It’s really happening.
McGregor vs. Mayweather is actually a reality. The fight is like a nightmare emerging from a fever dream where the walls are papered with $100 bills, the carpet is made of the finest chinchilla fur, and you wake yourself up by stepping painfully on a discarded diamond ring instead of one of your kid’s discarded Legos.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Does McGregor, who hasn’t had an actual boxing match since he was a teenager, have a shot at beating a past-his-prime great? Yes, he has a shot. McGregor hits really, really hard, and chins don’t get better with age.
With that said, his actual chances of doing that are extremely slim. McGregor is a mixed martial artist, not a boxer; he’s a jack of all trades rather than a master of one. My best stab at an actual, real comparison, since we’ve never seen something like this before, is this: How would two-time Olympic decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton do against an aging former gold medalist in any of the individual events that make up the decathlon?
Eaton’s best time in the 100 meters is 10.21 seconds. That’s still a full tenth of a second slower than a 33-year-old, post-doping scandal Tyson Gay ran at the 2015 World Championships, which was good for 19th place overall. Eaton’s best time in the 400 meters is 45 seconds flat, almost two seconds shy of the world-record pace at the 2016 Olympic Games.
By any reasonable standard, Eaton is incredibly fast, but he’s not fast enough to beat specialist sprinters, even those far past their prime. McGregor is a dangerous, skilled MMA boxer with a hell of a punch, but he’s probably not good enough to beat a once-great boxer in the ring.
That’s really all the analysis the fight deserves.
How McGregor convinced the UFC to let him do this is still unclear. That in itself is a unique accomplishment for the Irish superstar; never before has the UFC consented to anything remotely resembling this arrangement.
One can surmise that there were threats behind the scenes. McGregor applied for and received a boxing license in California last December and applied for one in Nevada in May. It’s possible he did that as a means of attacking restrictive UFC contracts that normally prevent fighters from competing in other combat sports, or as a way of exploring the possibilities—even if few and unclear—offered by the Ali Act, legislation designed to present promoters from exploiting boxers. A savvy self-promoter and one of the few fighters with the financial resources and the profile to play hardball with the promotion, it stands to reason that McGregor turned over every rock to find the leverage necessary to make this happen.
The financial details of the fight aren’t easy to suss out, nor is the nature of the UFC’s involvement in what was eventually negotiated; the best guess (and it’s just that, a guess) is that WME-IMG, the UFC’s now-parent company, will probably be taking a substantial cut from the international distribution deals for the fight. Those kinds of global distribution agreements are one of IMG’s specialties, and it would allow the company to get paid even in the absence of direct control over McGregor’s part of the revenue split.
If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is, and it’s complicated because there’s an enormous, staggering, absurd, hard-to-imagine amount of money on the line.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this will probably be the most lucrative fight of all time. Money, great green piles of it, is the reason this fight exists in the first place. The 4.6 million pay-per-view buys recorded by Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao, and the $410 million in revenue just from that source, is absolutely within reach. Add to that the value of international broadcast deals, the live gate, concessions, merchandise, and whatever else the parties involved can imagine, and a conservative estimate of the fight’s total value rises well above $500 million. Floyd, as is his due, will take home the lion’s share of it, but McGregor stands to make many times more from this than any MMA fighter ever has for a bout.
This is remarkable on the face of it, because it both gives McGregor tremendous leverage moving forward with the UFC and also raises the possibility that he might never fight again. While not exactly frugal, he could make $100 million, and that’s just a staggering amount of money. When and if McGregor returns to the UFC, however, he’ll do so with a drastically larger mainstream profile than he already had. He’s already the biggest star and biggest draw the UFC has ever produced by practically any metric, and two months of extreme exposure through just about every media outlet on the planet isn’t exactly going to hurt him on that front.
How will McGregor go back to making, at most $10-$15 million per fight in the UFC? My guess is that he won’t, and if he does return, we’ll be seeing demands for co-promotion and ever-larger paydays.
Love McGregor or hate him—and there are reasons for both—it’s impossible to deny that he’s a transformative figure. He’s not single-handedly responsible for the changing dynamics of the UFC’s relationships with its fighters, which are more contentious and nasty than they’ve ever been, but his vocal demands and clashes with the promotion have done a great deal to change the basic outlines. That state of affairs will only intensify if he does return.
With that said, the great irony here is that it’s not easy to make the argument that there was a huge groundswell of fan demand for Mayweather vs. McGregor: Interest and curiosity aren’t the same thing as genuine demand. That said, people will tune in by the millions.
