Maybe it’s true, as Floyd Mayweather once said, that “an elephant don’t beef with ants,” but maybe it’s also true that if that ant bites long enough and hard enough, it’s difficult not to pay attention.
These days, nobody, not even “Money” himself, would dare compare the stature of Conor McGregor to an ant. Not after Mayweather and McGregor squared off in the boxing ring on Aug. 26 in Las Vegas to produce one of the highest-grossing pay-per-view fights ever. At one time, such a showdown seemed more like whimsical fantasy matchmaking than anything else.
Now, the potential “money fight” is all the rage in combat sports, particularly mixed martial arts. However, there can only be one true “Money Fight,” and that is why McGregor’s bout with Mayweather, and the everything that led up to it, is an easy choice for Sherdog.com’s “Story of the Year” for 2017. Sometimes, it’s both the destination and the journey that matter.
The tides began to shift after McGregor stopped Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in November 2016 to become the first simultaneous two-division champion in promotion history. While there was no mention of a foray into the Sweet Science following that victory at Madison Square Garden, it was clear that McGregor would require something more to return to the Octagon. No longer would a hefty paycheck be enough. McGregor was going to become a father soon, and as the most valuable commodity in the UFC, he wanted to be treated as such.
“I’ve been happy to continue what I’m doing. I feel I’ve outworn the previous contract. When I’m looking at what they’re taking in, that list that Lorenzo [Fertitta] compiled to show the new owners. That’s the gospel, that’s proof of what I bring. You want me to be around and continue to push the company, bring me aboard,” McGregor said at the UFC 205 post-fight press conference. “I need to be set for life with this. As owner, an equity stake in the company, that’s what I’m looking for.”
“I’ve earned something. People have shares in the company, celebrities. Conan O’Brien has a share in the company. Where’s my share? Where’s my equity?” he continued. “If I’m the one that’s bringing this, I want what I deserve, what I’ve earned.”
Less than two weeks later, a jubilant McGregor took his UFC 205 victory tour to 1 Oak nightclub in New York, where he grabbed a microphone to call out Mayweather.
"Tell Floyd and Showtime, I'm coming. Tell him to go to them Showtime offices,” McGregor said. “I want $100 million cash to fight you under boxing rules cause he's afraid of a real fight.”
Not long after, bookmaker Bovada released initial odds for the hypothetical fight. Not surprisingly, Mayweather was pegged as a massive -2250 favorite in a boxing match against McGregor (+900). Things only escalated from there, as both sides postured and posed on social media and to various outlets.
First, it was Mayweather on ESPN’s “First Take,” claiming that his team attempted to make an offer to McGregor.
“We tried to make the Conor McGregor fight,” Mayweather said. “They know what my number is. My number was a guaranteed $100 million. That was my number. We’re the A-side. I don’t know how much money Conor McGregor has made. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t even made $10 million in an MMA bout. We are willing to give him $15 million and then we could talk about splitting the percentage, the back end percentage on pay-per-view.”
Enter Dana White, who dispelled the notion that Mayweather had done any such thing. The UFC president then countered with an offer of his own during an appearance on “The Herd” with Colin Cowherd.
“I’ll tell you what Floyd, here’s a real offer, and I’m the guy who can actually make the offer, and I’m actually making a real offer,” White. “We’ll pay you $25 million, we’ll pay Conor $25 million, and then we’ll talk pay-per-view and a certain number. There is a real offer.”
Mayweather responded swiftly and succinctly.
“He’s a f---ing comedian,” the boxer said.
Nobody was laughing, however, when Mayweather ended his retirement in March to legitimately pursue a fight with the “Notorious” Irishman. “Money” originally called it a career after a unanimous decision victory over Andre Berto in September 2015 moved his sparkling record to 49-0.
“Today, I’m officially out of retirement for Conor McGregor,” Mayweather said in an interview with Fight Hype. “We don’t need to waste no time. We need to make this s--t happen quickly. Let’s get it on in June.
“I don’t want to hear no more excuses about the money, about the UFC,” added Mayweather. “Sign the paper with the UFC so you can fight me in June. Simple and plain. Let’s fight in June. You’re the B side, I’m the A side. We’re not here to cry about money. I’m tired of all this crying about money and talking about you want to fight. You blowing smoke up everybody’s ass. If you want to fight, sign the paperwork, let’s do it.”
If all went as planned, Mayweather would attempt to reach the hallowed 50-win plateau against a UFC champion. Still, at that point there still appeared to be a long road to making Mayweather vs. McGregor a reality, as anyone who followed years-long process it took for Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to finally square off in the ring. At 40 years old, Mayweather didn’t have nearly as long to wait for McGregor, and within a few months the bout was official for the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Aug. 26., just a couple months past the original target date
“We’ve been in negotiations now for a while, and to be honest with you, negotiations went smooth,” White said. “Floyd is surrounded by some smart people and we got this thing done. The impossible deal is now done.”
