Floyd Mayweather might return to boxing, and for a professional bout that would be mindboggling to most. It may come to pass that he will fight the loud, colorful mixed martial artist Conor McGregor, a man who has taken the UFC by storm. Some of you may be laughing at the thought, but I want to simply explain why this fight could happen.
I foresaw this potentially happening earlier this year when I interviewed Floyd Mayweather’s personal assistant, David Levi, who scoffed at the idea. It’s true, Mayweather has nothing left to prove to the sport of boxing: he fought the best in his generation, got rich, and still has enough wits about him to enjoy retirement. For him to come back, it would have to be True Event Viewing for both hardcore and casual fans alike.
Enter Conor McGregor, the first UFC fighter to get paid a million dollars from his fight purse alone. The man is a walking soundbite. McGregor has crossed over to the mainstream by talking trash and then backing it up with entertaining fights. He publicly challenged the elites at Zuffa (a partner company of the UFC) and got a matchup with Nathan Diaz, whose style of fighting put him at a terrible disadvantage. McGregor was soundly beaten and forced to tap out.
Recently, McGregor pulled out of the upcoming UFC 200, which would have seen him fight a rematch with Diaz. His reasons? He’s frustrated with his employer, to the point of early retirement. Now things are getting interesting. His absence has dramatically hurt interest in the card, AND he wants back in. He’s pleading with his fans to lobby UFC, and meanwhile, Diaz is insisting they pay him a lot more if McGregor indeed gets back on the card. There is a lot of sound and fury surrounding Conor McGregor.
McGregor is known as a knockout artist and an entertaining fighter, the diametric opposite of the public’s perception of Mayweather’s colder, more clinical style (a perception at which Mayweather bristles). This would be True Event Viewing. Its appeal is widespread, especially to business interests. Let’s look at why it might actually happen.
MMA vs. Boxing
I learned firsthand about the rivalry between the two sports when I attempted to cover a Bellator-MMA event. I was granted a press credential, but met with obstacles at every turn based off being “a boxing guy.” Some within the credentialing organization felt I was simply going to slander the promotion based on my boxing bias. I was eventually booted when I got into argument about access and that was that. This is typical of the larger “us vs. them” mentality. MMA is still fighting for validity and mainstream acceptance. Boxing doesn’t want to be told it’s archaic and old-fashioned. Both sports get their feeling hurt when digs are thrown.
Part of Spike TV’s attitude when they market UFC is that MMA is antithesis of boxing. The smaller gloves along with the many skill sets an MMA fighter has to master create smart, interesting, entertaining matchups that see one fighter dominate by exploiting an opponent’s flaw. The UFC cards are stacked with a logical progression of fights, all working toward title contention. For cards to continue to have this kind of depth, wages have to be kept at a minimum and the fighters have to promote like crazy (hence McGregor’s issues).
Boxers have gone up against MMA fighters before. The UFC paid James Toney a half of million dollars to be humiliated and choked out by Randy Couture six years ago, During the fight, fans chanted “UFC! UFC!” as though Toney stood for everything they hated, a loud-mouthed boxer who didn’t respect their sport. Fans kept quiet during the Ray Mercer / Tim Sylvia fight though, not that they had time to jeer. Mercer (a former boxing world champion) knocked out Sylvia (a former UFC world champion) in nine seconds with a single punch. McGregor does have boxing experience, although he is extremely green. He has amazing footwork, but the amount of energy it would take to keep it up over a 12 round fight would be near impossible.
Bottom line? My sense is Mayweather would enjoy simultaneously propping up the sweet science while humiliating MMA fans in a match with mainstream appeal on both sides.
The Ali Act
The UFC currently pays their fighters as independent contractors. This means the fighters do not get health insurance or other employment benefits, but are otherwise treated like employees. There are some reasons for this. For instance, UFC fighters have resented being forced to wear UFC “fight kit” uniforms instead of earning sponsorship cash wearing sponsored kits. If the UFC employed its fighters directly, it would be subject to worker’s rights regulations, and would not be able to impose things like the fight kit unilaterally.
The Muhammad Ali Act of 2000 clamped down on the widespread abuse of boxers, and Congress is currently talking about applying it to MMA. McGregor could be the one to usher it in. He is a serious threat to do so, as he may actually be worth more on the open market.
The Al Haymon Factor
It is no secret that Conor McGregor has been in conversations with Al Haymon, the mastermind consultant behind Premier Boxing Champions. Haymon is also the person who helped Mayweather create an enormous, diversified empire when it was clear that Mayweather was a bigger brand than boxing itself. Haymon may see the same potential in McGregor. But there is also something in it for Mayweather.
Mayweather has made no bones about the fact that he is open to promoting MMA. Once Mayweather is no longer fighting at all, he will need a stable of stars in order to keep his promotions business relevant. A Mayweather / McGregor fight opens the door to a wonderful marketing narrative: no matter who wins, Mayweather takes McGregor under his wing afterwards and they walk into the sunset. Plus, Mayweather / McGregor creates a bridge to a totally new demographic, the causal MMA fan, who might give boxing a shot.
There’s a lot of love if this fight happens. Both fighters move the needle, both are exceptionally talented and drive anticipation. Fight Week would be really, really exciting.
There’s also a lot to hate. The reason this fight might actually happen has little to do with boxing and more so with marketing. It’s about two large personalities trying to make large sums of money by exploiting the hatred of two different combat sports’ fan bases, and that’s a cynical turn.