I went to the circus and a boxing match broke out. As Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor stepped through the ropes, it was as if the ring were surrounded by an invisible shield through which the hype of a $130 million guaranteed purse, Academy Award caliber audience, and pervasive racial animus could not penetrate. Money, fame, and even hatred seemed to fall away along with the fighters’ robes, and all that was left was a fight two men had to finish.
Looking back to Mayweather’s bout with Manny Pacquiao two years ago, the big letdown of “The Fight of the Century” was the lack of fight. The two greats never put themselves on the line, and the whole affair felt like a hugely hyped regular season game. It felt as if the two fighters walked away with our money and our time, and gave nothing of themselves but a little hard work. The fight revealed no inner truth about either of the boxing legends. Of course Pacquiao wouldn’t be Mayweather’s last fight. Not when his last fight was a heartless and technical affair that came down by decision. Not when the only thing standing between him and breaking Rocky Marciano’s record was McGregor, as punchable as he is punchable.
McGregor was a worthy opponent to the end. His wheels came flying completely off with a minute plus left in the 9th round, and McGregor looked up desperately at the Jumbotron to see how much more punishment he’d have to endure before the bell rang. By then McGregor had dropped his Groundskeeper Willie/Guy Ritchie persona, forgotten his great white hope responsibilities, and was just trying to deal with a rapidly deteriorating situation. In the 9th, Mayweather revealed to McGregor an utterly demoralizing fact: nothing had hurt him, and he had about 30 more rounds of fight and a full court basketball game left in him. The oyster of McGregor’s ego suddenly opened, and perched inside was a variation on Mike Tyson’s gleaming pearl of Truth: “Everyone has a plan until Mayweather decides to punch you in the face.”
The way to view this fight is not just how much one fighter’s body is broken down, but how much of their persona gets shattered in the process, hopefully revealing an inner humanity. McGregor looked pleading, pained, and almost apologetic. The man who told Mayweather to dance for him had been completely humbled. McGregor’s humiliation was total after the 10th round was stopped. A humble McGregor… that’s something only the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world could prove to the world actually exists.
Not only did Mayweather preserve his reputation (and tax compliance), but he reminded us why boxing remains the ultimate combat sport. UFC is perhaps physically more brutal than boxing, but its quickness and decisiveness does not give enough room for personas to be broken along with jaws and wrists. Its death-fight intensity results in overwrought WWE-style personas, and lizard-brained survivalist matches. The transition is so fast, the violence so discontinuous, that it seems the fighters never put on the table the things we really need to see get broken: egos, and hearts.
I predicted that if this went to TKO — and the ringside physicians essentially mandated that this happen — McGregor would continue to harass boxing by saying the amount of pain and damage inflicted was nothing compared to what happens in the UFC. And indeed McGregor stuck to his lines, but rather than taunting, he was pleading. At least let me get to the corner, he said, and who knows what will happen in the eleventh. This was a heartbroken McGregor, which means he had to put his heart on the line in the first place.