McGre­gor could shock the world but let’s hope he is un­harmed

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Duggan

No­body be­lieved. In the days be­fore Muham­mad Ali faced Sonny Lis­ton in Mi­ami, the New York Times writer Robert Lip­syte was given clear ad­vice from the of­fice on 43nd street. Learn the route from the box­ing arena to the near­est hospi­tal, he was told. It would give him a jump in the likely event that the lippy chal­lenger ended up in one of the beds there.

Then Ali did just as he promised and just as Conor McGre­gor has been promis­ing all sum­mer: he shocked the world; laughed at the im­pos­si­ble; changed the game.

Over 50 years on, the New York Times this week car­ried a re­port of the opin­ion of the board of ring­side physi­cians that some­body could get “re­ally hurt” in tonight in Las Ve­gas. And they weren’t talk­ing about the 49-0 May­weather, a 12-time world cham­pion at five dif­fer­ent weights.

McGre­gor’s safety in tonight’s fight has been the least men­tioned as­pect of the en­tire spec­ta­cle. Few among the box­ing fra­ter­nity give McGre­gor even the re­motest chance against May­weather, re­gard­less of the skill, ex­cep­tional ath­leti­cism and courage which has, along with a pile-driv­ing old-fash­ioned left hand, pro­pelled him the into same strato­sphere as Kanye, as the Kar­dashi­ans, as Hol­ly­wood.

One school of thought is that McGre­gor will be a fish out of wa­ter; that this is like ask­ing Michael Phelps to go one-on-one with LeBron James or vice versa.

But the worst that can hap­pen from swim­ming against Phelps is that you get wet. And the worst that can hap­pen from balling against LeBron – un­less you are in­sane enough to take a charge – is that you never get to touch the ball.

But what’s the worst that can hap­pen when a novice boxer gets into the ring with one of the quick­est and most ac­com­plished fight­ers who ever boxed?

Blood­lust runs through the heart of the at­trac­tion of com­bat sports. The il­licit thrill of wit­ness­ing vi­o­lence and dan­ger up close has, through the 20th Cen­tury, en­abled count­less pro­mot­ers to charge out­ra­geous prices for the ring­side seats, for which the fa­mous and the pros­per­ous got dressed to the nines to sit close enough to smell the sweat and the fear; to hear glove on skin; to see blood on can­vas and often to see a hu­man be­ing knocked sense­less or worse.

Adren­a­line rush

But over the cen­tury, box­ing be­came an old sport. The rapid rise of MMA of­fers a new adren­a­line rush of blood­lust for a more im­pa­tient age, with none of the te­dious lim­i­ta­tions of the Queens­bury rules or the con­fu­sion over ti­tles or the yawn­ing gaps be­tween fights.

These cats just get on with it. Both McGre­gor and May­weather, in bring­ing the old and new worlds of pro fight­ing into di­rect col­li­sion, have been promis­ing to de­liver, with a sus­tained bar­rage of in­sults and oaths di­rected at one another all sum­mer, a fight for the ages.

Form­ing a back­drop to the show­down be­tween the two men is the strug­gle for supremacy be­tween the sports. Be­cause if McGre­gor can de­liver on his brag­gado­cio; if he can, some­how, jump from the frenzy of the oc­tagon to the more de­lib­er­ate and cal­cu­lat­ing world of the ring and still win; if he can “break this old man” – one of box­ing’s in­domitable forces – then what is the point of box­ing any­more?

The con­trary pos­si­bil­ity is that shortly after the first bell goes, it be­comes un­com­fort­ably ob­vi­ous to the crowd in the MGM grand and the mil­lions watch­ing around the world, whether on PPV or boot­legged live stream, that the No­to­ri­ous CMG is, for the first time in his daz­zling rise, is badly out of his depth.

On Thurs­day McGre­gor dis­missed that pos­si­bil­ity, ar­gu­ing that he has taken a shin­bone to his cheek; that the hits meted out in the oc­tagon ex­ceed any­thing May­weather has had thrown at him. But no­body knows.