Immediately, expectations were sky high that the contest could surpass Mayweather-Pacquiao in terms of gate and pay-per-view audience. Showtime Sports, a regular player in the boxing world, would handle the pay-per-view distribution. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of a Mayweather vs. McGregor fight, at least from a financial standpoint, was its ability to transcend the combat sports audience.
“We’re not only drawing fans from the universe of boxing and the universe MMA fans. We’ve actually tapped into the audience that doesn’t follow either sport,” Showtime Sports Executive Vice President Stephen Espinoza said. “This is such an unprecedented event, such a spectacle that all of a sudden people who have never really been interested in either MMA or boxing are interested in this event due to the nature of the competition and the nature of these two personalities. That’s an untapped part of the market that not even Mayweather-Pacquiao touched.”
Such as spectacle would, of course, be accompanied by a hefty price tag. “The Money Fight” would require $89.95 for standard definition and $99.95 for high definition – the same as Mayweather-vs. Pacquiao before it.
“When you talk about superfights, this is a superfight. Two different guys from two different sports going in and putting it on the line,” White said. “Obviously you can’t charge what you normally charge for a pay-per-view, I get it. Saying that there was pushback on the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight? There was anything but. It’s the biggest fight ever in the history of pay-per-view.”
The fight would require a certain amount of promotion, as well. And so, Mayweather, McGregor and the rest of their crew embarked a four-city media tour in July through Los Angeles, Toronto, New York and London to sell their bout. As it turns out, White couldn’t have been more prescient when he predicted that the tour would be a ”f---ing s—t show.”
By the time the tour concluded, everyone — Mayweather and McGregor included — seemed to have had more than their fill of pre-fight hype. The press conferences eschewed the traditional media Q&A format utilized by the UFC in favor of allowing the main players their own individual entrance and microphone time. The result was, at best, a poor attempt at stand-up comedy and at worst, a public relations nightmare.
The lowest of many low points occurred at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when McGregor declared he was “half black from the belly-button down” and humped the air as “a little present for my beautiful black female fans.” After having previously referred to Mayweather as “boy” on two separate occasions, McGregor didn’t do much to win over the African American audience with that display. Not to be outdone, Mayweather resorted to calling McGregor a homophobic slur at the tour’s final stop in London.
In hindsight, the Mayweather vs. McGregor media tour proved to be a little bit excessive, although it would ultimately not have a negative effect on interest in the fight.
That wasn’t the end of the drama, however. It was clear that simply working with the usual suspects at SBG Ireland would not be enough to prepare McGregor to face one of the pound-for-pound greatest boxers of all time. To that end, the Irishman enlisted former champion Paulie Malignaggi as a sparring partner.
Malignaggi’s tenure with Team McGregor could best be described as tumultuous. After McGregor posted a photo of himself standing over Malignaggi following an alleged knockdown, the boxer left the camp in a rage, champing at the bit to challenge the “Notorious” to a fight in the ring. The debate only escalated when White posted footage of the session. Some saw the knockdown to be legitimate, others saw it as a push. Either way, McGregor shrugged Malignaggi off in typical fashion.
“Tell the kid to join the queue. Tell him to shut his mouth and join the queue,” McGregor said. “He got his ass whipped and he went sprinting. I don’t know what to say about the guy. But hey, there’s a big list of people that want to fight me, so tell him to get in there and join the queue, and we’ll see what happens after the [Mayweather] fight.”
As the fight drew near, the UFC applied for — and was granted — a promoter’s license for the event. It was viewed as a surprising turn of events after White had initially said that the organization would not serve as a promoter, as it would instead let Showtime and Mayweather Promotions handle that aspect of the bout. However, as Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett pointed out, the UFC would need to be a co-promoter in order to pay McGregor. While that was true according to NAC regulations, it may have been also been the first step to pave the way for Zuffa Boxing, an endeavor White promises is forthcoming.
The NAC made another significant decision with the bout a little more than a week away, as it voted to allow the fighters to use eight-ounce gloves rather than the originally agreed upon 10-ounce gloves. The change came about after McGregor and Mayweather traded barbs on social media regarding the size of the gloves. While both parties agreed to the smaller size, normally reserved for bouts 135 pounds and below, it was a perceived advantage for McGregor, who was accustomed to four-ounce gloves in MMA.
