Four Days In The Squall Of A Superfight

Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG | Photos via AP Images
Illustration by Jim Cooke/GMG | Photos via AP Images
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LAS VEGAS, Nev.—“Man, I’m usually in a suit, but it’s too fucking hot today,” a scalper told me a few hours before the big fight. It truly was too fucking hot. A police dog had to wear booties to protect his feet. This particular scalper was forced halfway inside, working the buffer area between the two sets of doors that separate the unsympathetic Mojave Desert heat from the air-conditioned artifice of the Monte Carlo casino floor. Tourists stumbled in for refuge and the chance to lose $20 on slots with names like Frog Kingdom 2, or they cruised outside to go to the fight or snap pictures of themselves next to the arena. At every step, they were presented with the chance to blow four figures on a ticket to the biggest show in town.

The scalper told me he’d sold a ticket for $2,700, and that his cheapest stock was $1,000. Earlier that afternoon, I witnessed another scalper sell three tickets to a trio of old guys for $2,000 each, while another told me he had a floor seat he was trying to move for $15,000. This was the Money Fight, more spectacle than sports. Its heft and sheer financial extravagance gave it an orbit of its own, one that attracted thousands of gawkers to town just to be around the event and not actually attend.

The shimmering city was its fullest and most fully depraved self this weekend, which is the best and most honest way to experience Las Vegas. If people stopped pumping water into this place, the desert would reclaim its property in a matter of weeks. If food wasn’t trucked in and if the solar farms diverted their energy stores elsewhere, Las Vegas would bake into the surface of the Earth. But it hasn’t. The city’s a monument to unnatural gluttony and it’s never been healthier. Las Vegas thrives because it offers escape and excess to millions of people, all of whom go to gamble, booze, and live it up for a weekend. Suckers get taken, but to decry the deceitfulness is to miss the point. Las Vegas is forthright about what sort of place it is. It’s all a show, which everyone knows, and there’s no bigger show than a superfight.

“We just spent 700 goddamn dollars in there and they kicked us out!” The first people I run into after leaving my room on Friday were a pair of greasy wasted guys who, despite their protests as we trudged out of the Monte Carlo, were pretty clearly hammered to the point of belligerence. It was 10:30 in the morning. The city’s nervous pre-fight energy was already beginning to curdle.

Overnight, thousands of Irish streamed into the city. You can recognize them pretty easily. They’ll be the ones wearing green and orange rugby shirts or waving Irish flags while housing beers. Conor McGregor’s hallmark phrases like “Who the fuck is that guy?” or “We’re here to take over” litter t-shirts and flags, and the people in them are ready to have a good time.

The weigh-in was their time to shine. A scalper outside the building offered to sell me a ticket for $100, an offer that many fans accepted, as packs of fans were singing and letting loose “Olé!” chants before they even entered the building. A security guard next to Fox Sports’ TV setup was giggling as I walked in, and he told me that Floyd Mayweather had just shown up with his entourage and was intending to walk straight through the front door. “It’s what he always does.” He pointed me to a short man in a red TMT hat, who, of course, turned out not to be Mayweather. But for all the pro-McGregor sentiment at the arena, it could have been. Everyone seemed to be there to watch McGregor put on a show, at which he is unparalleled. Hell, they cheered when he showed up in the UFC’s promotional video on the arena video boards.

When YG—fresh off performing a censored version of “Fuck Donald Trump”—shouted out the Money Team, he was met with a cacophony of boos. When competent boxers like Badou Jack or Andrew Tabiti weighed in, nobody in the building batted an eyelash. The rest of the fight card could not have mattered less to those in attendance. They wanted to see the face of their God-King, who arrived with hokey flip-up sunglasses and waved his dick around on stage for 20 minutes while Floyd could only glower and pretend to laugh at the man who had taken over his hometown.

It didn’t matter that he wasn’t really a boxer, or that Mayweather has lived in Vegas for two decades. Wherever he goes, Conor is the show. He’s everything you could want in a star; he is an asshole who doesn’t care that he’s an asshole and who can sell his abrasive and cocksure version of the world to anyone who wishes they could trot through life like he does. Why wouldn’t he appeal to people, especially on an aspirational level? McGregor booked a date that he didn’t deserve with the greatest boxer of his lifetime and the accompanying massive payday on the back of half a dozen UFC knockouts and, more importantly, a grandiose persona. His Irish fans love him because he wears his patriotism on his sleeve and casual fans love him because he’s a world-class shit talker who has, more often than not, been able to cash the checks his mouth writes.

