This Saturday night in Las Vegas, deep in the heart of the Nevada desert months of speculation and debate will come to an end as the two undisputed biggest names in combat sports meet for the first and (supposedly) only time.
Few sporting figures, past or present have experienced an ascent quite as dramatic as that of Conor McGregor, the first fighter in the history of the UFC to hold belts in two weight classes concurrently. Since he first stepped into the octagon he has seen a meteoric rise to the top of one of the fastest growing sports promotions on earth, he has become the face of a four-billion-dollar business and by far its most bankable athlete. The UFC was on the rise, helped by the decline in boxing but there is no question that the rise of Conor McGregor has been intrinsically linked with the fortunes of the UFC.
In stark contrast to Conor’s meteoric rise Floyd Mayweather has dominated his sport for over two decades. Regarded by many as the finest practitioner of his sport that the world has ever seen he has revolutionised boxing with his mastery of the art of evasion. He perfected the hit and not get hit philosophy which allowed him to maintain his time at the top of his craft and announced his departure from the sport in 2015 having equalled Rocky Marciano’s record of 49-0. Few believed though that given the opportunity he would not return to break the record and become the most accomplished fighter in the game’s history.
Opportunity did not quickly present itself in the boxing world. For two years Floyd has watched title contenders in his weight class come and go, but none could offer him the “money fight” he required. That is until a young star in a competing combat sport promotion began to achieve the kind of fame that can attract the all-important pay-per-view buys. Floyd was watching closely as Conor dispatched every contender put in front of him, watched the rise of a star in a sport that attracted casual fight viewers in incredible numbers, and watched as Conors’ mixture of personality and ability transformed him into a marketing vehicle that would prove a worthy foil for Floyd in his pursuit of the record books and the big money pay-off.
There were mutterings a little over a year ago in May 2016 of a potential crossover fight between the pair, social media exploded, as it tends to do, but few with any real involvement in either sport saw it as a realistic outcome. The rule set was the biggest source of scepticism, surely Floyd would be unwilling to meet Conor in an Octagon under the rules of MMA? Would Conor be willing to meet in a ring under the Marcus of Queensbury rules? How could it be regarded as competitive? The greatest there’s ever been against a man who has never competed in a boxing match at any professional level? What would possess Conor to agree to that? The answer of course was clear to all, money.
Since the mutterings began both fighters have continued about their daily business, stopping only on occasion to stoke the fires of speculation. Conor successfully sought revenge against the only man to best him since he joined the UFC and then went on to dominate Eddie Alvarez to claim his second championship belt. Floyd has been enjoying retirement, investing shrewdly in strip clubs, jewellery and baseball caps.
Both men have been acutely aware of this impending opportunity for well over a year now. It was only ever a matter of allowing Conor’s star to reach the required height. With his victory over Alvarez in New York Conor graduated into the rarefied air of the upper echelon of combat sports and it was only a matter of time before both men announced their intentions. The inflammatory statements from both sides began to come thick and fast and the media coverage exploded, coverage that has neither stopped nor slowed since confirmation of the bout on June 4th of this year.
A media tour took the fighters and their entourages to Los Angeles, Toronto, New York and London, coincidentally including three of the top 5 media markets in North America as well as the biggest market in Europe.
What unfolded over those four days will not soon be forgotten with fanatical fans gathering to catch a glimpse of their idols and to bear witness to what looks certain to be the biggest fight in history. The fighters played their part as they artfully stoked the crowds to boiling point with a series of jabs, threats and controversies. Neither of these men have reached the heights they’ve reached exclusively on the back of their talent. Few sportsmen of days gone by could match either of these men for their ability to promote a fight.
Upon completion of the media duties both men returned to Las Vegas where they have since been ensconced in their respective fight camps. Conor, as has always been the case, has projected the image of a man who is in no doubt as to the outcome. And he’s making no secret of the work being put in to achieve the unthinkable. Floyd on the other hand has projected a more relaxed care-free approach which has led many to question how seriously he is taking the threat posed by the younger man.
Since confirmation of the fight there has scarcely been an online podcast, paper or TV channel that has not featured some “expert” coverage of what has been billed as the fight of a lifetime. Much has been made of Conor’s youth and his power, most experts seem to agree that for Conor to have any chance he will need to stop this fight in the earlier rounds before Floyd has an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs of retirement.
For most seasoned spectators however, even that opportunity seems remote. Conor is a man who has continued to defy conventional wisdom throughout his career in the UFC, and when the history of the UFC is told there will be few athletes who will be spoken of with more reverence. This is however, another sport. One he has no experience of.
His unprecedented talents of both promotion and combat have delivered him this opportunity and he will become by far the wealthiest man to ever fight under the UFC banner, but the prevailing wisdom is that this must be a step too far, surely hype and promotion once it’s all stripped away will not make up for the fact that he is making his debut against the finest boxer in history.
Floyd even at his age, and returning from a two-year retirement should be able to do what he has always done, Conor will likely press forward, try to apply pressure and dictate the pace. But he is not the first to have tried this, not by a long shot. Floyd as he has done throughout his career, should have all the answers.
For the casual sports fan McGregor is the popular choice, his rise from a council house in Dublin city to the heights of Vegas has been meteoric. This fight will grant him the wealth he has long since coveted, with no risk to his reputation. Should he lose he will likely return to the Octagon a much richer man and continue where he left off, few would begrudge him losing on his debut to a fighter of Mayweather’s class.
However, if he can win it will be the biggest upset in sporting history. It will be the latest in an extensive line of blows to befall the sport of boxing and the sport will once again come under the microscope for all the wrong reasons. Conor’s rise will be complete, he will have achieved the unthinkable and will have cemented his status in the eyes of the fans as the greatest fighter we’ve ever seen.
Regardless of which side you stand on, that of the dreamer or the realist, most of us will be watching in the early hours of Sunday morning as two of the biggest sporting stars of modern times set out to answer their critics and if the fight itself can live up to the relentless promotion it will be one to savour.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.