By Paul Gibson (@PaulieDGibson)
I once described Floyd Mayweather’s 2015 mega fight with Manny Pacquiao as little more than a grand financial con. Well, Money May was up to his old tricks again tonight, albeit with a variation on the sting. Where May-Pac was a classic casino hustle, May-Mac was more a fantastical Las Vegas illusion, the audacity of which David Copperfield himself would be proud of.
In fairness, it was the Irish showman Floyd was facing who provided the vast majority of the magic before things got physical. A grinning Debbie to Conor McGregor’s Paul Daniels, Mayweather for once accepted the glamourous assistant’s role.
The 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire once warned the world that the devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist. For the Notorious one, the charismatic and supremely gifted MMA fighter, it appears the reverse is true.
Act one was McGregor managing to convince the large, disapproving chunks of the non-combat sports media who often get sucked into the maelstrom of these mega events that his brash and crass alter-ego is a genuine representation of the man himself. In reality, if that is the correct word, athletes adopting manufactured personas and then hamming it up in front of the cameras is one the fight world’s many, well-known idiosyncrasies.
There is a reason why Rafa Nadal has never threatened to eat Roger Federer’s children, à la Tyson to Lewis. Or why Rory McIlroy will never describe Jordan Spieth as being so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife, à la Ali to Frazier. Or why Lionel Messi never ends his interviews by saying the rest of the players are bums not fit to lace his boots, à la every fighter to an opponent at some point in their career. And it has nothing to do with social status, upbringing or pre-determined moral fibre.
Tennis players and golfers and footballers don’t need to verbally rile one another, or indeed express any individual characteristics, genuine or otherwise, to reap the rewards of their profession – in fact they are now actively encouraged to suppress such impulses. In every other sporting discipline, an athlete’s opponent, and thus their ultimate success or failure, is determined by a combination of ability and an algorithm. In fighting, perceived personality often has the biggest say in purse negotiations. And controversy is second only to sex in terms of what sells in the 21st century.
Maybe Conor really is a disgusting blight on society, but we will never know if a foul-mouthed pantomime performance in a staged press conference is all we have to judge by.
As boxing writers we are used to the forced polemic charades the sport still fears are necessary to sell a fight. We are tired of it all and probably a little desensitised to it too. We long for the first bell to ring and the illusion to snap jarringly into the naked reality of a skilled physical confrontation. Tonight, however, not even the opening bell’s toll could truly dispel the fantasy created in the build-up.
And herein lies the second act of McGregor the illusionist’s Vegas spectacular: the devil in him managed to persuade millions that he exists as a boxer who on his debut would knock out the great Floyd Mayweather.
As sleight of hand goes, it was up there with Copperfield disappearing the Statue of Liberty or Penn and Teller catching the bullets they fire at one another’s mouths. And for every believer that bet their money and reduced the odds on an Irish victory to ever more ludicrous levels, there was an exasperated defender of the noble art of boxing desperately striving to come up with the most eye-catching analogy to explain why a man could simply swagger from the Octagon to the Ring and beat a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Conor and his bank balance are undoubtedly as eternally grateful to the latter as he is to the former.
More qualified commentators also weighed in. After a week of Brendan Schaub telling us that Conor’s power is insane or his left hand ridiculous, the MMA world mercifully sent forth Dan Hardy to shore up their defence. His nuanced analysis was infinitely more insightful than Schaub’s enthusiastic cheerleading, and it was mildly interesting to even fleetingly consider how the unorthodoxy of McGregor’s stance, range, guard, attack or clinch-work could unsettle his opponent, but the boxing fraternity always had a very simple riposte to trump all the hypotheticals: this is boxing and this is Floyd Mayweather Jr.
But hey, a lot of us are suckers for magic tricks. We are instinctively drawn to the extraordinary, to those loveable charlatans on stage making the impossible seemingly possible. I know David Blaine can’t really throw a card I have just slipped unseen back into his deck against a car window and make it stick to the other side of the glass, but I want to believe and I have no desire to discover the logical explanation.
Conor cast his spell and the murky world of boxing, where the line between fantasy and reality was blurred long before we dove into these unchartered waters, did the rest. From sparring videos, to fight predictions, via governing body decisions, logic and reason were defied and it became difficult to state with any confidence what was real or not anymore. We were through the looking glass, swirling around inside the May-Mac illusion.
It couldn’t last forever, of course. Every spell is broken eventually. Conor deserves enormous credit for reaching the tenth round, but Floyd was doing as he pleased in there. The American had seen behind the curtain and wasn’t to be fooled.
There’ll be sneers from certain quarters that those who parted with their cash to witness the spectacle were duped, but that is entirely a question of perspective. That Mayweather and McGregor are a pair of alchemists is beyond dispute, but value for money is an entirely objective concept. Is Penn and Teller’s shtick any less entertaining if I tell you they had the bullets hidden in their mouths all along?