Today is the four-year anniversary of the second-most lucrative fight in the history of combat sports. Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor generated a staggering 4.3 million pay-per-view buys, a vast global audience tuning in to see Mayweather stop McGregor in the tenth round and advance his professional record to 50-0. (McGregor fell to 0-1.)
Yet while Mayweather won the fight, the historic event was dreamed into reality by the ambition and charisma of McGregor. It helped that the Mayweather fight took place directly after the pinnacle of McGregor’s UFC career, stopping Eddie Alvarez in a masterclass to become the first two-weight champion. But only a figure of McGregor’s colossal self-belief could convince an audience of millions that he had a chance of defeating the greatest boxer of his generation on his professional boxing debut.
It’s easy to forget his aura of seeming invulnerability in the years leading up to the superfight. He knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds. He rebounded from his loss to Nate Diaz with immediate victory in the rematch, one of the great UFC fights. He dismantled Alvarez and apologised to absolutely nobody. He transcended MMA to the point a bout against Mayweather almost felt logical. It was a stunning coup, perhaps the most audacious move by an athlete in the 21st century. And only McGregor could have pulled it off.
Boxing Mayweather may well have damaged McGregor as an MMA fighter – since his dalliance with boxing, the Irishman’s UFC record is 1-3. He took two of his peak years out of the Octagon, dedicated himself to an entirely new sport, and made a fortune beyond his wildest dreams – as the old saying goes, it’s hard to do road work when you wake up in silk sheets. However the Mayweather fight established McGregor as one of the most famous sportsmen on the planet – and one of the richest. In April, McGregor sold his whisky brand Proper No. Twelve for $600m. He launched the brand a month after the Mayweather bout and announced it at the post-fight press conference.
Yet boxing has arguably never recovered from Mayweather vs McGregor. Four years on, its biggest draw is arguably YouTuber Jake Paul, a man whose boxing career is almost entirely built on the same cult of personality that allowed McGregor to challenge Mayweather. (Although in fairness to Paul, his commitment to the sport is beyond question.) Paul’s next opponent? Former UFC champion Tyrone Woodley, a novice taking on a three fight veteran. It’s likely to be the biggest event of the year, perhaps surpassing Mayweather’s exhibition match against Jake’s brother, Logan.
But then exhibitions and novelty fights littered the boxing landscape. Last year’s meeting of retired 50-somethings Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr was marketed not as a piece of harmless nostalgia but a legitimate fight. (As was Floyd vs Logan.) David Haye might be adamant his upcoming bout against businessman Joe Fournier is no comeback but that’s not how the money men will spin it – after all, the fight will count on Haye’s record. It’s happening on the undercard of Oscar De La Hoya vs Vitor Belfort, two combat sports legends, except in different sports. Both men are in their 40s. De La Hoya has spoken of challenging Canelo Alvarez. So has Jake Paul.
It’s tempting to claim none of this would be happening if McGregor had stayed in the Octagon and Mayweather retired. Certainly May-Mac demonstrated that competitive match-ups matter less than the names topping the bill. That showmanship trumps skills, and if you build it, they will come (provided you have enough followers on social media).
But May-Mac was a symptom of boxing’s ills, not the cause. They filled a void left by any number of blockbuster fights that failed to happen or happened too late. In 2018, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder were undefeated heavyweight champions. Handsome, charismatic knockout artists from different sides of the Atlantic, their fight would have made the front pages as well as the back. Only it never happened. Both men have since lost, and any future meeting can never be what it once was.
Errol Spence and Terrence Crawford are two of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world. They fight in the same weight class, just not against each other. The thrilling young quartet of Ryan Garcia, Teofimo Lopez, Devon Haney and Gervonta Davis all operate at lightweight, yet none of them have shared a ring. Joshua’s clash against Tyson Fury was cancelled after a judge ruled Fury must fight Wilder a third time. Hell, even Kell Brook and Amir Khan still can’t arrange a fight, half a decade after the match-up began to lose its relevance. But then Mayweather’s long-delayed meeting with Manny Pacquiao was both a momentous anticlimax and the biggest fight in boxing history. (The former is a possibility for Khan-Brook; the latter is not.)
The major fights that do happen are too often marred by awful scorecards: Canelo vs Golovkin, Fury vs Wilder, Roman Gonzalez vs Juan Francisco Estrada II, Pacquiao vs both Tim Bradley and Jeff Horn. Just a handful of contests in which the rightful winner did not get his hand raised. Throw in the ranking bodies that mean every division has multiple ‘world champions’, the fact most established boxers will only fight (at most) twice a year, and oversaturation of pay-per-view that charges fans to watch often one-sided match-ups, and the retreat into nostalgia and celebrity is surprising only in that it didn’t happen sooner.
Whether boxing will reassert its integrity or continue the transformation into WWE will be determined by the promoters and the fighters themselves. (So that bodes well.) Mayweater vs McGregor may yet be viewed as an aberration. It may mark the dawning of a new age.