Random Thoughts on a Spectacle That Exceeded My (Modest) Expectations

I had promised myself, and TSS readers, that I absolutely would not spend one cent of my money on the “dog-and-pony show,” as I had termed it, that Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor figured to be in the eyes of most knowledgeable boxing people. But there my nephew Jason and I were, each of us ponying up the $25 cover charge to watch the insanely hyped spectacle from a booth in Miller’s Ale House, a neighborhood sports bar and grill in Springfield, Pa., a little more than a mile or so from my home in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill. Like a lot of people in America and around the world, curiosity got the better of me and I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about, and whether it was justified. It was, sort of. But even if it hadn’t been, the wild-caught grilled salmon I had for dinner was quite tasty.

When McGregor won the first three rounds on my unofficial scorecard –- credit where credit is due, the UFC superstar was much better than I thought he’d be in his professional boxing debut – my fellow patrons, most of whom seemed to be pulling for the Irishman, buzzed as if they thought they were being served an upset along the lines of Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson.  Veteran Mayweather observers, however, figured he was simply collecting data on his opponent while probing for weaknesses that he could exploit at a time of his choosing. “Money” is one leopard that doesn’t change its spots, and he didn’t this time either, although he did come forward much more than usual before sealing the deal on a 10th-round stoppage, his first victory inside the distance since he knocked out Victor Ortiz on Sept. 17, 2011, thus ending a KO-less string of seven bouts over nearly six years.

“My game plan was to take my time, go to him, make him shoot all his huge shots early, and take him to the end, down the stretch,” Mayweather said of his now-familiar waiting game. “Me and my dad (Floyd Mayweather Sr.) talked about it. We wanted him to fight real hard for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, he started to slow down. I guaranteed everybody that this fight wouldn’t go the distance. Boxing’s reputation was on the line.”

Said McGregor, who sported a mouse under his left eye: “(Mayweather is) composed. He’s not that fast and he’s not that powerful, but, boy, is he composed in there. He was patient with his shots.”

As much as there was to admire about McGregor’s competent performance, the startling power he so often had flashed in the Octagon was not evident on this night in Las Vegas. True, McGregor never landed any instant-snooze shots flush to the jaw of a renowned defensive genius, but even during those three rounds when everything seemed to be going his way he never connected with anything that caused Mayweather to wince or grimace. The Nevada State Athletic Commission’s acquiescence in agreeing to switch from 10-ounce to eight-ounce gloves, which both fighters had petitioned for, did not prove as beneficial to McGregor as some had believed, or at least hoped.

Given the fact that he’s 40 and hadn’t fought in two years, Mayweather’s punch statistics paint a picture of total domination in what should be his pugilistic dotage. He landed 58 percent of his power shots (and was over 70 percent in the ninth and 10th rounds) and 53 percent overall, while the 29-year-old McGregor found the target on only 25 percent of his tamped-down power punches and 26 percent overall. But remember, McGregor is as raw a boxing rookie as they come, and it should be apparent that time increasingly is not Mayweather’s ally. He announced another retirement immediately after the bout, and it would seem prudent that he stick to this one. There’s only so many times you can milk nine-figure paydays against the faded likes of Manny Pacquiao or a total neophyte like McGregor.

“I’m not the same fighter I was 21 years ago,” said Mayweather in a rare concession to the natural laws of diminishing returns. “I’m not even the same fighter I was two years ago.”

Veteran referee Robert Byrd got the plum assignment as third man in the ring for May-Mac, but he had an awful night. No, McGregor didn’t lose his head and attempt any sidekicks or other MMA stuff when momentum shifted toward Mayweather, as it surely had to, but he kept punching to the back of the head and at least once on the break, clear violations which Byrd seemed disinclined to penalize or even to issue warnings. Try to imagine Mills Lane ignoring Tyson’s munching of Evander Holyfield’s ears because, hey, who wants a big fight to end in a disqualification?

But Byrd should have exercised more authority and made it clear in no uncertain terms to McGregor that some of his more dubious tactics, while acceptable in MMA, are not kosher in the ring. Then again, in the fight just before the main event, Gervonta Davis was awarded an eighth-round knockout victory over Francisco Fonseca, who went down from an illegal rabbit punch to the back of the head that referee Russell Mora either did not see or was disinclined to call. Fonseca stayed down on all fours for several minutes after being counted out, raising fears that he might have been seriously injured. Had Mayweather gone down as Fonseca – who, one wonders, might have been trying to cadge a DQ victory in a scrap he seemed destined to lose — did from a blow to the back of the head, would Byrd have reacted the same way Mora did?