Why? Why spend at least $100 to watch a novice boxer—and make no mistake, that’s what McGregor is—take on a 40-year-old who was never known for barnburners in the first place? What’s the appeal here?
The appeal is simple: sheer, stupid, ridiculous spectacle. I say that not to detract from the bout, which I plan on watching with great interest, but as a means of explaining its broad appeal.
What I mean by that is that there’s no barrier to entry for watching, participating in, and above all enjoying it. This is as true of a Katy Perry song as it is of the Today Show or a Marvel, DC, or Star Wars movie. They’re designed by their very nature to appeal widely, to transcend levels of educational achievement, cultural particularities, race, and nationality.
That’s the essence of pop culture: It’s a numbers game, with as few potential audiences as possible unable to consume the product. That doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple levels on which those products can be appreciated—there’s fine commentary out there on practically every kind of pop culture, from The Walking Dead to Taylor Swift—but you don’t have to be a PhD to get something out of them. The meaning of these products is constructed as much or more by the consumers of pop culture rather than the intentionality of the people making them. Ideally, that means there’s something for everybody.
Mayweather vs. McGregor falls into that category. It’s not really combat sports and I’d argue it’s not even really a fight; the actual product here is the build, the three-dimensional media experience constructed around the idea of Mayweather and McGregor, a pair of Genuine Famous People, meeting in the ring. Onto that blank canvas, you, the potential buyer, can paint whatever the hell you want.
It’s Mayweather sitting in his Rolls Royce limo with the chinchilla floor mats talking about his “lifestyle” on Instagram and vaguely mentioning the fight and McGregor tweeting insults. It’s Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe debating whether McGregor is the “Great White Hope” and Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser using this as an excuse disapproving clucking noises about the state of American culture for 10 minutes on Pardon the Interruption. It’s Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd turning a segment on the fight into something less healthy for the viewer than guzzling buckets full of antifreeze.
It’s McGregor making his annual pilgrimage to the late-night talk show circuit to spin yarns about his iron left hand and unfathomable self-belief. It’s Mayweather’s long, godawful history of domestic violence coming up as a topic of debate on The View. It’s Pardon My Take finding laugh-out-loud-funny ways of lampooning both fighters and the culture that’s contributing to the spectacle’s existence. For that matter, it’s self-important, holier-than-thou professional combat-sports writers like me explaining painfully what does and doesn’t matter here.
The entire press will be complicit in making this a spectacle. God help us.
More essential than all of that is the fact that potential viewers don’t have to be deep into the world of combat sports to consume it: There’s literally no barrier to entry for having an opinion on Mayweather vs. McGregor. Every dumbass with a Twitter or Facebook account will feel entitled to tell you, whether or not they’ve ever watched a single minute of either man’s career, how Mayweather is going to dance circles around the Irishman or how McGregor is destined to flatline Floyd.
It’s the perfect fight for a post-truth, post-expertise world: Random people can make authoritative statements and argue themselves in circles about something they just heard existed 15 minutes ago.
Like the rest of pop culture, it’s a numbers game. The goal is less to convince combat-sports fans, the usual audience, of the necessity of the fight and its value than to make it known to the broadest cross-section of global society and hope to pick up as many potential viewers as possible on the basis of pure curiosity. If you can be suckered into having an opinion, you’re a likely buyer.
That means, in essence, that the fight is a one-time cash grab. It’s the intersection of Mayweather’s two-decade quest to turn himself into a brand defined solely by money and material possessions and McGregor’s meteoric rise to a nearly as materialistic, inspirationally anodyne form of international stardom. There’s not going to be an epic trilogy and this isn’t the start of something big and new; it’s two established superstars cashing in on the profiles they’ve built for themselves. That’s not something that you can convince people to pay for twice.
The fight itself is practically irrelevant to all of that.
Even the outcome doesn’t really matter. If McGregor wins, he’s the biggest and greatest thing in combat sports history for slaying the undefeated Mayweather, and if he loses, well, he’s still the rich-as-hell UFC two-division champion who took a shot at transcendence. Mayweather will go back to posting Instagram videos of gold and stacks of hundreds and betting slips for the legions of followers who have convinced themselves his “lifestyle” offers them hope, inspiration, or worst of all, a role model.
That’s two months away, though, and in the meantime, prepare yourself for thousands of takes running the gamut from drive-time radio to BuzzFeed thinkpieces to social media fanboys eager to make themselves heard.
Lean back and soak it in. That’s what I plan to do. Best case, we’ll all have some fun on our way to shelling out $100 for whatever the hell this is. Worst case … well, even P.T. Barnum didn’t bat a thousand.