On Saturday night, undefeated boxing legend Floyd Mayweather, in a boxing ring and under boxing rules, takes on mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor in a 154-pound fight at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Why do I keep hearing about this bout?
The bout pits the most accomplished boxer of the past generation against an MMA champion from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. This will be McGregor’s first pro boxing contest, which is unusual, to say the least.
They are two of the biggest superstars in all of sports, charismatic but divisive, and they whipped up excitement in a promotional tour that stopped in Canada, where MMA is popular.
The arena will be full, providing an expected gate of more than $ 70 million US, and it could be the most lucrative pay-per-view sporting event ever, or at least close to it. The fighter purses will be astronomical, with both men potentially earning nine figures, according to some reports.
What is the appeal of the bout?
Some want to see how wide the gap is between one of the best punchers the UFC has ever seen and a top boxer. And judging by online comments, there are many — overwhelmingly on the MMA fandom side of the ledger — who believe McGregor can spring a shocking upset, which has been reflected in the shifting gambling odds.
“People love fairy tales and Rocky movies and, for many, a Conor McGregor KO would be something along those lines,” says Michael Carbert, editor of the respected, Montreal-based blog TheFightCity.com
Many want to see McGregor get his comeuppance, as he can be an acquired taste with statements like, “I will be a god of boxing,” and calling Mayweather “boy” during the press tour (he insisted it was plain trash talk, not racial in nature). Even more would love to see Mayweather defeated for the first time because he’s easy to cast in the role of villain. He’s served time for domestic assault and he owns a strip club.
There is international appeal (American vs. Irishman), as well as a sense of old versus new: boxing in its current form can be traced back over a century while mixed martial arts and the UFC were embryonic in the 1990s and have turned into a sports juggernaut this century, with the company selling for $ 4 billion last year.
Have we seen something like this before?
Not really. The only bout resembling a precedent was in 1957 when heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson defended his title against a fighter making his pro boxing debut. The caveat is that Pete Rademacher was the Olympic gold medallist in boxing, whereas McGregor has no significant amateur boxing experience. Rademacher actually knocked Patterson down, but lost in six rounds.
Other bouts aren’t particularly instructive: Muhammad Ali’s fights against a Japanese professional wrestler and NFLer Lyle Alzado, and over-the-hill boxer James Toney getting easily wrestled and choked by Randy Couture in an MMA cage in 2010.
Like Ali against Alzado, Mayweather has been retired for some time, giving hope to some McGregor backers.
How does a fighter with zero pro boxing experience get to take on one of the sport’s best?
Great question. The fighters, and their respective camps, managed to get the ball rolling with months of bickering and boasting on social media and in interviews.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission needed surprisingly little convincing. Executive director Bob Bennett says the commission is making a “one-time exception” to bend its rules because of McGregor’s accomplishments in MMA, his greater natural physical size and the fact, at 29, he’s 11 years younger than Mayweather.
The commission would strenuously deny business interests have anything to do with its decision, but the state takes a percentage of gate revenues. August is not traditionally a big fight month but registers will be ringing with room bookings, tourist spending and betting at the sportsbooks (they will make money off the most expected outcome).
It’s a coup for both men. McGregor was on the dole a half-dozen or so years ago. His top UFC purse was $ 4 million plus significant PPV percentages. This payday will be many times that even before the pay-per-view numbers are tallied.
Mayweather, a Las Vegas resident, will make even more money, his largest or second-largest payday, for taking on a boxing novice. With a win, he can crow about being 50-0, a mark some in boxing hold in esteem as Rocky Marciano retired undefeated at 49-0.
What does the event say about the state of boxing?
Not much. This fight is best put in the context of something “other,” a spectacle taking place because of ambition, chutzpah, gullibility and real demand. Boxing is a niche sport in North America but increasingly global: there are champions from the former Soviet Union countries and Cuba, as well as standard hotbeds Mexico, Japan and the U.K. Briton Anthony Joshua recently won a heavyweight title fight in front of 90,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium.
Even in Las Vegas in three weeks, Gennady Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez will engage in the year’s most highly anticipated match between two boxers, and each man will make several million dollars.
McGregor hits hard in the UFC and punching is punching, right?
While MMA involves striking with the fists, there are several differences with boxing including the weight of the gloves, the stances employed to generate leverage, and the use of specific punches. Jabbing and bodywork are more frequently employed in boxing, and the strategic hitting while on the inside and in a clinch looks different, too. McGregor threw a textbook left to quickly dispatch Jose Aldo, but Mayweather, one of the best-ever boxers defensively, is not likely to run right into the punch like Aldo.
What other aspects did McGregor have to learn, and quickly?
Footage online of McGregor sparring against solid-but-unspectacular Chris van Heerden depicts a guy who is game but not terribly difficult to hit, with his chin out as opposed to tucked. Two-time boxing titleholder Paulie Malignaggi sparred with McGregor and said he was a quick study but unaccustomed to taking consistent body punches and the different pacing needs for a 12-round bout.
Keeping a boxer’s stance and maintaining balance on his feet will be a huge test for McGregor.
“The main difference is that MMA fighters have to always be ready to defend against kicks as well as punches, plus their footwork and balance is completely different because they also must be prepared to handle takedowns,” Carbert says.
“An MMA fighter’s balance is almost always compromised [in a boxing sense].”
How will Mayweather fight?
Mayweather doesn’t dance around, as some strangely believe, but often conserves energy along the ropes while twisting and contorting just enough to evade punches or take them on his gloves or arms. He’s not a huge puncher, but his opponents report sharp, stinging punches that discourage them from getting overly aggressive. He is likely to follow more than lead, a matador with quick counterpunches.
What’s the likely outcome?
This is the most difficult question to answer given McGregor is such an unknown quantity in boxing. Some have sounded the alarm with visions of a worst-case scenario since you don’t “play” at boxing – people can get permanently hurt or killed. The NSAC is no doubt aware of some of this criticism and many observers believe referee Robert Byrd or the ringside doctor, if necessary, will prevent McGregor from taking undue punishment.
Carbert believes McGregor’s best chance is focused aggression, and trying to land that lottery punch early before Mayweather settles into a groove and the marathon-like aspect of a boxing match takes its toll on the MMA guy. The double-edged sword for McGregor is that recklessness could just send him to a quicker defeat.
On the few occasions Mayweather has been tagged hard, against future Hall of Fame boxers, he’s rarely been in any danger. He has a good chin, but maybe this will be the night he doesn’t.
The experiences of Holly Holm may be instructive. She had an extensive boxing background before taking a few years to learn the other MMA disciplines, including jiu-jitsu, wrestling and kick-boxing. She exposed the shockingly rudimentary boxing skills of a fighter relentlessly hyped by the UFC marketing machine (Ronda Rousey). In her next test, Holm fought someone with more and varied MMA experience and lost.
Which is to say, craft matters.
The backdrop of safety concerns, combined with McGregor’s inexperience with the subtleties of boxing and a 36-minute distance, make a Mayweather stoppage win in the middle rounds a likely outcome.