Everything about the leadup to Conor McGregor’s matchup with Floyd Mayweather this Saturday has been absurd. We had McGregor in a suit adorned with “Fuck You” in a vertical pinstripe pattern; dollar bills raining down from the heavens; confrontations between McGregor’s and Mayweather’s enormous security guards; and trash talk that tugged on racial and misogynistic fault lines.
The promotion of the fight is P.T. Barnum’s wet dream: a bearded lady or three-eyed calf, a genuine nothingburger, hawked to the viewing public by some of the most talented and least ethically-constrained carnival barkers on the face of the planet. The size of the pot of gold the public will pour out its money to fill is somewhere in the range of $500 million.
It’s easy to forget that sitting at the end of this particular rainbow is an actual fight between a pair of talented athletes. McGregor, the former UFC featherweight champion and current lightweight champion, will take on the seemingly untouchable Mayweather—undefeated in 49 career fights—in a 12-round boxing match, the first of McGregor’s career.
On the face of it, the fight is an absurdity. McGregor hasn’t had a competitive boxing match since he was a teenager, while Mayweather won an Olympic bronze medal two decades ago and has stacked up every possible accolade and title in the years since as a professional.
Whatever skills McGregor owns in the ring pale in comparison to Mayweather’s lifelong well of boxing knowledge, and any discussion of the fight has to begin with that foundational point. McGregor has other skills that Mayweather doesn’t possess—wrestling, grappling, and kicking among them—but he’s not a world-class boxer waiting to burst into public view.
But let’s try to figure out what it might look like. Given the lack of actual film of McGregor boxing, it’s not easy to surmise how he’ll appear, or what kind of approach he’ll take against Mayweather. McGregor isn’t a mythical figure, an unbeatable steamroller, or an unknown quantity; he’s a fighter with real strengths and weaknesses, some of which will translate to a matchup with one of the most accomplished boxers of the last few decades.
Let’s start with the basics. McGregor is a southpaw puncher with nice pop in his left hand and a great sense of timing. He’s powerful, but not in the vein of overwhelmingly forceful big hitters like Mike Tyson, Jack Dempsey, or (in MMA) Anthony Johnson; McGregor is more of a snappy puncher with a combination of raw force, accurate placement on the chin or temple, and a knack for hitting his opponents from subtle angles that magnify the effect of his shots.
The timing, power, and angle are best exemplified by McGregor’s trademark punch, the inside-angle counter left. This has been the Irishman’s bread and butter for years, from his knockout of Ivan Buchinger in 2012 to his dismantling of UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez last November.
It’s sharper in the second GIF, but it’s the same approach. McGregor baits his opponent into coming forward from a bit too far away, slips or lets the opponent’s right hand fall short, and then throws a left hand over the top while pivoting to his left on his lead foot. His left leg spins into place behind him, creating a new angle that allows his counter left hand to land across the plane of the opponent’s body. From that angle, the punch hits the unprotected jaw or temple, and the opponent’s legs can’t bend to absorb the force of the blow.
Knowing how to land that shot effectively is only half the battle, though. There are plenty of fighters who know how to throw an inside-angle counter, and do it well. McGregor’s actual talent lies in putting himself in position to land it over and over again.
He does that by seizing the initiative, setting the range and the circumstances under which he engages with his opponent. That usually means aggressive pressure, pushing his opponent back toward the fence where he can either pick them off a shot or two at a time or bait them into coming forward and walking into that big counter left hand. Since he’s long for the weight class—he stands 5-foot-9 and has a 74-inch reach—McGregor can take his opponent apart at ranges where they can’t hit him, and it gives him room to play with as he looks for angles and counters. This creates the strategic context that allows him to land his big shots. It gives him opportunities at a high rate.
Confidence defines McGregor’s game, and when he’s pressuring, he feels confident. When he feels like he’s in control, he can push an incredible pace and bury his opponent in a steady stream of left hands.
But that’s also McGregor’s downfall. If he feels like he’s not in control—that the range at which the fight’s being contested isn’t his range, he doesn’t have the timing, and his opponent isn’t afraid of his power—he burns huge amounts of energy trying to explode and force the big shot. This is what happened in the first fight with Nate Diaz, and for a while in the rematch. It’s not a stretch to say that he panics.
This is McGregor’s greatest weakness. It’s not the only one; his jab is better than it used to be, but still not a real weapon. His right hook makes only occasional appearances. He’s not a great combination puncher. When he throws punches, he doesn’t immediately pull his hands back to defend, which creates opportunities for his opponents to land counters. Defense isn’t his strongest suit, though he moves his head better than he used to.
