Deep into the fight that was supposed to be a farce, Conor McGregor swung, staggering the greatest boxer of his generation. Every McGregor punch seemed to come from a place that said he wouldn’t be a joke, a man wading into a world in which he didn’t belong. More than a few times on Saturday night he surprised Floyd Mayweather – and how many boxers have done that in the last 20 years?
On the night McGregor was supposed to be exposed as a huckster with a mouth, he won by losing. He won by lasting more than nine rounds with a man who many thought would knock him out in seconds. He won by saying he didn’t want to lose in the referee’s arms but flat on the canvas, staring at the arena lights like a great brawler who gave everything he had.
“Better than I thought he was,” Mayweather said of McGregor after his 10th-round TKO victory.
Those six words bought McGregor credibility and a path to tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
There’s a temptation to dislike McGregor. His act, once clever, too often deteriorates into profane absurdity. His foul-mouthed rants are tiresome. He preens around like a rooster in Gucci, flashing gold and talking filth. He crossed the line in his pre-fight press conferences with Mayweather. His demand that his African American opponent dance for him – recycled from previous sideshows in the UFC – could only be seen as racist, whether he intended for it to be or not.
But when the bell rang on a fight that had more than a whiff of Phelps v Shark, McGregor delivered substance. His stance was awkward, like he was trying to remember newly-learned dance moves, but he didn’t go down. He took big punches and threw some of his own, although it must be said that the majority lacked venom. Afterwards Mayweather admitted the Irishman’s unorthodox angles caused him problems.
And because of this he has bought himself a bigger future than ever seemed possible.
McGregor has much to look forward to at the age of 29. Already, he has defeated the supposedly invincible Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, become the first UFC fighter to hold two titles at the same time and dragged the omnipotent Dana White into a boxing debacle the UFC president wanted no part of. He’s kicked through the chains that shackle MMA fighters, showing them a road to real money and now he’s danced into boxing, where the best self-promoters make themselves rich beyond belief.
It’s easy now to picture McGregor Productions, McGregor Studios and McGregor Inc with fleets of helicopters, limousines and a 400ft yacht. He can return to the UFC and finish his trilogy with Nate Diaz. He can fight Mayweather again should the millions be enough to pull the 50-0 champion away from a second retirement. Or he can go straight to Dancing With The Stars as one sports marketing expert recently suggested to the Guardian.
Yes, McGregor won a lot by losing in the manner he did on Saturday. He could have taken an easy way out. He could have grabbed the $100m or whatever his share turns out to be, stashed the money away and flopped in the ring. No one would have blamed him if he looked like a dud against Mayweather: many gifted fighters have looked worse against the American than McGregor did on Saturday.
Instead, he fought. He won the first three rounds and may have taken one late as well. In doing so he may have torn down the wall that separates boxing from MMA. After Saturday, when the UFC champion went 10 rounds with a boxer now 50-0, there has to be a new regard from boxing fans for MMA. Likewise, those who have been howling at boxing’s demise have to marvel at Mayweather’s discipline, study the way he wore McGregor down and understand the physical and mental demands of a sport they mock.
Maybe at last, a bridge has been built between two disparate islands, bringing new fans to different disciplines. Maybe, as the UFC star suggested after the bout, this is the first of a series of MMA-boxing superfights. Anything is possible after the crazy rise of Conor McGregor.