Ve­gas ready for show­time

After the months of hype and hoopla, the so-called Money Fight is here Conor McGre­gor has con­vinced half the world he is go­ing to beat May­weather

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Ken Early in Las Ve­gas

Conor McGre­gor likes to coun­ter­punch. Like the best coun­ter­punch­ers, he re­acts not to the punch, but to the in­ten­tion to throw the punch. That’s how he has time to strike be­fore the op­po­nent re­alises what is hap­pen­ing. If you want to read some­one’s in­ten­tions you have to un­der­stand where they are com­ing from. You need a kind of in­tu­itive con­nec­tion with the op­po­nent.

He’s the same as a per­former. McGre­gor works best when he is feed­ing off the emo­tional en­ergy of his au­di­ence. He needs to feel that con­nec­tion. It doesn’t al­ways have to be the same kind of emo­tion. It could be sig­nalled by the cheers of a crowd of Ir­ish fans in Dublin or Toronto or Las Ve­gas, or the cat­calls of a crowd of Brazil­ian fans in Rio de Janeiro, or the rapt eyes of an in­ter­viewer he is hyp­no­tis­ing one-on-one. All he needs is to get a feel for the au­di­ence and he eas­ily gets into a flow.

Take away that con­nec­tion and the flow breaks down. When the ques­tions are neg­a­tive, or when it feels like it’s just him, when he can’t read the sig­nal, when he’s only get­ting si­lence or white noise in re­sponse, the usual note of con­vic­tion can start to sound a bit wob­bly. These are the mo­ments when un­cer­tain thoughts can seep through cracks in the shell of pos­i­tive self-talk in which he long ago en­cased his mind.

At least it sounded like some­thing along those lines happened at Wed­nes­day’s fi­nal press con­fer­ence for the so-called Money Fight, which, in keep­ing with the Show­time house style, was ex­tremely bor­ing with too many speeches by cor­po­rate drones and with no fans present – not the sort of en­vi­ron­ment in which McGre­gor usu­ally thrives. Money hype It fea­tured the dis­play of a jewel-en­crusted golden “Money Belt” which re­flected the or­gan­is­ers’ ap­par­ent – and pos­si­bly correct – be­lief that sim­ply hyp­ing the amount of money at stake in the fight will in­crease the amount of money peo­ple spend on the fight.

When it was McGre­gor’s turn to speak he stood at the podium look­ing out at the anony­mous ex­pres­sion­less faces and spoke into the hush.

“You should have all kept your mouth shut,” he told the journalists, as they sat there keep­ing their mouths shut. “You should have left me over in that other game where I’m from, that more ruth­less game where we bounce heads off the can­vas and drill them into the floor . . .”

The daily “Embed­ded” video re­vealed McGre­gor back­stage after the press con­fer­ence talk­ing with UFC pres­i­dent Dana White. He men­tioned the size dif­fer­ence be­tween him and May­weather and pre­dicted the fight would be a “mas­sacre”.

“I was like, man, I’m gonna feel sorry for you. You should have left me where I was. I was all right where I was.”

You should have left me over in that other game, you should have left me where I was . . . was there some small part of his mind that was wish­ing they had?

If so, this rene­gade neu­ral clus­ter has since been os­tracised into si­lence by the rest of McGre­gor’s brain. In his con­scious mind, at least, he is con­vinced that this is a good de­ci­sion and that he is go­ing to win this fight. Con­ta­gious This be­lief is con­ta­gious: when you talk to peo­ple who spend any time with him they all think that he has at least a good chance, de­spite all the ev­i­dence to the con­trary. They will re­mind you that Floyd May­weather is 40, they will talk about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the clinch, they will say that this is fight­ing and any­thing can hap­pen in fight­ing.

Paulie Malig­naggi, who sparred in camp with the Dubliner, sug­gested that McGre­gor was an out-of-con­trol ego sur­rounded by yes-men, but the fact is that McGre­gor has also con­vinced half the world he is go­ing to beat May­weather.

Many of these peo­ple may know noth­ing about box­ing, but McGre­gor’s mes­meric power can­not be doubted: he makes peo­ple believe, whether in per­son or on YouTube. It’s this qual­ity, more than his vic­to­ries in the UFC, that has turned him into the only fighter on the planet big enough to tempt Floyd May­weather out of re­tire­ment.

