Since it became official Wednesday, there’s been some harrumphing going on over this Floyd Mayweather–Conor McGregor fight, namely because they have a combined 49 professional boxing bouts between them. The sticking point seems to be that none belong to McGregor. Anyone can see that red flag from a mile away. It’s not logical.
Then again, I mean … a boxing ring is no place to search for logic. How deep down the rabbit hole of logic do we need to go here to understand that fighting, in general, is an absurd thing to do? Fighting — and boxing in particular — has produced some of the best sportswriting over the last 100 years because there are so many beautiful layers of psyche to pull back, each one more confounding than the last. People like to imagine what’s going through the heads of fighters. The reason to keep coming back is that there’s never a satisfactory answer, even when the fighters themselves try to explain.
With Floyd and Conor, we’ve got a boxing champion versus a mixed martial arts champion, meeting in a boxing ring August 26 in Las Vegas. It’s stupid and stupendous and stupefying — it’s a little bit of everything. It’s a money grab, it’s a travesty, it’s imaginative and exhilarating. Mayweather is a flickering, defense-first fighter who can sidestep a tempest. He has made an empire off of being a punishing mirage. McGregor is an Irish firebrand who not only became the first fighter in UFC history to hold simultaneous titles, he’s an insatiable dark-eyed abyss of a man who defies the bylaws of the earthly setting. At this point it feels like McGregor could boast that he can levitate to 100 feet, and there’d be at least a 10 percent chance he’s right.
So segueing into the boxing ring from the MMA cage isn’t all that big of a stretch, not with him, not with his sense of bigness and his ability. Not to mention his fight style: He likes to stand and trade punches. That’s what he does. In fact, Mayweather is in no greater danger of being taken down to the canvas than any of McGregor’s foes in the octagon. (Well, with the exception of Nate Diaz in that first fight, when McGregor shot for an desperation double-leg after running out of gas. But those were extenuating circumstances.)
What McGregor does and does well is operate in space, to the point that at times he’s barely confined to MMA. Look what he did to Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 to win the lightweight belt. He just turned Alvarez into a magic-show prop. He put his hands behind his back for effect. He crushed Alvarez with his left at will. It wasn’t the dominance of Alvarez that launched him toward Mayweather in a different sphere. It was that he rose up to the enormity of the moment at Madison Square Garden, with a second belt on the line, like he was destined to do so. That’s what had people playing with the themes of his mortality.
"I just want to say from the bottom of my heart, I’d like to take this chance to apologize," McGregor said afterward. "To absolutely nobody. The double champ does what the fuck he wants."
So he does.
The gap between Mayweather and McGregor in the boxing sense is real. People aren’t wrong to point it out. But there’s something about McGregor’s handling of space — including the one between a sublime boxer and a historical mixed martial artist — that makes you wonder how big that gap will actually be come fight night.
Here are five reasons not to completely discount McGregor.
His Incredible Self-Belief
Over the next two months this will become clearer for those who don’t follow the UFC regularly, but McGregor’s belief in himself — in a sport where delusions run rampant — is extraordinary. He has achieved everything he said he would. He has set goals for himself that seemed utterly ridiculous at the time he tossed them out there, only to bring them to fruition.
He said he would knock out Jose Aldo, and he did. He said he would become the biggest pay-per-view draw in UFC history. He did that too. Becoming the first two-division champion in the UFC? Check. Tracking down a nine-figure payday when there are fighters on the UFC roster making four figures a show? Check. Becoming a business partner of the UFC? Check.
During the open workouts at UFC 205, which were held on the New York Knicks’ hardwood at Madison Square Garden, somebody tossed McGregor a basketball. He was quite literally in a waking nightmare, essentially wearing underwear in public and being asked to do something that was completely foreign to him. What did he do? He launched a formless shot from the top of the key, which hit some glass and took a bounce — and it went in. It was Don Nelson in 1969 with the Boston Celtics, getting the bounce.
McGregor just watched it go in and laughed. His confidence can be a little much at times.
For all of the showmanship that will accompany this fight over the next two months, this part is not bluster: McGregor genuinely believes he will beat Floyd Mayweather in Mayweather’s domain. It’s the way he insists on having it. There was a segment on SI Now in which Maggie Gray said McGregor was taking a guaranteed loss to cash in on a mega-payday. The payday is right — McGregor is as lavishly materialistic as … well, Mayweather is — but there is no way he thinks he’s going to lose. It’s McGregor’s faith in himself in ridiculous spots that sells his pay-per-view. His fights border on religious affirmation. There’s an urge to pass around a snake a little bit when he fights and just kind of say, "I believe!"
The thing is, he does. His belief is infectious. And so far there’s no evidence out there that what he believes is possible can’t come true.
He’s a Southpaw, and He’s Young
This is the stuff that will translate for doubters. UFC president Dana White has been quick to point out that McGregor is longer, he’s younger, and he’s packing wallop. If he touches Floyd’s chin, the argument goes, it will evaporate the same as anyone else’s. And Conor’s a southpaw, too, which traditionally gives Mayweather trouble. Add to that the fact that the now-40-year old Mayweather is coming off a two-year retirement, and you’ve arrived at fighting’s most traditional setup for romantic optimism: The puncher’s chance. That old "puncher’s chance" has stayed in business for a long time.
Some of this is hyperbole, of course. Mayweather himself has pointed to these "advantages" to help foster competitive hope, but it’s all transparent. The fact is, though, that these factors exist. The version of Mayweather that thoroughly outpointed Manny Pacquiao and Andre Berto in 2015 is good enough to buzz around McGregor and make him swing at ghosts. But he is 40, and he is coming off a long layoff.
