By Jason Keidel
As we make sense of Saturday night’s fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Conor McGregor, a fight that exceeded all sane expectations, let’s look at the historical wake it left, along with the legacies of both fighters.
For some reason, boxing pundits and purists — like yours truly — who are gatekeepers of boxing ancestry, were supposed to be appalled by this fight, this farce, this veiled armed robbery with a remote to replace a gun. To not only watch but eagerly await this fight was an assault on our old-world sensibilities, a blight on boxing, its history and its champions. We disrespected Jack Dempsey just by punching the PPV button.
Two sports joined forces for a night, a shotgun wedding that worked. It proved that UFC fighters can box, which can only lead to more prosperous times between boxing and MMA. Most cage fighters were either wrestlers, boxers or both before they took their talents to the octagon, so it’s not shocking that their gifts translate outside of it. And thus it keeps the door cracked open for future bouts.
When pondering McGregor, the loquacious Irishman who swapped his familiar octagon for the squared circle, we can (and should) say ‘job well done.’ He kept the most refined fighter of the last 20 years at bay for four rounds, then stood tall for five more rounds, fighting with gifts and guts until the referee ended the fight and his night.
Not bad for a fella collecting welfare checks in Dublin fewer than five years ago. McGregor not only represented himself with aplomb, he was a shining emblem of his sport (UFC) and his boss (Dana White). And he strolls out of the ring with at least $75 million.
Surely some could do without his post-fight presser, a walnut-shaped bump under his left eye, preening with a bottle of his personal whiskey. But if anyone earned a drink, it was Conor McGregor, who may not have won the fight, but may have won something just as important — respect.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. has not always represented the best side of celebrity or the ideals of sport. But he’s never disgraced boxing inside the ropes, and has painted a few masterpieces on a blue canvas over the years. If attention, gossip and gate receipts are the main metrics for any athletic endeavor, then Mayweather has pumped celebrity and economic life into a sport on life support.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity, though McGregor and Mayweather stretched the bounds of civility in the weeks leading up to this event. But they proved that Saturday night was more than a PR platter, an amalgam of insults, profanities and indignities. It was, considering the subterranean expectations, one heck of a fight.
This fight served two vital goals. It proved that Conor McGregor was more than a tattooed, traveling PR circus, more than a gifted street fighter who simply switched ring dimensions for a fat paycheck and a chance to run his gums a little longer. He is a high-end fighter in any form, in any forum, an athlete with artistic splendor to be taken seriously on any surface.
And it proved that boxing, at its best, is still an essential sport. No sport steals the bold ink, or drains your adrenal gland, quite like fight night at its best. Two stars like Mayweather and McGregor were more than names beaming from a marquee. They are respected and respectable fighters, who fused two combat sports for nearly 10 rounds of skill, will and action.
Between Showtime’s boxing devotion and Al Haymon’s PBC brainchild, there are ample infusions of talent and TV time. Mayweather-McGregor was perfectly placed on the sports calendar, a month before MLB’s pennant chase, and a couple weeks before the start of the NFL season. And placement matters now.
If this is indeed Mayweather’s swan song — and he swears it is — then he went out on a high note with an epic paycheck. It’s a stretch to say he surpassed Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 mark against a boxing neophyte, but Mayweather didn’t need it for a place high in the archives. He is, at least, the best boxer of the last 20 years.
Some wonder if this is McGregor’s first or last foray into boxing. Since he soared to stardom with UFC, it makes sense for him to return to his ancestral fighting home. Not many 29 year olds take up athletic careers, particularly one as perilous as boxing. No matter what he does, he left that ring a victor in ways he never could have left an octagon.
Both men were unusually gracious after the bout, taking parallel high roads to riches. You couldn’t find two men, and two fighters, more different. But in some crucial ways, they were the same. Perhaps that’s why they were so jovial toward each other at the end. In a sense, each man was gazing at his professional reflection.
We’re so cynical now, we demand that one man must gain at another’s expense. Sometimes life allows for more than one winner. Sometimes the powers get something right, even if it’s accidental. Mayweather-McGregor was likely cobbled together for the most selfish of reasons — age, wage and vanity. They don’t care about the public or the pundits. Yet it wound up serving and pleasing us all.
Rather than question it, just raise a glass of Notorious whiskey to two men who made one night pretty special, against all odds, in a town that makes the odds.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.