Regardless of where combat sports meander following the mash-up boxing bout between Floyd Mayweather and UFC’s Conor McGregor, the 26 August spectacle doesn’t signal the start of a new fistic trend. Beyond being a billion-dollar fight, it won’t be important enough to inspire a lasting legacy.
I declare this a little more than a year after my book was released on the forgotten and misunderstood clash between Muhammad Ali and Japanese pro wrestling icon Antonio Inoki, which in several ways led to the creation of modern MMA. It was panned and dismissed before, during and after it took place in 1976. Several decades were required to provide enough space to extract the true impact of what it meant for the world to watch Ali, the most famous boxer of all time, step into a mixed-rules arena.
So why am I so sure that Mayweather-McGregor won’t rebound into a moment in time that disrupts boxing and MMA? Two generations from now, couldn’t this boxing match similarly shift and shape the fighting landscape into something none of us ever envisioned?
As difficult as it was to picture McGregor upending Mayweather, the same is true trying to imagine a meaningful effect of what they did together. Rather than an evolutionary jumping-off point, Saturday night seems much more an ode to rationalism. The thing that was supposed to happen did, and Las Vegas wasn’t brought down by an Irish earthquake.
Rest assured: Even as Mayweather-McGregor falls in line with the fight-sport lineage that from time to time aligns boxing with mixed-rules contests, it was its own self-contained thing. This was an event predicated on one simple tease by two giant personalities who convinced millions of people that for $100 they could participate in the novelty of 49-0 versus 0-0, and that the payoff wouldn’t reside in the resoundingly likely outcome, but in the potentially shocking what if.
Very little was accomplished beyond sating the most casual fight watchers who felt burned by the long-overdue contest between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in 2015. The big-money Mayweather and McGregor bout was not an event that revolved around the familiar intrigue of clashing styles (the rules guaranteed that), nor unanswered questions (we’ve seen this before), nor a must-watch competitive clash that must remain the predominant reason why any of these things matter.
This was a sports event that eschewed sport because it didn’t want it. Focusing on competitive aspects of the spectacle was the promotion’s biggest stretch. Rather than honest-to-goodness analysis that was rooted in more than McGregor’s so-called mysticism – after all, he did sound like he believed he would win – the media inundated the internet and air waves with tales of gambling hauls, and celebrity sightings and faux tension built off sparring sessions featuring out-of-shape former champions.
Almost all of the media about the fight wasn’t about the fight, which is a clear indication of what this was.
If fight fans are suddenly swamped with a spate of similar contests between boxers and mixed-fighters, boxers and pro wrestlers, judokas and karate stylists, baseball players and football players, policeman and firemen, swimmers and sharks, swimmers and fighters, or any intersport/interspecies variation, they will signify what they always have: promoters and television networks go where the eyeballs are. It’s a well established rule that there’s money to be made by selling events to the public that they can get provincial about, wager on, and snookered into.
More than 40 years after Ali went to Tokyo to tangle with Inoki, mixed fighting has become as stylized as boxing. Boxing remains so specific and layered that competitors must focus on it as a single discipline from their earliest days to reach the top. MMA is so general and varied that competitors must focus on multiple disciplines as early as they can to keep up with the growth curve.
Boxing is sport because it demands accountability about wins and losses, and when its done well it is incredibly compelling. MMA, too, registers importance from results, though nowhere near the degree that boxing does. This is the professional wrestling aspect of MMA that makes it appealing enough for people who would not otherwise watch sports to watch a night of cage fights. The competitors themselves are mere cogs in the violence machine. There is nothing redemptive about that attitude for the fans or fighters.
Mayweather-McGregor had little to do with styles, or the precedent established by those styles. It offered little regarding fighters of divergent abilities meeting to prove a point. It was simply a moment when one famous fighter harangued a more famous pugilist into a unique match and payday.
Their confrontation was unnecessary for the purpose of highlighting truths, which the emergence of the UFC in 1993 reconfirmed after thousands of years of fights illustrated that fact to anyone who paid attention.
Why would anyone now be excited by the potential of a McGregor (0-1) clash in the boxing ring against a currently “retired” Paulie Malignaggi? Because, what, the fighters went at in the gym and in the press? Because they generate good quotes and the public chimes in on Twitter?
If the MayMac Effect turns out to be establishing a new low bar for promoters and fighters to step over knowing they can generate massive public interest, it further confirms the match wasn’t about sport. Trading in entertainment is an outcome that favors no one but the carnival barkers, and that is a legacy no one should wish for.