Mayweather and McGregor the best things to happen to each other – but not to sport
Over time, the words "opium of the people", Karl Marx's oft-recycled line about organised religion, have become wrenched from their original context. "Religion," he wrote, "is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions."
It is hard not to view this weekend's gaudy stage-show with Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor in much the same fashion. If nothing else, their confected nonsense is the ultimate distraction for a distracted society, a cash-grab for a materialistic age, a deep groan by all of us who know we should ignore it but who will still reach for the remote regardless.
"The biggest sporting event of our lifetimes," screams the promotional literature on both sides of the boxing-mixed martial arts divide, which even by the absurd standards of Las Vegas takes some gall. For this is scarcely sport at all, but - how to put this gently? - trash. Compelling trash, to be sure, but trash all the same.
Yes, it might break pay-per-view records, but it is for the same reason that the less-than-plausible 'Fast & Furious' is the richest movie franchise on Earth, whose star, former wrestler Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, earns more in one year than three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis has managed in a career.
Mayweather versus McGregor is an extension of these Trumpian times, where it matters not what you say, or how reprehensible the underlying sentiment - "dance for me, boy," McGregor has told his opponent, in his Dublin gangster does antebellum slave master schtick - but how loudly you say it. In the age of fake news, theirs is the biggest fake of all. Seriously think they hate each other?
Mayweather is the best thing that ever happened to McGregor, who never tires of boasting that their confrontation has "quadrupled my net worth". And vice versa, too: in the two years since his victory over Manny Pacquiao, Mayweather has been struggling even to fill leisure centres, such is his insistence upon hundreds of dollars for the dubious privilege of having a signed photograph with him.
This decision to curtail his retirement brings not just an estimated $200 million (€169m) cheque but the joy of being fleetingly relevant again.
A "cultural event that crosses all demographics and all social and economic factors", says Mark Taffet, a former HBO executive, with admirable hyperbolic flourish.
One that will, the promoters assure, be watched by a billion people in more than 200 countries, from the most isolated Mongolian yurt to the back alleys of Saudi Arabia. This notion of cultural transcendence is an optimistic one. It might, for example, be interesting to see how the spectacle of Mayweather posing at every turn alongside scantily-clad pneumatic blondes advertising a beer brand flies with the religious police in Riyadh.
This is a global phenomenon in the vein of, say, a Justin Bieber world tour. It rakes in the greenbacks, yes, but it does not exactly shimmer with artistic merit. Actually, speaking of Bieber, this latter-day David Cassidy has reportedly enraged Mayweather, whose ring-walks he used to lead out, by un-following the boxer on Instagram. That is the level of back-story in this plastic-fantastic circus.
There could be no finer indictment of the fight's threadbare sporting credentials than the fact that thousands of seats at the T-Mobile Arena remain unsold. One reason, of course, is that organisers are charging La Scala prices for some low-rent theatre.
But another is that even a normally credulous Vegas audience knows when it is being conned. Rewind to the Mayweather-Pacquiao duel in 2015, and people were queuing down the Strip just for a ticket to the weigh-in. This time, hotel rooms only a couple of blocks away are still available for under $130 (€110).
The message is unambiguous: while Sin City punters will pay through the nose for the willing suspension of disbelief at magic shows - there is a reason why Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage played to packed houses for 13 years, until Roy was bitten on the neck by a white tiger - they prefer their sport to be real. And Mayweather-McGregor is, alas, the last word in ostentatious artifice.
Even the belt they are battling for is called, naturally, the 'Money Belt' and comes encrusted with 3,360 diamonds, 600 sapphires, 160 emeralds, not to mention nearly three-and-a-half pounds of 24-carat gold. It must surely be the naffest prize since Tiger Woods's foundation event rewarded the winner with a giant china tiger holding a golf ball, a piece of statuary so grotesque that even a Shanghai flea market would have struggled to shift it.
If nothing else, the latest Nevada pantomime does raise an intriguing philosophical point about sport. While there is no metric by which a contest between Mayweather, the finest defensive fighter of his generation, and McGregor, a boxing neophyte, can be taken seriously, their showdown does reflect a broader urge for sport to be removed from its traditional straitjacket.
It was easy to scoff, for example, at Michael Phelps' recent swim against a great white shark, but it drew five million viewers - most of whom howled in protest when they discovered the shark was computer-generated. After all, even Steven Spielberg had the decency to give Jaws some mechanical teeth.
Beneath all the bovine taunts, Mayweather's bout with McGregor has aspirations to be a more noble grandeur. It strives to be perceived as a cross-code one-off, a reimagining of the entire fight trade. What these two motormouths leave us with, though, is a hollow shell, a Super Bowl of toxic obnoxiousness.
It will go down as the grimmest and most cursory of guilty pleasures. (© Daily Telegraph, London)