Dr Dre is one of the can­nier en­trepreneurs to come out of Amer­ica in the last 40 years and it’s no surprise he has popped up in the back­ground din to this event, re­leas­ing an ad­vert for his per­son­alised head­phones set in McGre­gor’s ad­vert. It’s an evoca­tive few min­utes of ad­ver­tis­ing-as-sto­ry­telling, fol­low­ing a group of Dublin kids, com­plete with sub­ti­tles, as they while a city day away with their heads filled with McGre­gor dreams be­fore the man him­self ap­pears, don­ning a set of Beats.

The grey Ir­ish skies, the peb­ble-dash walls, a bul­let-head kid bob­bing and weav­ing through the clothes hang­ing on a line; it goes a long way to ex­plain­ing the huge ap­peal of McGre­gor to those who can’t un­der­stand it. And it’s a val­i­da­tion of the ar­gu­ment of the McGre­gor faith­ful who, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, claim that the sheer fab­u­lous­ness of the fighter’s rise from ob­scu­rity has not been given due recog­ni­tion by of­fi­cial Ire­land.

But it also of­fers an un­com­fort­able val­i­da­tion of pre­cisely why the tone of McGre­gor’s show­biz in­sults – the race-bait­ing and the misog­yny – can’t be waved away as merely part of the show. It doesn’t mat­ter if McGre­gor didn’t re­ally mean the things he said; that it’s just part of the show.

No safety net

He’s an idol to young­sters ev­ery­where. Kids im­i­tate. And if kids im­i­tate McGre­gor’s re­marks in a set­ting where there is no ad­ver­tis­ing back­drop and no TV cam­eras and no safety net – in a place where it’s real life rather than a show – then the reper­cus­sions could be a lot graver than any­thing that is likely to hap­pen in the ring tonight. And he is way too smart not to know that.

At Wed­nes­day’s press-con­fer­ence, the at­mos­phere was, as McGre­gor noted, “sub­dued” in com­par­i­son to those hys­ter­i­cal con­fronta­tions of the sum­mer.

Both box­ers had their busi­ness-per­sona on and their prom­ises to visit pain etc on one another sounded vaguely jaded. None of the an­tag­o­nism or the hot air of vit­riol was present. For those who believe the fight will be for real, it must have been a slightly wor­ry­ing mo­ment.

Even Rory McIl­roy broke away from an­swer­ing ques­tions about his slump in form to voice a fear that must have crossed ev­ery­one’s mind that, be­hind the scenes, both May­weather and McGre­gor are “hav­ing a laugh and think­ing: I can’t believe we are tak­ing all this pub­lic for a ride”. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened in a fight and won’t be the last. But per­haps the best ar­gu­ment against that is McGre­gor him­self.

From the get-go, he has been so con­fronta­tional and un­wa­ver­ing in his be­lief in the self, so im­pa­tient to get “there”, so as­sured in his de­ci­sions and so ex­tra­or­di­nary in in­sert­ing him­self into this celebrity realm that the only way he knows his for­ward.

He is, as he con­stantly claims, a young man who shows up. So he is en­ti­tled to be taken at face value when he prom­ises to come at May­weather – to come at box­ing – with all the chutz­pah and in­cen­di­ary skill of the new-age sport. At the back of even the most doubt­ing and dis­mis­sive minds is the nag­ging thought that this is what McGre­gor has been do­ing all along: mak­ing good on the spooky vi­su­al­i­sa­tion which has seen him storm from nowhere.

And that’s where the fault line ex­ists; that rare space where McGre­gor’s un­break­able faith in his own in­vin­ci­bil­ity comes up against two decades’ worth of box­ing craft as show­cased by one of its cold­est and best prac­ti­tion­ers.

In a way, that’s the mo­ment for which mil­lions are stay­ing up late tonight. And if that hap­pens, then there is the small but real pos­si­bil­ity that this spec­ta­cle – whether you see it as farce or fight of the cen­tury – will go awry and that, too late, ev­ery­one will re­alise that it was mad­ness to al­low a man who doesn’t even box pro­fes­sion­ally to go into the ring like this.

And then it’s not a ques­tion as to whether McGre­gor can shock the world but whether he can get out of there un­harmed.

‘‘ McGre­gor’s un­break­able faith in his own in­vin­ci­bil­ity comes up against two decades’ worth of box­ing craft as show­cased by one of its cold­est prac­ti­tion­ers

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