As it turned out, the glove size would not affect Mayweather. While the final odds inexplicably made McGregor less of an underdog than some of Mayweather’s far more experienced boxing foes, the end result was largely predictable.
Still, as far as glorified exhibition bouts go, Mayweather vs. McGregor largely delivered. The UFC champion even appeared to win a few rounds in the early going, sending social media into a frenzy. Whether it was a product of Mayweather shaking off nearly two years of ring rust, or the boxing star’s showman instinct taking over, it emboldened those who believed McGregor had a shot of pulling off the upset.
In the long run, Mayweather’s slow start didn’t matter. McGregor failed to hurt Mayweather in those early frames, and the tide began to turn by round four. As McGregor fatigued, Mayweather found a home for his right hand, working both the head and body effectively. The Irishman had never gone more than five rounds in an MMA bout, and it showed.
"Our game plan was to take our time, go to him, let him shoot his shots early and then take him out down the stretch," Mayweather said. "We know in MMA he fights for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, he started to slow down. I guaranteed to everybody that this wouldn't go the distance.” Mayweather continued to find openings for his right hand as the bout progressed, while McGregor’s punches increasingly lacked zip. In the 10th, “Money” nearly floored his foe with a right hand before teeing off with nearly a dozen unanswered blows, forcing referee Robert Byrd to half the bout at the 1:05 mark. For many observers, it was a more satisfying show than Mayweather’s heavily hyped 2015 clash with Pacquiao.
"I think we gave the fans what they wanted to see," Mayweather said. "I owed them for the Pacquiao fight. I had to come straight ahead and give the fans a show. That's what I gave them. He's a lot better than I thought he'd be. He's a tough competitor, but I was the better man tonight."
McGregor, meanwhile, left the ring with his head held high. It was basically a win-win situation for the Dublin native, and he made the most of his opportunity in most every facet.
"He's composed, he's not that fast, he's not that powerful, but boy, is he composed in there," McGregor said. "I thought it was close, though, and I thought it was a bit of an early stoppage. I was just a little fatigued. He was just a lot more composed with his shots. I have to give it to him, that's what 50 pro fights will do for you."
Not everyone who ordered the fight was satisfied, however. Multiple providers reportedly had issues as Mayweather vs. McGregor went live, denying numerous viewers access to the biggest fight of the year. No troubles were more glaring than those experienced by UFC.TV, which was ultimately forced to refund unhappy customers. Showtime also refunded those who weren’t able to access the fight through its platform.
Overall, returns on the fight were positive in all other aspects. Mayweather was rumored to have earned in the neighborhood of $300 million, while McGregor pocketed more than $100 million. For McGregor, it was a windfall significant enough to put him in the driver’s seat of any negotiation with the UFC, leverage which he continues to use to his advantage with the Las Vegas-based promotion desperate to lure its top draw back into the Octagon.
According to Showtime Sports, the fight sold 4.3 million pay-per-view buys, making it the second-largest grossing event in North America behind only the 4.6 million buys generated by Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. While it wasn’t the 6.5 million buys initially boasted by White, it was nonetheless a huge success. Gate figures (more than $55 million and 13,094 tickets sold) were also impressive but not quite record breaking – Mayweather vs. Pacquaio generated more than a $72 million gate from 16,219 ticket sales. Still, there were no complaints from the parties involved about coming up second-best in any category.
The long-term ramifications of “The Money Fight” may be even greater. More fighters, particularly those in the UFC, have been seeking bigger paydays, while matchmaking continues to veer toward entertainment over merit. Mayweather announced his retirement in the ring, but has also claimed that he has a multi-fight offer from the UFC that could earn him $1 billion.
McGregor’s UFC return is far from a certainty, and if it happens, it will undoubtedly come at a far greater cost than before. Thus far, McGregor has mentioned both an ownership stake and a promoter’s role as necessary enticements as a once-targeted end of 2017 title unification bout fell by the wayside. In the meantime, the Irish superstar’s behavior – from a run-in at a Bellator event to a rumored encounter with an Irish mob figure to “date night” with a pop music starlet -- has grown increasingly erratic, leading to speculation that he could be primed for a great fall. White recently stated that he wouldn’t be surprised if McGregor never fought again, though the man himself still seems to be leaning toward an MMA return.
Regardless of what the future holds for Mayweather and McGregor, this much is certain: Both men will follow the money wherever it goes.
Sherdog’s year-end awards were voted upon by a panel of Sherdog.com staff members and contributors: Jordan Breen, Tristen Critchfield, Chris Nelson, Mike Fridley, Brian Knapp, Eric Stinton, Todd Martin, Jordan Colbert, Josh Stillman, Jesse Denis, Edward Carbajal and Anthony Walker.
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