When you look at how his ca­reer has de­vel­oped over the last cou­ple of years, you find your­self won­der­ing if this Law of At­trac­tion might have some­thing to it after all. The Law of At­trac­tion, which has shaped McGre­gor’s mind­set for many years, is a form of mag­i­cal think­ing that teaches, es­sen­tially, that what­ever you vi­su­alise will be­come re­al­ity – if you can believe in it sin­cerely enough. At this point, McGre­gor is to the Law what Tom Cruise is to Scien­tol­ogy.

A lit­tle over two years ago, he ap­peared on Co­nan O’Brien’s chat show to pro­mote his fight against Chad Men­des at UFC 189. O’Brien pointed out that McGre­gor was in a sim­i­lar weight di­vi­sion to May­weather, who had just de­feated Manny Pac­quiao in what was then the big­gest-gross­ing fight of all time.

“If you’re ask­ing if I’d like to fight Floyd, I mean who would not like to dance around the ring for $180 mil­lion dol­lars?” McGre­gor said. “It would be some­thing that ap­peals to me very much.”

The idea that McGre­gor might fight May­weather did not seem a se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­ity at the time. Nei­ther did the idea he put out a cou­ple of months later in an in­ter­view with Ariel Hel­wani, that he was look­ing for his next con­tract to be for nine fig­ures, that is, a ¤100 mil­lion plus.

To ap­pre­ci­ate how in­sane this sounded com­ing from a fighter in the UFC, you need to un­der­stand some­thing about how that com­pany op­er­ates. The only peo­ple get­ting seriously rich out of the UFC are the own­ers.

They run an un­com­pro­mis­ing cor­po­ra­tion that ag­gres­sively sup­presses any hint of union or­gan­i­sa­tion and keeps em­ployee wages down to the ab­so­lute min­i­mum. The fight­ers re­ceive about 10 per cent of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s to­tal rev­enue, which means they are col­lec­tively un­der­paid by a fac­tor of at least five com­pared to play­ers in other ma­jor Amer­i­can sports. Nine fig­ures? As a UFC fighter, his purses were al­ways go­ing to be a lot closer to nine eu­ros than nine fig­ures.

Tri­umphant vin­di­ca­tion

Yet here we are, on the day when Conor McGre­gor col­lects the big­gest de­but purse in the his­tory of box­ing. The nine fig­ures have be­come re­al­ity. The day he signed that con­tract must have been a day of tri­umphant vin­di­ca­tion few of us will ever get to ex­pe­ri­ence.

The only prob­lem is that now he has to box Floyd May­weather, who may rep­re­sent one of those oc­ca­sional jagged edges of ob­jec­tive re­al­ity that have the power to pierce any­one’s bub­ble of be­lief, no mat­ter how seem­ingly bul­let­proof.

It’s not to den­i­grate McGre­gor’s past op­po­nents, some of whom were great fight­ers, to ob­serve that he has never come up against any­one on May­weather’s level.

The thought that you have to face the most skilled op­po­nent of your ca­reer, while hav­ing to leave half of your own skills at the door, would be sober­ing for any­body. But that’s the price of ad­mis­sion to Floyd’s world.

McGre­gor says May­weather has never fought any­body like him, and that is at least half true. The true part is that May­weather has never fought any­one with McGre­gor’s un­ortho­dox back­ground, and like ev­ery­one else, he has to wait to see what sur­prises the Ir­ish­man has in store.

This falls un­der the head­ing of what McGre­gor is call­ing “Bruce Lee shit” and the prospect of him showing us some­thing we haven’t seen be­fore is one of the at­trac­tions of the fight.

“I don’t feel box­ing is the style of fight­ing that can beat Floyd,” McGre­gor told Co­nan O’Brien back in 2015 be­fore even he seriously be­lieved he’d one day be fight­ing him. “But say­ing that, there are many, many forms of fight­ing that can beat him.”

Un­for­tu­nately those forms of fight­ing are all il­le­gal in the box­ing rule set. If it’s le­gal in box­ing, it’s noth­ing May­weather hasn’t han­dled be­fore, and he knows how to push the bound­aries of le­gal­ity bet­ter than any­body.