After the weigh-in, a bunch of fans barred the doors of the arena and threw a party. I spoke with someone who had asked the cops outside what they were going to do about it, and their strategy was simply to let the fans have their fun. So they did.

This energy sluiced out of the arena and onto the Strip. A pickled Irishman was luxuriating outside the MGM Grand in pink crocs and an outrageous silk bathrobe, struggling to stand while chain-smoking and talking shit with a group of TMT-hat-wearing Mayweather fans. If you walked down the Strip that evening, you’d hear calls of “Fook the Mayweathers!” answered by equally raucous “Money Team!” chants. Outside of the M&Ms store, a pair of guys were trying to buy blow, and one yelled towards his friends on the other side of the walkway, “Is $80 American a good price?” Between the dealers, the dudes selling bootleg fight week shirts for 10 bucks on the walkways, and the sleazy promoter types trying to scam rubes into going to strip clubs, everyone’s getting rich on fight weekend.

Which means a ton of legwork for those who make Vegas tick. A bartender working the patio of an outdoor Irish bar who seemed to sigh with her every word told me she’d been dreading this weekend for a while, and that pretty much everyone had tried to take it off. Gambling tables were full all weekend, and sports books were full of thousands of people placing longshot bets on McGregor to win. Everyone’s got a hustle here, like the naked lady with pasties and fishnets on who was trying to get people walking by to take pictures with her and her snake (her associate yelled “Fook Mayweather!” at me as I walked by because he thought I was Irish.)

A particularly coked-out promoter guy tried to get some colleagues and I to go to a strip club to watch a fake Mini Mayweather-McGregor wrestling match, and after we told him we were journalists, he lit up and tried to sell me on buying a gambling picks TV show involving his friend down in Costa Rica. After assuring me that he knew how to skirt regulations, he firmly insisted I watch a video of his guy at work, which consisted of a greasy guy in front of a forested Central American backdrop trying to deliver his WNBA and CFL picks in a charismatic way. People were shadow boxing in the street, setting fire to huge piles of cash, and gulping down down yard-tall booze slushies shaped like neon guitars. What beverage could possibly be more suited to this place?

One of the chief appeals of Las Vegas is that there is something for everyone. Bringing your kids to town? Go to the pool then check out the arcade in New York-New York. Here to inhale drugs and dance? There are like 12 different penis-shaped Nordic EDM DJs spinning at the Palms seven days a week. I’ve been here for a normal fight weekend before and even when a decent UFC card is in town, it’s far from the only attraction. Vegas is a tough town to unify, because it’s a temple built to cater to every possible desire. Even the pushy evangelists on the corner serve a certain crowd, as I watched one of them debate theology and morality with a shouty atheist. Both parties were filming each other and performing their arguments with vigor. Everyone wants a show, but not everyone wants the same show.

The McGregor-Mayweather fight was a notable and loud exception. It owned the tourist corridor. You couldn’t go five feet without seeing an advertisement or hear someone shouting one of their names. Nearly everyone I shared an elevator with asked me who I thought would win. I thought it would be funny to ask superfans if there was a fight this weekend or who was fighting but with the whole Strip suffocating under a full-court press, it was a useless exercise. The fight defied effective parody.

David Becker/Getty Images
David Becker/Getty Images

It was fair to regard the cynical cash grab with a combination of morbid fascination and boredom, but even if it was obvious that Conor McGregor has no business in a boxing ring with Floyd Mayweather, it didn’t matter. This circus tent was too big to be punctured by rational analysis. The outcome never should have been in question at any stage, and yet a sufficient amount of people took the spectacle seriously enough that it dominated the most fallow month of the sports calendar essentially unopposed, and also filled up Las Vegas. You will not be surprised to hear that prostitution arrests spiked this weekend, or that someone caused a flurry of fistfights outside of a nightclub on Saturday by making it rain with a wad of $100 bills.

I spent the morning of the fight in the sports book, watching groups of fans drift in nursing their first beers of the day and wagering $5 or $20 on McGregor because fuck it, it’s a more fun bet. I’m not much of a gambler but the most interesting way to bet the fight would have been either wagering on the precise round Floyd was going to knock out McGregor, or picking the underdog to win. Betting on Floyd straight-up is not interesting, even if his victory was guaranteed by the virtue of the fight existing in the first place. It’s like investing in a mutual fund; you don’t get much of a return, but the risk is asymptotic.

