Our social media timelines bring us wonders like the executive of a sports promotion reading scrolling text off a screen in pregnant silence, then yelling back in real time. After Wednesday’s announcement that five-division boxing champion Floyd Mayweather will face two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor in 10-ounce boxing gloves for 12 rounds on August 26 in Las Vegas, UFC president Dana White took questions and comments from the Facebook peanut gallery. Is this opening the door for more cross[over] events between boxing and MMA? “God, I hope not,” White said. I’ll save my money for a UFC fight, not another boring Mayweather fight. “That’s your choice brother, I hear you,” White said, flashing a thumbs up.
“I’m excited about this fight,” White said at one point. “I didn’t love it in the beginning, but you know what?” He didn’t finish the thought, but when Mayweather-McGregor was just idle shit talk, it made me rage. It was a stupid hypothetical that would never happen, then it was a fever dream, then it was an insulting cash grab. It is still definitely one of those things and I am still definitely not paying my own money to watch this fight.
But here’s the realization that turned me turn from cynic to enthusiastic rube in the hours since the bout was announced and hypothetical bullshit became unavoidable reality: the punches thrown are incidental to the pop culture moment. Mayweather-McGregor is some lowest-common-denominator, Katy-Perry-at-the-Superbowl stuff. That’s actually a compliment: top-40 songs transcend niche audiences and Mayweather-McGregor transcends the tiny, self-absorbed world of prizefighting. You can pretend to hate Max Martin’s hooks, or you can sing along and screw up the words. You can sulk for two months, or you can get stoked when your co-workers start writing you e-mails about how Connor MacGreggor has a puncher’s chance against Floyd Merriweather.
Promoters are banking on exactly that, especially if they plan to beat the 4.6 million pay-per-view buy record set when Mayweather fought a stale mega-fight against Manny Pacquiao in 2015. On a media call, Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president of Showtime Sports, said of the bout, “We’re not only drawing fans from the universe of boxing and the universe of MMA. We’ve actually tapped into the audience that really doesn’t follow either sport. This is such an unprecedented event that people that have never really been interested in boxing or MMA are interested in this event due to the nature of the competition and the nature of these two personalities. That’s an untapped part of the market that not even Mayweather-Pacquiao touched.”
Make no mistake: a polarizing, domestic-violence-ing, five-division boxing champ and MMA’s two-legged embodiment of The Power of Positive Thinking are digging their hands into your pockets on the promise that you’ll see something ridiculous and not anything conventionally competitive. “Whenever two guys get in there and start throwing punches, anything is possible”—something White actually said in response to scrolling text—is the most desperate sales pitch in combative sports. It’s a plea for you to believe that miracles really do come true, so you should open your wallet to watch a mismatch.
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USATODAY Sports
On the other hand, this really is uncharted territory. There are good reasons why you don’t see 49-0 pro boxers fighting guys making their debut on pay-per-view, but it’s not like McGregor was a guy living under a bridge. There’s an open question: how does an amazing defensive fighter, secure against sparring partners who are similarly sculpted by the same shared habits of a sport that demands a lifetime of devotion, deal with a fighter who learned to knock people out in a totally different context?
Easily, probably. But maybe not. If you’re looking for shreds of doubt to bolster the chance that McGregor—a tall, lanky southpaw with unorthodox footwork and a left hand that hurts—might really win, his UFC career is ripe for cherry picking. Chad Mendes should have wrestled him into irrelevance. He shouldn’t have knocked out Jose Aldo, who hadn’t lost in a decade, in less time than it takes to thaw a stick of butter in the microwave. After flying too close to the sun (while leaden with steak) against Nate Diaz, he should have fallen apart in the rematch. He shouldn’t have beaten Eddie Alvarez and won a second title with so little effort.
None of this translates to boxing—not unless you want it to, not unless you’re ready to give up and stop fighting a force that will make you miserable if you keep fighting it. MMA, a sport that’s already accommodated CM Punk and Jose Canseco, has a high tolerance for sideshows. Whatever damage this fight might have done to the sport of boxing was already done by Mayweather-Pacquiao after more than a half decade of hype, promises of something special, and a dud of an evening. Mayweather-McGregor is on a sped-up timeline with no pretense of greatness, just spectacle. Since the bout was announced, I’ve had at least half a dozen conversations with people who I’ve never really heard mention fighting before. A friend texted me: “I might go all in on McGregor. Thunderlips kicked Rocky’s ass.”
Forget any thoughts of how the fight is going to play out. It doesn’t matter whether McGregor gets embarrassed while Mayweather crosses the 50-win threshold, or if he enjoys a moral victory by lasting all 12 rounds, or if he pulls off the near impossibility of being a novice that knocks out the best defensive boxer in the game. The outcome of August 26 is irrelevant, because this fight bears almost no resemblance to any fight we’ve ever seen. It’s going to be another long, hot, suffocating summer. McGregor-Mayweather is going to suck up all the remaining oxygen through self-evidence, a huge fight that’s becoming a cultural touchstone just by existing. Everyone who said, “Shut up, you know you’ll watch it”: you win. It took me a minute to get on board, but now I’m ready to turn off my brain. I am ready to go all in.