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By now, I'm assuming you've heard about the big fight.
Given the nature, importance and sheer spectacle of Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor fighting, there's a million things to be said, nearly infinite sub-conversations to be had. The foremost and obvious topic is, of course, “Can McGregor actually win?” but it's also a question that entirely misses the point of this whole hoopla.
In terms of pure math or philosophy, the answer is yes, Conor McGregor could very well win. Come Aug. 26, he may well just walk up to perhaps the greatest pugilist ever, smash him in the snot box with a left hook and turn the world upside down. In practicality, the “Fight of the Century” will likely be exactly the sparring exhibition we've imagined for months, as a faded but still outstanding Mayweather jabs and counters for 12 rounds en route to a decision; you know, a Floyd Mayweather fight. It is damn improbable if not impossible that McGregor will be the one to get his hand raised, but in this context, that's a particularly narrow way to imagine “winning.”
First of all, McGregor has already won, to an extent. Just over four years ago, this man was a plumber's apprentice on welfare. Now, he's the biggest draw in MMA history, not just by virtue of skill and ability, but force of will. He dreams up self-aggrandizing, sensational scenarios that the public scoffs at and mocks and makes them happen. Just last November, this man strolled into Madison Square Garden and humiliated Eddie Alvarez to become the first, simultaneous two-division UFC champion ever. We're still amidst a time where perhaps the best fighter on Earth, Demetrious Johnson, is actively threatened by this same promotion, telling him if he doesn't fight T.J. Dillashaw, his entire weight class will be shuttered. What McGregor has orchestrated is lightyears beyond the cliché of marching to the beat of your own drum. He ripped the drum out of the UFC's hands, smashed it on the company's head and made them like it.
McGregor is explicitly, unabashedly in this for himself. Forbes reports that “The Notorious” one is looking at no less than $75 million, maybe as high as $127 million. Regardless of his own self-interest, however, his willingness -- no, his seeming compulsion -- to do whatever the hell he desires is life-affirming. It's proof of agency. No, not every fighter can do what McGregor does, whether because they lack the personality or skill. McGregor is one of a kind in that way. Still, his presence and ethos are evidence that fighters don't just have take what they're given and be thankful.
This is important. In my own anecdotal experience, when I hear MMA fighters, at least of this generation and the last, talk about their favorite fighters, three names get mentioned over and over and over: Randy Couture, Fedor Emelianenko and B.J. Penn. All of them were great fighters but I don't suspect that greatness alone is what makes those three resound with fellow fighters. The common thread between that trio isn't that they're legendary, it's that they did it their way, on their terms.
Couture walked out -- excuse me, “resigned” -- as reigning heavyweight champ on the Semaphore Entertainment Group-owned UFC and the Zuffa-owned UFC because he didn't like the way he was treated. In modern MMA folklore, Emelianenko is lionized for never signing with the UFC and his fans take it a point of pride, no pun intended, that he found Dana White odious in their negotiations. Before McGregor, Penn was MMA's ultimate enfant terrible. He couldn't win the UFC lightweight title, so he forced himself into a welterweight title fight with Matt Hughes, pulled off one of the most important upsets in the sport's history, then he absconded with his belt to K-1 and dared the UFC to sue him. Instead, the company brought him back and unfortunately, keeps bringing him back to this day.
These three are celebrated because they were fighters in every sense of the word. When their promoter's vision didn't line up with their own, they pushed back. They defied the expectations someone else had set for them and accomplished what they wanted to accomplish. It's not just that they were great fighters but that they dictated the terms of that greatness. That resonates.
By the fight's very nature, McGregor doesn't need to get a W to be a victor. If he does, stupendous, it'll be a historic moment in sports, but no one expects him to meaningfully compete with Mayweather in the boxing ring. Even a single flashpoint moment of success for the Irishman may be enough to change the tenor of the conversation.
“Kid” Norifumi Yamamoto was a massive star during the latter half of the kakutogi boom in Japan. What was his star making performance? Losing a K-1 rules bout to Masato. Sure, MMA fighters had upset K-1 fighters beforehand, but this wasn't Mike Bernardo-Gary Goodridge. Masato was a legitimate 154-pound kickboxer and “Kid” should've fought at 135 if not 125 pounds throughout his career. People thought this fight was dumb and Yamamoto ultimately lost. How exactly was this a coronation of any kind?
Yamamoto knocked Masato down. That's it. Generally speaking, he was competitive and not completely out of his depth, but the narrative of the fight was crystallized just two minutes in when he put Masato on the canvas with a left hand, on the biggest TV watching night of the year in Japan. Yamamoto lost, but an audience of 34 million saw him put Masato on the deck. It was a moral victory, but it was also a financial victory, as well. One left hand on the biggest fighting night of the year and “Kid” was a star.
If McGregor becomes the first man to legitimately knock Mayweather down -- I'm not counting the time Mayweather broke his hand and took a knee, or when his glove brushed the mat against Zab Judah -- then loses 118-109 on every single scorecard, he'll be valorized for it. Even if he landed zero meaningful punches before or after that moment, the Mayweather-McGregor bout would be remembered for that knockdown, not the other 11 rounds of Mayweather counter rights.
McGregor doesn't need to be the victor to “win” in this case. He's eclipsed his own promoter and does what he wants, when he wants it, for obscene amounts of money. It doesn't make him a hero, but damn if it doesn't make him a winner.