John Locher/AP Photo
John Locher/AP Photo

It was hotter than the devil’s dick outside the arena, as a cadre of scalpers insistently hawked their parcels of unsold tickets and amused patrons took the whole spectacle in. If you wanted to, you could buy a MAY-MAC fidget spinner for $10, or an event-themed boxing glove for $80 (each, not for a pair). For $35, you could buy a t-shirt declaring your allegiance to Mayweather, McGregor, the fight in general, or even money itself. Billing the fight as the “Money Fight” is at least honest about the purpose of why we’re all in the scalding Nevada sunshine.

As the first of the night’s four pay-per-view fights began, the arena was about 10 percent full. Andrew Tabiti and Steve Cunningham aren’t household names or anything, but they’re title-grade boxers. The thing is, people were not really here for boxing. The two immaculately groomed Finnish guys who drew a theatrical eye roll from a security guy I was talking to couldn’t have given a shit who left with the NABF cruiserweight title. The finance dick who shelled out $1,300 for a ticket wasn’t concerned with wringing his money’s worth out of the night of boxing (which started at 2 p.m.), he’s there to see the show, and Andrew Tabiti is not the show. He’s a boxer.

Cunningham behaved like the better fighter against Tabiti, talking shit in the ring and dictating the space. But even if he didn’t act like it, Tabiti was a superior boxer and he won a decision to Cunningham’s great incredulity. Cunningham continually kept pressing forward and behaving as if he was winning the fight because he’s a fighter and fighting takes a certain kind of mental fortitude. Nobody gets out without getting punched in the face, and the best way to overcome the reflexive fear that comes with allowing yourself to get beat up is to either theatrically defy it and howl against it, like Cunningham or even McGregor, or to lean into it, like the Diaz brothers.

Every boxer on the A-side of the main card was a Mayweather Promotions fighter. The Money Team was not going to let their big day go by without showcasing their best and brightest, and naturally, all four TMT boxers were favored and won their bouts. Badou Jack whooped on a clearly overmatched Nathan Cleverly and the only thing that stopped TMT from having a perfect night was Gervonta Davis being a huge dumbass, missing weight, clowning Francisco Fonseca by putting his hands behind his back only to get clobbered a few times, and eventually winning by punching Fonseca in his spinal cord.

The co-main event was supposed to be Davis’s coming out party, and he knew it. They’d set him up with a redshirt from Costa Rica who’d never fought outside of Central America and Davis took advantage of his moment in the spotlight to rock a gaudy blue hood and blue shag trim on his shorts. After the clearly illegal knockout, referees and officials conferred for mere minutes before declaring Davis the winner. Why wouldn’t they? He’s a fast-rising up-and-comer who’s got the backing of Mayweather. More than the brutality, what separates boxing from other major American sports is the naked corruption. Mayweather betting on himself is one thing, but betting on himself while serving as his own promoter and getting to stack the card with boxers from his shop is something that could only happen in a decentralized, star-driven sport like boxing.

Eric Jamison/AP Photo
Eric Jamison/AP Photo

And then, Floyd Mayweather knocked Conor McGregor out in the 10th round.

Everyone in attendance was happy with the outcome of the big fight. Floyd fans got to see their guy go 50-0 and announce another fake retirement. Conor fans got to see a UFC fighter take a round or two off of the greatest defensive boxer of his era and leave with his head held high. Neutrals (at least, those who were actually able to buy the fight) got an entertaining show that lasted longer than anticipated. The guy seated above the tunnel who was waving an Italian flag that he thought was the Irish flag got a great seat for the fighters’ entrances. Most importantly, both fighters got paid out the ass and performed their roles well enough to set up a rematch, one that would doubtlessly make both men even richer. A good deal of press coming out of the event told the story that the fighters wanted to tell and that people seemed to want to here: McGregor had a shot, but he got fatigued and fell short.

This is true, I suppose, in one sense. McGregor really did get fatigued, and by the seventh round he was gasping for air, keeping his hands comically low, and grabbing a hold of Mayweather and rabbit punching his head like an older brother. But even in the round (or, arguably, rounds) he took from the champ, McGregor never showed himself to be anything better than an MMA fighter cosplaying as a boxer. He landed that counter left uppercut on Mayweather’s chin but it did nothing.