And McGregor does punch hard, and he does use his left hand to communicate his power. Max Kellerman went on record saying he doesn’t think McGregor will land a clean punch in the fight. That’s a possibility. Then again, McGregor is not only an opportunist, he’s a smart fighter. He is obsessed with understanding his opponent’s tendencies. He is obsessed with exploiting them. And he envisions landing the big shot so many times before throwing an actual punch that by the time it happens on fight night it feels like a foregone conclusion. That’s why they call him "Mystic Mac."
Speaking of which …
That’s Right, He’s "Mystic Mac!"
I’ll never forget the moment this grandiose nickname stuck. It was at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when he fought Aldo. Aldo hadn’t lost in almost a decade, and he carried a similar (if lesser) sheen of invincibility to that of Mayweather. The Irish fans were lying in wait as he entered the cage, like McGregor was a messiah bringing about assurances. The vibe in that building was ridiculous — pent-up thousands in a state of near bursting.
McGregor, who had carved up Aldo in a year’s worth of shit talk (almost inciting a riot when he snatched Aldo’s belt from the podium on the Dublin leg of the world tour), showed what a sage and rare figure he is in the fight game by essentially calling his shot.
"I felt when we stared down, I felt his right hand was twitching a little bit, which was a subtle tell for me," he said before the fight. "He is ready to unload that right hand, and I feel that could be a downfall for him. If he lets the right hand go, I will not be there. … I simply enter the way I enter, and that is enough. They either over-extend, or they shrink away, but either way it is not good for them. I will create traps and dead space inside that Octagon, and I will walk him into it like a zombie, and all of a sudden, he is in big danger."
Aldo came in hot, swung with his right hand, and in the space of that wheelhouse exchange — and in split seconds — McGregor uncorked the left. The smartest, most preordained reprimand in UFC history. Down went Aldo. Thirteen seconds. From my auxiliary seat, people were swinging on the production cables that were dangling from the ceiling and tossing beers in the air. It was bedlam.
When he had the aforementioned words read back to him in the post-fight press conference, McGregor smiled.
"If you can see it here," he said, pointing a finger to his temple. "And you have the courage enough to speak it [pointing to his heart], it will happen. I see these shots. I see these sequences, and I don’t shy away from them. A lot of times people believe in certain things, but they keep to themselves. They don’t put it out there. If you truly believe in it. If you become vocal with it. You are creating that law of attraction, and it will become reality. I knew he would over-extend, and I knew I’d catch him.
"So, Mystic Mac strikes again."
There were some goose bumps to be found in the room; you could see them on the arms of those holding out their digital recorders.
Mayweather is a shrewd customer, and he’s been through the circus rings plenty of times. He’s gone up against some talkers. He’s heard people tell him what they’re going to do once the bell rings. He typically collects all those proclamations and makes them part of the logo: TMT.
But I feel fairly certain he has never met the likes of a Conor McGregor in any of his build-ups. Mayweather won’t have to lift a finger to sell this fight, if he doesn’t want to. He can sit back and let McGregor carry the load of the promotional work. McGregor will make this a compelling watch.
Still, McGregor is going to draw Mayweather in. You know it’s happening. McGregor reduced poor Jeremy Stephens to rubble at the UFC 205 press conference, by simply shrugging off his existence. He was the only tenant in Jose Aldo’s head for a year and he maintains a loft there to this day. Dustin Poirier? Poirier said he learned a lot about himself after fighting McGregor. Eddie Alvarez? He said he was immune to words, but really he was in denial. When McGregor showed up in the white mink and red turtleneck, the battle was won.
People have a tendency to shrink before McGregor. He plants the seeds of doubt by telling fighters about their own propensities, beginning a vicious cycle of second-guessing. As the B side in the Mayweather fight, he’s going to have a harder time pulling that off. Mayweather is a special brand of rich aloof. He is invested in his own greatness. But there are plenty of demons from his past about to become fair play.
If there’s ever been a fighter more deft at getting into an opponent’s head, it’s McGregor. The Muhammad Ali comparisons are largely unwarranted, but not in the lead-up to a fight. In the lead-up he is Ali with an Irish cackle and a taste for Gucci.
McGregor Feeds on Doubt
Bottom line is this: When people doubt McGregor, he shines. Coming into the UFC, where it’s an endless rock-paper-scissors, styles-make-fights carousel, most believed wrestlers would be his kryptonite. He took out Chad Mendes. A sublime striker like Aldo, with the meanest leg kicks in the game? See the bit up top about Mystic Mac. He beat current featherweight champion Max Holloway with a torn ACL and soon after coming back turned Dustin Poirier — thought to be his toughest test to date — into a low hurdle.
Coming up from featherweight, he lost to Diaz in an arbitrarily drawn-up 170-pound fight due to the late notice of the arrangement. He insisted the rematch occur under those exact same conditions, even if having the fight at lightweight made more sense to both fighters given full camps. Why? He didn’t want asterisks.
Through all of it, McGregor has embraced his doubters, proved them wrong, and then moved on to the next ridiculous thing, where new crops of doubters are sure to be found. It so happens that this time it’ll be in a boxing ring in Las Vegas, against one of boxing’s most technical craftsman in a historical fight that will break numbers worldwide.
The doubters are already showing up in number, as they should. It’s a ludicrous proposition to jump from MMA to boxing against one of boxing’s best ever, even for that nine-figure payday. Doubt is a key ingredient for a setup like this, yet McGregor is at his best when critics use words like "can’t" or "won’t."
Being in a spot to fight Mayweather at all is proof of his "can" and "will."