Heading into Saturday night’s boxing bout between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, there were precious few outcomes that could satisfy the diverse interests of its many viewers. If McGregor had gone into the ring and smoked Mayweather with a left hand in the first or second round (as he predicted), the most skeptical would have screamed “fix.” If Mayweather had ended it early (as many believed he should), it would have stood as the sideshow sham it purported not to be. And had it gone to the scorecards, with Mayweather prevailing (as he always does), the rotary-dial league of Old Boxing People would have wagged an accusatory finger at those involved and lamented the death of boxing.
Turns out none of that happened. Instead the nearly 5-to-1 underdog McGregor — who showed up with both his UFC titles, like the messiah sent from the MMA world come to punch at the celestial elders — more than held his own. He took an early lead in the opening rounds and resisted the tables as they turned through the middle. He lasted into the 10th round with one of boxing’s historic best before a series of unanswered shots to the chin made it clear that he’d had enough. Referee Robert Byrd — who patiently cautioned McGregor to watch the rabbit punching throughout — put a satisfying end to the most engrossing Mayweather fight in years.
McGregor never hit the deck. He was still standing when the end came. In a ballyhooed fight with so much derision and pomp and general otherness, everybody came away a winner. Especially Mayweather, who raised his record to a perfect 50-0, surpassing the great Rocky Marciano (49-0).
On Saturday night we didn’t get the defensive Mayweather, the one who played it drastically safe against Manny Pacquiao and drew a dial tone response from all those who waited years to see that fight. This was a 40-year-old Mayweather who showed some genuinely interesting in-ring smarts, let McGregor siphon his own gas tank early, and then jumped in the pocket later on with intent to do harm. There were heady sequences and passionate combinations from Mayweather that we haven’t seen in a long time. Mayweather turned it on just as he sensed McGregor’s cardio was fading. There were flashes of the flickering speed he used to show and timely reminders of the deadly precision. McGregor ate his share of shots, and he doled out 111 of his own — which far surpassed the amount that Pacquiao landed on Mayweather over 12 full rounds (81).
Who saw that coming? There were pundits who wondered aloud if McGregor could land a single punch in the fight. McGregor far exceeded the expectations of boxing’s finest dupe-repellent worrywarts.
Of course, the subtext in all of this was Mayweather’s complicity in those numbers. He was willing to engage, rather that just parry and counter. That’s what made the fight fun from the other side; old Floyd wanted to go out with a bang. He left his chin open for business (of course, not on the level of McGregor, whose hands were often settled down around his waist even before he got tired) more than he has in years, yet he masterfully dragged McGregor into deeper and deeper water. By the sixth round, the momentum was clearly on his side. By the eighth — a round that some thought McGregor stole, but not the ringside judges — Mayweather was surgical. He had snap on his punches, while McGregor’s body was drooping from the cruel and incessant nature of a 36-minute marathon. He had McGregor fighting for dear life in the ninth round, and put him away in the 10th. There was nothing shameful in taking his time because, in the end, he got it done. It was Mayweather’s first noncontroversial TKO since the Ricky Hatton fight a decade ago.
Really, when you consider the range of expectations in a divisive, circus-like event between a UFC star with no prior boxing experience and a twilight idol taking a bow after 21 years and 50 victories, it was as close to an “everybody wins” outcome as anyone could have hoped. Neither fighter shrank in the moment, even with millions watching different fights from totally different perspectives, expecting wildly different things. Instead the fight had something for everyone. It ended up being the one thing most people didn’t expect: a pretty decent boxing match.
Mayweather had clearly lost a step after two years away, but he still showcased his unparalleled fighter IQ. McGregor showed he wouldn’t make a farce of the boxing ring; that, in fact, he was very comfortable in there. He didn’t throw a kick, or do anything — hammer fists aside — that might get him disqualified. He’ll return to the UFC a bigger star than he already was. For all the gloss and fretting, the integrity of boxing somehow remained intact. It survived the circus and the threatening air of mockery.
The fight wasn’t the scam many feared, and if there was a feeling of anything beyond that in the end it was this: Thank god that’s over.