Comment - The pursuit of cash separates Mayweather-McGregor from other sporting freak shows
When Jesse Owens returned from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he found his commercial opportunities in a Depression-era America limited. Despite having defied Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany by winning four gold medals at those Games, becoming a star in the process, Owens had had his amateur status revoked for opting to capitalise on his newfound celebrity by accepting a few endorsements.
With his athletic career effectively over, he ended up having to resort to cheap stunts, at one stage accepting an invitation to race against a horse in Havana, Cuba (it was a stunt he would repeat a number of times over the next few years).
“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” Owens later remarked, “but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
It was, of course, a freak show - Owens won with the horse giving the human a 40yard head start - but the event captured the public’s imagination and was at least born of financial necessity on Owens’ part.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the ‘mega-fight’ between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather this weekend. Both men are richer than Croesus already and there is no good sporting reason for bringing one of the greatest boxers of all time out of retirement to fight a current UFC star with no record in boxing to speak of, other than it sells.
But after months of trash talk and hype, millions of punters will tune in anyway. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ll probably be one of them (although I’m refusing on principle to stay up until 5am and shell out over £20 for the privilege of watching it live). There is, sadly, something grotesquely fascinating about watching two different species take each other on in mismatches.
Sport has a long and ignoble history of such freakshows, dating from well before Jesse Owens v a horse. Some have had a modicum of sporting merit: Donovan Bailey v Michael Johnson to settle the fastest-man-in-the-world debate is one that springs to mind. Some were interesting in terms of watching elite athletes battling to get to grips with subtly different styles: Bath v Wigan in various cross-code rugby clashes in the 1990s for instance, although they tended to be one-sided affairs. Others were pure marketing stunts: Bobby Riggs versus Billie Jean King in the iconic Battle of the Sexes.
The Mayweather v McGregor fight sits uneasily in the canon. When Bryan Habana raced a cheetah in 2007 at least he was raising awareness of the plight of cheetahs. Similarly Michael Phelps when he took on a shark in a ‘swim-off’ earlier this summer (the shark turned out to be CGI, much to the chagrin of bloodthirsty fans who were hoping for blood in the water). This time the only thing being raised is an obscene amount of cash for two fighters who have no need for it.
With luck the whole thing will be a damp squib. When Muhammad Ali took on professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in the original mixed combat sports clash in 1976, the Japanese spent most of the fight on the floor kicking up at a bemused Ali. “It was the low point of my career,” promoter Bob Arum admitted. “It was so embarrassing, just a total farce.” At least they admitted it and the experiment was consigned to history.
The danger is this fight is actually competitive, and we are forced to endure more of the same.