously exhausted, he threw an ever-diminishing number of weak arm punches while occasionally trying to rough Mayweather up with illegal blows to the back of the head and one flagrant low blow – none of which drew more than a half-hearted warning from referee Robert Byrd, who aside from the timely stoppage, had a very bad night.
By the time Byrd waved the fight off in the 10th round, McGregor had stopped punching back at all, and was being hit by clean, open shots. Being allowed to finish on his feet meant he could claim afterwards that he could have gone on, that he was more tired than hurt, that if he fought Mayweather another time it would go differently, all of those familiar lies of the fight game.
His fans, who were by far the largest and most vocal segment of the crowd, and who bet the odds down dramatically in the days before the fight, seemed more than satisfied. The phrase “Well done, Conor,” spoken with the appropriate accent, was uttered over and over again as the post-fight interviews concluded in the ring. Whatever he chooses to do now, McGregor’s future is bright. Having talked himself into this bout, and cashing a check totalling far more than his career earnings in the UFC, he will now be able to call the tune with Dana White. With Jon Jones’s impending suspension, he is by far the biggest name in MMA, and truth be told, is a bigger name than anyone in boxing, at least with the vast majority of the public that is not part of the ancient sport’s core audience.
Mayweather departs the scene at 50-0, surpassing Rocky Marciano’s iconic record, and given how calculating he has been throughout his career, there is no chance he will ever step into the ring again. This was an opportunity he could not turn down, an easy night, another huge paycheque, all but free of risk. At age 40, that wouldn’t be the case against a younger, credible boxing opponent.
He has always been more admired than loved by boxing fans, who acknowledge his technical mastery, but hate the way he could suck the life out of a fight with his safety-first approach. (And as a human being, outside the ring, he is execrable, as many pointed out in the lead up to this bout, though it’s interesting when we choose to separate the artist from the art and when we don’t. You won’t, for instance, tend to find the hosannas rightly directed at Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain peppered with references to the fact that like Mayweather, Miles Davis was an unapologetic beater of women.)
There is a place in the boxing Hall of Fame already reserved for him, and in any accounting of the most skilled fighters of all time, he’ll be part of the debate. It is entirely possible that as time goes on, and no one really steps up to take his place, his reputation will only be enhanced.
Without him, in the wake of this oddball coda to his career, boxing returns to what it has been since it slipped out of the mainstream sports conversation. There is a potentially great fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin on the immediate horizon, there is a new and exciting heavyweight champion on the scene in Anthony Joshua, but chances are UFC will continue to run rings around boxing on the promotional side, and chances are we won’t see a spectacle on this scale for a long, long time.
So hate away, but we’ll miss him. Mayweather wasn’t always thrilling to watch, but the ride, the circus, the conversation generated – judging by the pay-per-view numbers – was fun for a whole lot of people while it lasted.