Every so often, a boxing match comes along that just feels wrong. The matchup is a farce. The media is queasy about one or both of the fighters. And the marketing is commoditized scumminess; let’s say, to pick an example, a white combatant commands a black combatant to “dance for me, boy!” Yet the fight is such an alluring content machine that reporters can’t not cover it, so they go in with a meta, “Hell, let’s do it” attitude that eventually morphs into something like a full-on embrace. This describes Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor, the feel-bad fight of the century.
Since Mayweather-McGregor was signed in June, just about every step toward the fight has felt terrible. Take the fighters’ four-city press tour that began July 11. This was the moment the media began to surrender to the spectacle. But after rewatching the press conference this week, I don’t get the excitement. The fighters were pretty dull, with McGregor making some quips about Mayweather’s tax bill that would barely count as Twitter “eviscerations.”
Last week Donald Trump set a new standard for meltdowns. When they weren’t boring, Mayweather and McGregor came close to topping it. McGregor twice referred to Mayweather as “boy”; in London, Mayweather called McGregor a “faggot.” As a member of Mayweather’s camp later explained to TMZ, Mayweather meant no disrespect: “The reason Floyd called Conor the f-word is because Conor called Floyd a monkey.” Oh-kay.
When the prefight hype wasn’t offensive, it felt like a work. Earlier this month, McGregor supposedly put boxer Paulie Malignaggi on his back during a sparring session—then released the video and photos. Malignaggi claimed he was shoved; McGregor said, “He got his ass whupped.” (In a WWE-like twist, Malignaggi will be part of Showtime’s announcing team.) The fighters’ images are usually laundered by the broadcast team; this time, they were laundered on late-night TV. Mayweather recorded a goofy video with James Corden. Conan O’Brien, after warming up McGregor with a few unusually serious boxing questions, asked what he’d like to say to the children he had inspired.
No sporting event is truly major until Wright Thompson writes a curtain-raising profile. On August 7, Thompson delivered a piece about McGregor’s roots in Dublin. The piece included some Thompsonesque scenes of the gang warfare in McGregor’s old neighborhood of Crumlin. It also included an un-Thompson-like swipe at the Irish press, which Thompson claimed had ignored McGregor because he was a working-class hero. Irish reporters responded that they are just as thirsty for clicks as their American cousins.
More inconvenient for Thompson, McGregor had already unleashed his racist jabs at two press conferences. Thompson didn’t or couldn’t locate such bile in McGregor’s upbringing, which might have placed it in context. We were left with the conventional boxing story about a fighter clawing his way out of the old neighborhood. As Thompson wrote of McGregor, “Will he watch his children and their children grow up in the lilting, green hills, citizens of a world he created with his fists, or will he slide back into the one he's struggled to escape?”
A June segment of First Take also gives you a sense of how the media is processing the fight. The hosts were debating whether Mayweather-McGregor was (to use their colleague Dan Le Batard’s phrase) a “sucker’s paradise.” They reached a kind of consensus: that if viewers are hip to how terrible the matchup is, and understand they’re being manipulated into forking over $89.95 for the pay-per-view, then they have achieved a certain comfort with suckerdom; indeed, they are hardly suckers at all. “Suckers also want entertainment,” Max Kellerman said. That kind of defense is the essence of a feel-bad event.
Mayweather-McGregor is often compared to Muhammad Ali’s bout with Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki. In terms of horrible watchability, a better analogue is the 1982 title bout between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney, which was peddled in the crudest racial terms imaginable. Time magazine paired Cooney and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky on the cover as boxing’s great white hopes; Cooney spoke of his fondness for the movie Death Wish, in which a white vigilante rubs out the black bad guys. When Holmes, who was the reigning heavyweight champ, complained he was getting the same purse as the challenger, he was called a racist.
Mayweather-McGregor hasn’t yet scraped bottom in quite the same way. But the months of hype have felt equally dismal. George Vecsey’s 1982 column about Holmes-Cooney could run this week with only minor edits. The column was titled “Get It Over With.”
Why don’t we get this one over with, too? Why not blow it off with a prefight preview and a fake-but-spirited podcast argument about who’ll win?
Well, there are a couple of reasons, all of them revealing about sportswriting. One is that even if the event is ridiculous, the fighters make for good magazine fodder. Though McGregor’s a newbie to the boxing ring, he is already the long-form heavyweight champion of the world, having been sized up by Thompson, Chris Jones, and many others.
McGregor makes for an ideal subject. He is, as Jones had it, “extremely Irish.” His quips land like his strikes: “It’s all in the nutsack.” Or: “I sleep people.” As GQ’s Zach Baron noted in another profile of McGregor, “Sometimes it seems like the true mark of his generosity is how much he’s giving you, how many words, what level of outrageousness.”
But that quotable bloke also has a quick temper. When McGregor went to a New York bar with Jones, he sat with his back to the wall and eyed escape routes. When Baron told the fighter he wouldn’t have editorial control over his profile, McGregor snapped: “I’ll throw you out onto the motorway right now and run this car over you.” That’s what journalists really want out of fighters: the clever line followed by the violent threat. Gloat like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
You could argue there’s a noble reason to flood the zone on Mayweather-McGregor. A clever reporter can take some eyeballs trained on the spectacle and turn them toward worthier subjects. Before past fights, Rachel Nichols and Katie Couric used interviews with Mayweather as an opportunity to ask about his history of domestic violence. His loony denials served to make the reporters’ point about his lack of contrition. Once, reflecting on the 60 days he spent in prison for a domestic violence conviction, Mayweather compared himself to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Occasionally, you’ll see a journalist stop short of muckraking and boycott a feel-bad event altogether. In 2015 Keith Olbermann refused to cover the Mayweather–Manny Pacquiao fight because of Mayweather’s domestic abuse; on The Undefeated, LZ Granderson said he won’t watch this week’s fight. This is a perfectly defensible moral stand. It’s also a tough one to sustain, especially on an otherwise slow sports night when there’s not much else to tweet about. It’s easier to play the world-weary sportswriter: Yeah, the whole thing’s a pile of crap. But if you want my prediction, I like Mayweather in a decision.
The main reason we embrace a spectacle like Mayweather-McGregor is simpler: This is how online sportswriting works now. As we try to ward off the “pivot to video,” we throw ourselves on top of every bit of news that comes across the digital wires. It hardly matters if it’s Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, Ric Flair’s trip to the ICU, or a hot new episode of Game of Thrones. To ignore an event—any event, however slight or manufactured —is to risk leaving clicks on the field. My favorite piece of Mayweather-McGregor content was a GQ.com blog item about the suit McGregor wore at the L.A. press conference. What looked like pinstripes from afar were actually tiny letters that spelled out “Fuck You.” The suit’s designer took the minor sight gag with enormous seriousness, telling the site, “[McGregor is] a disruptor in everything he does and we’re intoxicated by his passion and drive.”
In a typical bit of gloating, Mayweather has crowed, “I’m the A-side.” He means he’s the commercial alpha dog. He just as easily could be talking about his and his opponent’s place in the media universe. For Mayweather and McGregor, Saturday’s match is a lark, an easy payday. But for those of us in the business of making content, it’s part of the fight of our lives.