How will all this translate to a straight boxing match? Well, that’s the $500 million question. He has great timing and a strong understanding of rhythm. The angles, especially for his counter left hand, might carry over. He’s durable and takes a great punch.
The best possibility is the clinch. McGregor isn’t a bruising inside fighter by MMA standards, but he’s big, strong, and has spent a ton of time doing clinch fighting and wrestling over the years. It’s an area where there’s genuine room for innovation in boxing; fighters of past generations have been far more accomplished in close quarters than most are now. There are opportunities to land shots on entries and exits, and to physically grind opponents down, that modern boxers don’t fully exploit. McGregor could use that to his advantage, or he might not.
So how does all this stack up against Mayweather, one of the finest boxers of this generation? There are outlines to a plan that might work: force Mayweather to the ropes and rough him up in the clinch and the pocket the way Marcos Maidana did, step back and let Mayweather throw to create opportunities for the counter left, and pray that a big shot lands cleanly.
The problem isn’t tactics; it’s strategy. Mayweather is a defensive mastermind, but he’s still vulnerable when he leads, especially with his lead right hand. Countering that punch was how fellow southpaw Manny Pacquiao had his greatest success in their 2015 fight.
Countering, though, is a tactic. Strategy means figuring out how to create the context in which you can effectively land a high-enough number of counters to win the fight. Stifling those kinds of strategies is where Mayweather’s genius really shines.
It’s not impossible to force Mayweather back to the ropes or rough him up on the inside, but it’s very difficult to make that game plan work for long enough to win. It’s not impossible to land counters, but it’s hard to force Mayweather to lead often enough to land them consistently.
Eventually, Mayweather figures out what his opponent’s trying to do. He’s eminently adaptable, and sucks his opponents into a slow-paced fight that plays to his strengths. He creates the strategic context that prevents them from doing what gives them the best chance of winning the fight. That’s what makes him great.
If you try to pressure Mayweather and pin him along the ropes, he responds by using pivots and sidesteps to get away. He times counters as his opponents walk forward. Most of all, he ties up in the clinch, proactively closing the distance to prevent his opponents from finding success at close range. He’s one of the best inside fighters of this generation, a master of stifling and shortening the fight to suit his purposes.
In addition to responding to his opponent’s aggression with adjustments, Mayweather is also an underrated aggressor in his own right. He likes to come out hot from time to time, surprising his opponent with his piercing jab, a sharp left hook, and quick right-hand leads. It’s the combination of these various responses, and knowing which one works at which point, that makes Mayweather so hard to figure out.
McGregor might nail Mayweather with a big shot and put him to sleep. Floyd, while a great defensive fighter, isn’t unhittable. There’s always a chance.
It’s a tiny chance, though. The most likely scenario involves McGregor coming out hot—he always does—and trying to rough up Mayweather inside, landing a few good shots along the way. He may even sting the 40-year-old Mayweather with a sharp left hand. By the third or fourth round, though, Mayweather will adjust. He’ll figure out when and how to tie up McGregor on the inside, when to go after him at range, and how to avoid his counters. By the sixth round, McGregor will look lost. If Floyd is feeling nasty, he might go after McGregor, but it’s more likely he simply cruises to an easy decision. The skill and experience gap is simply too wide for McGregor to adjust with Floyd as the fight rolls on.
This whole article has been an attempt to rationally grapple with what the fight will look like, based on a sober assessment of the available evidence.
The problem is, there’s no barrier to entry for having an opinion on this fight. Expertise is meaningless. Everybody with a Twitter account can shout their opinion into the void and expect it to matter. McGregor is now a mere 3-1 underdog. At the MGM Grand, 95 percent of bettors have their money on McGregor (not 95 percent of the money, though).
In any normal context, we’d look at the person who’s a world-class competitor in their field—Mayweather—and expect him to beat a relative novice in an embarrassing blowout.
But that’s not how the public is viewing this fight. What’s behind this? Is it the death of expertise, or more specifically, the death of the belief that some people simply know more than others and are more qualified? Is it that the betting and viewing public have been suckered by a promotional campaign that presents absurd farce as legitimate competition? Or is it all just existentially meaningless, a throwaway spectacle devoid of any broader connection to social and cultural trends?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. For now, though, I’m trusting rationality. I’m trusting that the expert can and should run away with it against the relative novice. Mayweather is a loathsome figure, a genuinely bad person whose behavior has been enabled for years, but at the end of the day, he’s a better boxer. Even in this day and age, that still means something.