Wednesday 29 January 2020

Tommy Conlon: Suckers roll up for freak show without a shred of sporting legitimacy


Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor will clash in Las Vegas on August 26th
Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor will clash in Las Vegas on August 26th

Tommy Conlon

Given its hallowed tradition of separating suckers from their money, it is only natural that the boxing business should finally concoct a scheme to rival anything ever produced on Wall Street.

This one has the distinct attraction of being a short-term shakedown. It will not take years for the pay-off. It will happen more or less in one night. The night will be August 26 next. The venue will be Las Vegas, the spiritual home of the sucker. The participants will be Floyd Mayweather Jr and Conor McGregor.

Only one of these might be described as an artist of some sort. Mayweather is perhaps the best fighter of his generation and an all-time master of boxing's defensive arts. He has fought 49 times as a professional and remains unbeaten. He has won world titles at super-featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and junior middleweight. He has beaten major talents such as Oscar De La Hoya, Zab Judah, Shane Mosley, Juan Manuel Marquez, Miguel Cotto, Canelo Alvarez and Manny Pacquiao.

McGregor in his teenage years was a club boxer with a thoroughly anonymous pedigree. Even in Irish amateur boxing's tiny talent pool, he wasn't mapped. He didn't get near a national title at any level. The bout with Mayweather will not just be his first ever professional fight; it will be his first ever boxing match as a senior.

This is therefore such a grotesque mismatch that it doesn't have the merest semblance about it of a legitimate sporting contest.

The fight game has always arranged shotgun marriages for the money, pairing together combatants so far apart in ability that the result was a foregone conclusion. Indeed the mismatch is an essential part of the process when building a prospect's career. But normally the promoters could cover the charade with a flimsy fig leaf of competitive credibility. They would have some level of obligation.

Mayweather-McGregor is brazen beyond shame. It doesn't have a shred of sporting legitimacy. They have dispensed with a principle so fundamental that it has long been taken for granted. They have dispensed with the basic presumption that the contestants should belong to the same sport. They have contrived a genetic experiment for a freak show audience. They are conjoining boxing with mixed martial arts; they are matching a giant from a sport with a century of greatness behind it, to a parvenu from a pygmy sport; they are mating an elephant with a Chihuahua.

Of course, the marriage has not been arranged to produce a champion sportsman. Obviously it has been arranged to produce a slot machine, a one-armed bandit that will deliver a tsunami of silver coins onto the carpet of the casino floor.

In this, it will succeed spectacularly. The number-crunchers in Vegas and beyond are already speculating in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mayweather's clash with Pacquiao in May 2015 was officially the richest fight in history. The average pay-per-view TV subscription for the fight cost $99. It was bought by 4.6 million households, yielding $455m. Ticket sales, sponsorship deals and merchandise brought the estimated total revenue up to $623.5m.

Mayweather at 40 remains one of the most odious figures in worldwide sport. He has a conviction for battery against the mother of his children. She alleged in 2010 that he punched and kicked her. He was sentenced to 90 days in prison.

When it came to the fight game, he was determined never to end up as one of its many victims. He became a devout specialist in defence because he wanted to minimise the risk of facial damage, much less brain injury. Financially, in concert with his manager Al Haymon, he negotiated a succession of deals that revolutionised the traditional model: the fighter took a huge chunk of the earnings that previously went to the promoters and TV companies. To prove his mastery in this arena too, he took the boxing nickname 'Money'.

But he has the belts, the stature and the 49-0 record to back up his flamingo displays of wealth and bling.

McGregor, though not in the same league, also loves to flash his riches. He is a poor man's Mayweather in more ways than one, because his sporting achievements are dwarfed by comparison too.

Perhaps the reason he boasts so much about the money he has earned is because by global standards, a world title in MMA isn't worth boasting about. It has very little standing, either by tradition or depth of competitive talent. When McGregor became UFC featherweight champion in 2015, the man he beat, José Aldo, was the first ever holder of the title. The Dubliner has conquered a very small hill. He just likes to pretend that he's on top of the world.

It's one thing fooling himself, however; it's another thing fooling all the suburban fanboys who flock to him like teenage girls to Taylor Swift. Thousands of them will be gormless enough to shell out small fortunes to support him in Vegas. Tens of thousands more will cough up for the pay-per-view three-card-trick job.

Mayweather evidently cares little for boxing's reputation. But he has always taken care of its skills. Though it is not his style to take risks, he could put McGregor out through the ropes inside 30 seconds, if he so chooses. But it won't matter a jot how long the fight lasts because by then the hustle will well and truly be over.

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