It now seems certain that Mayweather-McGregor will do pay-per-view numbers that surpass and perhaps even shatter the records for PPV subscriptions (4.6 million) and gross revenue ($600 million) done by Mayweather-Pacquiao for their exercise in tedium on May 2, 2015. All of which would seem to prove two things.

One, the pay-per-view model for boxing, which has come under fire of late with bouts that either didn’t rise to that level in terms of quality of public interest, is still alive and well, provided the featured attraction is compelling enough. May-Mac apparently fit the bill and then some.

Two, fight fans either have short memories or deep pockets. After the Mayweather-Pacquiao snooze-a-thon, angry PPV subscribers reacted like scalded dogs, yelping that they’d paid for filet mignon and been fed a bowl of Alpo. Hey, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me, right? Except that many of the disenchanted from May-Pac returned for May-Mac, which on paper didn’t appear to be nearly as legitimate a matchup. There’s another old saying that holds that there’s no accounting for taste.

Still, you have to wonder what drew the masses to what by all rights seemed to be an apple against an orange. Was it all the f-bombs and crude gestures the principals so gleefully resorted to during their four-city, four-day, three-country media tour to hype the event? If so, what does that say about society in general? Was it the crossover aspect of an elite boxer going against an elite MMA fighter in the former’s combat-sport discipline?  Or was it something more troubling, the racial-identity politics of a white guy, McGregor, on whom 90 percent of the wagers in Las Vegas sports books were reportedly placed, against a black guy who has long prospered in the role of villain? In the aftermath of the tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., and calls for Confederate monuments and symbols to be removed, is the fight’s runaway financial success indicative of a darker purpose?

Another widely accepted truism is that timing is everything. Was it just a coincidence that Showtime PPV staged May-Mac just three weeks before the Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez megafight on HBO PPV at the same venue. Boxing purists – hey, there are still quite a few of us around – would argue that GGG-Canelo is the more traditionally appealing of the two events, but it will be interesting to see if the buy rate for the Sept. 16 showdown is adversely affected by the tidal wave of support lavished upon May-Mac. In a perfect world, both PPV telecasts would do monster numbers in what to date has been an exhilarating year for boxing, but even in an improving economy there are only so many disposable-income dollars to go around. In some ways, the corporate slugfest between Showtime – which is winning on points this year in its ongoing scrap with its premium-cable rival – is no less compelling than May-Mac vs. GGG-Canelo.

It’s a good thing for Mayweather, and other fighters who have run afoul of the law, that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is not the global czar of boxing. Goodell is the hanging judge who has issued swift and sometimes severe punishment for infractions ranging from domestic abuse to players not wearing articles of their uniforms in the prescribed manner. Among those who have been handed suspensions, fines or both from Goodell include running backs Ray Rice and Ezekiel Elliott and defensive end Greg Hardy, all of whom were found to have slapped around or even punched their wives or significant others. Professional athletes putting their hands on women in such a manner should not be tolerated, and in each instance the transgressors were quickly identified and publicly chastised.

But references to Mayweather’s multiple arrests – and even a brief prison term – for battering the mother of his children were not part of Showtime’s wall-to-wall coverage of May-Mac, which amounts to a blackout of journalistic integrity. The truth is ugly sometimes, but covering it up or ignoring it to protect financial interests is a dangerous omission and, frankly, unfair to potential consumers who might be making their decision to buy an event on the basis of incomplete information.

There are those who will claim that boxing and its practitioners should be granted far more slack than is accorded in baseball or football, with their more rigid standards of personal conduct. Among those inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame are Tyson, who once bragged that “the best punch I ever landed” was on first wife Robin Givens, and Jake LaMotta, who reasoned that he battered his wife, Vikki, because he “loved” her so much.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. is a marvelously gifted fighter, but hero worship should be reserved for those who actually have done heroic things. Winning 50 straight boxing matches is or should be only part of that complex equation.

ESPN Behaving Badly

Stealing a bit of the May-Mac thunder was the day-of-the-fight announcement that Top Rank had entered into a four-year agreement with ESPN for the promotional company’s high-interest fights to be shown exclusively across ESPN’s varied platforms. On the face of it, it’s a deal beneficial to boxing as ESPN is available to many more boxing-interested viewers than is available with either HBO or Showtime. But one supposed detail of the arrangement is troubling, and rightly so. It calls for ESPN conduits to break all news involving fights that will be televised by ESPN.

There is such a thing as a “free press” in America, and if an enterprising reporter from TSS, the Los Angeles Times, The Ring, Deadspin or whatever gets a story first, that person should not be precluded from serving his or her readers or viewers with information in the most expedient manner because ESPN has contractually been guaranteed dibs. That is not how the system is meant to work, nor should it.

Photo credit: Esther Lin / Showtime

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