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