Small core

When McGre­gor tells peo­ple why he is go­ing to win, one of his themes is that May­weather is small: small legs, small core, small head, brit­tle hands. And it’s true that com­pared to McGre­gor, May­weather is slightly built. But he’s never suc­ceeded be­cause he was the most pow­er­ful fighter. He suc­ceeds be­cause he has been the clever­est.

When you watch May­weather fight the things that stand out are his eyes – in the most lit­eral sense, they stand out from his face, wide open – he scarcely seems to blink. We as­so­ciate wide eyes with fear, but the rea­son fear makes the eyes open wide is to max­imise the field of vi­sion. May­weather is not afraid. He’s watch­ing the op­po­nent and he doesn’t want to miss any­thing. Ev­ery­thing is a potential clue to what hap­pens next. This is why May­weather has only suf­fered one of­fi­cial knock­down in 49 fights.

May­weather has eyes ev­ery­where and he learns from what he sees. Even on the pro­mo­tional World Tour last month you could see May­weather study­ing McGre­gor, work­ing him out, and chang­ing his strat­egy to counter him, just as he would do in the ring.

In the second tour event, be­fore a crowd in Toronto con­tain­ing thou­sands of Ir­ish fans, Floyd engaged with McGre­gor’s an­tics on stage. He vis­i­bly re­acted to McGre­gor’s barbs, even laugh­ing at some of his jokes, and he got in­volved in some cheesy back-and-forth in­volv­ing a bag full of cash and an Ir­ish flag. This was a mis­take: McGre­gor made him look silly and brought the house down.

At the next show in New York we saw a dif­fer­ent May­weather. He had de­cided that the best way to deal with McGre­gor is to ig­nore him. If your op­po­nent is good at re­act­ing in the mo­ment to what you do, then give him noth­ing to work with by act­ing as though he isn’t there. The strat­egy happened to dove­tail nicely with May­weather’s own cold, cal­cu­lated, with­drawn per­son­al­ity. He’s won 49 fights be­ing cold, cal­cu­lated and with­drawn.

So when McGre­gor pa­raded about in his po­lar bear coat and bawled in­sults di­rectly into May­weather’s ear, May­weather pre­tended to be look­ing at his phone. Faced with this mag­nif­i­cent in­dif­fer­ence, McGre­gor’s bom­bast fell flat. His frus­tra­tion was ob­vi­ous. He prob­a­bly ex­pected Floyd would play ball. They were both sup­posed to be hyp­ing the fight. These one-sided ex­changes were bor­ing. But then, so were most of May­weather’s ti­tle de­fences. He’s never cared about en­ter­tain­ing the fans. His aim is not to lose, and noth­ing else mat­ters.

None of McGre­gor’s UFC op­po­nents ever dealt with him so skil­fully and the ev­i­dence of May­weather’s long ca­reer sug­gests he will take the same ap­proach to the fight. He will not do what McGre­gor wants him to do. He will not be like Jose Aldo and come charg­ing out of his cor­ner straight into a knock­out punch. He will not be forced to par­tic­i­pate in a spec­ta­cle. He will stymie, frus­trate and con­fuse. He will try to make McGre­gor feel lost and lonely. If the fight is bor­ing, that means he’s win­ning.

Sense of self

And he has to win, be­cause los­ing this fight would be the worst thing that ever happened to him. His sense of self is based on be­ing un­beat­able more than it’s based on be­ing rich. If he loses his record to a con­verted MMA fighter, the money he will earn – twice as much as McGre­gor – won’t com­pen­sate for the dis­grace.

Money May­weather knows all about money and what it can and can’t do. If he loved it as much as he says he does, he wouldn’t have been so eager to squan­der it. For May­weather, money is not an end in itself, only a con­ve­nient nu­mer­i­cal way to demon­strate his su­pe­rior sta­tus. The Show­time peo­ple don’t un­der­stand it, and maybe Conor McGre­gor is only find­ing out, but there re­ally are more im­por­tant things at stake in the Money Fight than money.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: EMILY WILSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Conor McGre­gor at a suit fit­ting in his Las Ve­gas home ear­lier this month.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JOHN LOCHER/AP

Floyd May­weather jnr and Conor McGre­gor face off last night dur­ing the weigh-in for their fight in Las Ve­gas.

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