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The world of combat sports is no gentlemen’s club. That’s always been part of the allure. No matter how many monocle-wearing monopoly men sit ringside, doffing their hats and twirling their canes, they have always been counterpoised by the naked violence of two people punching each other. The pretentious unreality of high society always takes a backseat to the brutal diktats of pugilism.
That dichotomy has fascinated literati for nearly a century. From A.J. Liebling and Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates, people known mostly for their writing on egghead English-major buzzwords like “the human condition” have penned thousands of words about the sport of boxing and the characters who animate it. Oates went so far as to say that writers and boxers are not all that different: “The artist senses some kinship, however oblique and one-sided, with the professional boxer in this matter of training. This fanatic subordination of the self in terms of a wished-for destiny.”
It’s poetic stuff to see fighting as a sort of facsimile for real life, but for all its beauty and truth, the inescapable reality is that people watch combat sports not for its echoes of human struggle but for the simple exhilaration and entertainment it provides. Those who have never been in a fight can experience one vicariously to an extent, and those who have fought in some capacity before can embellish their own experiences with a sense of greater grandiosity -- all from a safe, sanitized distance. That dynamic is more artful than any line of prose ever written.
Unless you’ve been comatose for the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard that Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor will be boxing each other. It’s been crudely and accurately dubbed “The Money Fight,” since the only real intrigue of the match is how many zeroes will decorate their respective paychecks. You may have heard otherwise, that maybe somehow McGregor will win via youth, size, one-punch power and unwavering self-belief. There are even statistical breakdowns of the fight and embarrassing side-by-side comparisons highlighting McGregor’s commanding lead in the tattoo category. Don’t be fooled. It’s all part of the show, a translucent attempt to throw a few more digits into their accounts. Notice how net worth is listed first in that comparison.
At this point, everyone knows the match is a shameless spectacle. The winner is all but decided, the narratives already written, while we all just sit back and watch and enjoy. It is a lot closer to professional wrestling than either boxing or MMA, which explains why the MMA crowd has been eating it up with more fervor than the boxing folk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; everyone has their shallow indulgences in life. Some can detail all the regional differences in the “Real Housewives” series, while others can detail all the storylines from Monday Night Raw. Tomato, tomotto.
Yet at the same time, the appeal of “The Money Fight” is undeniable: boxing’s biggest star vs. MMA’s biggest star. It has all the glitz of celebrity boxing, only with better technique and higher stakes. It’s gossipy nonsense, but the kind of gossipy nonsense that feels big and important, not unlike the 45th president’s Twitter feed. In a world where a reality TV star can become the most powerful man on the planet, it is perfectly congruous for a type of reality TV show to become the biggest sporting event on the planet.
As sports talk shows find reasons to justify their existence, debating whether or not “The Money Fight” can top the pay-per-view sales of “The Fight of the Century” between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao a few years ago, an oft-forgotten irony will rear its head once more: The vast majority of people buying these pay-per-views don’t even remotely enjoy the way Mayweather fights. Yet they forget that, just like they forget the time Mayweather showed up to the house of his children’s mother at five in the morning and had a friend named James restrain his kids while they watched him brutally beat their mother, but oh my god, maybe he’ll get knocked out this time. Tune in for the next episode and find out. Just be sure to have a hundred dollars for the pay-per-view on hand, or whatever cover charge your local bar can get away with.
The moralizing of sports can be tiresome, I get it. What isn’t an ethical dilemma nowadays? The sneakers you’re wearing are probably made by little kids in a sweatshop; the avocados you eat are likely harvested by impoverished people who are functionally indentured servants. Exploitation is a built-in feature of our modern economy. Even if “The Money Fight” didn’t include an unapologetic woman-abuser, combat sports themselves literally kill people just by participating. This is not the realm for upstanding ethics, so if you’ve rolled your eyes cynically a few times while reading this, I don’t blame you. Still, it’s important to remember just who it is that we’re paying.
It can be a trite exercise to look for metaphors or comparisons for everything. Especially nowadays, when there are countless thinkpieces dissecting what the lunch options at your local deli really mean, the use of literary devices can feel hollow. Consider all the people who have compared McGregor’s brand of trash talk to Muhammad Ali’s, only for McGregor to flatten his few good lines against Mayweather through constant repetition before landing on cringe-worthy racial ones. I’ll give it a go anyway. I’ve already succumbed to some mysterious, masochistic curiosity and watched all four press conferences, so I’ve got little else to lose.
“The Money Fight” is like a candy overdose -- enjoyable for a little bit, then nauseating shortly after. Better yet, the world tour was like the stages of getting drunk: Los Angeles was a solid buzz, Toronto was peak, fun-loving drunkenness, New York was spent mostly puking, only to come up for air and wonder why you were there in the first place, and London was like drinking more in order to stem the imminent hangover. Or maybe the fight is a reflection of our modern state of American politics: Money is an ultimate, unimpeachable justification for anything and everything, literally indiscernible from the virtuous aspects of society.
No, those aren’t it. What this fight is to me is like the episode of The Simpsons when Bart stumbles into fame by ruining the set of a Krusty the Clown sketch, only to turn around and say, “I didn’t do it.” Everyone laughed, and Bart became a local icon, doing talk show appearances and performing in new sketches crafted around the sentence that brought him his initial attention. What was pure and organic and genuine got chewed up and packaged ad nauseam until it only warranted a few reflexive chuckles. In a moment of desperation, Bart tried to get a new line to stick: “woozle wuzzle.” Amidst the chattering of the confused audience, a single voice breaks through, rhetorically asking, “That’s what passes for entertainment these days?” It is, but only if you allow it to be.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.