Still, in the pro-McGregor arena, each almost-punch warranted extended hooting and hollering from the crowd, and the shock of seeing McGregor push Mayweather into the corner or land shots on him was very real. The British journalist I was seated next to stopped pre-writing his “CONOR MCGREGOR GOES ON BENDER AT ENCORE BEACH CLUB AFTER TKTK LOSS TO FLOYD MAYWEATHER” story for a second and nervously surveyed the action.

If you go back and watch the first few rounds of the fight, McGregor wins them because Mayweather simply does not throw punches. McGregor’s head stays still when he throws and would have been a meaty target for Mayweather’s zapping counters, if only Mayweather cared to tee off. That he chilled for 10 minutes before opening up on the Irishman does not show that McGregor is a credible boxer, it shows that Mayweather valued a better show and information on McGregor’s tendencies over the quick win he probably could have delivered. Mayweather says he didn’t spar for a month before the fight and the 40-year-old hasn’t fought for two years. He was probably rusty, not that it really cost him anything.

Isaac Brekken/AP Photo
Isaac Brekken/AP Photo

When McGregor landed that uppercut, it may have signaled to the public that McGregor had a real shot at shocking the world, but it also showed Mayweather that his opponent’s supposed knockout power was neutered by the change of formats and that his win was in the bag. All he had to do was let McGregor dangle and tire himself out. This is what Mayweather does, he carries people. Carrying a fish out of water like this was his most impressive hauling job yet.

Mayweather, who spent the week before the fight trying to buff McGregor’s credentials, preserved a second payday and provided a match that’ll feed the take-industrial complex for a while and lock in McGregor as a PPV God forever. Even if the fight wasn’t close, it looked close, which was more important than anything. People paid $150 to see it on closed circuit TVs in a bunch of casinos and they were probably entertained. That’s the point, after all.

This was never more clear when Leonard Ellerbe took the stage after the fight to kick off the press conference, repeatedly asking for the assembled journalists to clap and applaud for various TMT fighters. He asked us to clap for Davis. He asked us to clap for Floyd. He asked us to clap for “boxing in general.” Mayweather bragged about his branding acumen because he was wearing a tequila company’s hat and not a TMT one. The fighters answered a few questions about fighting, but all that was less important than business. McGregor doesn’t know who he’ll fight next or whether that fight will be in the octagon or the ring, but he does have a bottle of whiskey to sell you.

Back out in the desert, the Strip was as crowded as it’d been all week. Crowds in front of clubs spilled out over the sidewalk, glowering and smoking as pedestrians walked past. A wasted Irish guy in front of me at the convenience store stumbled for his wallet to pay for a Budweiser and some Hot Cheetos, all the while repeating “Fook the Mayweathers, fook the Mayweathers,” under his breath like a holy vow. Every casino was packed full, and you were hard-pressed to find any blackjack table cheaper than $15.

In nights past, being a lone roving doofus wasn’t all that strange, although cruising around the Strip solo is one of the weirder experiences one can have. However, on fight night, it was even more packed and the clientele was richer, flashier, and drunker. A cop told me that there had been several fights, and as I was walking past the Bellagio on my way to meet up with someone, an armada of police cars sped by. It turns out that a fight had taken place inside a strip club, which knocked over some statues, which some spooked clubgoers mistook as gunshots. As I walked by to check it out, the flashing police lights blended in well with the neon tableau out front of the Flamingo. Las Vegas may seem like a free-for-all but it’s a tightly regulated one. You can’t see all the invisible rope and pulleys that make this machine work, and that’s by design. Who wants their illusion broken?

Speaking of which, Sunday mornings in Las Vegas are a time of penance, as a thousand hangovers burrow into a thousand skulls and flocks of airplanes shuttle people back to their real lives. No more matching t-shirts declaring which one is the bachelorette and which are the bridesmaids. No more guzzling Hennessy as you walk by cops. No more show.

The fight is over, but there will be more fights. There’s one next month, a real boxing match between real boxers. There will always be more spectacle, more reasons to evade the slings and arrows of your everyday life to escape to the desert. It might be a while before there’s something that can rival the all-consuming gravity of Mayweather-McGregor. It’s hard to see a UFC card drawing anything even close to what the Money Fight did. This extravaganza of consumption will probably eclipse Mayweather-Pacquiao as the biggest fight of the century. It deserves that title.

Until it’s inevitably replaced by a bigger fight. The only direction is up. That one will be in Las Vegas, too.