There’s an endearing distinctiveness to Conor McGregor’s swagger. It’s not his strut—chest puffed out, arms half-raised as though anticipating a TSA patdown on his way to the ring. Nor is it his sartorial style—the outsized shades and flashy three-piece suits that call to mind an upwardly mobile loan shark.
No. It’s the lower face: the constant, contemptuous gum chewing. The jutting jaw, as solid and tested as a blacksmith’s anvil. The lips that don’t so much smile as offer an affable warning of lurking menace.
Yes, Conor McGregor is all mouth.
His well-rehearsed swagger had been on obnoxious display for months before the Irishman finally climbed through the ropes at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to face Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a Saturday night pay-per-view spectacular that pitted Ultimate Fighting’s biggest star against one of boxing’s all-time greats.
Even at age 40 and retired for two years, Mayweather cuts a fearsome figure in a boxing ring. He was a perfect 49-0 in his career, having vanquished every notable fighter of his era within his weight class. He had nothing to prove against McGregor, but the promise of a $100 million payday to fight a non-boxer was too much to resist for a man who, according to Forbes, may owe $30 million in taxes. (That’s what McGregor took home for his efforts Saturday night.)
To serious fight fans and more than a few medical professionals, this woeful mismatch threatened to be a Saturday night massacre.
What McGregor lacked in boxing credentials he made up for in showmanship. During the prefight publicity routine he goaded Mayweather with gusto. “I’m a 170-pound Irish gorilla,” he announced. “I’m going to rip his head off and play football with it.”
But as Harambe found, even exceedingly popular gorillas can be felled by ruthless marksmen.
All weekend, the Las Vegas Strip was awash with McGregor fans, many with tricolor Irish flags draped around their necks, and even more sporting faces reddened by triple-digit temperatures—such that the Irish seldom experience outside a crematorium. Few had tickets to the main attraction, and most didn’t seem to care. McGregor is one of their own made good, a man who literally fought his way out of Dublin’s inner city and is loudly fuckin’ proud of it—as are his fans, who came to Vegas for the spectacle, even if they had to enjoy it at casino viewing parties rather than at T-Mobile Arena, where even $10,000 couldn’t buy them a seat close enough to hear cheekbones breaking.
The mobs of over-served fans roaming the Strip while their hero was facing certain defeat made it a good bet that the night’s most competitive fights would be seen on closed-circuit security cameras rather than pay-per-view. Yet the vibe remained good-humored before the main event. Local Vegas TV news shows surrounded the visitors, every one of whom confidently predicted a McGregor victory, albeit offering no support for this position other than his Irish passport. (This easy sentimentality—and whiskey—may explain why my people have never had an empire.)
“He’s the king, and kings have an army. That’s us!” said one fan outside the arena, his arms finding support on the shoulders of his equally enthusiastic friends. Up and down the Strip that army marched, all in green but none camouflaged. Many of its soldiers, the men and the women, looked as though they’d had plenty of experience landing punches.
McGregor’s arrival in the arena was met with rapturous cheers by a crowd blind to the inconvenient fact that his credentials as a fighter weren’t earned by observing the Marquis of Queensberry’s rules. The UFC is like a semiprofessional bar brawl, with many deft and deafening kicks to the head. McGregor isn’t the type to defer to English nobility on matters of the fist.
By the time McGregor and Mayweather left their corners for the start of round 1, a large segment of the crowd had convinced itself that an epic upset was in the offing, a delusion fueled by beer and a flurry of early punches from McGregor. But mostly beer.
On several occasions in the early going, the Dubliner openly mocked Mayweather, placing both hands behind his back and sticking out his jaw. That got his devotees hooting gleefully, proving that sport can make even the most jaded of fans happily whistle past the graveyard.
With each toll of the bell for the next round, it became more apparent that McGregor was tiring badly, while his more seasoned opponent hadn’t even moved into high gear. Mayweather circled his prey, knowing that all he had to do was wait until even the showmanship was exhausted.
Starting in the fifth round, McGregor adopted a “brokeback boxing” strategy, hugging his opponent tightly to avoid receiving blows to his skull and spleen. Rather like admirers of the owner of the nearby gaudy Trump Casino, it was apparent to all but the most diehard believers than their man was ill-equipped for such proximity to power.
In the last fight of the undercard, Gervonta Davis had defeated Francisco Fonseca, aided by a punch to the back of Fonseca’s head. The crowd had furiously jeered the illegal blow, but many of those same folks cheered when McGregor landed similar thumps to the back of Mayweather’s head. It was about all their man had left, and they knew it.
By the eighth round, the most feared man in the UFC was scuffling with all the ferocity and accuracy of a middle manager arguing with a colleague at after-work cocktails.
In the 10th round, a fusillade of blows from Mayweather forced the referee to end things. With that TKO, Mayweather improved his record to 50-0, an impressive tally that does not include his numerous assaults against women outside the ropes that have resulted in arrests or citations.
When it was over, McGregor slouched against the ropes, battered and bruised, but still steadier on his feet than most of his supporters. It was, his fans gamely declared, a very respectable performance. In Vegas, the fight game is more about entertainment than sporting achievement, and they had been entertained. Perhaps so too had the many viewers who paid $99 to make this the most lucrative pay-per-view event in history.
That this ludicrous mismatch lasted into the 10th round—and that so many were willing to spend so much to see so little—will inevitably fuel calls for a rematch. It was already on the minds of fans as they wandered into the scorching Nevada night. “They have to fight again!” one tricolor-draped man shouted to no one in particular. “We’ll make it UFC rules next time.”
—Published at Newsweek.com on August 28, 2017.